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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It has been argued by some who know little of the history of firefighting that a fire storm was created because of the utter absence of water. In the early stages of the two major fires, South of Market and in the financial district, there was some water to be found in some of the cisterns that were still operable (just 25 of 63 cisterns were filled with water), and also in the pipes leading to the hydrants. This water was used successfully in fighting many of the early fires, but by late morning, the firefighters found only spots of water-filled holes where the mains had broken in the earthquake. And, the fires then burned out of control. And so, the two major fires, joined by a third in the Hays Valley section, became a general conflagration. Still, there was no fire storm where non-fire-laden areas would be sucked dry of oxygen to feed a fire storm, as occurred in Berlin and Dresden in World War II.

The fire of 1906 was the first major catastrophe to be comprehensively photographed. The photographs present not only important documentation of what actually existed, but also serve to put in balance the wild and often wrong newspaper accounts of the day. There was very little wind, and the fire and smoke rose for the most part vertically to the heavens, and not pushed obliquely by winds. The fire burned slowly over a course of more than 72 hours, extending from one exposure to the next by radiant heat. The photographs show hundreds of men in various locations of the city standing around and watching the fire with their hands in their pockets – healthy men, and women as well, who had been evacuated and could have been used in fighting the fire. The contents of the buildings could have been taken to the streets, even carted away, to lessen fire loading. Men and women with buckets of water (or even wine – 2.5 million gallons of wine were stored South of Market) could have been at every window of every masonry building to cool the window frames. They could have cooled the wooden buildings from the rooftops.

Water was accessible, and indeed, the steamers did a more than efficient job in delivering water to the fires. One hoseline was stretched for more than a mile from San Francisco Bay and up Van Ness Avenue, and others could have been stretched up Market and other streets coming from the endless supply of water in the Bay. It can be estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 men and women could have been inspired and mustered to fight the fire, to supplement the heroic work of the little more than 500 firefighters who worked tirelessly for three days straight, without any sustained rest, and with hardly any food. More than 250,000 people took advantage of E.H. Harriman’s offer to ride his railroads and boats for free to flee the city. Had they been allowed, many would have assisted in fighting the fires.

A small group of men from the U.S. Navy saved the entire waterfront and railroad sheds from burning, and there are many instances of civilians helping the firefighters to extinguish fires until they were pushed away by the army and the militia. On Saturday morning, about 200 civilian men and women pushed a huge steam engine up the hill from Mission to 20th and Church where the famous “golden hydrant†was found to be working – the final effort in extinguishing the San Francisco fire.

Just about a third of the company fire reports have been saved, and all of these speak of consistent and unrelenting work by the firefighters in trying to stop the fire. For the most part, they had no help, and the men who laid more than a mile of hoseline between three steamers on Van Ness should never be forgotten – nor the rest of San Francisco’s Bravest who won their fight finally through sheer fortitude.

There are accounts of firefighters removing front doors from buildings to use as heat shields so they could bring water close to the fire. Others covered themselves with wet burlap, or saturated themselves by rolling in the puddles that were everywhere. More than half of the firefighters lost their homes to the fire, and they worked without knowing the location or the safety of their families. When the fire was finally stopped early Saturday morning, and the firefighters left duty to search for their loved ones, they were brought up on charges for being absent without permission (the charges were dismissed weeks later). Many of them, because their firehouses had burned, were laid off. They received no riches, no bonus for their valor.

There is no monument to the dedication and heroism of the 1906 firefighters in San Francisco, except for the statue erected by Lily Hitchcock Coit to honor the firefighters of the 19th century. However, there is a Funston Avenue in San Francisco and a bust of General Funston sits in City Hall.