Ordeal By Fire

San Francisco in the early years must be considered, aside from the interest of its picturesqueness and aside from its astonishing growth, as a crucible of character. Men had thrown off all moral responsibility. Gambling, for example, was a respectable amusement. People in every class of life frequented the gambling saloons openly and without thought of apology. Men were leading a hard and vigorous life; the reactions were quick; and diversions were eagerly seized. Decent women were absolutely lacking, and the women of the streets had as usual followed the army of invasion. It was not considered at all out of the ordinary to frequent their company in public, and men walked with them by day to the scandal of nobody. There was neither law nor restraint. Most men were drunk with sudden wealth. The battle was, as ever, to the strong.

There was every inducement to indulge the personal side of life. As a consequence, many formed habits they could not break, spent all of their money on women and drink and gambling, ruined themselves in pocket-book and in health, returned home broken, remained sodden and hopeless tramps, or joined the criminal class. Thousands died of cholera or pneumonia; hundreds committed suicide; but those who came through formed the basis of a race remarkable today for its strength, resourcefulness, and optimism. Characters solid at bottom soon come to the inevitable reaction. They were the forefathers of a race of people which is certainly different from the inhabitants of any other portion of the country.

The first public test came with the earliest of the big fires that, within the short space of eighteen months, six times burned San Francisco to the ground. This fire occurred on December 4, 1849. It was customary in the saloons to give negroes a free drink and tell them not to come again. One did come again to Dennison’s; he was flogged, and knocked over a lamp. Thus there started a conflagration that consumed over a million dollars’ worth of property. The valuable part of the property, it must be confessed, was in the form of goods, is the light canvas and wooden shacks were of little worth. Possibly the fire consumed enough germs and germ-breeding dirt to pay partially for itself. Before the ashes had cooled, the enterprising real estate owners were back reerecting the destroyed structures.

This first fire was soon followed by others, each intrinsically severe. The people were splendid in enterprise and spirit of recovery; but they soon realized that not only must the buildings be made of more substantial material, but also that fire-fighting apparatus must be bought. In June, 1850, four hundred houses were destroyed; in May, 1851, a thousand were burned at a loss of two million and a half; in June, 1851, the town was razed to the water’s edge. In many places the wharves were even disconnected from the shore. Everywhere deep holes were burned in them, and some people fell through at night and were drowned. In this fire a certain firm, Dewitt and Harrison, saved their warehouse by knocking in barrels of vinegar and covering their building with blankets soaked in that liquid. Water was unobtainable. It was reported that they thus used eighty thousand gallons of vinegar, but saved their warehouse.

The loss now had amounted to something like twelve million dollars for the large fires. It became more evident that something must be done. From the exigencies of the situation were developed the volunteer companies, which later became powerful political, as well as fire-fighting, organizations. There were many of these. In the old Volunteer Department there were fourteen engines, three hook-and-ladder companies, and a number of hose companies. Each possessed its own house, which was in the nature of a club-house, well supplied with reading and drinking matter. The members of each company were strongly partisan. They were ordinarily drawn from men of similar tastes and position in life. Gradually they came to stand also for similar political interests, and thus grew to be, like New York’s Tammany Hall, instruments of the politically ambitious.

On an alarm of fire the members at any time of the day and night ceased their occupation or leaped from their beds to run to the engine-house. Thence the hand-engines were dragged through the streets at a terrific rate of speed by hundreds of yelling men at the end of the ropes. The first engine at a fire obtained the place of honor; therefore every alarm was the signal for a breakneck race. Arrived at the scene of fire, the water-box of one engine was connected by hose with the reservoir of the next, and so water was relayed from engine to engine until it was thrown on the flames. The motive power of the pump was supplied by the crew of each engine. The men on either side manipulated the pump by jerking the hand-rails up and down. Putting out the fire soon became a secondary matter. The main object of each company was to “wash” its rival; that is, to pump water into the water box of the engine ahead faster than the latter could pump it out, thus overflowing and eternally disgracing its crew. The foremen walked back and forth between the rails, as if on quarter-decks, exhorting their men. Relays in uniform stood ready on either side to take the place of those who were exhausted. As the race became closer, the foremen would get more excited, begging their crews to increase the speed of the stroke, beating their speaking trumpets into shapeless and battered relics.

In the meantime the hook-and-ladder companies were plying their glorious and destructive trade. A couple of firemen would mount a ladder to the eaves of the house to be attacked, taking with them a heavy hook at the end of a long pole or rope. With their axes they cut a small hole in the eaves, hooked on this apparatus, and descended. At once as many firemen and volunteers as could get hold of the pole and the rope began to pull. The timbers would crack, break; the whole side of the house would come out with a grand satisfying smash. In this way the fire within was laid open to the attack of the hose-men. This sort of work naturally did little toward saving the building immediately affected, but it was intended to confine or check the fire within the area already burning. The occasion was a grand jubilation for every boy in the town–which means every male of any age. The roar of the flames, the hissing of the steam, the crash of the timber, the shrieks of the foremen, the yells of applause or of sarcastic comment from the crowd, and the thud of the numerous pumps made a glorious row. Everybody, except the owners of the buildings, was hugely delighted, and when the fire was all over it was customary for the unfortunate owner further to increase the amount of his loss by dealing out liquid refreshments to everybody concerned. On parade days each company turned out with its machine brought to a high state of polish by varnish, and with the members resplendent in uniform, carrying pole-axes and banners. If the rivalries at the fire could only be ended in a general free fight, everybody was the better satisfied.

Thus by the end of the first period of its growth three necessities had compelled the careless new city to take thought of itself and of public convenience. The mud had forced the cleaning and afterwards the planking of the principal roads; the Hounds had compelled the adoption of at least a semblance of government; and the repeated fires had made necessary the semiofficial organization of the fire department.

By the end of 1850 we find that a considerable amount of actual progress has been made. This came not in the least from any sense of civic pride but from the pressure of stern necessity. The new city now had eleven wharves, for example, up to seventeen hundred feet in length. It had done no little grading of its sand-hills. The quagmire of its streets had been filled and in some places planked. Sewers had been installed. Flimsy buildings were being replaced by substantial structures, for which the stones in some instances were imported from China.

Yet it must be repeated that at this time little or no progress sprang from civic pride. Each man was for himself. But, unlike the native Californian, he possessed wants and desires which had to be satisfied, and to that end he was forced, at least in essentials, to accept responsibility and to combine with his neighbors.

The machinery of this early civic life was very crude. Even the fire department, which was by far the most efficient, was, as has been indicated, more occupied with politics, rivalry, and fun, than with its proper function. The plank roads were good as long as they remained unworn, but they soon showed many holes, large and small, jagged, splintered, ugly holes going down into the depths of the mud. Many of these had been mended by private philanthropists; many more had been labeled with facetious signboards. There were rough sketches of accidents taken from life, and various legends such as “Head of Navigation,” “No bottom,” “Horse and dray lost here,” “Take sounding,” “Storage room, inquire below,” “Good fishing for teal,” and the like. As for the government, the less said about that the better. Responsibility was still in embryo; but politics and the law, as an irritant, were highly esteemed. The elections of the times were a farce and a holiday; nobody knew whom he was voting for nor what he was shouting for, but he voted as often and shouted as loud as he could. Every American citizen was entitled to a vote, and every one, no matter from what part of the world he came, claimed to be an American citizen and defied any one to prove the contrary. Proof consisted of club, sling-shot, bowie, and pistol. A grand free fight was a refreshment to the soul. After “a pleasant time by all was had,” the populace settled down and forgot all about the officers whom it had elected. The latter went their own sweet way, unless admonished by spasmodic mass-meetings that some particularly unscrupulous raid on the treasury was noted and resented. Most of the revenue was made by the sale of city lots. Scrip was issued in payment of debt. This bore interest sometimes at the rate of six or eight per cent a month.

In the meantime, the rest of the crowd went about its own affairs. Then, as now, the American citizen is willing to pay a very high price in dishonesty to be left free for his own pressing affairs. That does not mean that he is himself either dishonest or indifferent. When the price suddenly becomes too high, either because of the increase in dishonesty or the decrease in value of his own time, he suddenly refuses to pay. This happened not infrequently in the early days of California.

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