“Fire the Worst in the History of the City,” read the Press Democrat’s screamer headline on July 6, 1903. The article continued:

Santa Rosa was visited by the worst fire known in years on Sunday afternoon and for several hours peoples’ hearts were almost in their mouths with anxiety, for it was well known that a sudden shift of wind would probably mean the destruction of a wide area of business blocks and houses.

They had good reason to be fearful. Fanned by those damned northerly winds, the entire west side of Railroad Square was a wall of flames.

Thousands of people rushed to the scene to watch the burning of the train depot, the Western Hotel and most of the warehouse district. With only an 1886 steam pumper fire engine, the volunteer Fire Department was ill-matched to fight more than a dozen simultaneous fires. Nor could they call on Petaluma for more equipment and firefighters, as they would do after the Great Earthquake three years later; since the conflagration included five boxcars burning on the tracks, Santa Rosa was essentially cut off from the outside world.

From its onset around three that afternoon, the fire spread quickly. It began at the freight depot, across the tracks from the passenger depot. Station Agent Spridgen, who lived on the second floor of the wooden passenger building, had only time to grab a few days’ paperwork from the safe before evacuating. Clare McWilliams in the residence part of the depot at the time had to jump out.

The PD’s coverage of the disaster (transcribed below) was detailed and can be faulted only for its “ripping yarn” sensationalist tone: “Another bound of the fire fiend and the passenger depot was wrapped in flame and the driving wind made the fiery furnace ten times hotter.” Four houses “went like so much tinder before the fast driving wall of flame” and “sheets of flame leaped across a block at a bound and belched forth heat that was prostrating.”

It was hoped Santa Rosa Creek would act as a firebreak, but embers flew into the Olive Park neighborhood and three houses caught fire. As their entire community was at the ready with wet sacks and garden hoses, serious damage was averted.

Three hours into it, there was a new worry; the blaze was poised to cross Second street (this portion no longer exists) and if the wind shifted just slightly, it would reach the Grace Brothers brewery and a tannery directly west of it. The brewery had burned down once before in 1897, but the brothers had rebuilt it into a much larger enterprise – they even had an employee fire brigade on alert that day should the fire approach.

That afternoon it was good news, bad news: Hooray that the wind did not blow towards the brewery, but continued due south. Woe that this put the flames on the path to the tannery’s enormous tanbark pile, with its 400 cords of fire-friendly kindling. Once that lit afire, it took the SRFD working around the clock for two days to bring it under control, extending the threat to the town.

Approximate locations of significant Santa Rosa fires on July 5, 1903


Lucky Santa Rosa; once again it narrowly escaped complete destruction by fires driven by devlish northern winds. (Besides the three well-known wildfires, I still say the town was at greatest risk from the 1908 Fountaingrove fire, where an enormous old building at the crest of the hill popped off like a roman candle, burning too fast and furiously for firefighters to respond.)

Not so fortunate were other places that July 5th. While the SRFD was tackling Railroad Square, Oakland faced its worst fire in a decade with a firefighter being killed; north of Sacramento nearly all of Wheatland was destroyed. A couple of days earlier the Press Democrat reported the Russian River Valley and Healdsburg were smoky from bad wildfires in those areas.

Since the start of that month all of Northern California had been suffering from extremely high temperatures – San Francisco hit 98° – and hot winds from the north reduced humidity so low that hop growers feared losing their crops. All of this meant great fire danger, and the mayor of Santa Rosa ordered no firecrackers on the Fourth of July until evening, as well as demanding homeowners not to water their lawns so as to keep the reservoir at highest possible capacity.

In the days before and after the Railroad Square blaze, the Santa Rosa Fire Department was called out almost daily for a significant fire, which was unprecedented according to the Fire Commissioner’s report. Some were started by a cause unknown but others were reported in the PD as having an “incendiary origin,” which meant that they were set deliberately – arson, in other words.

While the Railroad Square conflagration was apparently listed as cause unknown, two days afterward the City Marshal offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the paper we had a firebug at work here. But take a step back and a larger picture emerges, showing waves of arson activity in Santa Rosa stretching between 1902 and 1904 – and the Railroad Square fire exactly matches the arsonist’s overall pattern.


Man and woman on bicycles view the aftermath of the fire. July 6, 1903 San Francisco Chronicle


The Loss Estimated at $100,000 – Fire the Worst in the History of the City
Grace Bros. Brewery and Santa Rosa Tanning Company Have Narrow Escape from Destruction — No Loss of Life

Santa Rosa was visited by the worst fire known in years on Sunday afternoon and for several hours peoples’ hearts were almost in their mouths with anxiety, for it was well known that a sudden shift of wind would probably mean the destruction of a wide area of business blocks and houses.

As it was, the big California North Western passenger and freight depots, the Western Hotel, the big Peterson Brothers’ warehouse, and the ice factory, used as a warehouse by Cnopius & DeGus, four houses, a barn and a number of smaller buildings were reduced to ashes.

Another building, notably the big brick warehouse occupied as a warehouse by B. A. Deaveraux and owned by Wesley Hopper was seriously damaged by the fire and narrowly escaped destruction.

For hours the big plant of the Santa Rosa Tanning Company and the tannery buildings and the great brewery of Grace Brothers were in imminent danger and but for the fact that the course of the wind remained unswerved, these buildings would have been destroyed.

After jumping by bounds, which probably took in a block at a time, the flames struck the immense pile of tanbark, the property of the Tanning Company, on the bank of the creek, containing about four hundred cords. This the fire attacked fiercely and on Monday morning the flames were still burning briskly.

The flames were driven on their tour of destruction — extending from the railroad depot across two blocks to the bank of the creek and the tanbark pile — on the bosom of one of the strongest northers that had struck the city for a long time. Sheets of flame leaped across a block at a bound and belched forth heat that was prostrating. A worse day for a fire could not be possible.

Where the Fire Started

It was at four minutes to three that the alarm called the fire department to the scene. Then the flames had already commenced to sweep through the building. The fire started in the north-western corner of the big freight building underneath the platform. When it was first discovered men rushed to remove a pile of empty egg cases and boxes thinking that the light material might serve to feed the fire. In a few minutes they had to jump from the platform, as the flames shot up from underneath. From then on the fire swept unrelentlessly from one end of the building to the other. Station Agent Spridgen says that from the time the first alarm was given until it was impossible to remain in the building was only the space of a few minutes. He had barely time to enter the office and unlock the safe and grab the records of a couple of days’ business, when he had to rush out into the open air to avoid the blinding and suffocating smoke.

Fire Spread Quickly

The flames from the burning freight depot set fire to five box and freight cars on the track, fronting the passenger depot, and this served to intensify the flame and heat. Another bound of the fire fiend and the passenger depot was wrapped in flame and the driving wind made the fiery furnace ten times hotter and the building and the upper story, used as a residence by Station Agent Spridgen, was in ashes in a very short time.

On the other side of the burning freight depot another box car caught fire and was burned to the wheels.

The flames bounded from the burning depot building across the block and kindled the old Western Hotel, on the corner of Fourth street. That building and the saloon were destroyed in a few minutes. On the east side of the hotel, across an empty lot, the brick building belonging to William Hopper balked the fire from reaching the carpet beating works. South of the Western Hotel site the flames encountered the brick warehouse owned by Wesley Hopper and occupied as a storage warehouse by E. W. Deveraux. After burning up under the flooring of the building — the fire being extinguished with some difficulty — the flames bounded across Third street and tackled the large warehouse formerly occupied by Peterson Brothers’ fruit packing establishment, and the old ice factory. The building was occupied as a storage warehouse by Cnopius & De Geus. In the building was stored coal, lime, cement and dried fruit. The firemen battled with the fiend and the wind was too much for the powers against it.

Beyond the warehouse stood four houses and a number of outbuildings, the stable of the tannery and a huge pile of tanbark containing some four hundred cords of bark. These houses went like so much tinder before the fast driving wall of flame. When the fire came up to the tanbark and the wind did not change there was a sigh of relief, as it was seen then that the tannery buildings and the brewery, up to this time in the most imminent danger, were at any rate safe for the present. It had been a continuous battle with the fire element for over three hours, when the flames wound up in the tanbark pile.

Not Certain as to Cause

There were a number of rumors as to the cause of the conflagration. A report current at the scene of the fire was that a small boy had been seen in the vicinity of the freight depot setting off fire crackers. Rumor had it that they had been seen poking firecrackers under the building. Police Officer Hankel stated to a reporter that he had run this rumor down and that it lacked foundation. Another theory is that someone may have thrown a cigarette end or cigar end, which might have lodged in the rubbish eddied by the wind against this building. According to another report several Indians were seen in the vicinity of the place and that they might have thrown the cigarette end away.

Station Agent Spridgen was in his house at the depot all the afternoon and says that he did not hear any fire-crackers explode and he is sure he would have heard them. So that on Sunday night there was no absolute certainty as to how the fire originated. An engine was standing on the track at the Flour Mill siding at the time, but it is not thought hardly probable that a spark could have started the fire.

The fire department worked nobly and so did the volunteers.

– Press Democrat, July 6 1903


Men, Women and Children Fight Fire For Three Hours With Wet Sacks to Keep the Flames From Spreading

Some idea an to the force of the wind and the distance the fire was carried can be imagined from the fact that some stubble was burned as far away as the Maccaroni factory.

In different parts of the Addition small fires were started and a fence around the residence of Mrs. Young was burned. A quantity of hay standing in shocks of the Hopper property caught fire. The residents of the Addition turned out en masse, men, women and children, to fight the fires and to keep on the alert. They were armed with wet sacks Happily no serious damage was done, but the people were prepared for any emergency.

The Cannon and Wylie residences and that occupied by Mrs. Brown caught fire, but were extinguished with the aid of a small hose. Had not the people been on the watch all three houses would have gone up in smoke.

Engine Was Scorched

While the steamer was at work at the hydrant near the Western hotel it was scorched on one aide by the flames, but was not seriously damaged. A couple of feet of hose was burned up before it could be rescued. The heat was terrific and the wind made it worse. The burning of the hose resulted in the bringing into use of other hose and occasioned slight delay. Several streams of water were used. The need of another engine was given a forcible object lesson at this fire. For over three hoars Engineer Jim McReynolds poked coal into the furnace under the steamer and the machinery worked like a charm.

Thousands at the Fire

Thousands of people rushed to the scene of the conflagration during its progress and there were many willing helpers volunteering assistance. Tho crowd behaved well and watched the work of the firemen with great interest. The volunteer firemen did effective work.

The Estimated Loss

The loss sustained by the railroad company was the heaviest. Their loss was at least $50,000, and may go higher. In addition to the two well built depot buildings and the six box cars, a great quantity of freight went up in smoke with the building. This freight had been stored in the warehouse over the Fourth.

Three cars were loaded with freight, one for the north and the others remaining here. One of the loaded cars contained stoves and all of them were ruined. Most of the freight in the warehouse was for local merchants or was being shipped by them. Station Agent Spridgen said Sunday night that it was impossible then to ascertain the amount of the freight loss that the company would sustain. He said that there was a large quantity of freight stacked up in the building. Mr, Spridgen is at a loss to know how the fire originated. It is understood that the buildings were insured.

The Western hotel property was owned by J. B. Doda of Fort Ross. It was an old two story frame building and was occupied by A. Cottini. There were a number of guests rooming in the house at the time. In addition to the hotel business Mr. Cottini ran a saloon, and his stock in trade and considerable of the contents of the premises were destroyed. The fire burned so quickly that there was no time to save anything.

The building and its contents were probably worth $4,000. Cottini estimates his loss at $2,500. He carried $1,000 insurance. Wesley Hopper’s loss, by damage to his warehouse, will probably foot up $1,000 or $1,500. The Santa Rosa Bank was the owner of the old Peterson fruit packing warehouse and the old ice factory and the ice plant. From Cashier L. W. Burris, of the bank, it was learned that the building was valued at six thousand dollars and the plant at two thousand. The property was insured for $5,500. The loss to Cnopius & Co., who had the warehouse stored with dried fruit, coal, lime, sulphur, salt, etc., was estimated Sunday night, in the absence of either of the members of the firm, by an employee, at about $6,000.

It was learned that the machinery of the old ice plant would probably have been disposed of in a few days.

Of the four houses destroyed, between the warehouse and the creek, three were the property of the Santa Rosa Tanning Company, and the other was the private property of E. W. Rurgren, the president of the company. One of the houses was a two-story one, and all that was left of all the structures was the chimneys. Five thousand dollars would cover the loss as far as houses are concerned. The tannery also lost their stable and some small out buildings, and the barn on the Santa Rosa Bank’s property was also destroyed.

Two of the houses burned were rented by a Mrs. Berry, who belongs to the Salvation Army and were sublet to roomers. Her loss was probably a matter of a couple of hundred dollars. When seen she said she could not tell the amount of her loss. Some of her household effects were saved. A.J. Hurst, the freight hauler, lived in one of the houses, and kept his wagon in a barn adjoining. The house was reduced to ashes but he saved most of the contents, assisted by other willing helpers. He lost his wagon. Between fifty and one hundred dollars would cover his loss, he said, which means considerable to him. A man named Augustus was one of the occupants of the other cottage destroyed. The loss here also was not very great.

The tanning company’s principal loss will be the tanbark. The great pile contained some four hundred cords and the loss will be from $8,000 to $10,000. Station Agent Spridgen lost several hundred hundred dollars worth of furniture in the destruction of his home, which was over the passenger depot. The city was also a loser to the extent of a couple of hundred feet of fire hose. The exact loss is estimated at $100,000.

Cleared the Tracks

A small sized army of section men from as far south as Novato arrived here Sunday night and worked with a will clearing the track of the debris of the burning cars and in laying about two hundred feet of the track destroyed by the fire. The men worked up to nearly midnight.

Clare McWilliams, while assisting in removing the household affects of Station Agent Spridgen was almost hemmed in by the fire and had to jump from the building.

– Press Democrat, July 6 1903


Says that the Railroad Company is Fully Insured and That Work Will Be Commenced Immediately on Reconstruction

Shortly before midnight on Sunday night, President A. W. Foster and General Superintendent F. K. Zook of the California Northwestern arrived here on a special train…

…The fire delayed passenger traffic on the railroad for over two hours as far as the passengers on the early afternoon train were concerned.

The other trains were also some what delayed as the heat was too great to allow the cars to be brought by. The trains from the Guerneville branch and the north were crowded with people, and long before the trains pulled into the siding at Santa Rosa the passengers aboard had heard of the conflagration and were eager to see what had happened. Scores of those on the train left the cars here to inspect the damage.

Worked All Night

All night long the fire engine waa at work pouring water on the burning pile of tanbark and the fire department from the brewery were at work. Two streams of water were being poured on the flames. The fire had got a firm hold on the bark and the heat from the furnace was very great. The fire fighters were most resolute as they knew that a sudden change of wind might result disastrously.

Notes on the Fire

The boys at the brewery fought like braves to save the big institution and deserve a great deal of credit for the manner in which they protected the property. Grace Bros, have a good fire department of their own when put into action. This was exemplified at Sunday’s fire.

Attorney W. F. Owen, while working at the fire Sunday, had his hand badly burned. The injury will be very painful for several days.

Fireman Ed Hyde was slightly burned about the face during the progress of the fire.

Walter Adams, son of Fire Chief Adams, was overcome by the heat; while fighting fire and had to be carried to his home. He had a very narrow escape but is getting along nicely.

While the firemen were at work fighting the flames men were stationed all over the big brewery and tannery buildings armed with firefighting appliances, ready to do what they could should fate have driven the fire too near the danger line.

– Press Democrat, July 6 1903


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