Essie Vaughan woke up because someone was ringing her doorbell and would not stop. She was probably used to occasional late visitors to their home on Humboldt street because her husband Marvin was Justice of the Peace; sometimes couples cannot bear to wait another moment before being married. But this November night was different. Waiting outside were four kids with an urgent message – the towering building across the street was on fire. Santa Rosa High School.

The November 15, 1921 destruction of the high school at Humboldt and Benton street (current location of the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts) was the worst disaster faced by the town since the 1906 earthquake. And the crisis wasn’t limited to the fire itself, although that night it posed a very real danger of burning down the town. The longer crisis was Santa Rosa’s recovery – how to educate hundreds of children without a school building and the unexpected opposition to a new school.

This is part one, which covers just the night of the fire and the following day as Santa Rosa struggled to cope, not unlike the uncertain times the town faces right now in 2017. Part two covers the three difficult years which passed before our current high school could finally open its doors, the construction delayed because of a man determined to see the school was never built at all.

Above all, this is the portrait of a resilient community.

Press Democrat, November 16, 1921


Back to our story: Essie told the children to rush and activate the alarm on the corner. As explained here earlier, Santa Rosa had pull boxes mounted around town which set off a loud bell at the firehouse, which would immediately begin to ring in a kind of morse code that directed the firemen to the vicinity of the fire. But the kids returned and Essie heard no ringing bell; apparently they didn’t understand it was necessary to break the glass AND pull down the lever inside.

“Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm,” the Press Democrat reported. Although about five minutes were lost, the PD speculated the fire was so well established it didn’t make a bit of difference.

The alarm SNAFU was just the beginning. The fireplug in front of the school did not work, so the firemen needed more hose to attach to a distant one; the SRFD’s new pumper truck was out of commission because of an accident the previous day, so they didn’t have adequate water pressure to reach the roof of the school until the old engine was brought from the firehouse.

While all this was going on, boys were breaking into the burning building to rescue school treasures: silver trophy cups, “all but two of the football team’s suits” and hundreds of the cadet corps’ army surplus rifles. There were tales later told of kids feeding the fire by throwing rocks through windows and even a cheerleader dressed in uniform leading hurrahs as particular parts of the building went up in flames, but these stories were almost certainly just stupid teenage braggadocio.

While the firefighters had no luck that night, the town was very, very fortunate. The first hour of the fire was spectacular; flames could be seen in Sebastopol and according to the PD, “at least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire.”

Firebrands and bits of half-burnt paper flew as far as the public library. From the Santa Rosa Republican:

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses. Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

And if all of that wasn’t enough potential disaster for one day, it turned out that the school on Fourth street (the current location of Fremont Park to Brookwood Avenue) was also at risk of burning down that Tuesday. It seems the old school – Santa Rosa’s first – still was heated by small wood stoves in each classroom. One of those old stoves fell apart that morning scattering coals over the floor; fortunately the fire was dead (or nearly so) and no damage was done.

It was well known that those old stoves were dangerous and the school “[was] really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building,” according to the Press Democrat. But all of Santa Rosa’s schools had been in pitiable condition for years.

This problem came up in a 1913 lecture series titled, “What’s the Matter With Santa Rosa?,” which was an interesting mix of gripes, vapid boosterism (Santa Rosans need to get serious about gardening because Luther Burbank) and thoughtful criticism. Two of the speakers called out our schools as firetraps, mirroring a 1904 report in the Santa Rosa Republican that some schools in town did not have electricity or plumbing and no heating beyond those old stoves.

The Humboldt street high school had different problems. It was a fine modern building when it was built in 1895, but soon was packed beyond capacity. “When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure,” the PD observed in 1921. “Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time.” Probation Officer John Plover was quoted in the Santa Rosa Republican: “You will find there two classes stuffed in one corner of the basement in a place never intended for class rooms, where there would be small chance of escape in case of fire or quake.”

While the high school was still burning furiously late on that school night, the Board of Education faced tough decisions about what to do with about 1,000 students. Did I forget to mention that the building was also being used to teach junior college classes?

Decision number one: Classes would be suspended – but for only a single day.

For the time being they decided to jam everyone into the high school annex, built next door in 1913 and then being used as the junior high. In the morning it would be used by high school and junior college pupils, then the junior high would take over for the afternoon. Classes would be held in hallways and two “portable buildings,” which probably were garages. In the months and years that followed, kids would be running all over town to catch classes in lodge halls, church sunday school rooms and public buildings. Chemistry students had to shuttle to Sebastopol.

The cause of the high school fire was never settled (see update). There were explosions heard during the blaze which led some to think something might have happened in the chemistry lab. Mike Daniels, historian for the SRHS Foundation, points out there was a basketball game that evening at the annex gym, and students sneaking a smoke during half-time would have likely gathered on the other side of the school (“far from watchful adult eyes”) and where dry autumn leaves near the building could prove easy tinder. But most at the time thought it was caused by bad wiring; it was known the electrical system was “in very bad shape.” Just the night before, the Board of Education had approved a rewiring of the whole place.

The night of the fire, Board of Education Chairman Hilliard Comstock stated that steps would be taken immediately to prepare for selling bonds to build a new high school.

“It is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California,” the PD promised. And indeed it would be – but it would not be built quickly. Only those who were freshmen in 1921 would step into the new school on Mendocino avenue as students. And much of that delay was because of Sonoma county’s lawsuit-loving crank, Sampson B. Wright.


Art and Poem by Raymond Clar. 1922 Echo

Santa Rosa’s high school building was destroyed by fire last night. The blaze was discovered about 11 o’clock, and was still burning at an early hour this morning.

The loss, figured at original costs, when prices were very low, was estimated at $100,000 by Ben F. Ballard, county superintendent of schools. The total insurance carried amounts to $65,000.

Three theories as to the cause of the blaze have been advanced:

1. Defective electric wiring.

2. Explosion in old chemistry laboratory on second floor.

3. Incendiarism.

In support of the first theory, H. W. Jacobs, local electrician who only Monday night was awarded a contract by the Board of Education to re-wire the building, declared that he knew the wiring to be defective and “in very bad shape.”

Jacobs had inspected the wiring recently, and the Board of Education had recognized that the condition of the wiring was a constant menace to the structure.

The building was of old-style construction, two stories and high basement.


People living near the high school agree that there were several explosions, but some believe the explosions occurred after the building was in flames. Several said that most of the acids and chemicals had been removed in the basement laboratories some time ago. Explosions were expected momentarily from these rooms but up to an early hour this morning none had taken place.

In support of the third theory, incendiarism, several high school pupils who broke into the building to salvage trophies and other valuables, declare that when they entered the structure electric […4 lines of typesetting errors…] main hall were burning. Joe Dearing and Malcom Weeks both say they saw lights burning.

Others who arrived early after the fire was discovered, including A. R. Waters, declare that no lights were burning. Waters went to the fire on the chemical truck and declares positively that no lights were burning in the building. This was corroborated by Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, who lives across the street from the building.


Five high school pupils, Joe Dearing, Malcom Weeks, Ransom Petray, Burgess Titus and Harold Doig broke into the building by thrusting their arms through windows, and succeeded in saving nearly all the school’s silver trophy cups, and all but two of the football team’s suits.

Later others entered the building from the east side and saved most of the 250 or 300 army rifles used by the cadet corps, and some ammunition.

Practically everything else was lost. The school library, consisting of 1000 to 1500 volumes and including many volumes from the city library, was burned. Chemistry and physics equipment valued at $6000 was almost totally destroyed.

All the records of the high school, junior high school and junior college were burned, together with other equipment in the office of Principal Eugene W. Parker.


The fire occurred when the local department was least able to cope with it. Due to the partial wrecking of the city’s new motorized pumping engine in an accident Monday, this very important unit in the fire-fighting apparatus was not available, so that proper water pressure could not be directed upon the building until members of the department could return to the engine house for the old pumping engine.

Even then, shortage of hose and failure of a McDonald system fireplug in front of the burning building put the fire fighters under a severe handicap.

Four streams of water were directed upon the blaze, and these succeeded in holding it down to a large extent, but it was realized from the start that the building could not be saved.


The fire was discovered by two boys and two girls who were walking along Humboldt street shortly before 11 o’clock. They ran to the residence of Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, rang the bell furiously, roused the Vaughans from bed and told them of the fire.

Mrs. Vaughan directed them to the nearest fire alarm box, at Humboldt and Benton, where through ignorance of the mechanism they failed to register the alarm. When they returned to the Vaughan residence, Mrs. Vaughan told them that the alarm could not have been turned in as the bell at the fire station had not rung.

Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm. The delay in getting the alarm through occasioned five minutes of last time to the department, and this may have made a difference in combatting the flames, but it is conceded that even under the most favorable circumstances the building could not have been saved.


No one was injured in fighting the blaze, although several had narrow escapes when parts of the walls collapsed and crashed to the ground.

This was particularly true when the tower of the building toppled over and fell to the lawn in a spectacular shower of sparks. There was a scurrying to cover and all who had been within reach escaped.

The only untoward incident chose as its victim Councilman Fred Oliva, who inadvertently got in front of a high-pressure hose while he was helping drag along another, and was bowled over in a complete somersault. Oliva’s coat was torn virtually off his back, his hat was sent many yards off and his trousers were torn. He suffered no physical injury.

Petray and Dearing had a narrow escape while attempting to save statues of Lincoln and Washington from the study hall, when part of the ceiling collapsed directly in front of them.

The burning girders completely burned the two statues, only a few feet ahead of the boys.


During the height of the conflagration the whole city was illuminated and sparks were carried for several blocks. Many people who were roused by the excitement and the light shining in their windows put their garden hoses in operation as a precautionary measure.

There were no reports, however, of the fire being communicated to other buildings.


It was only six weeks ago that the insurance on the high school building was doubled.

This was at the behest of the new city superintendent, Jerome O. Cross, and members of the board of education who realized that the old insurance policies were not in proportion to the value of the building. The insurance formerly carried amounted to $25,000 on the building and $10,000 on the equipment. This was increased to $50,000 and $15,000 respectively.

A year ago the new board of education brought an electrical expert here from San Francisco to inspect the building, and he urgently recommended new wiring, but owing to the lack of funds the recommendation could not be carried out in full.

At that time, however, some of the wiring was rearranged, and plugs were erected on the exterior of the building so that all electrical connections could be cut off from the outside at the end of each school day.

It is understood that this was taken care of as usual yesterday by the janitor, and if this is true there could have been no lights turned on in the building unless it was done deliberately before the fire was started.


In connection with the accident to Councilman Oliva there is the interesting fact that at last night’s council meeting he interposed an objection to the purchase of more fire hose, as recommended by Fire Chief Duncan.

Duncan had asked the council for 1300 ft. additional hose. Oliva declared that the need for hose was not demonstrated by the chief’s recommendation, but that he as chairman of the fire and water committee would have to see the hose supply personally to know what the needs were.


The blaze was seen for many miles during the first hour it was burning.

At least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire.

Santa Rosa members of the Eastern Star who were attending a meeting in Sebastopol saw the blaze and rushed home in the belief that the whole city was on fire.

The high school building was erected in 1895 and was dedicated by the Rev. William Martin, then First Presbyterian church, who died recently in Hawaii.

State Senator Herbert W. Slater, dean of Santa Rosa’s newspapermen, remembers the dedicatory services, which he “covered” for this paper.


No School Today But Sessions Will Resume Thursday

School will not hold forth today for pupils of the high school, junior high and junior college.

Beginning tomorrow, however, classes will be reorganized in several lodge rooms and perhaps one or two churches.

This was the decision reached last night by City Superintendent Cross, Chairman Hilliard Comstock of the Board of Education, and Mrs. F. B. Hatch, a member of the Board.

It is expected that the American Legion, the Odd Fellows, Masons, Native Sons, Presbyterian church and perhaps several other organizations will be asked to lend their facilities for the accommodation of the classes.

Preparing to Construct New S. R. Hi School

Steps will be taken immediately to prepare for the building of a new high school, it was stated late last night by members of the Board of Education.

It is expected that a bond election will be put up to the people within a very short time.

The new building will be paid for, not by Santa Rosa alone, but by the 26 school districts which under a recent law now constitute the Santa Rosa high school district.

Territory which will be taxed for the new high school building takes in everything within a radius of ten miles.

For this reason, and because of the need for vastly increased space, it is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California.

– Press Democrat, November 16, 1921
Defective Wiring Thought Cause of High School Fire

The exact cause of the high school blaze remains a complete mystery, although the majority of people lay the blame on defective wiring. According to statements made by Wm. Bennyhoff, head of the night school held in the junior high school building, every light was turned out of the old building Tuesday night when he left the night school. The night classes close shortly after nine o’clock and at nine-thirty when Bennyhoff left for home, there was not a gleam of light from the building.

The presence of lights in the study hall of the doomed building, however, is explained by the fact that melting connections in the switch boxes might cause a “short” and light the bulbs. Some of the spectators declare the halls were lighted while others deny the statement


Another theory advanced by some of the faculty, as well as some of the spectators of the blaze, is that of spontaneous combustion. The fire apparently started either in or very near the chemical laboratory, where a large assortment of chemicals of all sorts were stored. It is possible that some sort of chemical reaction could have caused an explosion resulting in the fire. This would explain the explosions heard by nearby residents. The explosions could have been explained in another way, however, as the fire would no doubt have caused some of the chemicals to explode. The question is, did the explosions occur before or after the fire was noticed? The statements of those who heard the explosions, conflict on this point and the matter is still uncertain.

But very few people think that the blaze could have been of incendiary origin, because of the comparatively early hour at which the flames burst forth.

[…how the building was funded by bonds in 1894…]

When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure. Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1921
Three More Santa Rosa School Houses Nothing Better Than Firetraps

Only the merest chance saved several dwellings and at least one more school house from being destroyed by fire while the high school building was burning Tuesday night. Embers from the blazing building and in many cases large pieces of burning shingles and wood were carried by the breeze and the draft caused by the fire to houses within a radius of four or five blocks, and several burning embers were seen by spectators to light near the Fremont school building. Charred papers were carried as far as the public library by the breeze.

Only the fact that the wind was very light saved the Fremont school building, which is really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building from being destroyed.

Complaint has been made to the school authorities regarding the dangerous condition of the heating system of the Fourth street school. This building is heated in the same manner as it was forty years ago by small wood stoves in each room. Four of these stoves are reported as being dangerous, through being nearly worn out, and a request was made some time ago for new stoves.

A stove in one of the rooms of the school building collapsed Tuesday morning and ashes were scattered over the room. Fortunately the fire in the stove had died out, so but very few live coals were scattered, and no damage was done. What might have happened, however, if the stove had contained a fire, would have been an entirely different story. Had such been the case, no doubt two of Santa Rosa’s schools would have been in ashes today instead of one.

In the event of a fire breaking out in such a building, there would be even less chance of saving it than there was of saving the big school building. This is only one of the schools in this city that needs attention. Of the remaining three, only one, the Burbank, is in fairly good condition, and although far from being modern in every detail, might serve for several years as a school building.

The other two, the Lincoln and the South Park school, are in deplorable condition, and offer almost no protection against fire.

– Press Democrat, November 17, 1921
School Sessions Resumed In Annex And Portables: Halls Are To Be Utilized

After a day of uncertainty and excitement which followed the destruction of Santa Rosa’s high school building, and interrupted the routine of classes, students of the junior college, junior high and high school resumed their studies today, sharing the inadequate accommodations of the annex and two portable school rooms.

According to arrangements for the present, made at a meeting of the board of education last night, the high school and junior college pupils use the buildings from 8:15 to 12:15 o’clock. The junior high school holds classes from 12:45 to 4:30 o’clock.

This schedule has been adopted by the board of education until the necessary equipment can be installed in several of the halls downtown, which have been offered for use as schools.

Tables and chairs are being moved into the halls today, and it is expected that within a short time they will be ready.

The many water-soaked volumes saved from the school library, which can be used in the present emergency are being dried, and will aid materially in relieving the situation in which the schools have been cast.

Short of Everything

While a portion of the equipment and materials from the laboratories or the high school building was saved, the amount is insufficient. As a result, arrangements have been made with the Analy high school at Sebastopol whereby the junior college and high school classes  in chemistry and physics will go to Sebastopol to conduct their experiments.

In the meantime, plans are being perfected as rapidly as possible to provide some kind of laboratories here.

The halls, which are to be equipped for temporary use as schools, are the Masonic, Labor temple and the Armory.

Excitement over the fire Tuesday night is still rife among the students and the mass of black and gray ruins on the high school grounds form the basis for conversation, regrets and speculation.

Valuable Records Lost

New features of the blaze have come to light during the past 24 hours, among the most unfortunate of which was the destruction of Miss Frances O’Meara’s treasured collection of books, pictures and records.

The teacher the only one who has been a member of the high school faculty since the old building was erected in 1895, had carefully preserved copies of each issue of the various school publications. Added to these was a collection of invitations to every commencement held in the school during the past 26 years, pictures of historical and literary characters and a number of biological and zoological specimens.

The entire collection was kept in the building, and its total destruction occasioned regrets and sympathy from everyone in Santa Rosa.

Property Threatened

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses.

Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

In the Fremont school, one of the old stoves which forms part of the inefficient and dangerous heating system, collapsed. Although there was practically no fire in it at the time, live coals and hot ashes were scattered over the floor. Fortunately, while much excitement was created, no damage resulted.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 17, 1921

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