Today, the California Diamond Jubilee Silver Half Dollar Coin tells the story of the second great fire in San Francisco, yet the people did not despair.
Nor did they despair through the several great fires during the Forty-niner era years of 1849-1851:
1st: December 24, 1849 — loss more than $1,000,000 2nd: May 4, 1850 —loss $4,000,000 3rd: June 14, 1850 —loss $5,000,000 4th: September 17, 1850 —loss $500,000 (large area, but cheap buildings) 5th: May 4, 1851 —loss $10 to $12 million 6th: June 22, 1851—loss $3,000,000
Another large fire occurred in December 1850 with a loss of $1,000,000 but was not considered a “great” fire.
The Sacramento Transcript in May 1850 described San Francisco’s Second Great Fire of 165 years ago:
At four o’clock on Saturday morning, the inhabitants of San Francisco, were startled from their sleep by the awful cry of fire. The flames burst out from the building on Kearny street, fronting on the plaza, and known as the “United States.” In an instant, the fire spread to the magnificent gambling establishment known as the “Empire.” Gathering strength from this, it spread rapidly along that entire line of buildings fronting upon the plaza from the El Dorado at the north, to the Delmonico at the south.
Thence catching rapidly from house to house, although but little air was stirring at the time, the flames swept in their devastating course the entire block bounded by the Plaza and Montgomery street and Clay and Washington streets, with the exception of the new brick Banking House of Burgoyne & Co., on the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets, and the Banking House of Dunbar & Gibbs, on the south side of Washington.
For a long- time, it appeared almost impossible to save the houses on the south side of Clay street, opposite the conflagration; but, by desperate efforts this was done, and that entire block was saved.
On Washington street, the citizens were not so successful as those on Clay. When the flames, as they were spreading through the block bounded by the plaza and Montgomery, Clay and Washington streets, had reached the El Dorado, on the corner of Washington and Kearny streets, so intense was the heat, that “The Veranda,” which stood on Washington street, immediately opposite the El Dorado, caught in spite of all efforts, and the flames passed simultaneously on both sides of Washington street, down to Montgomery.
When the Veranda and El Dorado were both in flames, it became impossible to save the magnificent three story building on the north-west corner of Washington and Kearny, known as Wright’s Exchange. This was soon thoroughly on fire, and while the conflagration was spreading down both sides of Washington towards Montgomery, it spread also up Washington from Wright’s Exchange towards Dupont, taking in its course the office of our cotemporaries of the Alta California.
At the same time that the fire was coursing along Washington street, commencing at the corners of Kearny and running in both directions, — towards Montgomery on the East and Dupont on the West, — it spread with rapidity from those corners towards the North along both sides of Kearny to Jackson street.
With these lines of fire burning simultaneously, the conflagration gained such power, that it did not spend itself, until, in addition to the block we have already described as having been consumed, the two entire blocks of buildings lying between Washington and Jackson streets and Dupont and Montgomery, were, with the exception of five houses, laid flat to the ground.
Thus, in general terms, the burnt district may be described as being bounded at the south by Clay street, at the north by Jackson, at the east by Montgomery, and at the west by Dupont street.
The only houses saved within these limits were the following: Two brick Banking Houses, on the south side of Washington street, viz: Dunbar & Gibb’s, and Burgoyne’s at the corner of Montgomery, also Naglee’s Vault; — Cronise & Co’s. store, at the corner of Jackson and Montgomery; — the “Howard House,” on Montgomery, next to Cronise & Co’s., and three houses on the south side of Jackson street, owners not known. — The line of buildings fronting on the Plaza, from the old Custom House to the old Court House, inclusive, were saved.
With the utmost exertion, the buildings on the east side of Montgomery and on the north side of Jackson streets, opposite the conflagration, were also saved, although the fire crossed these two streets several times. The houses standing on the west side of Dupont, were torn down, while those on the east were on fire, and thus the progress of the flames was stayed in that direction. When the fire had reached Jackson street on Kearny, Col. Jack Hays took the direction of the matter at that point into his own hands, and by consummate coolness and courage, kept the fire from advancing farther to the north on Kearny. Capt. Denison is also mentioned as evincing great skill and coolness in his efforts during the fire.
From the Journal of Commerce we clip the following :
We learn that our new mayor, John W. Geary, was early upon the spot, using his best energies to stay the destruction, and while ordering the destruction of some buildings
for the purpose of checking the flames, the owner of one fired a pistol upon him, but we are happy to state, without inflicting any injury – citizens rushed in, and the mayor rushed ahead to perfect the work he had began. His judicious efforts, at the corner of Dupont and Jackson Streets, stopped the flames from communicating to the Military Hall. Had the latter caught, another, and perhaps two more entire blocks would have been swept away.
The men who had the city engine in their charge deserve the warmest thanks of the community. They worked like Trojans to check disaster, but the number of the department was too small to cope with so extensive a conflagration. They, however, aided in keeping the fire within the bounds marked above.
Mr. Scheper, of the house of Scheper and Van Bergen, on Jackson street, where the flames were checked to the north, informed us that only the evening previous he had dammed up a ditch in front of his building, and at the time, his neighbor, whose house was destroyed, remarked that it would be a fortunate movement if a fire should occur. It proved so; for the water from this ditch checked the flames on that street, and saved all the buildings from their store down to Montgomery street.
An iron building on Washington street was destroyed almost as rapidly as the wooden buildings by which it was surrounded.
From the Pacific News of Saturday, we learn that the remains of one man and two children have already been discovered among the ruins.
It is truly remarked, that the fairest portion of the city is in ashes, and many of the heaviest merchants of the place are without goods or roofs to shelter them.
Inasmuch as it is believed that the fire was the work of incendiaries, the Mayor elect has issued a notice, offering a reward of $5,000 for their apprehension and conviction.
Mr. C. H. Miller, for whose politeness sending us the Journal of Commerce, we are under great obligations, writes us as follows: “I learned just as the boat was leaving, that two persons had been arrested, one of whom had confessed his guilt.”
A correspondent writes us as follows :
“What is most singular is to notice the coolness and indifference manifested by all, even the heaviest losers, at a moment when a city is in flames, and it is uncertain whether the consuming element will leave them a home, or a dollar to buy the next meal. A disinterested observer must have inferred, from the cool indifference apparent in many this morning, that it was a mere trifle for us to burn a city, and quite as much of a trifle to build one.
“So we go. A man retires tonight, poor and embarrassed — tomorrow, by some fortuitous change of the business tide, rises rich. Many in this city retired last night who were worth thousands, and arose this morning — beggars! But it is borne in mind that they are in California, where fortunes are easily made and lost, and no one is left without hope of readily recuperating, hence none despair.”
The California Diamond Jubilee Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against views of San Francisco from 1850 at the top and 1853 at the bottom.