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Great Fires: 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

The Larkin Street Fire
San Francisco Fire Department
1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

The conflagration began simultaneously on Sansome, Market, and to the south of Market Street, and spread from there at once toward the north, south and west. By Wednesday afternoon people walked Fourth Street with the city already consumed on both sides of them. The fire swept round from the Mission and the business center north, but at the east side of Russian Hill ridge was controlled at Taylor Street on Friday morning, having traveled north on the Washington Square flat along an irregular line averaging about Filbert Street, crossing the streets with some difficulty, working more or less against the wind. Occasionally water would run for a short time in some pipe, then a wild hope would animate those near it that the fire might be stayed.

Just after daylight Friday morning the Larkin Street neighborhood was cheered by the news that two streams of water were being used at the junction of Vallejo Street and Van Ness Avenue. Osgood, returning from carrying some goods to the Reservoir Camp met Ned at the head of a surging crowd, shouting, "Water, Water. The water is turned on. Get to the hose." and they rushed down the hill to fight the fire on the north side of Vallejo near Polk. They found the firemen keeping the water on the embers of houses already burned, and urged them to turn it on the cornices of buildings opposite, which were being ignited, but the effort was fruitless and almost directly the hose was carried off to Van Ness Avenue. This was the last water the fire department used on the east side of Van Ness Avenue, and the fire passed on to the north side of Vallejo Street.

After the Fire Department failed them, and the discouraged helpers had fallen away, Ned went through the neighboring streets shouting for volunteers to save the district. None offered. The heart-breaking truth all through this time was that the fire could have been stopped even without the help of the hose. It moved slowly, against the wind, and buildings caught on corners or projections which offered themselves to the heat. Axes to chop off bits of cornice, cups, instead of buckets of water, wet sacks, and chemical extinguishers would have done the work if only there had been enough workers. The great Appraisers' Building, in the heart of the burned business center, was saved by keeping a man with a bucket of water and a gunny sack at each window, while the fire raged round it.

There is no doubt that the firemen worked, and worked hard at times, but they appeared to have no intelligence outside the use of a hose. When that lay limp and flat, helpless-looking firemen often sat along the sidewalk like a dismal row of crows, only to be animated when the one resource they recognized was at hand. At these times the volunteers turned their wits to other possibilities. The chemical extinguishers were in constant use. Ned broke into a drug store and procured sulphuric acid, and Mr. Bouton found soda. With these they kept them charged. A little water could be had by going into houses and getting it from the kitchen boilers, for example, a four-flat building yielding sixty buckets. Many blocks of the city could have been saved in this way.

Intelligence was shown by the military employed at this particular point. They tried to keep looters out, but were willing to allow owners, who were able to keep their heads, to pass the line and aid in saving their property. There were always some spectators just beyond the line the fireman maintained, but an almost complete absence of individual property owners or anyone interested in the streets that were going. Osgood and Ned, having been appointed special police, wore stars and could order onlookers to work. Several loafers who refused at one time to pass buckets Ned did compel at the point of the pistol, but only willingness and enthusiasm could have carried through an effectual effort. Where the fire raged hottest was solitude. Looking up a cross street one saw a soldier holding back sight-seers, who, if they were called on to help, slunk away.

When the fight on Vallejo Street was lost Ned was still hopeful that Green Street might be saved, but Osgood, doubting the possibility of it, went to warn Eleanor to have the last things moved away to the Sand Camp, which was done. He then hastened back to Green Street to help there, while Ned, who was almost exhausted from long labor without food, went up to Minnie's for a short rest and something to eat. On mounting the hill Ned found it in danger. The fire, advancing from the south as well as the west, had crossed Vallejo and was burning on Jones just below the Marshall houses. He at once began directing the protection of the roofs of these. Meanwhile Osgood, with Mr. Forbes, Mr. Bouton, Duvaras and some others, were fighting the fire to the east on Green Street. More volunteers had collected here and they worked ardently.

The plan of work was as follows: As the fire devoured building after building on the south side of the street they faced it on the north side, step by step, always directly fronting it. A house caught and flamed up, the fire-fighters manned the opposite house, stationing themselves on its roof and in its windows. The heat was terrific even with the width of the street between. A front would begin to scorch, next the paint rose in blisters, then ignition took place and a tongue of flame shot up. This must be instantly quenched or the whole house would burst into flames. A window was flung up, a dipperful of the precious water dashed on it and the window slammed down again. "Dippers, dippers!" shouted the leaders to the too impetuous workers, "We can't afford buckets." To inhale the hot smoke was the danger; blackened faces and bleeding mouths showed here and there. Vigilance was necessary at every instant.

While a burning house fall and all that had stood upright was licked up by the flames, the one adjoining was beginning to go. Down came the fighters, poured out of the building now safe and into the next one, thus fronting the succeeding fire, where the same battle had to be repeated. So they fought on, house by house and hour by hour.

When Ned returned from Russian Hill he took Osgood's place, so that he might in turn go to Minnie's for a rest, and it was quite time. He was completely spent with fatigue and could not get back to the hill without frequently sitting down upon the curbstone to recover breath after accessions of violent throbbing of the heart.

But there was no repose for anyone on Russian Hill. The houses were more than ever threatened, and though Osgood dropped down to rest he got up again to assist in their protection.

The dynamiters just below the crest had put a charge into a burning building. This now exploded with an ear-rending report, breaking the windows of the Stones' house and sending showers of flaming fragments to scatter themselves over the roofs. Friends of the neighborhood had collected, and there was lightning-like work to be done. Again and again the shingles caught and must be instantly put out, and women as well as men helped in carrying water.

Once when Osgood rose and found all safe at that moment in front, he passed round to the rear of the Marshall houses and there discovered the largest blaze of all! Accounts of the dwellers on the hill reckon the number of fires put out at this time from fifteen to twenty-seven.

Toward noon the danger to the hill began to lessen. The buildings nearest it were gradually destroyed and at length everything on three sides of it lay in ashes. Below on Green Street the efforts of the fighters had been successful, the conflagration was controlled, and the whole district was now cleared of fire.

The progress of this fight had been closely followed at the Sand Camp, for the whole region was plainly in view from that point. Those who could not endure to watch the fight, which brought to them such racking alternations of hope and fear, sat with their backs turned to the hills. Those who were too restless to exert such self-control kept hurrying to the best point of view and then returning. Hour after hour went by, and at last the march of the conflagration toward Ned's house became slower, it hesitated and broke, the flames sank slowly down, they disappeared altogether, and at last even the smoke ceased to rise. The whole slope of the hill was now free of fire. An inexpressible load of dread and misery was lifted from us, the danger was past, Ned's home was safe.

Eleanor had been at the camp, quiet and contained, through it all, and just at this time her brother-in-law arrived from Berkeley, by the steamer which was landing passengers at Black Point. He came to take her and the two children home with him, and it was a great relief to feel that they would be in safety whatever might happen later.

Mr. Moses took little Windsor in his arms and they walked through the sand toward the ferry. The boat was not quite ready to leave and many people were collected, hoping to get away at this crossing. When the time for starting arrived, the crowd began to close in and the people to press upon one another in their efforts to get to the gang plank. The order was given - "Let the women and babies go first!"

At this an angry outcry arose. Men shouted, "Oh, the women and babies - the women and babies! We are tired of hearing this kind of thing!" and a woman elbowed her way forward threateningly and vociferated that she had been waiting for two hours and did not propose to be put off now.

This brutality was not displayed by people of rough exterior but by well dressed men and women.

An opening was forced in the crowd, and through it those who had little children passed first onto the steamer.
Source: Selections from Hooker Family Papers

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