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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 222: Fires of 1906

Fire, not earthquake, destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 28, 2017

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 222: Fires of 1906 Outside Lands Podcast Episode 222: Fires of 1906


Podcast Transcription

222 - Fires of 1906

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David!

David: Yes, Woody!

Woody: So, last week I said, “Where there was smoke, there was fire. And history.”

David: Ohhhh.

Woody: So, the hundred and eleventh anniversary of the 1906 earthquake passed and we didn't do a podcast on the earthquake this year.

David: No.

Woody: But I thought…

David: Bad planning, I think.

Woody: Oh, it could be, maybe, we've already done that podcast. But I did feel like if we got a little deeper into something that was attached to the earthquake and did more of the damage, it might be interesting. So, I thought we could do one on the fires that happened after the earthquake of 1906.

David: Yes. That sounds like a great idea.

Woody: Just fire.

David: Just fire.

Woody: Is that okay?

David: Yeah, that's [00:01:00] fine. That's fine. That's great. You know, I mean, in my work of scanning, and identifying, and looking at all these pictures that we had, pictures, negatives, whatever we have for…

Woody: Photographic material.

David: OpenSFHistory.org project, the private collection. I have seen a lot of earthquake and fire pictures.

Woody: Right.

David: And in that time that I've been looking at them, I realized that the city really didn't just fall down.

Woody: You mean the earthquake didn't flatten the entire city?

David: No. The fire turned everything to rubble.

Woody: Right.

David: And that is really what happened. I mean, it's not, you know, it really should be the fire. And when, and it's funny, when you read old accounts of people recounting their, the experiences of 1906, they never [00:02:00] talk about the earthquake. They call it, “the fire.”

Woody: Right. The fire did the most damage. In fact, some, one analyst, relatively recently, thought it was 90 percent of the damage that was done to the city was because of fire. The, some 25,000 buildings were consumed in the fire, and this is all, you know, it's like 490 blocks.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That were destroyed by the fires after the earthquake.

David: It’s just, it's just amazing to think that that's what happened. That they could not stop it.

Woody: Yeah.

David: There was nothing they could do. They just had to stand and watch it.

Woody: In a lot of ways, you know, there was a lot of work to put these out. But, if you read these accounts, it's very sobering. You know, we go through this whole earthquake centennial and we, rightfully, justifiably, celebrate the recovery. And how we all kind of bounce back and San Franciscans are hardy folk and the good spirits that went into that. But it is very depressing to read about the progress of the fire over the three days and the sort of hopes that are dashed as [00:03:00] they think they've got it contained. And then the wind changes and other things happen.

David: Right.

Woody: So, I thought we'd get into the details of how the fire was not a predestined event that was just going to suddenly destroy the whole city. That it was a drama that played out over 72 and more hours.

David: Right. As we say, the fire, the earthquake didn't flatten everything and the fire didn't burn everything instantly.

Woody:  Right. So, I think you know a good source for this, we recently lost Gladys Hansen, who for many, many years was the librarian, the main librarian, city archivist.

David: City archivist.

Woody: Yeah. Down at the Main Library. And she died recently. She wrote a book with Emmet Condon, who was a, I think he was a fire chief.

David: He was a fire chief at one time, yeah.

Woody: And it was called Denial of Disaster. And they did a really good job of kind of going through the timeline of how this all happened after the fire. But let's start with the earthquake. The earthquake happens 5:12 in the morning, on a Wednesday, and everybody's shaken out of bed. And you read those early accounts, [00:04:00] it's like a lot of sightseeing happened right after. People were like, “Hey, that was kind of fun or interesting, let's go look at the rubble.”

David: Right.

Woody: Right? And there was no immediate awareness that there was any, going to be any more danger.

David: Right.

Woody: But…

David: There were, I mean, we have tons of pictures of people standing in the street, standing in O’Farrell Street, looking South of Market watching the Call Building burn. Standing near the Mint watching the fire come up from South of Market. And there, there's really no, in the pictures, there's no sense of imminent danger or anything.

Woody: Right.

David: I mean, we have pictures of, we've seen pictures of, people who have taken all their stuff and put it in Union Square. Right? Thinking they'd be safe there.

Woody: Right. Which they weren't.

David: No.

Woody: So, let's go through it: I mean, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and I'm not, I don't want to say people didn't die. People did die in the earthquake.

David: Yeah.

Woody: People were crushed and [00:05:00] there was, there was death during that. But there was, the vast majority of San Franciscans kind of came out and wanted to see what was what and were walking around. But in the immediate aftermath there were some gas mains that broke. There was a couple of laundries South of Market that, because when they collapsed, or there was damage, fires started. And there's estimate maybe sixty different fires started, and the fire department was at an immediate disadvantage.

David: Right.

Woody: And what was that? What was the reason for that?

David: Well, for one thing, I mean, the one…

Woody: They have a couple of reasons.

David: Yeah. One reason was the earthquake actually damaged the communication system. Damaged so, so that is, that's something, that they, that all the electric batteries, which, you know, I don't, I don’t quite understand how it worked, but the communication system between the firehouses were run by electric batteries, which were run on battery acids, stored in glass [00:06:00] jars that…

Woody: Right. That crashed.

David: Three quarters of them fell off the…

Woody: Right.

David: Shelf. Which I imagine was a problem of its own having battery acid spilled everywhere. But it eliminated the communications for the fire department.

Woody: Right. It's all those call boxes didn't work.

David: Yeah.

Woody: For example, if there was a fire and you saw it and you tried to call the fire department, they may not know about it.

David: Right. And also, I mean the, I mean, the main thing that we hear about is that Chief Dennis Sullivan was injured in his home right after the earthquake too. He fell down a, it's kind of graphic, he fell down an elevator shaft.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I believe. He didn't die right away, but he was completely incapacitated and was in the hospital the entire time.

Woody: Right. So, they lost their leader. The communications were a problem. And the earthquake damaged water mains.

David: Yes.

Woody: So, they couldn't get water everywhere they needed water. And they had to rely on private cisterns and private water sources in a lot of places.

David: Right.

Woody: To fight the fires that popped up. But even so, these fires pop up, and a lot of them, [00:07:00] get put out quickly.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Like the fire department does respond and they put them out and, and people think, there's all during the course of the next three days, people keep thinking, “Oh, I think we've got it contained. We're fine.”

David: Right.

Woody: And then they're always, like, unfortunately pushed back. So…

David: And I mean, I read one account where the Palace Hotel, for instance, had a storage of water and they just sprayed water off the roof of it for hours. And finally, they ran out of water.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And then the fire came and burned up the Palace Hotel.

Woody: Palace Hotel.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. The Palace Hotel, they did a great job of trying to make the hotel fireproof. But what they were planning for, was a fire at the hotel.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Not a fire that was ravaging the entire city.

David: Right.

Woody: And then coming close to the hotel. So, they had the water to just fight their one fire. The way the fires work too, the other thing is, we think of the great fire, but there's many separate fires. And there was one that started, [00:08:00] right in the morning of the earthquake, in like the whole, the produce area, essentially, the wholesale area down near the Ferry Building.

David: Right. Now where Embarcadero Center is.

Woody: Right. So, there was a fire that was going on there. And there was another one, or a couple, that had joined, in South of Market, like Fourth and Third Street, around there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And those, so those fires are going and the fire department's trying to contain them. And they actually set up a fire block in South of Market at Eighth Street. And they said, “Okay, we're going to try to stop it here from going any farther.” There were two problems with that. So one is, they use dynamite, and this is going to come up a few times, to try to dynamite the buildings to create a bigger fire break. But without Dennis Sullivan, without the leadership, all, without communications right, they get some guys from, I think, the Southern Pacific Company who have dynamite. People who don't know what they're doing, essentially.

David: Right.

Woody: They blow up some buildings, they essentially start another fire. And, and not only that, while they're fighting this [00:09:00] fire to stop, contain it, South of Market at Eighth Street, there's a fire coming up behind them called the “Ham and Eggs Fire.”

David: Right.

Woody: Which has an anecdotal start, that I think you've heard.

David: Right. A woman tried to, you know, got up after the earthquake and decided to cook, cook breakfast.

Woody: Right.

David: And she had a broken gas line and that started Hayes Valley on fire.

Woody: Right. And they actually, I don't, we don't know, if that's actually the story. That's the story that got passed down, it's called the “Ham and Eggs Fire.” But it's a fire that started after the earthquake, after these other fires had started, and it was actually at, we know the address, it was 395 Hayes Street.

David: Right.

Woody: On the corner of Gough. And it wasn't until, like, 11:00 in the morning this started. But the wind's blowing from the West. It starts pushing that Ham and Eggs Fire, that Hayes Valley fire, towards the South of Market fires.

David: Sure.

Woody: And this is where we get these stories that just kind of break your heart like the Sutro Library. [00:10:00]

David: Yes, Sutro Library.

Woody: It was in the Montgomery block.

David: Right. Now the Montgomery block survived.

Woody: Right, but they didn't know that.

David: Yeah.

Woody: They see these fires down near the produce district and stuff. And the Sutro, Adolph Sutro had this incredible collection of ancient tomes and…

David: Right.

Woody: And he had like twenty-five thou, or 250,000 books, or something.

David: Right.

Woody: In the Montgomery block, which is where the Transamerica Pyramid is today.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And so, the librarians there are, like, “We got to get this out of the, away from the fire.” So, they move it all to the Mechanics Building, which is…

David: The Mechanics Pavilion.

Woody: Pavilion. Which is over near the Civic Center.

David: Right. Which is, was a makeshift hospital at the time, I believe.

Woody: Well, those two things are both happening in that same building.

David: Yeah.

Woody: They have all these injured people from the earthquake and people are hurt. And there you have nurses in there. They move the Sutro Library in there to get away from the fire and then the Ham and Eggs Fire comes.

David: Came from the other direction and…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Burned it up.

Woody: Yep. And they think a lot of people died, actually, in that [00:11:00] building that were injured and had been left there.

David: Yeah, couldn't get them out.

Woody: Including all those books.

David: Right.

Woody: So, just as a side thing, so. So, that's, that's like Wednesday. That's just Wednesday.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Right? We lose, like, most of South of Market. We lose a lot of stuff around the Embarcadero. Hayes Valley is on fire. But, again, the mayor thinks, he thinks that, “We've got it contained now.”

David: Right.

Woody: “We're going to stop it.” But it didn't work out that way. Do you know what happened on Thursday? It's all about containment, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they, they're trying to figure out ways to stop it from spreading around. And they don't have much luck. I mean, you know, they, they keep trying to like dynamite buildings, which causes more fires.

David: Right.

Woody: People start setting fires because they're doing things like trying to cook breakfast or they might be doing it even intentionally.

David: Right.

Woody: Do you know why? Have you heard why somebody might be doing something intentionally like that?

David: Well, I…

Woody: There's, these are anecdotes, right? We don't even know if these are true. [00:12:00] But…

David: Right. So, there was one story where Rudolph Spreckels’ mansion on Van Ness near Washington, I think, had this beautiful big brownstone mansion and there was no fire anywhere around it. And now Rudolph Spreckels, to back up a little bit, was one of the people who was trying to get corruption out of government in San Francisco. Prime, one of his prime targets was a man named Abe Ruef who owned the Sentinel Building that was being constructed at, on Columbus. Right?

Woody: In North Beach, yeah.

David: Anyway, there were stories of Rudolph Spreckels’ building suddenly bursting into flames. Out with no…

Woody: No fire near it.

David: No fire near it, yeah.

Woody: Yeah.

David: So we, the speculation is, is that Abe Ruef had somebody [00:13:00] go and set Rudolph Spreckels’ house on fire.

Woody: Seems kind of vindictive.

David: Yeah.

Woody: I also heard that people were worried, or they were told, that the insurance companies wouldn't cover earthquake damage, but they would cover fire damage.

David: Right.

Woody: So, you're like, “Well, hey, if the whole house, if this is all going to burn around here anyway, I might as well start my own fire and burn my house down if it's damaged beyond repair.” Again, anecdotal. There's a lot of, sort of like, political grudges that people started attaching to fires erupting afterwards.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But the mayor thought that he had everything contained South of Market and everything was going to be fine in like Union Square and the retail area. But then a fire started, after all this, in Delmonico’s restaurant and kind of came up behind the Chronicle Building. And so suddenly you had two fronts and, very soon, the fire started going right up Nob Hill.

David: Right.

Woody: This is in the middle of Thursday night or Wednesday night. And by [00:14:00] Thursday, they have the fire break they do at Van Ness, which I think most people have heard of. They dynamite these giant mansions and churches and…

David: Sure.

Woody: Try to create this giant fire break at Van Ness. Which mostly works. Right?

David: Yes, it does mostly work.

Woody: I mean, there's…

David: It didn't really cross Van Ness except for in Hayes Valley where…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Where it had started, already, across Van Ness. But…

Woody: And they…

David: But they had to, they had to dynamite the entire side of Russian Hill. The West side of, West side of Russian Hill to do it.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And in, in places where, I think, it's up in the air, whether or not it was, it was necessary. Or that the exploding buildings didn't…

Woody: Didn't just create the fire.

David: Didn't catch more buildings on fire.

Woody: Right. So, if you go to like, say Friday, I mean late Thursday, early Friday morning, again, the mayor's like, “Okay, that Van Ness fire break's working.” I think [00:15:00] he like telegraphs the governor or something and says, “It's okay. We're going to…”

David: Yeah.

Woody: “We're going to save most of the city.”

David: And as far as I know, I'm not sure that the mayor was totally in control. I mean the…

Woody: Nobody was!

David: Army was doing all kinds of stuff. By the, by their own decision-making, right?

Woody: Yeah.

David: It was kind of martial law in the city.

Woody: They have the, it was a big problem: who was in charge and what to do.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And I think Gladys Hansen wrote too, in her book, that in the Mission District, where they were, a little, not under direct control, the fire captains and such out there were, actually, doing a pretty good job of managing things.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Without figuring out who was in charge: the mayor, the Army, the National Guard. Whoever, was like, saying they were in charge at the time. But that is where we get the last dramas, really. The fire is moving and it looks like it's going to consume, it's in the Mission, it's going to consume Noe Valley, it's going to keep going. Right?

David: Right.

Woody: And then you have the drama on the North side where it looks like, “Oh, we've got it contained at Van Ness. Everything's okay.” But: the last day of the fire [00:16:00] is kind of the most tragic on one side. And on the other side, the most heroic story. We have the, let's go with the heroic story first, which is the golden hydrant.

David: The golden hydrant, right, at 20th and Church was, the story about that hydrant it’s the only, it's the only one that pumped water. Now…

Woody: Right. They kept trying hydrants and they had no water. Because the broken water mains.

David: So that's, so, we talk about 20th and Church is, that's the, you know, the, the top edge of Dolores Park, Mission Park at the time.

Woody: Right.

David: And we, which is still, it's a great view. You ride the J Church and you see a view of the whole city. And so, we have many, we have pictures of the fire approaching from, from the vantage point of Mission Park. We see buildings on the East and South side of Mission Park, extant…

Woody: Right.

David: And okay.

Woody: There.

David: And then…

Woody: Gone.

David: They all burned down, right?

Woody: Yeah.

David: And, but 20th Street is [00:17:00] where they stopped the fire.

Woody: Right, because they had water.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they did their own dynamiting and that sort of thing, but they basically were able to halt the fire there and it stopped at 20th. On the North side, they thought they had it stopped and then there was a chemical warehouse that got dynamited and started another fire and then suddenly…

David: Oops!

Woody: Yeah. And then suddenly, the wind is blowing from the West: you have tons, hundreds of people living in North Beach.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Who, in Telegraph Hill, who think, “Wow, we got lucky. The fire passed us by.” Suddenly, here come the flames from the West.

David: Right.

Woody: And people were panic stricken. They were stuck! They were basically caught between, on this peninsula, with the fire coming at them, just eating house after house on its way to them. And no water, it just looked like they were just taking whatever they could and running to the beach.

David: Right.

Woody: Running to the Embarcadero and trying to get boats out of there. And it does, it's like a tragedy where you think, like, the fire's contained and then, whoop! There goes all of North Beach and Telegraph, most of, Telegraph Hill.

David: Pretty much went right through that [00:18:00] valley where, where Columbus Avenue…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Is.

Woody: But finally, Saturday morning, you can basically say the fires are, have stopped. And with some odd survivors. Right? I mean, we have that Jackson Square area.

David: Right.

Woody: That kind of got through it. Where…

David: Which was kind of funny because it's all ironclad buildings from the 1870’s.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Right? Because, and the reason they were ironclad, is because so many devastating fires…

Woody: Happened then.

David: Happened in the 1850s and ‘60s. Right?

Woody: Right.

David: I mean, that's why the, the symbol of San Francisco is the Phoenix. Not because of 1906, but because of much earlier…

Woody: Yeah. One of the buildings that survived, of course, is Hotaling's whiskey.

David: Yep.

Woody: Right? Which, the old doggerel: “If, as they say, God spanked the town for being over frisky, why did he burn his churches down and spare Hotaling's whiskey?”

David: Yeah. [00:19:00] Who knows?

Woody: Coincidence.

David: Who knows? And there are other heroic stories. On Russian Hill, the house of the flag. Which the fire was raging through that valley in North Beach…

Woody: Yeah.

David: And it was going up the hill and there's one house, I guess it's on Vallejo Street near Taylor. And the owner had raised an American flag on it and the beleaguered firefighters saw that flag up there and they were energized, and they said…

Woody: Inspired!

David: “We must save that.”

Woody: The house of the flag.

David: “We must save the house of the flag.”

Woody: Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But that's the, you know, we could talk, we could do, I was thinking David, we could do a podcast just on the 1906 earthquake and the stories.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You could do it. Three years of podcasts on the stories from the 1906 earthquake. But I thought it was, we should talk…

David: I think we'd lose a lot of our listeners if we did that.

Woody: Our listeners, yes. Other listeners would love it! But heroic stories, tales, trivia, all sorts of interesting things. But I do…

David: Was your family involved in the [00:20:00] fire?

Woody: They were. We'll save that for another story, but…

David: All right. But I mean, people can write in and tell us their family story.

Woody: Well, I hope they do. If you have a family, bit of family lore that's been passed down about the fires after 1906, we'd like to hear them. Because it's time now for listener mail. Actually, we don't have listener mail, we have an iTunes review.

David: Ooh. We have an iTunes review. Really?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Wow!

Woody: Five stars.

David: Five stars! That's the highest you can get, I think.

Woody: Yep.

David: Do you, okay, so it's written by that stellar reviewer Soup on Sundays.

Woody: Yeah, Soup on Sundays.

David: This person says, “Love the podcast! I’m a longtime San Francisco history buff and Outside Lands San Francisco offers an original perspective on our oft overlooked Western neighborhoods.” Which, by the way, we coined the phrase “Western Neighborhoods.” I think.

Woody: It stuck.

David: Yeah, it stuck. “Whether giving the [00:21:00] historic and architectural background on beautiful residence parks. Sharing the stories behind the windmills of Golden Gate Park. Or telling of ‘once upon a time’ Beertown, David and Woody always have a unique and interesting take on the neighborhoods. Super bonus points for their banter and great sense of humor.” [makes a chuckling noise] Thank you, thank you very much. “The podcasts aren't just informative, they're a lot of fun.”

Woody: Well, that was nice. Little pat on the back thing there, but that's great that somebody likes it. So, if you like this, you should go to iTunes and give us a review.

David: Yeah.

Woody: A five-star review.

David: Five-star. You know, we'll leave it up to you to put how many stars. I mean five stars is pretty limiting. Right? Because it's either A-plus or you drop down to four stars and that's 80% and that's just a B-minus, you know?

Woody: You're right. Yeah, well, that's more in our, probably, our real historical grade average.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But if you have other mail, you can send it in to us. We'd love to hear your stories about the earthquake. And if you don't [00:22:00] want to send mail, but you want to get on the podcast, you could do a Shout Out. Or a Spout Off and…

David: Or a Spout Out.

Woody: Or a Spout Out. We got one this week. I'm going to read it, because I think I know who this is. Our Shout Out request this week is from San Francisco's premier family entertainer, Boswick. Boswick is available to entertain and delight at almost any kind of event. Only events where fun is involved.

David: Oh, all right.

Woody: Boswick can tailor the experience to any audience. Birthday celebrants of all ages have enjoyed having Boswick do his thing for them. From clowning, juggling, balloon making, and magic, Boswick can do it all. Go to boswick.net to learn more.

David: Aah, yes.

Woody: I know Boswick. That's very nice.

David: You should go to boswick.net

Woody: If you want to do a Shout Out or a Spout Off, you just pay $50. Go to outsidelands.org/podcast. Put in your hundred-word message, and David and I will add our own take. [00:23:00] Right?

David: Yes.

Woody: No, we'll just read it exactly.

David: It could be anything. It could be if you run a business, or you want to wish someone happy birthday, or whatever. I mean…

Woody: Right.

David: We are very lax about what we will read.

Woody: I don't know. We haven't gotten challenged. But quickly, we have some events.

David: Yes. Woody, coming up we have a couple of Lake Merced history walks.

Woody: Totally free.

David: Totally free.

Woody: Saturday.

David: To anyone. To the public.

Woody: Yep.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Saturday, May 13th and 20th, 10:00 AM. If you go to the website, go to our outsidelands.org/events, and you can read where and when and how. But I'm going to lead it, so it'll be good.

David: Right.

Woody: And I'm also, I'm going to do, I'm going to do a talk too. So, we're going to do an OpenSFHistory Lake Merced talk on May 17th, which I think is a Wednesday, 7:00, Merced branch library.

David: Yep.

Woody: Lots of great photos. History of Lake Merced from roadhouses to…

David: [00:24:00] And the, and the Merced branch library is right across from Stonestown, right?

Woody: Easy.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Easy to park, easy to go.

David: Transit…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Whatever.

Woody: Go to outside lands.org/events and you can read more.

David: Try to get to that one early. There's not a lot of seats in that library.

Woody: No. We always fill it too, but it'll be fun. And if you're not a member, I really encourage you to become a member!

David: I am a member!

Woody: Okay. I mean the people out there.

David: Okay.

Woody: So, David, how do they become a member? Tell them quickly.

David: Well, it's a tax-deductible donation. We are a 501(c)3, nonprofit organization. You get exclusive member-only events like the Bird Life walk.

Woody: Well…

David: That we just did.

Woody: Yeah, exactly. It's gone, but things like that.

David: Like Summer of Love walk’s coming up.

Woody: That's coming up, yeah.

David: You know, you get our quarterly newsletter. For fifty bucks, you get the glossy paper edition that you can hold in your hand.

Woody: Oooh, slick, slick.

David: And you support our efforts to preserve and share the history of Western San Francisco and [00:25:00] our efforts to digitize and make available over a hundred thousand images on opensfhistory.org.

Woody: Yeah. And for next week, David?

David: Yeah?

Woody: One line preview. We, you know, we just destroyed the city this week. Next week: we're going to try to rebuild it.

David: Ahh.

Woody: Get ready!

David: Okay!

Ian: Outside Lands, San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley, content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

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