History of Dallas Food: The Golden Pheasant, The Worst Fire in Dallas History

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SIGNAL ONE-SEVEN: The Golden Pheasant was already in decline before Jim Bigham (and every other fireman in Dallas) was called to save it. Courtesy Dallas Firefighters Museum
SIGNAL ONE-SEVEN: The Golden Pheasant was already in decline before Jim Bigham (and every other fireman in Dallas) was called to save it. Courtesy Dallas Firefighters Museum

In September 2011, we published a story on the Golden Pheasant, a opulent downtown Dallas restaurant that opened in 1915. The Golden Pheasant burned to the ground in 1964. Fifty years ago this month, 750 men fought the Golden Pheasant inferno. Four didn’t make it out: James Gresham (25), Ronald Manley (27), Jerry Henderson (29), and James Bingham (36)—died fighting the fire. Freelance writer Curt Sampson reports the story: “The Worst Fire in Dallas History.”

Darkness covered our prairie town that cold night 50 years ago, and it must have been a relief. In the three months since the Kennedy assassination, daylight offered only a waking nightmare, for we were the malign incompetents who had allowed the murder of the president. Hope for redemption vanished when the gangster managed to murder the suspect with TV cameras running. Somewhere, someone typed “Dallas, the city of hate” for the first time, an epithet that stuck and stung.

The harsh spotlight intensified as the trial date approached for Jack Leon Ruby, the nightclub owner who had point-blanked Lee Harvey Oswald in the gut with a Colt Cobra .38. Ruby did not want to die for his crime, and he had the wherewithal to hire the famous criminal-defense attorney Melvin Belli, of San Francisco. Belli’s two-pronged defense would posit that his client was crazy as a coot when he pulled the trigger and that Dallas, with blood on its hands from two murders, could only assuage its shame with an execution.

The world’s media came to town. But just as writers on deadline predicted another Scopes or Hauptmann trial of the century, a new tragedy bumped State v. Ruby to the side for a few days.

It was a fire, the worst in the city’s history in terms of loss of firefighters’ lives. Four young men died in the blaze that began in the basement of a Commerce Street restaurant called the Golden Pheasant. Continued.