This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
After jam-packed services in a large local church on Jun. 5, 1890, Fort Worth’s 23,000 residents paid silent tribute to the town’s first true hero by lining the route to the cemetery or walking behind the casket to the grave where Alfred S. Hayne was laid to rest.
Even in a frontier community where all but the youngest came from somewhere else, the Englishman was an unusual subject for hero worship. Born into an upper-class London family in 1849, Hayne attended Eton, the elite prep school that to date has produced 15 prime ministers, before earning a university degree in civil engineering.
It was not a potato famine or stark poverty that persuaded Hayne to follow his younger brother Gene to America but the chance for the twenty-something engineer to do even better in the former colonies. So he booked passage on a trans-Atlantic steamer that deposited him on a dock in New York harbor the last week of 1875.
While most immigrants arrived flat broke and had to work if they wanted to eat, Hayne brought along enough money to tide him over until he found suitable employment. That happened in Marshall, where he accepted a position with the Texas & Pacific Railway and reunited with his brother.
Hayne’s impressive skills and daylight-to-dark work ethic resulted in a rapid promotion to “master mechanic” which in turn led to a new job title – “superintendent of waterworks and bridges.” He continued to call Marshall home but spent most of his time on the rail line that ran all the way to El Paso.
But even a railroad the size of the Texas & Pacific experienced occasional setbacks, and a slump in the early 1880’s forced Hayne to go job-hunting. Attracted by the booming economy in Fort Worth, he designed and built a bridge across the Trinity River completing the span on time and under budget.
City fathers had more projects for the English engineer, but he turned them down to help the Fort Worth & Denver City finish the rail link between the two namesakes. That epic undertaking and other railroad-related work kept Hayne busy for the rest of the decade.
By 1890 Hayne was spending more time in Fort Worth, where he kept a room at the Pickwick Hotel and an office above a bookstore. The workaholic had a bunch of business acquaintances but no friends worthy of the name, and at age 41 he had never married.
That was why Hayne’s decision to take in the sights at the Texas Spring Palace on the evening of May 30, 1890 was so out of character. It was the last night of the threeweek exhibition of cotton and other agricultural goods in the giant “pleasure dome” one newspaper described as “the most beautiful structure ever erected upon the earth.”
The Spring Palace may have been pleasing to the eye and other senses, but therewas no question that it was, according to Richard F. Selcer in his book Fort Worth Characters, “a firetrap made of wood and completely covered with dried grasses, corn stalks, and wheat sheaves.”
The fire started on the second floor around ten o’clock and spread with terrifying speed. Four wide staircases and 16 ground-level exits offered seven thousand would-be victims ample avenues of escape, and most reached safety before the tinderbox was fully enveloped.
For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, Al Hayne stayed behind as the rescuer of last resort. Ignoring the advancing flames on the second level, he lowered women and children by rope into waiting arms below and guided others blinded by the smoke down the stairs and out the doors.
“He kept going in and carrying people out,” an amazed eyewitness recalled. On his last trip into the burning building, Haynes discovered an unconscious woman on the second floor. He threw her limp form out a window and followed seconds later.
The woman was caught in mid-air by a group of men, but Haynes was not. He landed hard on the ground breaking a leg and hurting his spine.
A paper reported Hayne’s gruesome condition in graphic detail. “He was burned on every part of his body. The flesh had fallen from the fingers of the left hand, and his back was simply cooked. His feet and legs contained spots that were burned to a crisp.”
Was it any wonder the barbecued Englishman screamed through the searing pain, “For God’s sake, boys, kill me!”? They could not bring themselves to grant his dying wish, but two hours later in a hospital ward Hayne’s agonizing ordeal came to a merciful end.
Maybe it was because so many survivors of the Texas Spring Palace fire owed their lives to the only person that perished that night, or maybe it was that in Al Hayne they had a hero untainted by the violence and vice of the bad old days.
Whatever the reason, the grateful townspeople put a bust of the Englishman on a pedestal at the train station. Countless visitors to Fort Worth paused over the years to read the inscription that hailed Cow Town’s original hero who “died that others might live.”
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San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.Email | Print