Fierce Battle to Save the Famous Ferry Station, the Chief Inlet to and Egress from San Francisco — Fire Tugs and Vessels in the Bay Aid in Heroic Fight — Fort Mason, General Funston's Temporary Headquarters, has Narrow Escape — A Survey of the Scene of Desolation.
Looking toward the Ferry from Vallejo Street.
Note the people in foreground on the roof top watching the sweep of the fire.
When darkness fell over the desolate city at the end of the fourth day of terror, the heroic men who had borne the burden of the fight with the flames breathed their first sigh of relief, for what remained of the proud metropolis of the Pacific coast was safe.
This was but a semi-circular fringe, however, for San Francisco was a city desolate with •twenty square miles of its best area in ashes. In that blackened territory lay the ruins of sixty thousand buildings, once worth many millions of dollars and containing many millions more.
The fourth and last day of the world's greatest conflagration had been one of dire calamity and in some respects was the most spectacular of all. On the evening of the third day (Friday) a gale swept over the city from the west, fanned the glowing embers into fierce flames and again started them upon a path of terrible destruction.
The fire which had practically burnt itself out north of Telegraph Hill was revived by the wind and bursting into a blaze crept toward the East, threatening the destruction of the entire water front, including the Union ferry depot, the only means of egress from the devastated city.
p70 The weary firemen still at work in other quarters of the city were hastily summoned to combat the new danger. Hundreds of sailors from United States warships and hundred of soldiers joined in the battle, and from midnight until dawn men fought fire as never fire had been fought before. Fire tugs drew up along the water front and threw immense streams of water on to the flames of burning factories, warehouses and sheds.
Blocks of buildings were blown up with powder, guncotton, and dynamite, or torn down by men armed with axes and ropes. All night long the struggle continued. Mayor Schmitz and Chief of Police Dinan, although without sleep for forty-eight hours, remained on the scene all night to assist army and navy officers in directing the fight.
At 7 o'clock Saturday morning, April 21, the battle was won. At that hour the fire was burning grain sheds on the water front •about half a mile north of the Ferry station, but was confined to a comparatively small area, and with the work of the fireboats on the bay and the firemen on shore, who were using salt water pumped from the bay, prevented the flames from reaching the Ferry building and the docks in that immediately vicinity.
On the north beach the fire did not reach that part of the water front lying west of the foot of Powell street. The fire on the water front was the only one burning. The entire western addition to the city lying west of Van Ness avenue, which escaped the sweep of flame on Friday, was absolutely safe.
Forty carloads of supplies, which had been run upon the belt line tracks near one of the burned wharves, were destroyed during the night.
A survey of the water front Saturday morning showed that everything except four docks had been swept clean from Fisherman's wharf, at the foot of Powell street, to a point around westerly, almost to the Ferry building.
This means that •nearly a mile of grain sheds, docks and wharves were added to the general destruction. In the section p71north of Market street the ruined district was practically bounded on the west by Van Ness avenue, although in many blocks the flames destroyed squares to the west of that thoroughfare. The Van Ness avenue burned line runs northerly to Greenwich street, which is a few blocks from the bay. Then the boundary was up over Telegraph Hill and down to that portion of the shore that faces Oakland. Practically everything included between Market, Van Ness avenue, Greenwich, and the bay was in ashes.
On the east side of Hyde street hill the fire burned down to Bay street and Montgomery avenue and stopped at that intersection.
Fort Mason was saved only by the most strenuous efforts of soldiers and firemen. It stands just north of the edge of the burned district, the flames having been checked only three blocks away at Greenwich street.
All south of Market street except in the vicinity of the Pacific Mail dock, was gone. This section is bounded on the north by Market street and runs out to Guerreroº street, goes out that street two blocks, turns west to Dolores, runs west six blocks to about Twenty-second, taking in four blocks on the other side of Dolores. The fire then took an irregular course southward, spreading out as far as Twenty-fifth street and went down that way to the southerly bay shore.
View of Market Street, the Central Point of the Disaster.
The tall, square building on the right is the Claus Spreckels building, in which the plant of the San Francisco Call is located; the next building beyond in the Examineer building and the last large building on the right is the Palace Hotel. The tall building on the left is a new sky scraper, erected ontn old Baldwin Hotel site.
Maj. C. A. Devol, depot quartermaster and superintendent of the transport service, graphically described the conquering of the fire on the water front, in which he played an important part:
"This fire, which ate its way down to the water front early Friday afternoon, was the climax of the whole situation.
"We realized at once that were the water front to go, San Francisco would be shut off from the world, thus paralyzing all transportation faculties for bringing in food and water to the thousands of refugees huddled on the hillsides from Fort Mason to Golden Gate Park. It would have been impossible to either p72come in or go out of the city save by row boats and floats, or by the blocked passage overland southward.
"This all-important section of the city first broke into flames in a hollow near Meigg's wharf, about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. The tugs of our service were all busy transporting provisions from Oakland, but the gravity of the situation made it necessary for all of them to turn to fire-fighting.
"The flames ate down into the extensive lumber district, but had not caught the dock line. Behind the dock, adjacent to the Spreckels sugar warehouse and wharf, were hundreds of freight cars. Had these been allowed to catch fire, the flames would have swept down the entire water front to South San Francisco.
"The climax came at Pier No. 9, and it was here that all energies were focused. A large tug from Mare Island, two fire patrol boats, the Spreckels tugs and ten or twelve more, had lines of hose laid into the heart of the roaring furnace and were pumping from the bay to the limit of their capacities.
"About 5 o'clock I was told that the tugs were just about holding their own and that more help would be needed. The Slocum and the McDowell were at once ordered to the spot. I was on board the former and at one time the heat of the fire was so great that it was necessary to play minor streams on the cabin and sides of the vessel to keep it from taking fire. We were in a slip surrounded by flames.
"Our lines of hose once laid to the dockage, we found willing hands of volunteers waiting to carry the hose forward. I saw pale, hungry men, who probably had not slept for two days, hang on to the nozzle and play the stream until they fell from exhaustion. Others took their places and only with a very few exceptions was it necessary to use force to command the assistance of citizens or onlookers.
"All night the flames raged through the lumber district, and the fire reached its worst about 3:30 o'clock Saturday morning. Daylight found it under control."
p73 All that was left of the proud Argonaut city was like a Crescent moon set about a black disk of shadow. A Saharan desolation of blackened, ash-covered, twisted debris was all that remained of three-fifths of the city that four days ago stood like a sentinel in glittering, jeweled armor, guarding the Golden Gate to the Pacific.
Men who had numbered their fortunes in the tens of thousands camped on the ruins of their homes, eating as primitive men ate — gnawing; thinking as primitive men thought. Ashes and the dull pain of despair were their portions. They did not have the volition to help themselves, childlike as the men of the stone age, they awaited quiescent what the next hour might bring them.
Fear they had none, because they had known the shape of fear for forty-eight hours and to them it had no more terrors. Men overworked to the breaking point and women unnerved by hysteria dropped down on the cooling ashes and slept where they lay, for had they not seen the tall steel skyscrapers burn like a torch? Had they not beheld the cataracts of flame fleeting unhindered up the broad avenues, and over the solid blocks of the city?
Fire had become a commonplace. Fear of fire had been blunted by their terrible suffering, and although the soldiers roused the sleepers and warned them against possible approaching flames, they would only yawn, wrap their blanket about them and stolidly move on to find some other place where they might drop and again slumber like men dead.
As the work of clearing away the debris progressed it was found that an overwhelming portion of the fatalities occurred in the cheap rooming house section of the city, where the frail hotels were crowded at the time of the catastrophe.
In one of these hotels alone, the five-story Brunswick rooming house at Sixth and Howard streets, it is believed that 300 people perished. The building had 300 rooms filled with guests. It p74collapsed to the ground entirely and fire started amidst the ruins scarcely five minutes later.
South of Market street, where the loss of life was greatest, wasº located many cheap and crowded lodging houses. Among others the caving in of the Royal, corner Fourth and Minna streets, added to the horror of the situation by the shrieks of its many scores of victims imbedded in the ruins.
The collapsing of the Porter House on Sixth street, between Mission and Market, came about in a similar manner. Fully sixty persons were entombed midst the crash. Many of these were saved before the fire eventually crept to the scene.
Part of the large Cosmopolitan House, corner Fifth and Mission streets, collapsed at the very first tremble. Many of the sleepers were buried in the ruins; other escaped in their night clothes.
At 775 Mission street the Wilson House, with its four stories and eighty rooms, fell to the ground a mass of ruins. As far as known very few of the inmates were rescued.
The Denver House on lower Third street, with its many rooms, shared the same fate and none may ever know how many were killed, the majority of the inmates being strangers.
A small two-story frame building occupied by a man and wife at 405 Jessie street collapsed without an instant's warning. Both were killed.
To the north of Market street the rooming-house people fared somewhat better. the Luxemburg, corner of Stockton and O'Farrell streets, a three-story affair, suffered severely from the falling of many tons of brick from an adjoining building. The falling mass crashed through the building, killing a man and woman.
At the Sutter street Turkish baths a brick chimney toppled over and crashing through the roof killed one of the occupants as he lay on a cot. Another close by, lying on another cot, escaped.
p77 Two hundred bodies were found in the Potrero district, south of Shannon street in the vicinity of the Union Iron works, were cremated at the Six‑Mile House, on Sunday by the order of Coroner Walsh. Some of the dead were the victims of falling buildings from the earthquake shock, some were killed in the fire.
So many dead were found in this limited area that cremation was deemed absolutely necessary to prevent disease. The names of some of the dead were learned, but in the majority of cases identification was impossible owing to the mutilation of the features.
A systematic search for bodies of the victims of the earthquake and fire was made by the coroner and the state board of health inspectors as soon as the ruins cooled sufficiently to permit a search.
The body of an infant was found in the center of Union street, near Dupont street.
Three bodies were found in the ruins of the house on Harrison street between First and Second streets. They had been burned beyond all possibility of identification. They were buried on the north beach at the foot of Van Ness avenue.
The body of a man was found in the middle of Silver street, between Third and Fourth streets. A bit of burned envelope was found in the pocket of the vest bearing the name "A. Houston."
The total number of bodies recovered and buried up to Sunday night was 500. No complete record can ever be obtained as many bodies were buried without permits from the coroner and the board of health.
Whenever a body was found it was buried immediately without any formality whatever and, as these burials were made at widely separated parts of the city by different bodies of searchers, who did not even make a prompt report to headquarters, considerable confusion resulted in estimating the number of casualties and exaggerated reports resulted.
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The San Francisco Horror
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Page updated: 16 Oct 13