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Great Fires: 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

The Last Fire
San Francisco Fire Department
1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

The last act of the Green Street fire-fighters had been to help save a little nest of houses on Green near Jones. Here the property owners were present, eager to save their homes and grateful for aid. The stout daughters of the family at the corner carried buckets ably as the men, and when by the united efforts of all the workers the little line of dwellings survived, a very cordial sympathy and pleasure was felt by those who had assisted in its rescue.

The labor of the day was now considered ended, but it was thought prudent that Mr. Forbes should lead the volunteers down the hill again to make sure that all remained safe below, while Ned and Mr. Bouton went to re-charge the fire-extinguishers.

During the morning an amusing incident had taken place. The Federal Dynamiters, able, experienced people, and a striking contrast to Schmitz' municipal gang of coarse, inferior looking men, noticed that Mr. Forbes was intelligently directing a group of volunteers. An officer encouraged him to proceed with the plan of defence he had adopted, only on a still larger scale. Forbes doubting whether he could enforce obedience, the officer took off his sword and gave it to him. Forbes, all through these days, wore his camp costume - of khaki with leather leggings, and it happened that this dress somewhat resembled the uniform of a second lieutenant. With the sword, therefore, the effect was complete and he suddenly found himself in command of both soldiers and dynamiters, who saluted wherever he turned.

When Forbes and his volunteers arrived at the foot of the hill the situation had entirely changed. Two fatal things had taken place on Van Ness Avenue. First, a great fire had been kindled at the corner of Filbert, the explanation afterward being given that it was done with some insane notion of "back-firing," and second, against all remonstrance dynamite had been used to blow up the Viavi Block at Vallejo and Van Ness, a building full of inflammable chemicals, which scattered the fire in every direction.

The morning had again been almost windless, but now a south-west wind came up, which almost immediately rose to something very like a cyclone in violence. The fire, catching in scores of places, leaped Green Street. Forbes and Ned recognized in a moment that the situation was desperate. They turned to see whether there was any possibility of saving Union Street, but there was no hope in that quarter. Owners stood helpless and despairing, volunteers were dismayed, and not a man would attempt to stand against the wind and heat together - as Osgood said, "Hell raged!"

Ned hurried to the fire chief to beg him to spare one of the two streams of water then running, for the north side of Union, but he angrily refused, saying Van Ness was now his line. The unchecked fire roared up the hill, leaping from building to building, and reached Larkin Street. Ned's home went up in the conflagration.

This last terrible fire too we saw from camp as it started. Until the wind rose it appeared stationary, burning up from among a group of trees. We looked at it rather anxiously, but as it did not move, trusted that it was a detached house being consumed. With the abrupt commencement of that furious wind it began to spread before our eyes. Katharine and Marian ran from camp up Octavia Street, hoping against hope that it was not in line with Ned's block. As they crossed street after street the miserable fear became a certainty. It was precisely there, and sweeping up the hill. The streets were now guarded and they could get no nearer than Franklin, so, being stopped at this point, they stood gazing. The fire tore along by leaps and bounds. Masses of flame detached themselves from one burning building and hurtled across a street to fasten on another. Whole blocks seemed to catch fire in a dozen places at once.

Near Ned's was a tall building that had been abandoned. The windows stood gaping open and long white curtains streamed out of them in horizontal lines sucking toward the advance of the fire. Thus the people left their dwellings with every condition inviting destruction.

When the flames reached this building and they knew Ned's house was doomed they turned miserably and crept away. All the toil of the forenoon had gone for naught, all the struggle was in vain. As they retraced their steps, the half acre of flat wooden cover which protected the reservoir on Hyde Street hill caught and it looked as though, last of all, the very water had taken fire and was smoking upward to the sky.

They rejoined the others at camp and this was the first time that all broke down and wept and wailed together. Dear old Ned walked in later with a patient smile, the only brave one at that moment, and as they hung about him tried to comfort them.

After the destruction of his house Ned had still fought on as long as there was the faintest chance of saving the homes of others. It was hoping against hope, but at Greenwich Street, where the dwelling houses began to be more scattered, there seemed a possibility that something might be done. Ned thought if a certain building could be dynamited the flames might be prevented from sweeping beyond, and ran back to Van Ness Avenue. Here he found Schmitz standing in a group of men. He told him of the situation at Greenwich Street and asked him to order a certain building dynamited. Schmitz shouted, "We'll dynamite those buildings we think best to dynamite and we won't dynamite any others." At this a policeman who stood by gave Ned a rude push. Ned said nothing, but taking a memorandum book from his pocket put down the number of the policeman. Schmitz, noticing this, vociferated again, "Take off that man's star. He isn't fit to wear one." Another policeman then detached the star, gave Ned a second insolent push, and he walked away.

The fury of this last conflagration, fanned by the blasts of such a wind, made Osgood anxious for those on Russian Hill. It seemed as though the little colony there might be smothered by smoke even though the fire itself did not reach them. He made his way toward the summit as rapidly as was possible, but could only gain it by making a wide detour and struggling up the steep northern pitch of the hill. Thus he succeeded in getting to the houses from the rear. He found them free of fire but buffeted by howling blasts of wind, while clouds of dust and ashes whirled about them and cinders poured upon them in showers. All the houses upon the hill would probably have gone then had it not been that the wind had so far veered to the north that the flames were not driven directly toward them.

As well as they could for the blinding smoke they watched the last act of the drama from this spot. The fire tore over Hyde Street ridge, swept down the hills, crossed the plain below, and met the conflagration on Telegraph Hill - the whole progress one wild swirling rush. All the valley north of Russian Hill was now on fire at once, and it burned all night till everything inflammable was consumed.

Late in the afternoon Osgood made his way west-ward down to the camp. He walked as though through a furnace, the smoldering ruins on either hand still scorching and fiery, and the glowing pavements under his feet radiating an almost intolerable heat. He moved slowly and with caution, ready to retreat if the danger of asphyxiation became imminent. All that lay about him had looked safe and secure but two or three hours before.

About the same hour Ned was returning to Russian Hill. Minnie met him at the door and said afterward that his exhaustion was so great his voice was barely audible and his feet dragged as they walked. She added that, heavy as his eyes were, she made him mount the stairs to her upper windows which overlooked the stupendous scene below - the mighty basin of smoke and flame upon whose rim they hung. She could not bear to let him forego the memory of that overwhelming sight.

The same evening about ten Katharine and Marian walked from camp toward the hill. They climbed the almost perpendicular blocks on Green Street and came out upon Hyde, lying like a terrace just over the top of the ridge. From here the spectacle lay below them, heightened in wonder at that hour of the night. High up against the sky on the right hand rose the dark outline of the three little peaked roofs of the Marshall houses. In front of these the hill dropped steeply down toward the valley and North Beach, and dotted everywhere over this precipitous pitch sinister fiery eyes were winking - embers, coal deposits, radiation from heated pipes - it was impossible to guess what, but the pulsating of these lights was like that of the stars overhead. Below, a seething leaping mass of fire filled the plain. The flames rose and fell, licking this way and that. They writhed and curled and flung out long arms that twisted and interlocked with others, and then all melted together to sink down and mount again interminably. The subdued roar of it reached the ears and the awfulness of its meaning sank into the soul - it would go on forever so - the inferno lay there pictured to the sight.

And where was the multitude that should be there to look on at a spectacle so marvelous? Everywhere now as before was solitude, but for a group of three or four soldiers standing at a corner silhouetted against the glare.

Perhaps it was merciful that when Ned walked into camp at the close of Friday afternoon the climax of distress and bewilderment came upon us, not leaving time to mourn too long.

Word had been sent to our camp shortly before that none of the sick or helpless must longer be left on the field. Father must be carried to the hospital and Mrs. Boyle was preparing for the move. And now the military again dashed onto the sand close to our camp and the officer in charge shouted at the top of his lungs - "Leave this field! Get out of the place, every damned one of you!"

Almost the same moment the steward of the hospital appeared with his aides. The officer had sprung from his motor car and now demanded to know what was going on in our camp. "He must be taken to the hospital at once. Send for an ambulance, send for an ambulance!" he cried excitedly. "There is a wagon close by which we can have," said the steward quietly. "All right. Where is it? Get it. Hullo there! Whip up those Chinamen over in that camp. Have them up here to lift this man." "They will come, they are perfectly willing," said the steward again, "there is no violence needed." And the Chinese came without hanging back.

Father's mattress was raised by four of them and placed, gently enough, in the wagon, which had driven up. The dear man said not a word, but lay without moving, just as he was placed. Mrs. Boyle was helped up next, and the few things most necessary put in. The wagon moved through the heavy sand for a few feet and then stopped. Another mattress was borne up and lifted to the floor of the wagon beside father. A woman lay upon it, whose baby had been born the night before. Suddenly she lifted her head and cried out, "Oh! my baby - my baby." and a tiny flannel bundle was put into her arms as she lay. Two little children stood crying beside the wheel of the wagon. The good steward's eyes were full of tears. "She will be well taken care of. She will come back to you," he said, comforting the poor little creatures. He patted their heads and then turned to walk by the wagon, which moved slowly on again.

When they reached the hospital enclosure at Fort Mason father was first put into a tent with disabled Chinese and Japanese. Bessie, following after the wagon that conveyed them, went to the doctor in charge and begged that father might be moved into another tent. It was done and that tent, too, soon filled up, but with white people this time. The hospital indoors was crowded to overflowing. Besides the sick and dying there were many women driven insane by what they had passed through.

Bunks were built up against the walls in three tiers one above the other. In this huddle of men and women, unsheltered from one another, four babies were born in a few hours, and more were brought in that had been born outside on the ground. Many of these poor mothers died a few days later. In all the dirt and dire need of that night there was almost no water, even for those who begged for it to drink, and conditions became shocking. There were hundreds of able-bodied men in camp, and water only a short distance away, which they could have been ordered to bring in buckets.

Father, unheedful of his surroundings and needing little done for him, Mrs. Boyle went from bed to bed helping some of the sufferers. A fireman died of his burns in a tent near father's. In the morning father was carried to the Vallejo boat and laid on a mattress on the deck, Mrs. Boyle sitting beside him with an umbrella to keep off the sun, for it was hot. The steamer was packed with patients, stretched out side by side, of a sort unclassifiable, the off-scourings of the earth fished up from heaven knows what cellars and gutters.

Opposite lay a half-clothed woman with matted hair, who alternately lay unconscious, and wakened whimpering for opium. She died two days later. A Chinaman dying of old age and disease was close by, a woman with her face swollen from drink a little further on, others pallid and half lifeless, and a sprinkling of poor but decent folk. The day before, people so eaten with disease and covered with vermin had crossed to the Vallejo hospital that the examining physicians prohibited the nurses from touching them.

Leaving the wharf at Fort Mason at 10:30 in the morning, the steamer went round to the Presidio, then returned to Fort Mason, then started for some other point - Mrs. Boyle hardly knew where they wandered, but they did not cross to Vallejo till after dark that night.

Arrived at the Red Cross Hospital they waited half an hour in front of it before they were admitted. It was understood at Vallejo that there were some small-pox cases in this load of unfortunates and there was great unwillingness to receive them. Father would have been sent away to Napa had Mrs. Boyle not held out against it. At last they were let in. It was late, but there was not a moment's sleep for Mrs. Boyle again this night. The institution was full of young girls, many of them not over sixteen, amateur nurses, who spent much of their time noisily flirting and running through the halls with a number of young sailors.

In the morning Mrs. Boyle fortunately met a trained nurse from San Francisco, with whom she was acquainted and who took her to the house of her sister, who she said would be willing to give father shelter. It proved so, and he was moved there that day and remained until May seventh, when he was brought down to Alondra.

Very soon after father and Mrs. Boyle had started for Vallejo, Katharine arrived at the hospital from camp to see if they had gotten off safely, but for a long time could get no news of them. There was no record of their having been sent to Vallejo. Mrs. Boyle had given in their names three times during the hours she was there, and father was sent off with a large placard pinned to his coat, bearing his name and description. At length she obtained leave to search through the tents, identified the one where father had been, and was told by the patients that he had been removed.

Source: Selections from Hooker Family Papers

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