Rekindles: May 1998

If there was a significant fire or emergency that occurred 100 years ago in your department, or your department's 100th anniversary is coming up, please drop us a line for possible inclusion in "Rekindles" in an upcoming issue. May 2, 1898: JERSEY...


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May 24, 1898: SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA - Shortly before 9 P.M., the fire department was called out for what was thought to be a brushfire along the banks of the creek behind a row of buildings on Higuera Street. By the time the firemen arrived, however, the flames had spread to a paint shop and were soon engulfing a long line of wooden structures. The firemen attempted to save a cigar factory but the walls and roof had already burned. Hose companies massed their strength and stopped the flames from spreading beyond an upholstering shop.

May 27, 1898: DALLAS - An afternoon fire spread through a two-story furniture warehouse and had extended into exposures on both sides before firemen arrived. Fanned by a brisk breeze the flames moved quickly and a general alarm was sounded. During the fire, the owner of one of the business entered the blazing structure to retrieve his books and ledgers when the building collapsed. Firemen rushed into the collapse area and rescued one other man before finding the business owner dead among the debris. A fireman was seriously injured by a secondary collapse.

TIME CAPSULE

California Theater Fire: San Francisco - May 1, 1898

It was the farewell performance of Madame Melba's season at San Francisco's California Theater, and the house was packed. The music had just started and the house settled down waiting for Madame Melba. Just prior to her entrance, a steam pipe burst beneath the stage, threatening the performance. The filled house sat patiently as workmen hurried to repair the pipes. The theater was filled with the sounds of hammering while the audience waited patiently to hear the renowned vocalist. Backstage the managers were pacing back and forth, nervously checking their watches.

Finally. the music resumed, however briefly. In the adjoining boiler room a fire broke out in the gas hot water heater, apparently unrelated to the steam pipe problem. Within moments, the flames had spread to Saint George Stables next door and the fire grew in intensity. People in the balcony were the first to notice the flames through the windows on the east side of the building.

Unaware of the fire and not sure of the reason for the commotion in the balcony, the majority of the audience below turned their attention from the stage and began watching the people in the balcony as they started to panic. Many below mistook the pandemonium above to be the result of a fight and stood up to get a better view. Disgusted patrons began yelling for them to sit as their view of the stage was blocked.

The fire was now raging through the stable next door and was producing a shower of embers and clouds of smoke that swept into the theater and the nearby California Hotel. The theater's manager finally stepped on stage and announced that there was no danger; that there was no need for panic but it would be best if everyone withdrew quickly.

With the panic already started in the balcony and smell of smoke in the air, patrons could not help themselves and became extremely agitated. Women shrieked and fainted, men struggled to lift the unconscious women and move them to safety. Mayor Phelan, who was in attendance, tried to calm the crowd and helped to divert the stream of humanity calmly to the exits.

Meanwhile, the fire department arrived and a chemical engine quickly extinguished the original fire in the boiler area and went to work on the now roaring stable. Back in the theater the mayor was helped by Policeman Heins, whose large voice and presence took command of the main exits and coolly directed the people outside. The theater was evacuated in short order with only minor injuries.

In the neighboring California Hotel the guests were hurrying outside as the smoke worked its way into the structure. Firemen were busy saving more than 30 horses from the stable as they battled the stubborn blaze. The fire was brought under control just as it was spreading to the theater's roof and balcony area. The firemen had done a superb job.

The inside of the theater was covered with expensive sealskin wraps and pocketbooks dropped by women and top hats and canes left behind by gentlemen fleeing the fire. None of the people in the theater and the hotel were seriously injured and none of the animals in the stable were lost. Considering the record of death and destruction America had suffered with fires in theaters, this one was a textbook operation.

Paul Hashagen


Compiled by Paul Hashagen