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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In one battle in Cuba, Funston personally killed 13 of the enemy, later going to inspect the body of one tattered sergeant he had shot from his horse. The sergeant was “more than fifty years of age, and his clothing very much soiled from long service. I did not feel any compunction of conscience whatever in killing him, but looked down on him just as I would have looked at a wolf or a bear that I had killed.†This is the cold conviction of a man determined to support his own actions in every event.

He was a thoroughly committed military man, and like most military men of the time he held a lifelong disdain for politics and politicians. He must have recognized that opposing groups in a war were either antagonists or protagonists, and identified as either fanatical insurgents or heroic revolutionaries depending on U.S. foreign policy of the moment. And so the enemy was nothing more than the enemy to a military man, and it was his duty to maintain an indifference to these political distinctions. When he returned from Cuba after 18 months, Funston went on the lecture circuit, telling thrilled audiences of the rough-and-ready fighting that went on in Cuba.

And, so, on that fated morning in San Francisco, General Funston brought the bearing, training, experience and sensibility of a military man to the emergency. It was his first idea to contain and to control, and to be in absolute command. The emergency, however, needed the bearing, training, experience and sensibility of a fire chief, one who understands that every emergency is a situation made of chaos, a sort of wild mayhem that requires mitigation. Every fire chief goes to each emergency knowing that the chaos can be challenged little by little at each exposure and perimeter until the chaos is controlled. To mitigate is to lessen the impact of destructive elements wherever possible, and that is what San Francisco required. But San Francisco did not have a fire chief in charge.

Dennis Sullivan would have demanded hegemony that day in San Francisco, as was his legal right (a right underscored several times by California courts). He would not have permitted Funston to make the decisions that were made. Sullivan would have immediately seen that the city needed those 1,700 soldiers with work gloves, buckets and tools to mitigate, while Funston saw in his 1,700 soldiers the ability to control and evacuate a population that needed control and containment. It is notable, however, that in every situation where citizens circumnavigated the soldiers to return to their homes or businesses, they saved their property, and there are many of these instances recorded.

The third mistake Funston made was ordering the military to transport explosives into the city to be used in the blowing up of buildings to create fire breaks. While Sullivan always realized that there might be an emergency where dynamite could assist in containing a fire, he was also very much aware that dynamite was used with no success at all and in fact proved incendiary at the Great Baltimore Conflagration of Feb. 7, 1904, just two years previous. Sullivan would have known this because he was a hydraulic engineer and surely would have read Water Engineering and other professional journals and newspapers that covered the fire thoroughly.

The San Francisco Fire Department, with the tragic loss of Sullivan, was left with two assistant chiefs in command. The chiefs, John Dougherty and Patrick Shaughnessy, were somewhat conflicted, each for a different reason. Dougherty had recently submitted his retirement papers and was due to leave the department in June. To be promoted to chief in the event of Sullivan’s death would have a significant impact on his pension compensation. Shaughnessy, on the other hand, was a young chief who realized that if he got the job he might develop as chief a tenure of many years. And, so, neither chief was willing to risk the displeasure of Mayor Schmitz, who had the power of appointment. Indeed, Dougherty was present at the early-morning meeting with the mayor when Funston ordered the explosives into the city, and offered no alternative suggestion. Very little dynamite was actually found, and so black powder and gun powder were used extensively in blowing up buildings by men with very little or no experience. Consequently, each time a building was blown up, more fires were created than were stopped, and it is generally agreed that the blowing up of buildings contributed to the conflagration.