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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

San Francisco's 6th Great Fire


California’s Gold Rush-era mining camps and towns were all vulnerable to fire. The only light sources were candles and kerosene lamps, and even the more sophisticated commercial and cultural centers contained thin-walled wooden buildings. “Small” fires, swiftly doused, occurred in larger towns nearly every week; some experienced multiple “Great Fires” that devastated entire neighborhoods. San Francisco suffered six great fires, between December, 1849 and June, 1851.

 

June 22, 1851, was a Sunday, and as usual the streets were filled with people strolling to various churches. Then, just after ten o’clock, the usual melodic peals of church bells calling the faithful to worship suddenly changed to an urgent clanging. Someone shouted the dreaded words, “Fire! There’s a fire on Pacific Street, at Powell!”

 

Sermons and hymns immediately forgotten, church-goers turned as one and rushed to the scene of the disaster, where an immense crowd had already gathered.  Flames were shooting from the roof and under the eaves of a two story wooden house. Firemen were there too, but there were no cisterns nearby, and a carpenter’s shop next door had already caught fire. Just then a strong gale blew in from the northwest, and the roaring, crackling flames moved down Pacific Street. moved down P moved down Pacific Street.

 

Firefighters tore down a building at an alley that intersected Stockton Street, hoping to retard the fire’s progress . . . but a pile of lumber at the rear of the house where the fire originated had gone up in flames, in minutes igniting the whole block between Pacific and Broadway, the next street north. Now two blocks wide, the firestorm blazed east beyond Stockton Street, headed toward the Bay and the city’s major business district.


The Presbyterian Church on Stockton Street, a handsome Gothic-style, pre-fabricated building that had been transported entire around Cape Horn the year before—walls, pulpit, seats, lamps, and a fine-toned bell—was reduced to ashes. Leaping across Stockton Street, the fire simultaneously spread in several directions down Broadway, Pacific and Jackson streets, destroying structures along Kearny, Ohio, Washington, Clay, and Dupont. On Pacific Street, it devoured City Hall and the City Hospital. The buildings on Dupont, between Washington and Pacific streets, were all aflame.


The whole city seemed threatened with destruction, as the inferno swept toward the city’s main plaza, Portsmouth Square.


Explosions rent the air as, hoping to save others, selected structures were blown up: for one, the restaurant below the offices of the Alta California, San Francisco’s oldest newspaper, whose employees managed to save the equipment as they fled. Merchandise that had been moved to the Plaza from all parts of the city for safekeeping, were now burning. Frantic men scurried everywhere, contending with the fire until they couldn’t breathe, some collapsing from smoke inhalation, or the extreme heat.


Most horrible of all was the discovery of three corpses—or their grizzly remains—all burned to death.


Although the fire raged for several hours, the Plaza structures that were ultimately saved included the Custom House, the California Exchange office building, plus the public houses Bella Union, El Dorado, and The Veranda. Those lost (again) included the newly rebuilt Jenny Lind Theater. Although the main business section of the city was less affected than by some of the previous five, the Sixth Great Fire destroyed nearly fifteen blocks—thirteen large squares of which were dwelling houses—inhabited by thousands of relative newcomers of modest means, who hadn’t the wherewithal to rebuild, and who left the city in droves.


Certain elements of the previous five Great Fires had aroused suspicions; there was little doubt, for several reasons, that the Sixth was the work of arsonists.

 

r at the rear of the house where the fire originated went up in flames, in minutes igniting the whole block between Pacific and Broadway, the next street north. Now two blocks wide, the firestorm blazed east beyond Stockton Street, headed toward the Bay and the city’s major business district.

 

About half past ten o’clock, the conflagration crossed Pacific Street again, southward, to consume another entire block as far as Jackson Street. The Presbyterian Church on Stockton Street, a handsome Gothic-style, pre-fabricated building that had been transported entire around Cape Horn the year before—walls, pulpit, seats, lamps, and a fine-toned bell—was reduced to ashes. Leaping across Stockton Street, the fire simultaneously spread in several directions down Broadway, Pacific and Jackson streets, destroying structures along Kearny, Ohio, Washington, Clay, and Dupont. On Pacific Street, it devoured City Hall and the City Hospital. The buildings on Dupont, between Washington and Pacific streets, were all aflame.

The whole city seemed threatened with destruction, as the inferno swept toward the city’s main plaza, Portsmouth Square.

Explosions rent the air as, hoping to save others, selected structures were blown up: for one, the restaurant below the offices of the Alta California, San Francisco’s oldest newspaper, whose employees managed to save the equipment as they fled. Merchandise that had been moved to the Plaza from all parts of the city for safekeeping, were now burning. Frantic men scurried everywhere, contending with the fire until they couldn’t breathe, some collapsing from smoke inhalation, or the extreme heat.

Most horrible of all was the discovery of three corpses—or their grizzly remains—all burned to death.

Although the fire raged for several hours, the Plaza structures that were ultimately saved included the Custom House, the California Exchange office building, plus the public houses Bella Union, El Dorado, and The Veranda. Those lost included the newly rebuilt Jenny Lind Theater. Although the main business section of the city was less affected than by some of the previous five, the Sixth Great Fire destroyed nearly fifteen blocks—thirteen large squares of which were dwelling houses—inhabited by thousands of relative newcomers of modest means, who hadn’t the wherewithal to rebuild, and left the city in droves.

Certain elements of the previous five Great Fires had aroused suspicions; there was little doubt, for several reasons, that the Sixth was the work of arsonists.

 

 

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