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The fires of the 1840s and '50s
November 05, 2012, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum The 1851 fire destroyed the Custom's House and most of downtown San Francisco.

The first structure near Yerba Buena Cove in the 1830s was a sweat house about the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento streets. It was probably made of branches and tule reeds that could be collected from the area. If one were to look 360 degrees from the cove there were no trees to be seen. It was barren and one of the worst places to build a structure due to the strong winds that at times could blow a small, weak structure down.

The Mission Dolores was in a run-down state now that the Mexican government had lowered it to just a church status. It had become almost a deserted complex of buildings as had the Presidio. The soldiers of the Presidio had been transferred to the Sonoma barracks.

When William A. Richardson was authorized by the Mexican government to live at the cove, he built a "small rough board shanty” to facilitate the first commercial boat service he started on Richardson Bay on the Marin County shore. He had begun business in Marin County selling wood and water to the whaling vessels that visited the Bay. Business boomed and, when the business of selling hides from the ranchos increased, he moved to Yerba Buena and built a large adobe a distance from the Bay, at the intersection of Clay Street and Grant Avenue. Here his family, he had married the daughter of the commandant of the Presidio in 1825, moved in to live on a grand style as he was now the appointed as the captain of the port.

The authorization to develop a pueblo was signed and boat activity became centered at a favorable cove where hides, tallow and other supplies could be loaded and unloaded. Because of the lack of wood at the cove, the area of Woodside had become a boomtown as it had plenty of redwood trees to supply wood — logs for boards, shingles and for piles to build piers. It was a struggle to get these monstrous logs to Yerba Buena but a new port (at Redwood City) had been discovered and logs were floated to the future San Francisco.

Richardson's "small rough board shanty” near the cove (Montgomery Street) was enlarged and he acquired a neighbor, Jacopo P. Leese, who built a two-story structure with dormer-windows on the upper floor. Leese continued in business until 1841 when the Hudson Bay Company bought it. By this time, 20 houses and structures had been built at the cove. Because of the population increase, a grocer named Jean Jacques Vioget was commissioned to draw up a map with the streets laid out so there could be a record kept of lot ownership. Voiget's map, using a district bounded by Montgomery, Sacramento, Dupont (now Grant Avenue) and Pacific streets, became the pattern for the latter city.

Although the larger business buildings began to be made of some brick, wood was the main building material. Shelter continued to be found using small brush and canvas as the structural material. Water was scarce, however, and because of the use of kerosene for lighting and cooking fires, the persistent danger of fire became a worry by the alcalde. He could not provide adequate fire-fighting equipment to put out any large fire.

With tents and makeshift shelter a safe distance from each other, it was adequate temporary shelter but, when the pueblo population exploded later in the 1840s, the worst fear became a reality.

On Christmas Eve of 1848, a fire broke out and consumed all buildings on both sides of Kearny Street between Washington and Clay streets and caused a loss of $1 million. The largest hotel, the Parker, was destroyed as well as its casino.

On May 4, 1849, a larger and more destructive fire broke out leveling the two blocks bounded by Kearny, Clay, Washington and Montgomery streets to the east of Portsmouth Square. Six weeks later, on June 14, the third major fire disaster occurred. This time a four-block square district between Clay, Kearny, and California streets and the Bay cost more than $3 million. After this fire, the town council appropriated money to dig wells and build a reservoir and an ordinance that required every property owner to keep six full buckets of water to fight fires.

On May 4, 1851, another fire disaster broke out. This was the sixth fire in San Francisco since 1848. This fire produced a burned district that was three quarters of a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. The fire was so intense that supposedly fireproof buildings and houses made of brick were destroyed. More than 1,500 homes were destroyed.

Although volunteer fire departments had been formed after the first major fire in 1849, they were short of equipment and supplies to stop the fires. More than enthusiasm was needed. Three engine companies were formed — the San Francisco, the Empire and the Protection. Their quarters usually occupied the upper floor of the fire house and usually had recreation sites for the volunteers as well as a bar, library and card tables. These organizations became like a social club and almost every man in the area wanted to get in them. The competition between the more than 20 volunteer clubs that had formed by 1855 sometimes became very vicious. They also became organized enough to become very political and could wield a great amount of power. This disturbed the citizens so much that private volunteer organizations were disbanded by 1866.

The next step was to build a city fire department.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.

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