The Greatest Fire Alarm In American History

After 100 years, Dennis Smith finds the answer to the question of who saved San Francisco: The firefighters.


Earthquakes are often described as thunderous and frightening, like the sound of an approaching locomotive if you are standing in the middle of the tracks. The ground not only moves from east to west, but also from north to south and in heaving circles. The earthquake of April 18, 1906, began to...


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Funston, at 5-foot-4, was a short man to be such a mighty figure in the military establishment of 1906. His father, once a U.S. Congressman from Kansas who served with President William McKinley, was much taller, and more gregarious as well. Funston was quiet and reserved, a quite proper cut of the military cloth, and only on those rare times when he drank too much liquor did he ever curse or push people around. He was a midwesterner, born in New Carlisle, OH on Nov. 9, 1865, and the family’s move to Iola, KS, a few years later and then to Carlisle, KS, served to mold a midwestern farmboy personality. He lived on the seemingly endless plains of America’s farm belt, and the sameness of it all mustered within him a yearning for the excitement of a bigger and fuller life.

His father’s support did not help him when he tried, with very poor grades, to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and so he registered at the State College at Lawrence, KS. He stayed for two semesters, studying botany, and though he left his formal studies, he maintained a lifelong interest in plant life. A competent writer, he then took a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Fort Smith, AR.

The young Funston returned to college in 1889, but again stayed just a short time, and left without a degree for a job in Washington, DC, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1890. He was sent on an expedition to the Dakota badlands to record flora and fauna. The challenges of the outdoors, the excessive and relentless heat and cold, the long hikes and rides over trail-less terrain, the hunting for food and all the confrontations that nature poses to the individual spirit much appealed to him. He went on a second USDA expedition in California, to the scorching desert flats of Death Valley, where he camped out for eight months to discover and record many new species of plant life, insects and animals.

Independent Streak

No enthusiast of American history could fail to admire Frederick Funston. He went to Alaska independently, hoping to find many new species of flora and fauna. He camped out, alone, on the bank of the Yukon during the winter of 1893-94, living off native plants and small animals, and enduring the ferocious cold through his own fortitude. That he had much courage and adventure flowing through his veins is proven by his determination after the snows melted that spring. He built a boat, tested it and then paddled more than a thousand miles down the Yukon, stopping to hunt and gather along the way, until he reached the Pacific. And then he paddled out to sea, aimlessly, knowing that if he stayed within a few miles of shore he would find a passing ship. Finally, after several days, he found one, and it was headed for California.

Funston also had an entrepreneurial spirit, and late in 1894 he started a coffee plantation in Central America, but the effort was insufficiently funded and so failed. Chagrined, he moved to New York and took a job as the deputy comptroller for the Santa Fe Rail Road, where he came to know both the railway system and railroad men.

He attended a lecture on Cuba one day and met an American military man who told of great adventure in Cuba assisting the revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain. He did not consider the political motivations for the Spanish-American War, which would be declared 20 months later. The war was a sordid fight resisted to the last minute by President McKinley, but spurred on by the yellow journalism of both Hearst and Pulitzer competing for newspaper sales in New York. And then, the Spanish foreign minister, perhaps overconfident in his dwindling Navy, published a diatribe against McKinley in the New York Journal on Feb. 9, 1898, which turned the President’s displeasure against Spain. And, a week later on Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, killing 260 sailors. No longer could McKinley defend a continuing peace with Spain, and 26,000 troops were sent to Cuba. Many believed the explosion on the Maine was accidental and not sabotage (scientific computer analysis today is convincing that the Maine explosion was indeed accidental), and, on April 25, war was declared on Spain.

Funston joined the Cuban Army, and sailed from New York in August 1896 to fight alongside the Revolutionary soldiers. In Cuba, he comported himself with great distinction, was shot by a Mauser rifle through the body in battle, and was later captured by the Cuban regulars, tried and sentenced to death by execution. It was only through the intercession of his father’s friend, President McKinley, that Funston was saved.

No Fire Chief in Charge