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Great Fires: 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

Reports of Fire Officers
San Francisco Fire Department
1906 Great Earthquake & Fire
2nd Assisant Chief Patrick. H. Shaughnessy

(written August 1 and September 13, 1906 when he was Chief Engineer of the Department)

At the fire which destroyed the buildings at the northwest corner of Mission and Twenty-second streets immediately after the earthquake, there was no water to be had east of valencia [sic] Street, but the double hydrants at the northwest corner of Twenty-second and Valencia and the southwest corner of Valencia and 21st St. furnished an abundant supply, which, with the aid of the cistern at 22nd and Shotwell St., extinguised [sic] the fire.

At the fire at the northwest corner of Hayes and Laguna Sts., also immediately after the earthquake, the water in the hydrant at that corner gave out after a few minutes, but a good supply was obtained at the corner of Bauchanan [sic] and Hayes Sts.

At the fire at Golden Gate Ave. and Buchanan Sts., shortly afterwards, the nearest water obtainable was from the two hydrants at Buchanan and Eddy Sts, by means of which the fire was extinguished.

At the fire at Fulton and Octavia a little water was obtained from the hydrant at Fulton and Laguna Sts., which gave out within minutes, but the fire was put out by a stream lead from Buchanan and Hayes Sts., by putting three engines in one line.

The fire which started at Hayes and Gough, several hours after the earthquake, got beyond control by reason of there being no water available within reach, and it swept over the Western Addition east of Octavia and south of Golden Gate Ave.; corssed [sic] over Market St. near Ninth, and burned out into the Mission, until finally stopped at Twentieth St. by the aid of the cistern at 19th and Shotwell Sts. and one hydrant at Church and Twentieth Sts., which had water. This fire was prevented from crossing Golden Gate Ave. by streams lead from Hydrants on Eddy St., where there was water. It was also stopped at Octavia St. by streams from Buchanan St, and it was prevented from crossing Dolores St. by volunteers, by means of buckets of water and sacks.

The break in the 24-inch main on Howard St. at the crossing of 17th, washed out a large hole from which four engines draughted for 16 hours, and thus confined the fire to the west side of Howard St. between Fifteenth and Nineteenth. The well and pump of Mr. Center at Sixteenth and Folsom Sts. were also of material assistance in checking the fire in that neighborhood, while the salt water supply of the United Railroads at Eleventh and Bryant Sts. was instrumental in saving the Fire Department stables and surrounding property.

At the fire on Folsom St. near Sixth a little water was obtained from the hydrant at Sixth and Folsom Sts. by draughting from the main, and when this gave out, water was obtained for some time by draughting from the sewers, which were full of water from the broken mains at Seventh and Howard Sts., but the fire had reached too great proportions to be stopped by one or two streams, and the companies were forced to retire step by step until the fire was checked at Townsend St. by draughting from the channel.

The fire which started at Fifth and Minna Sts. and in the electric light works on Jessie St. near Third, which soon merged into one, were stopped from crossing market St. by means of two small streams from the north side of Market St., where the pressure, ordinarily about 85 pounds, was about ten pounds.

When the fire broke out in the Chinese wash house on Howard St. near Third, Engine Co. 4, whose quarters were across the street, could obtain no water from the hydrant, and was obliged to go to the cistern at Folsom and Second Sts., from where a stream was obtained by doubling up with Engine 10. This cistern was soon exhausted, and Engine 35 soon took the cistern at Folsom and First Sts. and pumped to the other engines, and after this also was exhausted, Engine 35 retired to the cistern at First and Harrison Sts. The fire had reached such proportions, however, that this cistern also, although having a capacity of 100,000 gallons, was drained without checking it, and the companies were forced to go to the foot of Third St., where by draughting from the Bay, the fire was prevented from crossing Townsend St.

At Market and Beale Sts., Engine 1 obtained a little water for a short time, but nothing less than a dozen powerful streams could have stopped the fire that was in progress there. The same may be said of the fire that broke out at the same time at Steuart [sic] and Market Sts., which however, was checked at Howard St. by streams from the fire boats, assisted by two companies from Oakland. Engine 1 also obtained water from the hydrant at Davis and California Sts. and worked single-handed on a fire adjoining that corner for which, under ordinary conditions, a third alarm would have been sent in. In a short time this fire got beyond control and went to Market St. and the company was obliged to retire.

Engine 12 obtained water for some time at the S. E. corner of Clay and Davis Sts., and worked on a fire at Davis and Washington Sts., but could not control it. No water was obtainable from the hydrants west of Davis St., and as the fire crept up toward Sansome St., the available companies took suction from the cisterns at Montgomery and California Sts., Montgomery and Commercial and Pacific and Sansome Sts. When these were exhausted, they retired to the cisterns at Dupont and California and Dupont and Washington Sts. When all these cisterns were exhausted, while the fire was still advancing, these companies went up to Powell St. and obtained water for some time from the hydrants at Powell and California, Powell and Sacramento and Powell and Clay Sts. After a while these hydrants ran dry and the companies were forced to retire. Then the cistern at California and Mason Sts. was made use of in a desperate but unsuccessful effort to save the Hopkins Art Institute.

While this fire was sweeping up the hill other companies were fighting back the Hayes Valley fire, which had swept through the City Hall and was advancing north of Market St. to Golden Gate Ave. Water was obtained from the hydrants on the line of O'Farrell St. from Jones west, and the fire was checked in the vicinity of Eddy St., when the other fire sweeping down from the hill, forced the companies to retreat to Van Ness Ave. A good supply of water was obtained from hydrants at the S. W. corner of Eddy and Van Ness Ave. and at the N. W. corner of Ellis and Van Ness Ave. but from Ellis north to Jackson there were no hydrants on the west side of Van Ness Ave., and the hydrants on Franklin St. were dry. The stream from Ellis and Van Ness Ave. was able to reach as far as Geary St., and from there north to California St., the character of the buildings the fire from crossing, but the building at the N. W. corner of California and Van Ness Ave. caught fire from sparks from the Knickerbocker Hotel across the street, while the companies were still working south of Geary St. It was found that the nearest hydrant from which water could be obtained was at Bush and Laguna Sts., and in order to reach the fire on California St., four engine had to be put in line.    By the time this was done, the fire had crossed Sacramento and California Sts. and was burning up to Franklin St. in three blocks; when it was almost checked there, fire suddenly broke out in Kelly's stable on the south side of Pine St. near Franklin, and on account of the large frame buildings on the west side of Franklin St. there was great danger that the fire would cross that street and get beyond control. By the greatest exertion enough hose was brought up from the lower end of Van Ness Ave. and a stream obtained from the hydrant at Ellis and Van Ness Ave., with three engines in line, thus finally checking the fire at Sutter St. Meanwhile the fire was spreading north unchecked on the east side of Van Ness Ave. until it reached Vallejo St., where Engine 3, securing water from the hydrant at Green and Gough Sts., and pumping to Engine 20, fought the fire back to Polk St., only to lose itswater [sic] at a critical time and be forced to move to Union and Gough.

While this was going on a line was lead from a U. S. Government boat at the foot of Van Ness Ave. up to Green and Van Ness Ave., with two engines in between, but did not prove effective for a while, and the fire caught several houses on the west side of Van Ness Ave. near Green St. just the time when the hydrant at Gough and Green Sts. gave out. When water was obtained at Union and Gough Sts., however, these houses were saved and the danger was over when this hydrant also gave out. After that another stream was lead from the boat and the fire was stopped at Union and Van Ness Ave.

In the meantime the fire was spreading over Russian Hill, and descending on the North Beach district. As there was not a drop of water in any of the mains, the companies were forced to resort to the remaining cisterns in that district, most of which had a capacity of only 20,000 gallons and were rapidly exhausted without materially checking the fire. Cisterns were used at Montgomery and Pacific, Dupont and Pacific, Stockton and Pacific, Stockton and Broadway, Powell and Broadway, Stockton and Vallejo and Dupont and Vallejo. A stream was also lead from a Government boat at Filbert St. pier to Broadway and Powell Sts., but without avail. The fire was then sweeping over Telegraph Hill rendering it impossible to reach the only unused cistern at Dupont and Greenwich Sts., and the companies were forced to retire to the Seawallin [sic] a final effort to stay the conflagration. Streams were lead up to Stockton, Powell and Mason Sts. but the men were steadily driven back, until the fire worked around them to the west, and, driven by a strong west wind which had sprung up, swept down on the Seawall and forced them to beat a hasty retreat to Lombard St., where the fire on the water front was stopped with a stream from a boat, and the Merchants' Cold Storage plant was saved by the same means.   San Francisco, August 1, 1906.

San Francisco's fire department has long been recognized as one of the most efficient in the United States. It deserves the reputation it has borne by reason of the discipline, character of the men who are in the service and the superiority of its apparatus. Handicapped as the department has been by reason of the fact that ninety per cent of the buildings of San Francisco were frame and were constructed on hilly territory, with the winds of the Pacific Ocean sweeping over the city at all hours, it has been able to cope with all conflagrations up to the one of the memorial 18th of April, and would have prevented the tremendous fire that swept over so many acres at that time had it not been hampered by the crippled water supply. The earthquake that preceded the fire was unexpected, and as a result of its violence water piping was twisted and broken. The supply of water that had proven so effective in times past was cut off and the department was forced to use dynamite as a means of stopping the fire.

Our department can not be held responsible for the vast devastation of property occasioned by that conflagration. Our men battled with the flames until exhausted and it is due to their heroic and splendid efforts that so great a portion of our beautiful city was saved from destruction.

The story of the great earthquake and fire has been told and retold and will ever be a subject of discussion, but as I have been appealed to to give my views on the conflagration I will do so from the standpoint of a fireman.

The Tremblor having played havoc with our entire fire alarm system, not an alarm bell rang to warn the department that fires were rageing [sic] all over the city. In truth there was no need of bells that morning.

In the vicinity of every fire house buildings were being consumed by the flames and every effort was made to extinguish the fires. Hydrant after hydrant was tested and not a drop of water was to be found. Our system was paralyzed and we were practically helpless. This did not deter us from our duty. In the western Addition were two large fires within a radius of two blocks. After a long search a hydrant was found emitting water four blocks away from the scene of the conflagration, and then began the task of pumping water a distance of 3000 feet. This was done by stationing an engine at the hydrant which pumped through 800 feet of hose; here another engine forced the water through another 800 feet, and so on until three engines in tandem were busily engaged. Both fires were extinguished by this means.

All the apparatus was then ordered to the southern part of the city to lend assistance, as dense volumnes [sic] of smoke in that direction denoted that the fire had reached great headway and reinforcements were needed to stem the fire. Not a drop of water was to be had from the hydrants and the engines were forced to pump from the sewers. At the water front all the fire boats were busily striving to check the incipient blazes that threatened to destroy valuable shipping and wharfage property.

How the fire spread to all sections of the city is an old story. Fire proof structures were gutted and millions of dollars of property destroyed. And yet, had we possessed an adequate water supply I am positive that our department would have had every fire under control before night.

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.

In regard to the future water supply for fire protection here, my plan would be to build reinforced concrete cisterns, 1,000 to 1,500 feet apart, each with a quantity of 100,000 gallons. These should be distributed in various sections of the city to be used in the event of the usual water system being cut off or disabled from any cause whatsoever. These cisterns necessarily would have to be filled with fresh water, for the reason that our engines are not suitable for pumping salt water unless there is fresh water to feed their boilers.

I am in favor of wide streets, and I earnestly hope that in the rebuilding of our city, the proper authorities will recall the fact that it was the unusual width of several of our streets that aided most materially in checking the spread of the conflagration at several points.

In the construction of future buildings of San Francisco, one of the most important appurtenances thereto to be considered are those of stand pipes. Under ordinary circumstances every building four stories or more in height must be equipped with stand pipes in front. On every floor there must be valves that will permit firemen to connect their hose thus making it unnecessary for them to pull heavy lines of hose up the ladders. My idea is to have stand pipes descend into the ground and be connected with high pressure main in the vicinity of the building. If this is adopted it will be of great service to the fire department.

As to our engines, they cannot be made heavier. We are improving them each year, but also must bear in mind that if the improvement will being [sic] the engine over the sev-ton mark, it is impracticable for use in this city because of the many hills. It is therefore absolutely necessary to construct high pressure pumping stations.

Chemical engines are of great service to any fire department. It has been proved that sixty per cent of the fires are extinguised [sic] by Chemical engines, and I look upon them as valuable auxilliaries [sic].

The discipline of the San Francisco Fire Department could not be improved. The men are atheletic [sic] and intelligent and are trained to their perilous work. The two drill towers that are used by the department have been invaluable to the department. In my opinion the drill tower is the right hand of any fire department. It is there that men are taught how to handle themselves at great heights; How to use the life nets, and the hundred and one other things that a fireman must learn by actual experience to make him a valuable acquisition to the department. The drill tower dispels nervousness and teaches a fireman that confidence is absolutely necessary in his dangerous calling.

I cannot close this paper without paying a just tribute to Dennis T. Sullivan, late Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Fire Department. He was the ideal fireman, he was heart and soul in his work, and it is due to his energy that the department was brought to such a high state of developement [sic]. He was recognized throughout the world as a great fireman, and he deserved the reputation that he bore. His constant thought was the welfare of his men and the improvement of the service. His whole idea was to keep the department ahead of any in the country, and that he succeeded is attested by all. He possessed executive ability in the highest degree. He was a kindly man and a just man. He was beloved by every man in the department, and his loss is erreparable [sic]. He set a high standard, and as Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, I will strive to follow his great example in conducting the affairs of what I earnestly believe to be one of the greatest fire departments in the world.

Respectfully submitted
Chief Engineer, S.F.F.D.
San Francisco September 13, 1906.

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