San Francisco Conflagration Eventually Checked by the Use of Explosives — Lesson of Baltimore Heeded in Coast City — Western Remnant of City in Residence Section Saved by Blowing Up Beautiful Homes of the Rich.
The remnant of San Francisco that escaped destruction in the four days conflagration owes its existence largely to the equally destructive force of dynamite. For four days one agent of destruction was employed against another.
The San Francisco conflagration was the second great fire in the United States at which dynamite was the chief agency of the fire fighters. Immediately following the first earthquake crash flames burst forth in numerous places, chiefly in the business section of the city. The fire department responded as promptly as possible under the circumstances for a new difficulty presented itself to the firemen. When the clang of the alarm sounded it was found that many of the engine houses had been damaged by the quake and so twisted that it was only with difficulty that the apparatus could be gotten out of the buildings. Upon arriving at the several scenes of the fire a worse calamity confronted them. The engines were attached to the hydrants and then followed the alarming cry:
The mains had been bursted, twisted and torn asunder by the violence of the shock, and only in rare instances could water be found wherewith to combat the rapidly spreading flames.
Corner of a Baptist Church.
A view of a Baptist Church on St. Pablo Avenue, Oakland.
Kearney Street, San Francisco.
Looking north from Market Street.
Then it was that the new method of checking conflagrations p209was brought into use, and the order was given to fight the flames with dynamite. Doubtless the officials of the department had freshly in mind the great Baltimore fire in which the city was saved only from total destruction by the use of an immense amount of explosives. Fire chief Denis Sullivan and his wife had both been injured by the earthquake, the former having been fatally hurt, so that in addition to the hopeless situation which confronted the firemen they were without the guidance of their principal leader.
There was little dynamite available in the city, but what was on hand was immediately brought into use and soon the terrific explosions added to the terror of the panic stricken people fleeing from the flames.
At 9 o'clock on the first day of the fire Mayor Schmitz sent a tug to Pinole for several cans of the explosive. He also sent a telegram to Mayor Mott of Oakland. He received this reply to his Oakland message: "Three engines and hose companies leave here immediately. Will forward dynamite as soon as obtained."
All outside nearby places were appealed to for dynamite and as fast as the explosive was received it was directed against large buildings in the path of the fire. The crash of falling walls mingled with the reverberations of the explosions, led many to believe that the earthquake shocks were being repeated. Here and there a fireman went down beneath the ruins as some huge building tumbled to the ground shattered by the destructive explosive. In the downtown districts the efforts of the dynamiters were wholly unavailing. The fire had gained such headway that it swept with a roar over every vacant space made by the explosive and continued its consuming way in every direction.
Better success was obtained in the residence district west on the second day of the fire. The widest thoroughfare in the city is Van Ness avenue in the heart of the fashionable residence section. There was decided that an effort should be made to check the spread of the flames westward and save the many beautiful p210homes in the district between that avenue and the water line.
The co-operation of the artillery was secured and huge cannons were drawn to the avenue by the military horses to aid the dynamiters in blowing up the mansions of the millionaires on the west of Van Ness avenue in order to prevent the flames from leaping across the highway and starting on their unrestraining sweep across the western addition.
Every available pound of dynamite was hauled to that point and the sight was one of stupendous and appalling havoc as the cannons were trained on the palaces and the shot tore into the walls and toppled the buildings in crushing ruins. At other points the dynamite was used, and house after house, the dwellings of millionaires, was lifted into the air by the bellowing blast and dropped to the earth a mass of dust and debris.
The work was necessarily dangerous and many of the exhausted workers who kept working through a stretch of forty-eight hours without sleep and scarcely any food through force of instinctive heroism alone were killed while making their last desperate stand.
Many of the workers in placing the blasts, took chances that spelled injury or death. The fire line at 6 o'clock extended •a mile along the east side of Van Ness avenue from Pacific street to Ellis. All behind this excepting the Russian Hill region and a small district lying along the north beach had been swept clean by the flames and the steel hulks of buildings and pipes and shafts and spires were dropped into a molten mass of debris like so much melted wax.
The steady booming of the artillery and the roar of the dynamite above the howl and cracking of the flames continued with monotonous regularity. Such noises had been bombarding the ears of the panic-stricken people since the earthquake of forty-eight hours before. They ceased to hear the sound and rush pell-mell drowning their senses in a bedlam of their own creation. There seemed to be an irresistible power behind the flames p211that even the desperately heroic measures being taken at Van Ness avenue could not stay.
View from Fifth and Market Streets.
Hundreds of police, regiments of soldiers, and scores of volunteers were sent into the doomed district to inform the people that their homes were about to be blown up, and to warn them to flee. They heroically responded to the demand of law, and went bravely on their way trudging painfully over the pavements with the little they could get together.
Every available wagon that could be found was pressed into service to transport the powder from the various arsenals to the scene of the proposed destruction.
Then for hours the bursting, rending sounds of explosions filled the air. At 9 o'clock block after block of residences had been leveled to the ground, but the fire was eating closer and closer.
Then the explosives gave out. Even the powder in the government arsenals was exhausted long before noon. From that hour the flames raged practically unhindered.
Lieut. Charles C. Pulis, commanding the Twenty-fourth company of light artillery, was blown up by a charge of dynamite at Sixth and Jesse streets and fatally injured. He was taken to the military hospital at the Presidio. He suffered a fractured skull and several bones broken and internal injuries.
Lieut. Pulis placed a heavy charge of dynamite in a building on Sixth street. The fuse was imperfect and did not ignite the charge as soon as was expected. Pulis went into the building to relight it and the charge exploded while he was in the building.
The deceased officer was a graduate of the artillery school at Fortress Monroe, Va. He was 30 years of age.
The effectiveness of dynamite was proved on the fourth and last day of the conflagration when the flames were finally checked by the use of that explosive.
Three heroes saved San Francisco — what was left of it. They were the dynamite squad that threw back the fire demon at Van Ness avenue.
p212 When the burning city seemed doomed and the flames lit the sky further and further to the west, Admiral McCalla sent a trio of his most trusted men from Mare Island with orders to check the conflagration at any cost of life or property.
With them they brought a ton and a half of gun cotton. The terrific power of the explosion was equal to the maniac determination of the fire. Captain MacBride was in charge of the squad. Chief Gunner Adamson placed the charges, and the third gunner set them off.
The thunderous detonations to which the terrified city listened all that dreadful Friday night meant the salvation of 300,000 lives. A million dollars' worth of property, noble residences and worthless shacks alike were blown to drifting dust, but that destruction broke the fire and sent the raging flames over their own charred path.
The whole east side of Van Ness avenue, from Golden Gate to Greenwich, was dynamited a block deep, though most of the structures stood untouched by sparks or cinders. Not one charge failed. Not one building stood upon its foundations.
Every pound of gun cotton did its work, and though the ruins burned, it was but feebly. From Golden Gate avenue north the fire crossed the wide street in but one place. That was the Claus Spreckels place, on the corner of California street. There the flames were writhing up the walls before the dynamiters could reach it. The charge had to be placed so swiftly and the fuse lit in such a hurry that the explosion was not quite successful from the trained viewpoint of the gunners. But though the walls still stood, it was only an empty victory for the fire, as bare brick and smoking ruins are poor food for flames.
Captain MacBride's dynamiting squad realized that a stand was hopeless except on Van Ness avenue. They could have forced their explosive further in the burning section but not a pound of gun cotton could be or was wasted. The ruined block that met the wide thoroughfare formed a trench through the p213clustered structures that the conflagration, wild as it was, could not leap.
The desolate waste straight through the heart of the city is a mute witness to the squad's effective work. Three men did this. They were ordered to save San Francisco. They obeyed orders, and Captain MacBride and his two gunners made history on that dreadful night.
The clock in tower stopped at 5:15.
A view in Golden Gate Park.
a The photographs on this webpage have been moved from Chapter 15, where they didn't belong.
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The San Francisco Horror
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Page updated: 16 Oct 13