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Great Fires: 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

Known Dynamiting
San Francisco Fire Department
1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

Later in the night of the 18th, or nearly in the morning of the 19th, we moved to another cistern on Pacific and Dupont Streets, one engine located there and another at Stockton and Pacific Streets we led a line south along Dupont Street to where J. Biringham of the California Powder Works was dynamiting the buildings.

From the report of Chief McCluskey, District No. 1

Batt., chief M. O'Brien ordered us to detail three men to assist Lieu't Briggs of the Presidio, in dynamiting. I detailed Lieu't McGowan, A. Stoffer and A. Bernstein; these men assisted in the dynamiting which occured [sic] on the south side of Clay st., along Leidssdorff [sic]; Commercial east of Montgomery along Leidesdorff; Sacramento east of Montgomery along Leidesdorff to Halleck Sts.

From the report of Captain Schmidt, Engine Co. No. 28

April 18th (around Noon)
We were forced to leave this neighborhood, as the dynamiting crew were starting operations on Hayes St., opposite the St. Ignatius church. By connecting engines #21-34-14-19-7 I obtained two streams, and checked the fire from spreading further west than Octavia Sts.

From the report of Chief Waters, District No. 7

April 18th (afternoon, early evening)
I was notified that the fire was starting at Valencia and Market Sts. St., We held the fire in check until I was notified that this block was going to be dynamited, and we were forced to leave. The work of the wreckers was not successful, as the block burned up after being dynamited.

From the report of Chief Waters, District No. 7

April 18th
A foreman, employed at the Railway Tunnels at Baden reported to me that he had a wagon load of dynamite and offering his services we proceeded to dynamite all the buildings on the East side of 8th St., from Market to Folsom Sts.,

From the report of Chief Conlon, District No. 9

April 18th
I recall in one instance, that after dynamiting the two frame buildings facing 8th St., next to the N. E. Cor. Harrison St., we placed a case of dynamite on the east side of each floor, of the three story frame building situated on the N. E. Cor. of 8th and Harrison Sts., and attempted to fall this frame house into the premises previously dynamited; we failed in this however, as the building was blown in the opposite direction into the street.

From the report of Chief Conlon, District No. 9

April 18th
I assisted the dynamiting crew then destroying the buildings on the North side of Harrison St., between 7th and 8th Sts., this attempt was made to save the Children's Playground, but once again proved unavailing.

From the report of Chief Conlon, District No. 9

April 18th
In the afternoon we met Civilians hauling boxes of dynamite and also fuses and caps in a buggy, and with this we attempted to check the progress of the fire by dynamiting both sides of Langton St., between Folsom & Harrison Sts. This also was unsuccessful, as we had no water to extinguish the flames which originated after dynamiting.

From the report of Captain T J Murphy, Engine Co. No. 29

April 18th
After this we were ordered to fight the fire which was then raging in the vicinity of Hayes and Gough streets, but by the time we reached there two complete blocks were on fire. After a long hard fight we found that we were making very little headway owing to the scarcity of water; the fire was spreading rapidly in all directions and in a last effort to check the spreading of the flames dynamite was used.

From the report of Captain Carew. Truck Co. No. 7

April 18th, (afternoon)
By order of Chief Shaugnessy [sic], and under the direction of some official from the powder works considerable dynamiting was done in the vicinity of Franklin and Van Ness Ave., on Hayes St. They also used dynamite in the neighborhood of IIth [sic] and Mission Streets. By the use of this explosive a number of buildings were raised to the ground, but as we were under the leadership of a competant [sic] person (one who was used to the handling of high grate explosives) very little damage was done to the properties which joined those we dynamited. This dynamiting occured [sic] on Wednesday P. M. April 18th.

From the report of Captain Carew. Truck Co. No. 7

April 19th, 12: A.M
At 12.30 A. M. April 19th, we received word that there was water at Fourteenth & Folsom Sts., but were unable to take that corner at once, on account of the dynamiting which was then going on in that vicinity, under command of Colonel Walter Kelly, First Regiment National Guard California. After they had dynamited five buildings in that vicinity, we connected to the hydrant on the South-west corner of Fourteenth and Folsom Sts., but on account of the fierceness of the fire then raging in the buildings which had been dynamited we were compelled to retreat to the hydrant in the middle of the block on the West side of Folsom St., between fourteenth & Fifteenth Sts.

From the report of Captain Radford, Engine Co. No. 25

April 19th (morning)
On my return I witnessed troops dynamiting both sides of Mission Street between 15th and 16th Sts.; their supply ran out, however, and consequently there was no water to be had west of Mission St.

From the report of Chief Conlon, District No. 9

…Sacramento St. to Van Ness Ave. After working in this vicinity for sometime I was again ordered to disconnect as they were going to dynamite a building on the North-east corner of California and Franklin Sts.

From the report of Captain Fay, Engine Co. No. 22

April 19th
Our Engine was next ordered to Pacific and Stockton sts. [sic] where a fire was raging at that time. While we were in this vicinity the S. E. corner of Jackson and Stockton Sts., was dynamited.

From the report of Captain Schmidt, Engine Co. No. 28

April 19th
After the Prescott House was dynamited we stopped the fire from crossing to the East side of Montgomery Ave.,

From the report of Captain Schmidt, Engine Co. No. 28

April 19th
…after J. Birmingham had dynamited the S. W. cor of Broadway and Stockton sts. [sic], the fire crossed to the East side of Stockton st., and the North side of Broadway.

From the report of Captain Schmidt, Engine Co. No. 28

April 20th
While in this vicinity I witnessed the dynamiting which occured [sic] on Friday night. After a consultation between the Mayor and several other officials, to decide who was to have actual charge of the operations, and after it was finely settled that the fire chief was to take full command; a crew of soldiers started dynamiting operations in this vicinity. The building on the south east corner of Van Ness and Vallejo street, also the one adjoining were dynamited. This crew then proceeded to Broadway, and blew down a couple building on the north side of Broadway between Van Ness and Polk street: they also dynamited three buildings in the center of the block on the north side of Broadway, between Polk and Larken [sic] streets, and the north west corner of Larkin and Broadway. Dynamiting seemed to be the only way to check the spread of the flames, but in this they were not successful. Our company had canvassed all of the district between Union and Turk streets, and Between Van Ness and Hyde, but were unable to find or obtain any water at all in this district. It was not until Saturday that the fire was finally stopped at Van Ness Ave.

From the report of Captain Nichols, Truck Co. No. 4

Dynamite was used in great quantity to subdue the flames that swept over the city. In the hands of competent persons the explosive is a valuable auxilliary [sic] in fighting fire when other means fail. Our department gained valuable experience in the handling of dynamite, and I trust that other departments may profit by our observations. In the first place dynamite should be stored in an isolated spot and under the control of the United States Army. It should never be brought into use until by trained men, preferably soldiers, commanded by competent officers. Great harm was done during the first days of the fire by the indiscriminate use of black powder, it developed that when black powder was exploded it threw off a combustion that ignited all woodwork with which it came in contact, thus starting additional fires. Giant powder, made of nitroglycerine was also used with same results. On the third day of the conflagration 75 per cent dynamite, in stick form, was used with splendid results as there was no combustion and the buildings were levelled without danger. I would, therefore, recommend the use of stick dynamite, gun cotton, or other true high explosives that throw off no combustion, as the only means of checking a tremendous fire when water is not obtainable, as it levels a building to where you can deliver water to control the flames of such buildings of frame or brick of ordinary construction, containing wooden floor joists and wooden dividing partitions. I would not recommend dynamite to level buildings of "Class A" construction of which are of the skeleton type, with steel frame and floors riveted at all junction points, for the reason that it would take an enormous quantity to level a building of that construction. I would further recommend that when dynamite is used that it should be exploded with electricity, as with the fuse system there is danger of not exploding when expected.

From the report of 2nd Assistant Chief Shaughnessy

At 3 o’clock the soldiers drove the people north on Van Ness and west up to Franklin Street, saying that they were going to dynamite the east side of Van Ness. From my window I watched the movements of the fire-fighters and dynamiters. They first set fire to every house on the east side of Van Ness Avenue between Washington and Bush streets, and by 3 :30 nearly every one was on fire. Their method was this: A soldier would, with a vessel like a fruit-dish in his hand, containing some inflammable stuff, enter the house, climb to the second floor, go to the front window, open it, pull down the shade and curtain, and set fire to the contents of his dish. In a short time the shades and curtain would be in a blaze. When the fire started slowly, they would throw bricks and stones up to the windows and break the glass to give it draught. It took about 20 minutes for a building to get well on fire. From 4 to 4:30 St. Luke's and the Presbyterian Church and all the houses on Van Ness Avenue from Bush to Washington were on fire. At about this time they began dynamiting. Then they started back-firing, and, as the line of fire was at Polk Street, the idea was to meet the flames and not allow them to cross Van Ness Avenue. This was a great mistake, as it caused the whole of the blocks between those streets to be on fire at once, which made an intense heat, while if allowed to approach Van Ness from Polk Street the heat would have been much less, and would not have ignited the west side of Van Ness. The explosions of dynamite were felt fearfully in my house; those within two blocks would jar and shake the house violently, breaking the windows, and at the same time setting off the burglar alarm. As the windows would break it tore the shades and curtains, covered the floor with glass, and cracked the walls. After it was over I found that it had demolished in my house twelve plates and fifty-four sheets of glass, each measuring about thirty by fifty inches.

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