Way We Were: That fateful night | ParkRecord.com

Way We Were: That fateful night

Fire could have been much worse

David Hampshire
Park City Museum Researcher
The Coalition Building in flames on July 20, 1981. One theory of why the building burned so greatly and brightly was years of coal dust layered throughout the structure acting as an accelerant.
Park City Historical Society & Museum, Burnis Watts Collection. Photo by Burnis Watts

Forty years ago this week, on a Sunday afternoon, July 19, 1981, the Beach Boys were playing an outdoor concert at Park West, now The Canyons. After the concert, some in the crowd drifted into Park City. Among them were three men in their 20s and early 30s. They were not dressed for the cool evening temperatures.

Early the following morning the three men, looking for a place to crash, spotted the 85-foot-tall Silver King Coalition Building on Park Avenue. They climbed the chain-link fence and went inside. To stay warm, they built a fire on the building’s wooden floor.

At that time, the Coalition Building was the symbol of Park City. It was built in 1901 as the lower terminal of an aerial tramway to bring ore down from the Silver King Mine. The tram served faithfully until the mine closed in 1952. The building continued to tower over Park Avenue, then the main route into town, until now.

About 3 a.m. on July 20, the three men thought they heard someone coming and slipped out of the building. They took refuge in a nearby railroad car and went to sleep. They later testified that they believed their fire was out.

It wasn’t. About 4:30 a.m., nearby resident Mary Eley smelled smoke and spotted a cloud hanging in the air south of the Coalition Building. She alerted the dispatch office in Coalville. A few minutes later, the inside of the Eley home was illuminated as the flames burst through the Coalition Building’s roof.

Among the first on the scene was volunteer firefighter Jim White. “When I arrived at the fire, the building was completely engulfed in flames and the heat was incredible,” White said. “The roofs of seven or eight nearby houses were smoking and so were several cars parked along Park Avenue across from the building.”

Park City firefighters immediately alerted the nearby residents and trained their hoses on the homes. The intense heat melted the plastic bubble on one of the fire trucks and the windows in a nearby railroad car. A small car parked outside the chain-link fence was incinerated. One witness said the flames shot 200 feet into the air.

Clusters of stunned Parkites watched the pyre from a safe distance. Many were in tears.

Burnis Watts, whose Park Avenue home is now part of High West Distillery, grabbed his camera and took a series of spectacular photos. Mel Fletcher, a volunteer firefighter who lived across the street from Watts, trained a garden hose on the side of his house facing the flames.

Fletcher said he was surprised how quickly the flames spread. “If there had been a wind, the whole town would have been engulfed, there’s no doubt,” he said.

Fire crews from Heber, Kamas and Coalville also responded. By one count there were 10 pieces of equipment and about 50 firefighters. About 5:30 a.m. they directed their hoses on the burning building itself. By about 6 a.m. all that remained was a smoking skeleton of massive timbers that had supported the lower two floors of the building.

During the fire, security guard Dan Clark spotted the three men in the railroad car and alerted police. In a trial that November, the three men were convicted of reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor.

In testimony at the trial, Park City detective Lloyd Evans revealed that one of the men had been wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of – you guessed it – the Coalition Building.

There was talk about building a replica of the building. It was just talk. However, four years later, another terminal went up on the site – the lower terminal of the Town Lift.

Relive the Coalition Fire with David, in his lecture on the subject, by visiting the Park City Museum YouTube Channel at tinyurl.com/PCMuseum.

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