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Early History of the
San Francisco Fire Department

SAN FRANCISCO began its history in a baptism of fires. Hardly had the Gold Rush of ’49 assembled a nondescript collection of wooden houses, tents, the hulks of ships, anything, in fact, to afford protection to the ever-increasing multitudes gathering from the four corners of the earth, but a disastrous fire wiped out the most important part of the new city.

Six fires in the first two or three years of her history caused the people to make extraordinary efforts to protect themselves against their recurrence. It was from this determination that the present efficient fire-fighting force sprang. Yet fires continue and will continue, as they did in those early days, and the price of eternal vigilance and preventive methods are the two chief auxiliaries at least of equal importance to force itself.

New and better buildings; more precautions taken concerning the use of fire; the widening of streets; the purchase of fire apparatus, and finally the impressment of all citizen to fight a blaze and the organization of fire companies were among the earlier steps taken. Later on cisterns were built at strategical points.

But the ever-increasing size of buildings seemed to outstrip efforts made against fires. The larger and higher the buildings went, the greater efficiency demanded in every branch of the fire-fighting service. Today standpipes carry the water to the very top of the highest structures in the city. To say nothing of sprinkler devices and the construction of reinforced concrete buildings supposed to be fireproof. Yet at a recent fire in the Merchants’ Exchange building, on the very site of those earlier fires of seventy-five years ago, it was demonstrated even these are vulnerable.

The first fire of any importance occurred in January, 1849, when the Shades Hotel was destroyed. In June following the ship “Philadelphia” was burned as it was preparing to sail for the Sandwich Islands. The inflammable material of which the town was built and winds made many thoughtful people realize that if a fire ever got started nothing could stop it.

It was not until December 24, 1849, however, that this fear was realized. The following account of this is found in the “Annals of San Francisco”:

“This morning about six o’clock, the awful cry of fire was raised in the city, and in a few hours property than a million dollars was totally destroyed.

“The fire began in Dennison’s Exchange, about the middle of the eastern side of the Plaza, and, spreading both ways, consumed nearly all that side of the square, and the whole line of buildings on the south side of Washington street between Montgomery and Kearny streets.

“This was the first of the great fires which devastated San Francisco, and it was to be speedily followed by still more extensive and disastrous occurrences of a similar character. Scarcely were the ashes cold when preparations were made to erect new buildings on the old sites, and within a few weeks the place was covered as densely as before with houses of every kind.”

As the result of the fire a special meeting of the Town Council was held it which were present Messrs. Steuart, Price, Ellis, Harris, Green, Brannan, Turk, Davis, Simmons and Harrison with John W. Geary presiding, and the following resolutions were adopted:
“Whereas, the town severely suffering this morning from the want of necessary organization and means to meet the devastating element of fire; therefore,

“Resolved, that the citizens be requested to meet in Portsmouth Square, on Wednesday next at 12 o’clock, to take such measures as may be deemed advisable protect the town against another calamity by organizing fire companies, and that the Town Council will supply the hooks, ladders, axes, ropes, etc., to be kept by said companies.”

Other resolutions were passed authorizing the Chief of Police to employ a sufficient number of men to guard the burned district and protect the property of the sufferers; also one authorizing the Alcalde to send to the hospital and afford immediate aid with proper medical service “to those individuals who, in their praiseworthy exertions during the recent fire, have received bodily injury.”

In this final clause was the germ of the department’s pension system. Two days later the Town Council appropriated the sum of $800 for the purchase of axes, ropes, hooks, ladders and a wagon to be given over to the keeping of the fire company now organizing by Mr. Edward Otis, styled the “Independent Unpaid Axe Company.”

Two months later action was taken for the general organization of a fire department. The following ordinance was passed by the Town Council of February 5, 1850:

“Be it ordained, that hereafter it shall be the duty of the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department to superintend the organization of all fire companies in San Francisco; also to examine all engines, hose and apparatus belonging thereto which the city may wish to purchase; to superintend the erection of engine houses and cisterns; to exercise a general supervision and control over all branches of the Fire Department of this city; to act in conjunction with the Fire Committee, on all subjects which may be referred to the them; and to protect the engines and apparatus of the city which shall be placed in the houses of private companies.

“It shall be his duty to superintend and direct the operations of all companies at fires or conflagrations; and he shall have authority, with the consent of the Mayor and two members of the Common Council, to blow up any building or buildings with gunpowder which he may deem necessary for the suppression of such fire or conflagration, and furthermore be vested with authority to perform all such needful acts as the emergency of the occasion may require; and to report the situation of his Department at least once in three months or oftener if required.

“The salary of the Chief Engineer shall be $6,000 per year, be paid monthly from the city treasury.”

It may be of interest to note that this $6,000 a year salary was increased on July 1 of this year to $7,200.

Early Fires Terrified Populace

The first of the great fires that visited San Francisco occurred at 6 o’clock on the morning of December 24, 1849, when it was estimated that $1,000,000 worth of property was destroyed.

Lithograph of the Second Great Fire in San FranciscoSix months later, on May 4, 1850, the second great fire occurred. It began at 4 o’clock in the morning and by 11 o’clock three blocks of the most valuable buildings in the City had been destroyed, with an attendant loss of property estimated to be $4,000,000.

It was supposed to have been of incendiary origin. Several persons were arrested, but no formal trial took place.

An ordinance was passed immediately after this fire that any person who refused to assist in extinguishing the flames or to assist in removing goods should be fined no less than $5 nor more than $100.

Another ordinance provided that every household should keep six water buckets always in readiness for future fires.

One month later, on June 14, the third great fire started. It broke out at 8 o’clock in the morning for a defective chimney in a bakery. The wind was blowing and in a few hours the blocks between Clay, California and Kearny streets to the water were one more in flames.

Experience had taught the people that although that the cost of fireproof brick structures was much greater than the cost of the old wooden ones, yet in the end they were cheaper and better, The style of architecture began to change for the better. More and more fire companies began to be formed.

Lithograph of the 1850 Fourth Great FireThe fourth great fire broke out about 4 o’clock in morning of September 17, 1850. This time the was estimated to be only $250,000. The blocks burned over were between Dupont, Montgomery, Washington and Pacific streets. But owing to the fact that the district had been burned over in a previous fire, there were only one-story buildings in the main that were destroyed.

On October 31 of the same year the City Hospital was destroyed. It was supposed to have been the work of in incendiary.

On the evening of December 14, 1850, just a year from the first great fire, the fifth great fire, not considering one or two smaller ones, started. The total damage estimated at $1,000,000.

On May 4, 1851, the anniversary of the City’s second great fire, the sixth great fire started. It was estimated that more damage as done at this one than all of the preceding ones. For eight months the citizens had enjoyed comparative immunity. Then at about 11 o’clock of May 3 a fire started in a paint and upholstery store on the south side of the Plaza. This again was considered to have been of incendiary origin. The wind was blowing and at first carried the fire down to Kearny, then along Kearny, for several blocks.

Lithograph of San Francisco’s Sixth Great FireThen the wind shifted and blew from the south and carried the fire into the main business district. The wind increased to the ferocity of a hurricane, the planked streets burned. Street after street went up in smoke and the reflection is said to have been seen one hundred miles at sea.

The fire burned for the period of ten hours. Between 1500 and 2000 houses had been destroyed. Eighteen blocks in the main business district had been destroyed.

Only five of the brick buildings on Montgomery street escaped. The burned district extended about three-fourths of a mile from north to south and a third of a mile from east to west. The damage was estimated at $12,000,000.

On June 22, 1851, hardly six months after the previous one, another fire started. Again incendiaries were believed to be the cause. It began about 11 o’clock in the morning and the wind drove the flames in every direction. It began on Powell street an ten full blocks and six parts of blocks were destroyed. The City Hall, purchased for $150,000 and improved at great cost, was destroyed. And the loss was estimated at $3,000,000.

The Jenny Lind Theatre, the property of Thomas Maguire, one of the most valuable buildings, was destroyed, which was the sixth time the owner had suffered by fire and lost everything.

They began to build houses now of walls two and three feet in thickness of solid brick to try and make them fireproof.

It is small wonder that the citizens, after these terrible disasters within the space of less than two years, began the formation of a fire department that it was believed would successfully cope with any blaze. How well that function has been performed the City itself can testify.

No city in the world was ever thrown together in such haste as San Francisco. People congregated by the thousands almost overnight, Her history is unique. Her early fires were terrifying beyond measure.

Terrible Experiences, Mother of Department

A REALISTIC description of the great fire of May 4, 1851, is contained in Frank Marryat’s “Mountain and Molehills.” And because of its effect on people, the dangers they encountered and how it had its influence in efforts to make the department ever more efficient, it is quoted in full:

“On the 3d of May, at 11 o’clock in the evening, the fire bell again startled us, but on this occasion the first glance at the lurid glare and heavy mass of smoke that rolled toward the bay evidenced the fact that the fire already had a firm grip on the city.

“The wind was unusually high, and the flames spread in a broad sheet over the town. All efforts to arrest them were useless; houses were blown up and torn down in attempts to cut off communication; but the engines were driven back step by step, while some brave firemen fell victims to their determined opposition.

“As the wind increased to a gale, the fire became beyond control; the brick buildings on Montgomery crumbled before it; and before it was arrested over 1000 houses, many of which were filled with merchandise, were left in ashes. Many lives were lost, and the amount of property destroyed was estimated at two and a half million pounds sterling.

“No conception can be formed of the grandeur of the scene, for at one time the burning district was covered by one vast sheet of flame that extended half a mile in length. But when the excitement of such a night as this has passed by, one can scarcely recall the scene. The memory is confused in the recollection of the shouts of the excited populace; the crash of falling timbers; the yells of the burned and injured; the clank of the fire brakes; the hoarse orders delivered through speaking trumpets; maddened horses released from burning livery stables plunging through the streets; helpless patients being carried from some hospital, and dying on the spot, as the swaying crowd, forced back by the flames, tramples all before it; explosions of houses blown up by gunpowder; showers of burning splinters that fall on every side; the thunder of brick buildings as they fall in a heap of ruin, and the blinding glare of ignited spirits.

“Amid the heat that scorches, let you go where you will, smoke that strikes the eyes as if they had been pricked by needles; water that, thrown off the heated walls, falls on you in a shower of scalding steam, you throw your coat away and help work the engine brakes, as calls are made for more men.

“At daylight you plod home, half blind, half drowned, half scorched, half stunned, and quite bewildered; and from that time on you never care to recall one-half of the horrors you have witnessed.”

Municipal Record
City and County of San Francisco
October 15, 1925

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