• East view from Crissy Field overlook with old Coast Guard station on left and city on right

    Presidio of San Francisco

    California

1906 Earthquake: Fire Fighting

The greatest damage of the 1906 earthquake occurred when many of San Francisco's water and gas mains were ruptured. Leaking gas was the catalyst for fires that quickly spread throughout the city and the lack of water made fire fighting a challenge. Approximately one hour after the earthquake, the San Francisco Fire Department sent a messenger to the Presidio to request an artillery division to assist with the containment of fires. Several hours later, artillery troops from Fort Miley arrived in San Francisco and unsuccessfully attempted to control the fires by dynamiting strategic buildings. By noon, the financial district was engulfed in flames and when evening fell the city center had also been incinerated.
 
Downtown San Francisco in flames, 1906
Soldiers control the streets while the Call Building in downtown San Francisco burns.
Bob Bowen Collection
 

Captain Le Vert Coleman of the Presidio Artillery Corps reported, "During the first day of the fire, and until the evening of the second day, the city authorities withheld their permission to blow up buildings except those in immediate contact with those already ablaze."

Such caution hampered Coleman's progress until Wednesday night, when General Funston met with the Citizen's Committee—the Mayor's appointed relief and recovery organization. With a situation map at hand, Funston outlined his plan to stop the fires through the use of dynamite. Though the strategy was risky, the Committee had few other options and eventually agreed to demolish some buildings in order to save others. Following civilian evacuation of the condemned city blocks, the dangerous task began. Captain Coleman described the complicated and hazardous work of the dynamiting party: "The charges often had to be laid in buildings already on fire; the dynamite had to be carried by hand through showers of sparks; the wires constantly shortened by repeated explosions, could be replaced only by climbing poles in the burning district and cutting down street wires."

By the evening of April 19, the army began preparations to create the firebreak at an east-west division of the city along Van Ness Avenue with its affluent mansions. Funston and his officers, as well as the Mayor and members of the Citizen's Committee, watched in silence as three blocks of expensive houses fell every twenty minutes. The next day, winds blew the fire northward in the direction of Fort Mason, where Army troops hastily pumped bay water to the few fire engines outside the firestorm. Meanwhile, the fire’s southward progression to the Mission District was fought by fire department members and volunteers. Then, on April 21, the fire simply stopped in the center of a block filled with wooden frame houses, ending three days of destruction that had consumed nearly five square miles (over five hundred city blocks) of homes, businesses, and warehouses.

Two days later explosions again echoed in the destroyed city as the weakened remains of structures were felled by military blasts. "The walls, some of them seven stories high, being in a tottering condition, the civilian riggers would not tackle them," reported Captain Coleman.

Coleman was absolute in his assessment of the dynamite demolitions, insisting that "The fire would unquestionably have destroyed the unburnt portion of the city" without them. Not all agreed, however, and the debate over whether dynamiting caused or prevented significant damage continues today.

 
The demolition of the Phelan Building, 1906
The remains of the Phelan Building were dynamited on April 20, 1906.
Bob Bowen Collection
 

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Resources

Cole, Tom. A Short History of San Francisco, (San Francisco: Don't Call It Frisco Press, 1980).

Coleman, Le Vert (Letter from). Captain Artillery Corps to The Adjutant, Presidio of San Francisco 2 May 1906, http://www.sfmusuem.org

Dillion, Richard. "San Francisco's Occupying Army, 1906" San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle 14 April 1985.

Halsey, Jr., Col. Milton B. Point Paper U.S. Army Activities in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, Presidio Ranger files.

Hansen, Gladys and Emmet Condon. Denial of Disaster, (San Francisco: Cameron and Company, 1989).

"Lieutenant Charles C. Pulis Fatally Wounded as Army Fights Raging Fires with Dynamite," Presidial Weekly Clarion, (Presidio of San Francisco) 27 April 1906, 1.

Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan Witts. The San Francisco Earthquake, (New York: Stein and Day, 1971).

Thompson, Erwin N. Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco, A History from 1846 to 1995, (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, National Park Service, 1995).

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