The Greatest Fire Alarm In American History

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 roar at 5:12 on a clear Wednesday morning, just at sunrise. It was one of the most severe shakings in our history, estimated to be an 8.0 on today’s Richter scale, and it rumbled on for about 45 full seconds, pushing flues away from their stove connections, pulling gas lines from their connections, displacing pot-bellied stoves, oil lamps and coal heaters – all of which resulted in fires that immediately added to the chaos that was befalling the city.

The huge and famous dome of City Hall, the city’s symbol of power, slid from its steel underpinning, leaving an eerie skeleton behind. In the fire department’s dispatching office, 556 of the 600 battery acid bottles crashed to the floor, rendering the telegraph dispatching system and 424 alarm boxes useless and without power of any kind. Still, people ran through the streets with rampant cries of fire – 52 fires were reported in the first minutes after the quake. Some of the doors in the firehouses were cramped shut because of the shifting of buildings during the earthquake, and in some companies the horses escaped and ran loose. Still, the firefighters managed in every instance to respond to the calls for help. The fire department of San Francisco – its 584 men, 38 steam engines, 10 hook and ladders, eight chemical pumpers, 39 hose wagons, and 323 horses – was brought, in the first minute after the shaking, to the absolute limit of its capacity to operate.

And, also in that first minute, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all occurred, for one of the most respected fire chiefs in the United States was rendered unconscious and would die four days later. It was an event that would have terrible consequences for the gem city of the Pacific.

Just a few hours before the earthquake, there was a third-alarm fire in a cannery building on Bay and Mason streets, and about 20% of the fire companies were used until just after midnight. After he left that fire scene, Dennis Sullivan, the fire chief, had gone to rest into an adjoining bedroom of his apartment on the top floor of Chemical 3’s Bush Street firehouse so that he would not disturb his wife, Maggie. Next to the firehouse stood the California Hotel, which had a tower, or cupola, that fell over during the shaking. As it fell, it crashed through the roof of the firehouse and through all four floors to the basement, taking the fire chief’s wife with it. Maggie, though, survived, for she was tucked tightly into her bed, which had miraculously landed on its four feet four stories below.

Sullivan was not blessed with such good fortune that night, and when he awoke to the earthquake he immediately ran to his wife. Not seeing the hole in the floor within the dust, he fell through it to the basement, landing next to the boiler and a displaced steam pipe spewing scalding air, water and steam. The chief was severely burned, and in his traumatized state found his way to front of the building where scores of people were digging for him. His consciousness, however, failed, and he never understood that he missed the greatest fire alarm in our nation’s history, a three-day event that burned through 28,188 buildings, flattened 522 blocks and took more than 3,000 lives. That Sullivan was taken out of command was great bad luck for San Francisco.

Indeed, the city, from the evidence gathered, would have circumnavigated such awesome destruction had Sullivan survived, for he was a man who understood the importance of incident command before its time. Having risen to the rank of fire chief in 1893 with the death of David Scannell (another world-famous fire chief), Dennis Sullivan was well educated, physically fit and a respected leader of men. San Francisco’s firefighters, who took their size-up of others as seriously as anything in their lives, loved their chief. Hailing from Florence, NJ, he was at 53 the youngest chief the city ever had. He had just celebrated his 13th year as chief three weeks before, having been promoted to the top job when he was 39 years of age.

Sullivan understood the fire problems of a peninsula city that was of mostly wooden construction, was mostly built on steep hills continually washed by the breezes coming from the San Francisco Bay and a city whose system of cisterns for fire protection had fallen into serious disrepair. He realized that the city’s low-pressure hydrant system was vulnerable in an earthquake situation, and for each of the six years preceding 1906 he pleaded with the Board of Supervisors to allocate the funds to build a high-pressure saltwater firefighting system. He was refused each time.

An Honest Man

He realized too that dynamite might be needed to make fire breaks in a conflagration, should one ever occur, and he made an agreement with the military at the Presidio to train sappers and to house dynamite for the city in case of emergency. The U.S. Army required the grand sum of $1,000 to build a dynamite shed to house the explosives, but the Board of Supervisors denied that request as well. It might be suggested that the Board of Supervisors, all of whom who were indicted in the year following the earthquake, could see no corruption opportunity in advancing the needs of the fire department, for Sullivan, alone of all agency heads, listed every dollar spent by the fire department in the city’s annual report. He was a savvy manager who saw that transparency in spending would prevent the city’s widespread corruption from entering his department.

During his tenure, Sullivan had made the San Francisco Fire Department one of the most modern and efficient in the world. It had the most current telegraph alarm system in the country, which directed the firefighters smoothly to the city’s fires through its street alarm boxes, bells in most of the firemen’s homes and 30 bells in business premises patronized by firemen. And, engine companies then had the most up-to-date steamers available, from Amoskeag, La France, and Clapp and Jones, most of them not more than eight years old, and all on a rigid schedule of maintenance. Sullivan was meeting almost daily with representatives of the new motorized fire trucks that were just becoming available. He had also modernized the training battalion – the firemen had mandatory drill periods, with two drill towers that were convenient for their training.

At the turn of the 20th century, Fire Chief Hugh Bonner of New York, perhaps the most well-known fire chief in the world, said of the San Francisco Fire Department, “It is as efficient and fully equipped with firefighting appliances as any city in the world, and it could be learned there all that could be learned of fire departments and their methods.â€

Another piece of bad luck for San Francisco that day was that General Adolphus Greely, head of the Pacific Division of the U.S. Army, was in Chicago attending his daughter’s wedding, which left Brigadier General Frederick Funston in command of the western military. Funston was undoubtedly a man of important prestige and much respected, but he was also the one man whose decisions on April 18, 1906 caused the destruction of the city.

Funston awoke with the shaking at his home, at 1310 Washington St. The house seemed to be rolling in waves, and the general immediately knew by the length of time that was passing that the temblor was a significant one. He lived at the northern base of Knob Hill in one of the finest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and because his home was made of wood and built on firm pilings it suffered no damage – from the earthquake.

Funston dressed quickly in civilian clothing and went into the streets to survey the damage, thinking that he would miss his mandatory morning coffee. He surveyed the damage to some of the houses around him and saw the beginnings of several fires. He would later write: “I realized then that a great conflagration was inevitable, and that the city police force would not be able to maintain the fire-lines and protect public and private property over the great area affected. It was at once determined to order out all available troops not only for the purpose of guarding federal buildings, but to aid the police and fire departments of the city.â€

This order was undeniably illegal, and tantamount to declaring martial law. Funston had to have known it was an illegal order, and wanted to distance himself from it. He did not write: “I ordered out all available troops.†Instead, he wrote, “It was determined to order out all available troops.†The general knew that the only person authorized to order federal troops into an American city is the President of the United States, and then, historically, only after consultation with the state’s governor. He did not want to be in a position where critics would say that he declared martial law in San Francisco, and so he gained the support of a corrupt mayor, Eugene Schmitz, to make it appear that he was acting at the mayor’s request. It was after Funston’s meeting with the mayor, soon after the start of the fires, that the mayor gave his famous “shoot-to-kill†order.

Effects of Martial Law

Even during the great Civil War riot in New York in 1863 where the National Guard was turned out, the request for federal troops and the imposition of martial law were resisted. Martial law has been declared just five times in our history: during the War of 1812 in New Orleans; in 1892, when miners rioted and blew up a mill, killing a man during a strike at Coeur d’Alene, ID; in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson sent in troops to assist the National Guard in the Coal Field Wars of Colorado; in 1934, when Governor Frank Merriam of California requested troops to quell rioting dock workers during a San Francisco strike; and in the protectorate of Hawaii during the period after the Pearl Harbor attack.

However, the most famous citation was when President Abraham Lincoln imposed it during the Civil War. The Supreme Court, though, declared that Lincoln had overstepped his bounds, for, the court said, “Martial law destroys every guarantee of the Constitution.†The court also stated that, “The officer executing martial law is at the same time supreme legislator, supreme judge, and supreme executive,†suggesting that the execution of these supreme powers were like the actions of the King of Great Britain which had caused the American Revolution. The case had to do with an appealing Confederate sympathizer named Milligan, who was sentenced to death in Indiana. The court issued to the President a resounding “No,†saving Milligan’s life and stating that, “Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable; and, in the conflict [the Civil War], one or the other must perish.â€

And, so, the Supreme Court had spoken forcibly in 1863 issuing safeguards against martial law, 43 years before this tragic day in San Francisco. The court did say, however, that the President could declare martial law when the circumstances warrant it, when the civil authority cannot operate: “If, in foreign invasion or civil war, the courts are actually closed, and it is impossible to administer criminal justice according to law, then, on the theatre of active military operations, where war really prevails, there is a necessity to furnish a substitute for the civil authority to preserve the safety of the army and society.â€

But there was no demonstrable “necessity†in San Francisco the morning of April 18, 1906. In almost every account of the catastrophe written by civilians at the time, it is assumed that martial law was declared – even if no pronouncement was actually made.

That Funston was a great man there is no doubt. He was an adventurer and intellect much in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt. And, he was a great military leader, having received the Medal of Honor for his courage in the Philippine Insurrection. But, history is replete with good and great men making mistakes of tragic consequence.

The general’s first mistake of the day was advising the mayor to have a shoot-to-kill policy. The second, a malfeasant misuse of manpower, was sending 1,700 troops into the city of San Francisco, a city at peace and in the midst of a significant life-threatening emergency, with fixed bayonets and ready for battle, as if every encounter of the day would be with an enemy. And, as well, he called for the liquor establishments to be immediately closed, and 600 policemen were used to close the liquor stores and bars when they could have been helping to fight the fires – if they were given, as the soldiers should have been given, sufficient work gloves, tools and buckets.

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

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.

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.

There is much to learn from the great loss suffered by the citizens of San Francisco. There is not much difference in emergencies when good men make bad decisions, for inevitably people will get hurt or killed and property gets destroyed. There are no second chances in emergencies, and in emergencies we must have people in charge who have spent a lifetime in the mitigation of chaos. These leaders do not appear magically out of clubhouse politics or the old-school-chum network. They rise from the experience of first responders – our fire and police chiefs, our emergency room and trauma intervention nurses, our field EMTs; men and women who have internalized respect for life by their participation in life-and-death situations.

Original stereo views courtesy of David Burkhart, author of Earthquake Days: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire in 3-D (

Dennis Smith, founding editor of Firehouse®, is the chairman of First Responders Financial. He is the author of San Francisco Is Burning, published by Viking. Smith can be reached at