Guardians of The City SFFD Home Page - San Francisco Fire Department Museum
Notable Fires:

Centenary Church
July 4, 1891
Box 176
Gough And Bush Streets
In 1891 a third alarm of fire brings the full force of the Department


1891 July 4

The city was so singularly free from fire alarms yesterday up to the approach of evening that the restriction of the sale of fireworks, the individual watchfulness of property-owners and the precautious of the Fire Department were all reaping a harvest of praise, and the people were lulling themselves into fancied security from danger, when, just at the fall of dusk, alarm followed alarm in such quick succession as to be confusing, if not to the department, at all events to the general public and not infrequently to the police. Up to 8 o'clock p. m. but two alarms were registered for incipient blazes, which were easily extinguished. After that, for a good two hours, the bell kept tapping at a lively rate, and between 8 and 9 o'clock there was such a rush to the signal-boxes that no sooner had one alarm been rung out than a new one followed.

It was just at the close of this fatal hour too that the alarm from Box 176 came in, and the department on a second alarm which followed in a few moments were sent to light the biggest fire that the city has witnessed on Independence day since 1868. On that occasion fourteen houses were laid in ashes by the destroying element, on Drumm street, between Pacific and Jackson. Last evening the flames laid low a church edifice and four handsome residences besides leading to the fatal injury of one and the maiming of several firemen. A gentleman who in twenty years has kept an accurate account of such disasters is authority for the statement that during the past two decades there was never anything like the number of night alarms rung in on a Fourth of July as was rung in last night.


San Francisco was treated to a bonfire last night which was not on the list of Fourth of July events, but which in the matter of expense exceeded any purely pyrotechnic display in the country. The cost is estimated at $100,000. It was the occasion of three alarms, bringing out the full available force of the Fire Department.

            It was shortly before 8 o'clock that Officer Fields, standing on the comer of Central avenue and California street, saw a spark fall on a huge building in the neighborhood of Bush and Octavia streets. In five minutes, he states, the spark grew in size and covered half the roof. He did not hear an alarm for five minutes more, and by that time the whole roof was a mass of flames. Then an alarm was turned in from Box 176, at the corner of Gough and Bush streets.

The building en which the spark fell which so. in enveloped its roof was the Centenary M. E. Church at 1717 Bush street, a large and handsome structure. By the time the Fire Department arrived, which was almost a half hour after the spark was first observed, the church was practically doomed. A second alarm was at once turned in, and finally a third, when it was seen that the entire block was threatened, so fierce were the flames spreading on all sides from the church, which was burning from the ground up to the towers.


Three streams were at once turned on the building, but the fire officials soon directed their attention to saving adjacent property, seeing it was useless to try and prevent the destruction of the church. Fire Commissioner Maurice Schmitt, who lives in the block where the fire occurred, was early on the scene and assisted in directing the firemen to the most available places in the block to save the remainder of the buildings. The block is on the crest of a hill and is crowned with costly structures, chiefly private, dwellings. Those adjacent to the church soon caught the flames and assisted in increasing the danger.

The first to go was the residence, 1717 Bush street, occupied and owned by I. Brandt, a lawyer. Connected with it were two similar three-story dwellings, and they too soon became ignited. These were on the east side of the church, directly in the course of the wind which blew the flames full upon them.

On the west side of the church was a large three-story dwelling, owned by G. D. Samuels, and occupied by Sigmond Wollberg, the stockbroker. He was out at the time with his family, and a servant girl was asleep in the building when the fire started. When this dwelling took fire an entrance was affected and the girl was rescued.


The four buildings and the large church, with its high towers, made an extraordinary large conflagration, which was observable from all parts of the city.

The crowd that gathered was immense, thousands coming from all directions and blocking the streets on all sides for quite a distance. Lines were stretched on all street comers and a large force of police was on hand, but their precautions were insufficient to keep the crowd in check and the throng pressed forward till at times they were even in danger from the falling towers and the shower of sparks that fell for blocks around.

For a time it looked as if the entire block would go, the firemen apparently being unable to check the advance of the fiery tempest, which steadily crept onward, sweeping everything in its course. The residents in the dwellings on Gough street, which seemed to be the next buildings doomed, began to vacate, among them Maurice Schmitt and family. To save these became the chief effort of the Fire Department


Lines of hose were run in over the roofs and large streams were constantly played on those parts where sparks fell and where the heat seemed to be the greatest. The result of this move saved all that portion of the block from destruction. The many streams that were played on the other buildings seemed to avail nothing, the material being light and combustible and going like tinder. The church was the center of the fire, and the flames leaped up above it to a great height On, each side of it were two large towers, which rose above forty feet, and around these pinnacles the fiery element twined in flaming bands, revolving round them with great rapidity. It was a magnificent scene, and the crowd became fascinated with it while they watched the towers totter, waste away and fall before the devouring element.                     Several very narrow escapes were made as they fell into the street rather unexpectedly.


At one time it looked as if the Boys' High School would go, and the efforts of the firemen were concentrated in that direction. Fortunately, there is a large yard which separated the school from the place where stood the church. At the back of this yard there were some large sheds, and these were partially consumed, but by the constant playing of water on the sheds and on the north side of the High School the latter was saved. As it was, the paint was burned off.


The sparks from the burning buildings were carried a considerable distance in the air and looked like the bursting of myriads of rockets. These sparks floated off in an easterly direction, being carried by the wind.

They were regarded as an element of danger, not only by the Fire Department, but by the property-owners in the block below the fire. These could be seen with hose in hand at the top windows of their residences and on the roofs playing the water in great anxiety. On the north side of Bush street, In the same block as the fire, many residents anticipated at one time the destruction of their property, and removed their valuables and furniture to adjacent places of safety.


The sparks falling in great numbers on the dwelling of Mr. Cohen, at 1041 Bush street, set fire to the roof, but as soon as the blaze was discovered it was put out by means of hand nose and buckets of water. The building is situated some distance from the main fire.


The firemen fought the flames hard, and deserve credit for their work. For a long while it looked as if the burning element would prove the victor; but by pursuing the policy of confining the flames to where they had obtained control and preventing their spreading to other localities, the firemen finally triumphed, and by 11 o'clock had the flames under control.             The accidents to several of their number show how valiantly they worked, even at the risk of life and limb, to prevent a large destruction of property. 


The Centenary Church was entirely destroyed, being burned to the ground. So, also, was the parsonage in the rear. The church was moved to its last site about five years ago, but was recently handsomely fitted up. It also had in the basement a meeting chapel, where gospel, missionary and other societies, besides prayer meetings, were held. It contained a piano. The church and parsonage were most comfortably furnished at considerable expense, the pastor being Rev. John Hannon


He was not in the parsonage when the fire broke out, nor could he be found afterward to tell what the parsonage contained. Captain White, however, estimated the damage to the church alone at $45,000. He was unable to estimate the loss on the parsonage in the rear, which was also burnt to the ground. The insurance was thought to be very light.


A house owned by D. Samuels, the lace merchant, at 1719 Bush, and occupied by Joseph Wollberg, of the firm of Zadig, Wollberg & Co., was also totally destroyed, the loss being estimated at $10,000. The three dwellings on the east side of the church were destroyed, but not entirely consumed like the others, a large portion of the third being left standing. They were owned by I. B. L. Brandt, and were occupied as follows: 1713 Bush. I. B. L. Brandt; 1717 Bush, A. Godehaux, insurance agent; 1815 Bush, Charles Leavy, United States Appraiser. Tthe loss on these buildings is placed at $37,000, much of which is covered by insurance.

Several neighboring residents stated that the buildings were ones owned by a capitalist named Schryer, who is now in Europe. So quick was the spread of the flames, that little time was had to save any of the effects of these residences. Only a few valuables and but little light furniture had been removed when the fierceness of the flames compelled the occupants to vacate. As a result the personal effects were all destroyed. The insurance on these is not thought to be much, and the value of the destroyed furniture could not at once be estimated even by the owners.


Considerable damage was also done by gutting to the buildings on the east side of Gough street, occupied by E. B. Blumenthal and G. Greenwald. The other buildings, owned by Simon Bachman of Esberg, Bachman & Co., and Maurice Schmitt, Fire Commissioner, escaped uninjured, save the partial destruction of the gardens by water and the tramping of the firemen with their hose.


The total loss is estimated by Captain White of the Fire Patrol at $100,000. The full insurance could not be learned, but it will fall far short of the total loss. The Centenary Church was repaired last March at considerable expense and was valued at $30,000. If insured the amount is not thought to be large.


About 10:13 o'clock the attention of the large crowd in attendance at the fire was attracted to quite a lively blaze on the roof of a building at 1606 Bush, caused by sparks falling from the church fire. No alarm was turned in and one of the engines present was sent to put out the blaze, which it soon succeeded in doing. The damage done amounted to $800, and is fully covered by insurance. The dwelling is owned by Mrs. Gallagher and occupied by T. Coyle.


No. 1604 Bush street was also slightly damaged on the roof from falling sparks.

At 12 o'clock a large crowd still remained at the scene of the fire, which the firemen had not yet extinguished. Many of these left their homes to see the fireworks provided at the expense of the city, and on their return just as these were over witnessed a different and more expensive display.


The first to respond to the alarm was Truck 5 and its crew, who instantly made preparations to raise their ladders against the houses on the eastern side of the church, so as to command the building in which the fire originated. The great extension ladder was hardly erect before five of the company began to take positions on it so as to pass up the hose. In the lead was William Hunt, an extraman, and one of the bravest in the crew. He was followed by extraman Murphy, known among his fellows as the "Judge," Dave Harris, Robert Jones and another whose name could not be learned.      When the full 65 feet of the extension was straightened out Hunt was on top and the others scattered along its length at equal distances. One movement more and the ladder tipped over to the wall, but before it could gain support from the building one of its middle sections cracked, fell inward and threw the upper sections out upon the sidewalk. Hunt and Murphy struck flat upon the sidewalk, and the other men, thrown off by the shock and the falling debris, landed in a pile on top of them.


The three latter were so slightly hurt that they picked themselves up, and with the assistance of Frank H. Maas and John Schroeder, who witnessed the accident, went to the succor of their less fortunate companions. Hunt and Murphy, both insensible, were at once carried to the residence of John E. Boggles, of the firm of Bodge, Sweeny & Co., 1641 Bush street. The library and parlor were placed at the disposal of the injured, but shortly afterward Murphy, regaining consciousness, was carried home to Post and Fillmore streets by the patrol wagon. He suffered the loss of a finger and received a bad wound over the right eye. Medical aid for Hunt was solicited in the neighborhood, and according to the truckmen, inhumanly refused. Dr. Williams and his assistant were then telegraphed for to the Receiving Hospital. On arriving he made a superficial examination of the man, and announced that he was beyond medical aid, the skull being so badly fractured that brain matter oozed through the left ear. Father Montgomery of St. Mary's Cathedral, who had been called in meanwhile, then came upon the scene and administered absolution and the sacrament of extreme unction— all that could be done under the circumstances, as Hunt never regained consciousness.


Messengers were then sent to the wife, mother and sister and the efforts of the doctors were directed to relieving as much as possible the sufferings of the injured man and removing the traces of his injuries so as not to shock the women folk. The wife arrived first and at first could scarce contain her sorrow, but the assurances of those around her that "Bill is all right," raised a false hope, which sustained her for a while. Then the old mother came tottering in, terror stricken, and many pardonable fibs were told her of her boy's condition, which she, though doubting, was only too willing to believe out of her mother's love. The doctors left the sad scene at 11 o'clock announcing to the men folk that Hunt could not last much longer. At 11:30 he was still breathing irregularly, but his strength was perceptibly falling, while the anxiety and grief of his family were painful to witness.


Hunt was foreman in the printing office of J. K. Brodie & Co. and resided with his wife and two young children on the corner of Ellis and Webster streets. He was 26 years old and had a splendid reputation for steadiness, ability and bravery. His only other relatives are his mother and one sister.

Michael Dougherty, an extraman of No. 8 Hose, had his right middle finger cut by some broken glass and had the injury dressed at the Receiving Hospital.


At 11:30 o'clock still another accident occurred by which John Murray, a fireman belonging to Engine 3, had his leg broken. Murray with others was on the porch of 1719 Bush street, when he slipped and fell to the steps below, falling with his leg doubled under him. He was carried across the street, and the ambulance being sent for conveyed the injured man to his home.


The first alarm during the day was from Box 184, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, for a fire at 27 Rausch street, on the roof of a one-story frame building owned by Michael O'Connor. The blaze was quickly extinguished, with a nominal damage of S3. The cause assigned was the explosion of firecrackers.

A second alarm rung in from Box 386 at 1:30 o'clock was for a quantity of burning hay in a vacant lot on Oak street, near Scott.

An alarm from Box 184 at 8:01 o'clock last night was for a blaze on the roof of Al. O'Connell's dwelling, at 27. Bausch street. Loss, $5; cause, fireworks.

Box 25, at 8:25 o'clock, was for a fire on the roof of W. Basson's two-story frame building at 38 Waverly place. Loss $10; cause, fireworks.

Box 308, at 8:23 o'clock, was needlessly turned in for a fire in some grass on Oak street.

Box 364 at 8:43 was for a small blaze in A. Humphreys' three-story frame dwelling at 2482 Market street. The damage was slight, but Mr. Humphreys' little child was badly burned by Greek fire.

Box 285 at 9:10 o'clock— M. Skillinger's dwelling at 1318 York street; loss, $125; cause, defective stove.

Box 69, at 9:45 o'clock— P. Murphy's dwelling, at 117 1/2 Perry street; loss, $5; cause, fireworks.

Box 65, at 9:47 o'clock, was for a fire in the two-story frame dwelling at 961 Howard street; loss $5,

Box 65, at 9:58 o'clock, was for a small blaze on the roof of 554 1/2 Natoma street; loss $5; cause fireworks.

 Box 147 at 10 o'clock— One-story frame at the southeast comer of Folsom and Twentieth streets; loss $100; cause, supposed incendiary.

Box 129 at 10:05 o'clock— Blaze on the roof of the dwelling of M. Merriman at 1214 Jackson street; loss, $5; cause, fireworks.

Box 164 at 10:30 o'clock. Fire on the roof of Mrs. Raymond's residence, 1009 Larkin street; loss $5; cause, fireworks.

Box 68, at 11:20 o'clock — Fire in the two-story frame building at 11 Bluxmone street, occupied by the Deering Harvester Company; loss $20; cause unknown.

From 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon, when the fires first started, until 2:30 o'clock this morning, sixteen alarms were responded to.

A $5,000 BLAZE.

The wood, coal, nay and grain yard of J. Skootsky at 1615 Eddy street was burned to the ground.

At 11:52 o'clock smoke was seen issuing from the place and an alarm was turned in from Box 311. Thinking that the whole block was in danger of destruction Acting Chief Sullivan caused a second alarm to be sounded. The flames were controlled, however, before they spread from the building. Mr. Skootsky's dwelling above the yard was also burned. The loss amounted to $5000; cause, supposed to be fireworks.
Source: San Francisco Call, Volume 70, Number 35, 5 July 1891 — LICKED UP BY FIERY TONGUES. [ARTICLE]

Firemen injured at San Francisco's Saturday Night Blaze

San Francisco,

1891 July 5

During the fire last night, in which the Centenary M. E. church and four handsome residences were destroyed, six firemen fell from a ladder, one receiving fatal injuries, and the other five being badly bruised: The loss from the fire is now estimated at $100,000.
Source: Los Angeles Herald, Volume 36, Number 78, 6 July 1891 — THE FIRE FIEND'S WORK. [ARTICLE]


1891 July 6

The exact origin of the disastrous fire on Saturday night that destroyed the Centenary M. E. Church and four residences adjoining was discovered yesterday.

A few minutes after 9 o'clock A. Steinberger was sitting In the back window of his residence at 1528 Sutter street, when he saw a ball of fire from a skyrocket descend in the rear of the church. He watched the spark for a few moments, and then was greatly startled by seeing tongues of flame creeping up the rear side of the sacred edifice.

He at once sought a telephone, but there was so much delay in getting an answer that he gave up the effort to notify the Fire Department It is now the opinion of certain officials that had he ran at once to a box and turned in an alarm the church and the adjoining property would have been saved.


There seems to have been an unnecessary delay all around in sounding the alarm. The grocer at the corner of Post and Octavia streets, who had the key of the station there, at first refused to give up the key, and it took several excited persons fully ten minutes to convince him there was a fire in the neighborhood.

Until an early hour yesterday morning a dozen very weary firemen remained at the scene of the fire, and a stream was kept playing on the embers until every spark had been put out and the ruins thoroughly flooded. Crowds of persons went to the scene of the conflagration during the day and viewed the charred remnants of what had been stately structures.

The work of straightening out the losses and adjusting the insurance will begin this morning.


Captain White and Fire Marshal Towe say that The Call's estimate of $100,000 as the total lots is as correct as can yet be determined. The losses caused by the destruction of the residences of I. G. L. Brandt, G. D. Samuels and S. Wallberg, A. Godschaux and. Charles Leavy, are said to be fully covered by insurance. These dwellings were very richly furnished, and many cherished relics can not be replaced.

In this connection it seems that the Centenary Church property was not insured, and the congregation will suffer a loss of about $50,000. It may be impossible for the congregation to rebuild the structure. About a year ago the insurance policy ran out, and. owing to the high rates, the Trustees decided it would be better to wait until after the adoption of a proposed new underwriters' law before reinsuring. So it came to pass that no insurance was carried, and the destruction of the church is a total loss to the congregation.


The firemen who were injured while nobly battling with the flames were all considerably improved yesterday. William Hunt of Truck 5, who suffered most severely from the fall of a ladder, was moved to his home on Eddy street He partially regained consciousness. Dr. Murphy, one of the attending physicians, said that Hunt's skull was not fractured, as was first supposed. He was injured internally and would probably die, but there was still some hope for his recovery.


The disastrous blaze was instrumental in bringing into striking prominence the unselfishness of a mother's love and the bravery of a woman under circumstances of extraordinary pain and peril which have not hitherto been chronicled. Charles Leavy, United States Appraiser, with his wife and children, occupied the house, No. 1715 Bush street, one of the dwellings east of the Centenary Church which went down in the flames. At the very moment that the scorching blast threatened the destruction of the entire block Mrs. Leavy was about to become a mother. The fact that their home was in danger was not discovered by the family until instant flight was necessary. Not a minute was to spare, and in the emergency, as was but natural, the attendant of the sick woman ran to her side to carry her out of the doomed building. The flames which shot skyward at that very moment illumined the whole district and for blocks around the sparks were falling in a golden shower. MOTHERLY DEVOTION.

Amid all the excitement in that house the sufferer showed the noblest conception of duty. "Don't mind me," she said— almost commanded— "save the children." And at her wish the little ones were aroused and taken to a sheltering roof before the mother would consent to her own rescue. Then, her maternal instinct fully satisfied, she as gathered up in the bed-clothes and carried as tenderly as possible after them. A few minutes later the home was beyond salvation, and an hour after, while the flames still flickered around its blackened shell, the babies who had been carried so unceremoniously from their couches were presented with a little sister. The genial appraiser is prouder than ever of his brave little wife, whose praises are now being sung in every household in the neighborhood.
Source: San Francisco Call, Volume 70, Number 36, 6 July 1891 — AFTER THE FIRE. [ARTICLE]


Special to the Record-Union.

San Francisco, July 5.

—The city was so singularly free from fire alarms yesterday up to the approach of evening that the restriction of the sale of fireworks, the individual watchfulness of property owners, and the precautions of the Fire Department "wore all reaping a harvest of praise, and the people were lulling themselves into fancied security from danger, when, just at the fall of dusk, alarm followed alarm in such quick succession as to be confusing, if not to the department, at all events to the general public, and not unfrequently to the police.

Up to 6 o'clock P. M. but two alarms "were registered for incipient blazes, which were easily extinguished. After that for a good two hours the bell kept tapping at a lively rate, and between 8 and 9 o'clock there was such a rush to the signal-boxes that no sooner had one alarm been rung out than a new one followed.

It was just at the close of this fatal hour too that the alarm from box 176 came in, and the department, on a second alarm which followed in a few moments, were sent to light the biggest tire that the city has witnessed on Independence Day since 1868. On that occasion fourteen houses were laid in ashes by the destroying element on Drumm street, between Pacific and Jackson.

Last evening the flames laid low a church edifice and four handsome residences, besides leading to the fatal injury of one and the maiming of several firemen. The fire broke out in the Centenary M. E, Church, on Bush street, between Octavia and Laguna streets, and although the entire Fire ;Department worked on the fire the church was totally destroyed. The fire communicated to the residences on either side of the church and across the street, and almost the entire block was burned.

The church and the dwellings destroyed will foot the loss up to about $150,000. William Hunt, a fireman, fell from a ladder, a distance of fifty feet, and received injuries which will cause his death. Several other firemen were injured, but none seriously.

A gentleman who for twenty years has kept an accurate account of such disasters is authority for the statement that during the past two decades there was never anything like the number of night alarms rung in on a Fourth of July as was rung in last night. From 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon, When the fires first started, until 2&0 o'clock this morning, sixteen alarms were responded to.
Source: Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 81, Number 115, 6 July 1891 — BRISK DAY FOR FIRES. [ARTICLE]


1891 July 8

William Hunt the extraman who was so seriously injured at the Centenary M. E. Church fire on Saturday evening by the creaking of the extension ladder, succumbed to his terrible injuries yesterday. He was a foreman printer in the employ of J. K. Brodie & Co. lie leaves a widow and two young children to mourn his loss. His mother and one sister also survive
Source: San Francisco Call, Volume 70, Number 38, 8 July 1891 — OBITUABY. [ARTICLE]


1891 July 10

President Sabin of the Board of Education has indited the following letter of thanks to Acting Chief Sullivan of. the Fire Department: „

July 8, 1891.

Mr. Dennis T. Sullivan, Acting Chief, Fire Department, San Francisco— My Dear Sir: Officially and personally I desire to express to yon, and the brave ;md hard-work ins men with you, my sincere thanks for your usual good work in saving destruction the Boys High School on the night of the Fourth of July, I fully appreciate the services rendered, more especially at tins time when the School Department is so short of money and not yet recovered from the loss of the Girls' High School. Yours to command,

John I. Sabin,

President Board of Education,
Source: San Francisco Call, Volume 70, Number 40, 10 July 1891 — A WORD OF GRATITUDE. [ARTICLE]

Extracted from original sources with grammar and spelling as published.

Back to the Top

SFFD Home Page Guardians of The City Home Page