― 29 ―
The Third Day
BY FRIDAY morning the outlook for the section beyond Van Ness and Dolores Avenues was more encouraging. The storm center had now moved toward North Beach. The strong west wind swept the fire back over the unburned district between Van Ness Avenue and the Bay, and vast torrents of flame poured down toward Russian and Telegraph Hills and around them in the direction of the water-front. Thousands of refugees thronged the hills, and, as the fire came sweeping closer, they were in imminent danger of destruction. A fleet of tugs and steamers hastened to their rescue, and they embarked at Meiggs Wharf for points across the Bay.
The little colony on the summit of Russian Hill made a valiant stand in defense of their homes, again and again beating out the fires with wet sacks. The steep rocky slopes rendered their position somewhat isolated, but Mr. Eli T. Sheppard's residence on the hillside was more directly in the path of the flames. Mr. Sheppard, a veteran of the Civil War and an ex-official in the Oriental service, thinking first of his invalid wife, had left his home the day previous, and escaped to Berkeley. But an old war comrade, Mr. E. A. Dakin, who occupied an annex of the historic old Sheppard home, stayed upon the hill until all hope was gone. Then as the flames came charging upon the house, he hoisted a large American flag to the flagpole and dipped it three times in a parting salute. Some soldiers stationed below, seeing the signal and supposing the house to be a military
― 30 ―station, rushed with a cheer up the hill to its defense. Finding the bath-tub full of water, they got sand, soaked it and pelted out the fire. Siphon-bottles of soda-water were also used to extinguish sparks that lodged under the shingles and by such slight and accidental means was this little home and the dwellings above it saved from the tide of destruction that surged back and forth over the city.
The flames came sweeping up to the residence of Ina Coolbrith just below, and the poetess whom we all love and honor walked toward the sea, leaving her home to burn with all its treasures. Some members of the Bohemian Club succeeded, by dint of plucky fighting, in saving Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson's home, which now stands amid the surrounding desolation as testimony of their prowess.
The fishermen's huts and other picturesque shanties huddled on Telegraph Hill were saved by the use of blankets soaked in wine. Water having failed, wine casks were rolled out of cellars and sufficed to put out the fires as house after house ignited.
While these scattered groups of men were fighting for their homes, the main wave of fire again rushed threateningly right in the teeth of a stiff west wind, up to Van Ness Avenue, sweeping all to the north of the area burned a day earlier. Again the Western Addition, and for that matter all that remained of the city, was in jeopardy. Houses across the avenue began to smoke and blister. I joined the fire-brigade here, as did a number of citizens who realized that the last stand was to be made. The firemen carried their hose right up to the curb, with fiery walls tottering above them. Some of the men had been without sleep since the earthquake and worked until they
― 31 ―fell from exhaustion. One fireman was taken to the hospital in the morning with hands badly burned. He insisted on returning to his post as soon as they were treated, but ere night was back again with his feet mashed from falling timbers.
We amateur firemen carried the hose and brought wet cloths to hold before the men on the firing line, where they stood doggedly in the blistering heat playing the water upon the roaring walls. Then there was a rush with buckets and wet blankets for smoking roofs and cornices opposite. When the block was finally saved, a great cheer went up from the onlooking crowd, the only one I heard during all those terrible days.
It had scarce died away when we noticed the fire had jumped the cross-street a block east, and was crouching there, gnawing savagely away at the frame dwellings. Dynamite was hurriedly placed in the houses fronting on Van Ness. It seemed just in time to blow up a path along the Avenue ahead of the flames; but instead, a party of officers in an automobile made a spectacular run up the hill to the east, right amidst the burning houses, and there left a charge of dynamite which exploded soon after with a deafening crash, scattering the fire it was meant to check. Why did they not blast the houses on Van Ness and save the Western Addition beyond peradventure? Word was passed around that the corner house belonged to an army officer who was determined that his house should not be dynamited. A half-hour went by while firemen and officers conferred in the streets. Then the order was given to carry the hose up that hill into the midst of the burning block. The stream of water might
― 32 ―have been from a child's squirt-gun so far as any effect it had on the fire was concerned. Presently word was shouted to drop the hose and run. In a trice the dynamite was set off, and a cloud of brown smoke rose from the site of that corner home. The westward sweep of the fire was stayed, and what remained of the residence district was soon out of danger.
Late that afternoon I went along the water-front in a launch, and looked upon the burning city. Despite all efforts to arrest the flames, they had invaded the docks and lumber-yards about Meiggs Wharf. The open roadstead was crowded with ships, men-of-war, and steamers, painted with the ruddy glow that never should be on land or ocean. Awe-spelled throngs stood upon their decks, gazing at the thrilling spectacle. Fire-tugs were pumping water upon the flames that waved and lashed before the brisk wind. Dynamiters were sending off their thundering blasts. But look, another path of fire has swept down from the hills to the docks! Nothing can save the Ferry Building and the wharves, we all agreed. But something did save them—the indomitable pluck and courage of those men on the tugs, the deluge of streams of sea water, the heavy blasts of dynamite.
The ruby sun dipped into its pall of smoke. The Golden Gate, with fleets of anchored ships in the offing, was veritably a sea of molten gold. Never before was the ruin of a city consummated in a scene of such thrilling splendor.