The first and most massive shock caused some small fires, and this same shock wrecked the electrical system controlling fire alarms because the Central Fire Alarm System, which was located on Brenham Place, directly behind Portsmouth Plaza, was among the first to go out of commission since the dry cell units, which were in jars and which generated the current for the alarms, fell off their shelves and became completely inoperative at this most critical of moments.
The result was that not one of the city’s fire companies responded to call as a result of the fire alarm system; however, a good number of the commanding officers stationed in the various fire houses rightly ordered their companies to tight the fires as best they could, operating under emergency rules.
San Franciscans need not fear a repetition of this breakdown in the fire alarm communications. For many years now, the “nerve center” of the city has been located in Jefferson Square, a block bounded by Laguna Street on the west, Gough on the east, Eddy to the north, and Turk to the south. The Central Fire Alarm System is located in a special building with no structures near it.
Edward Livingston’s Personal History of the San Francisco Earthquake and fire was published in 1941, and is one of many such accounts that confirm the fact that it was the scourge of fire, rather than the force of the earthquake, which brought devastation to San Francisco. His words are:
The actual earthquake damage, though appalling to those who experienced the shock, was not, as a general rule, so serious as far a; appearances went. The damage was mostly to tall chimneys, church towers, plaster and flimsy frame structures. Observation of the unburned Western Addition, and also photographs taken between the earthquake and the fire, make it clear that San Francisco was far from being destroyed by the quake, but that the great damage was done by the numerous tires which broke out as a consequence of the terrific shock. …
Fifty-two separate fires were counted on the fateful morning of Wednesday, April 18. Gradually these merged into two main conflagrations, one north of Market Street and the other to the south of that thoroughfare. Each of the two fires moved generally in a western direction; although the wind never, at least according to official records, exceeded a velocity of ten miles per hour, it was enough to fan the flames.
Both fires seem to have taken their origins along the Embarcadero, which was then known as East Street; the north lire had, as an added contributory cause, the fallen and live electric wires in what was then called the commission district, the area to which farm produce was brought for distribution to the city’s markets. By midday, the flames were eating away at the Vitals of this district with firefighters finding it impossible to extinguish them because of lack of water.
The south fire spread even more rapidly because of the absence of any natural geographical barriers-flat areas and congested housing conditions made it easy for this fire to expand.
By Wednesday afternoon, the south fire had reached Eighth and Market streets, while the north fire had progressed to Fourth, Ellis, and Stockton streets.
Wednesday evening and night in the city resembled a scene from Dante’s Inferno; dismayed and terrified citizens huddled together on hilltops to view the city that burned below them; many quickly became prophets of doom and destruction with their predictions that just about the entire city was destined to be consumed in the merciless maw of fire. Their predictions seemed to be on the way to tragic fulfillment as the south fire bore down relentlessly on the Mission district, while its counterpart to the north roared toward the Western Addition; 120-foot-wide Van Ness Avenue was yet to be tested as a firebreak.
Thursday found the city in the throes of absolute crisis; indeed, even more tragedy was to come for, as the north fire reached Leavenworth Street, four blocks east of Van Ness Avenue, it was joined, at about Ellis or Eddy streets, by a third blaze which had originated in the Hayes Valley district on the day before and which was already responsible for the gutting of St. Ignatius College located at Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue.
This third fire was started by a person who unfortunately lit a fire om her home in the Hayes Valley area; she, it seems, wanted her breakfast and started a fire in her stove in the early middle morning on the first day of the holocaust, April 18. 1906. (This is why it is commonly called the “Ham and Eggs Fire.”)
The chimney flue was out of line because of the earthquake damage and escaping sparks fanned by a wind from the west brought fire and ruin to St. Ignatius Church and College, located at Hayes and Van Ness Avenue, and yet another fire to add to the north and south fire which were already raging
The unhappy union of these two fires (north and Hayes Valley) promised even greater destruction to the city. Having joined fiery forces east of Van Ness Avenue, they now, like animated things, moved westward as if determined to hurdle the wide street and thus attack the Western Addition, which consisted almost entirely of wooden buildings. There were feverish attempts to control it around Clay Street and Van Ness Avenue using dynamite set off by soldiers from the Presidio as they endeavored to create a firebreak in the area.
However, the first attempts found black powder being employed in this dangerous operation and it quickly developed that this served only to generate more heat and start other fires.
Another unlocked-for result came with the burning of several houses as a result of ignited pieces of wood which, like flaming torches, were blown across Van Ness Avenue. Among the buildings attacked were the Crocker mansion as well as the steeple of St. Mary’s Cathedral, which, since 1891, had been at the comer of Van Ness Avenue and O’Farrell Street.
Although the cathedral was spared (until it was destroyed by fire on September 7, 1962), due to the successful efforts of Father Charles Ramm and others to extinguish the blaze in the belfry, five square blocks across Van Ness to Franklin, from Clay to Bush streets, were burned.
Other developments on that same Thursday, which was the second day of destruction in San Francisco, witnessed the south tire extending itself as far as Market and Dolores streets with its farthest point of penetration in this direction being reached at about 20th and Dolores streets, on the east side of Dolores only (with the venerable Mission Dolores remaining exempt from any fire damage while the wooden Notre Dame Convent, located directly across the street, was destroyed).
By midday of Thursday, the north fire seemed to have subsided; however, it broke out again in the evening when a section around Clay and Van Ness Avenue, not yet entirely burned, started to burn. Further complications came when a wind, blowing eastward from the Golden Gate, backed the tire in the direction of Russian and Telegraph hills, which had previously been spared in the former progress of the north fire.
- San Francisco 1906: Earthquake and Fire – Part 1
- San Francisco 1906: Earthquake and Fire – Part 2
- San Francisco 1906: Earthquake and Fire – Part 4