Sunday, April 20, 2014

San Francisco Earthquake and FIRE 1906


To the Custom-house employees, the Appraiser's office attaches, detachments of troops and marines from the regular army and navy goes the honor of saving the Appraiser's building, the square block of stores and warehouses directly west of it, and Station B of the post office on the north line of Jackson street, above Sansome. The work of these firefighters demonstrated the benefit of even a little water.

The Appraiser's building is equipped with an artesian well, and on the roof, a 5,000 gallon tank hold the water pumped for flushing the toilets and general cleaning purposes. On the morning of the earthquake, when Appraiser John T. Dare reached the building before 8 o'clock, and saw that fire threatened the south or Washington street end of the building, he organized a bucket brigade and ordered that no water be used in any hose.

At each window he stationed one of a depleted force of Custom-house employees and Appraiser's attaches with mops and wet sacks, ordering them to douse any embers that fell on the window sills and to moisten any smouldering window frames. This work was kept up throughout the day, and by nightfall the fighters, completely fatigued by a hard day's toil, were rewarded with an assurance of success by the flames dying down on the low and dynamited Washington street buildings. All night a patrol watched the roof of the building and guarded the water tank with the same care and caution as though it were a bank vault.

Thursday the building was never in danger, and the watchers and fighters had a chance to rest. Early Friday morning, however, the north or Jackson street end of the building was threatened and the same tactic was employed as on the Washington street end, only that the fighting force was increased by the soldiers and marines, who fought like heroes in the face of heat that was almost overpowering.

A guard was detailed to patrol the roofs of the buildings on the square block west of the Appraiser's structure with buckets of water, maps and axes, and were ordered to smother all others and chop away any burning cornices. Their work was complete, and not one of the burning buildings in that location suffered more than a few hundred dollars damage as a result of the fire.

The building which housed Station B of the Post office was saved in precisely the same manner, although surrounded on three sides by the roaring flames and having a large hole rent in its roof by the failing of a heavy wall on it due to the earthquake, the soldiers and marines checked the flames with their wet sacks and mops and saved all the records, mails, stamps and money held in the office.

"The precision and determination with which these firefighters worked is beyond description," said Appraiser John T. Dare, yesterday, in speaking of the saving of this lone district in the heart of the northern burned section. "Never, even in war, did the soldiers and marines face the dangers they encountered in their glorious battle with flames, and never did the patriotic spirit of the few civilians and Government employees rise to such a height as when these soot and smoke grimed warriors, all but exhausted, came back to their superior officers and with the proper salute informed them that the danger had passed and the section was saved.

"If no official recognition is given to these men, their uphill victory will go down in the history of the city as one of the most remarkable and self-sacrificing acts of the calamity."

San Francisco ChronicleMAY 7, 1906

What the Chronicle article didn’t mention is that the excavation site for the new Custom House provided much of the water which saved the appraiser’s building directly behind it.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 occurred on April 18th. But most of the damage was done by three days of fire following the earthquake. The fire was the result of severed gas mains and the corresponding breakage of most of the city’s water mains. (One of the notable exceptions was a fire hydrant at 20th Street and Church Streets. It is credited with saving the Mission District, and is painted gold every year on April 18th. It, in fact, saved the building in which I’ve lived going on thirty-eight years.)

The current Custom House on Battery between Washington and Jackson Streets is the second U.S. Custom House on the site. The first was built in 1855 and stood for almost exactly fifty years. (Coincidentally, there was a major earthquake in 1865, which severely damaged the columned portico, afterwards removed.) There was a competition for the new Custom House, won by a pair of architects from St. Louis, Missouri. Mssrs. Eames and Young had studied at the Ecole Beaux Arts in Paris. The new building is a pastiche Renaissance revival building with certain French influences. Everything of value from the old Custom House was removed and stored in the brick appraiser’s building directly behind, before the old Custom house was intentionally demolished in 1905.

Excavation for the new building began. But 1905/06 –unlike these past several winters – was extraordinarily wet, so that construction on the new building was severely hampered. That turned out to be most fortunate, because when the water mains were severed as a result of the earthquake, the construction site acted as a reservoir. Not only was water used from the artesian well on the roof of the appraiser’s building, but water was pumped from the excavation site, which helped save the appraiser’s building – and everything of value from the old Custom House. Then because the appraiser’s building survived, so did the oldest San Francisco commercial buildings on Jackson Street – today the location of some of the finest antique stores in town.

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