firebug1

SANTA ROSA, WE HAVE A FIREBUG

The fourth time someone tried to burn down Robert Ross’s building he became agitated and said some things he shouldn’t. He was taken to jail and charged for “using language too strenuous to suit the occasion,” making him the only person who was arrested in connection with a string of arson attempts which plagued Santa Rosa for 28 months.

Between 1902 and 1904 there were eighteen suspicious fires, all but four of which were declared to be positively caused by “incendiarism,” which was our ancestor’s word at the time for arson. Among the incidents was the 1903 Railroad Square fire which burned for two days, making it the worst blaze Santa Rosa firemen had yet faced.

In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the Press Democrat there was a firebug at work here, but a broader analysis shows a pattern which probably began in early 1902. With one exception, all 18 were on the south side of downtown, mostly within a block from Santa Rosa Creek. Most happened during the months of April, May or July and were discovered around midnight, with Saturday being by far the favorite night.

(UPDATE: There were 19 suspicious fires, not 18. I neglected to count one of the Ross fires blamed on arson.)

Those familiar with this journal know I often end with a Believe-it-or-Not! oddity or twist to a story, but this time the surprise has to be revealed at the top: Incidents of serial arson were shockingly common out here at the turn of the century – and authorities didn’t seem too concerned about finding the culprits. When the firebugs were caught it was usually by accident.

Thankfully rare today, a search of turn-of-the-century era newspapers found arson sprees in rural towns like Santa Rosa all over the Bay Area. Almost always the pyromaniacs were teenage boys (MORE on the psychology of fire setting). The only known adult was Carlos Benedetto, a Petaluma firebug 1897-1898 who destroyed the town’s largest warehouses, part of a lumber yard and tried to burn a bridge. He was described as “a demented Italian laborer” (SF Examiner) and as “vicious looking, has a wild eye and is no doubt insane” (Petaluma Courier).

(RIGHT: Illustration of the San Rafael firebugs, San Francisco Call, Sept. 25 1902)

A 14 year-old was caught in Martinez for fires at the school, town hall and coal yard in 1904; a couple of years later a 15 year-old boy in Santa Cruz burned several barns, a school house and two bridges. There were also serial arsonists in Hopland (caught) and Ukiah (not caught). In 1901-1902 San Rafael, two boys aged 9 and 14 set as many as 16 fires; the younger boy was the ringleader and said he did it because he “liked to see firemen run.”

What made the Santa Rosa arsonist unique, however, was that he repeatedly went after the same buildings. Robert Ross’s blacksmith shop at First and Main was torched six times. A few doors down at Second and Main he tried to burn a barn/horse stable twice. Three times he hit the Star Feed Mill building at Fourth and A streets and two fires were set in vacant houses in the tenderloin district along First street.

While Fire Chief Lynchberg Adams apparently listed the Railroad Square conflagration as cause unknown, circumstances suggest it was our arsonist. It was the fourth suspicious fire in six weeks, and Adams had said the others were definitely incendiary. The fire began BENEATH the freight loading platform, and in the northwest corner – the only point which could not be seen from the train depot. There were rumors that boys were seen throwing firecrackers under the platform, although a policeman told the Press Democrat he was certain there was no truth in it.

Two days afterward the City Marshal offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” After another rash of fires the next year Board of Fire Commissioners discussed raising it to $100, but nothing came of it. (The money would have been better spent by just paying a guard to sit in Robert Ross’s place.) But other than adding a streetlight at First and Main, no further preventative measures were mentioned in the papers.

The pattern of arson fires ended May 28, 1904, with the final attempt to torch the building with the mill. As the PD reported about the last of the Ross fires, “the identity of the miscreant remains a mystery.”

There were suspects but they were never named. Fire Chief Adams said two boys were seen playing in one of the red light district vacant houses before flames were spotted. And on July 2, 1903 – three days before the Railroad Square blaze – there was an incident at the high school on Humboldt street. A janitor was cleaning up the grounds when “a lad named Gardner” asked if he could help. The janitor said yes, but told the boy not to burn the rubbish. He did anyway, and the resulting fire destroyed a neighbor’s barn, two sheds and tons of hay. Nothing more was mentioned about that lad who couldn’t resist lighting a match.

 

APPLIED A TORCH
Attempt to Burn the Cnopius Barn on Second Street
Fire Discovered Before it Had Gained Much Headway and Was Extinguished

Some miscreant made an attempt Thursday night about 7 o’clock to burn the barn and stable of Cnopius & Co. on Second street near Main street. A piece of rag or matting, presumably soaked with oil, was thrust through a hole in the front of the barn and was snugly tucked in against a bale of hay. The torch was then applied and the would-be incendiary doubtless hurried away. Luckily Frank Cootes happened to pass along the street and noticed the flame. He gave an alarm at once and several men were quickly on the scene. Dr. Summerfield, the veterinary, and others forced open the barn doors and water was thrown on the fire and it was extinguished before any damage to speak of was done. Had the fire gained headway serious damage would have resulted. There were six horses in the barn Thursday night. What prompted the Incendiary to act in the manner described is unknown.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1902

 

HOP BARN BURNED
Destruction of a Building on the Burgess Place
Origin of the Fire Unknown — Building Reduced to Ashes In a Short Time

Shortly after midnight the large hop barn nearest the city pumping station alongside the road on the Burgess hop ranch on Sonoma avenue, was burned to the ground.

The building was reduced to ashes, together with the fence around it. From Chief Engineer Will Yandel at the pumping station it was learned by phone that the barn was empty at the time, according to a statement made by Mr. Burgess, who was awakened and told of the fire.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly incendiary. At first it was stated that many bales of hops were stored in the barn. It was afterward learned that the hops were in another barn. The fire caused a big reflection in the sky, which attracted considerable attention among those who were abroad on the streets awaiting the election returns.

– Press Democrat, April 3 1902

 

WORK OF INCENDIARY
Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Establishment on Sunday Night

About 11:30 o’clock on Sunday night what appears to have been an attempt to burn down Robert Ross’ blacksmith shop at First and Main streets was discovered. Some people who were driving by happened to notice the flames on the First-street side and gave the alarm.

The fire was burning against one of the posts of the doors leading into the blacksmith shop and had it once gained headway a serious conflagration would have resulted as the room in which the dry wood is stored and the paint and oil room are in close proximity. The fire was started from the outside. A big wagon was drawn up alongside the doors. There is a probability that a lighted cigar stump might have been thrown against the woodwork which is old and would burn easily. No damage was done. The fire department responded with commendable promptitude.

Dr. Summerfield pulled the wagon out of the way and Fireman Len Colgan, assisted by Gus Donovan, who hurried to the scene, accompanied by Mr. Bertolani, put the fire out with a tub of water, which Mr. Ross keeps standing near the door for use in case of an outbreak of fire. Mr. Ross was home in bed at the time the alarm was rung in and in a few minutes Dr. Summerfield telephoned to him that everything was safe and the fire out. The damage was slight.

The authorities are investigating. They believe that they have their eye on the guilty party. It is believed to be the same person who set fire to another building some time ago. Mr. Rosa will repair the damage to his building immediately.

– Press Democrat, July 15 1902

 

ROOF WAS ON FIRE
EARLY MORNING BLAZE DISCOVERED AT PETERSON BROS. WAREHOUSE LAST NIGHT
Fire Department Called Out to Extinguish Another Mysterious Fire — Flames Were Making Headway When Discovered

A disastrous fire was narrowly averted at an early hour this morning.

At 1:10 an alarm was rung in from box 26 at Second and Wilson streets aod the fire department hurried to the large fruit packing warehouse of Peterson Brothers on Third street near the railroad crossing, whore a fire in the center of the roof was gaining headway.

The flames were quickly extinguished by the use of the chemical engine. Firemen got on the roof and chopped away the burning embers with axes and a small quantity of water was used to thoroughly prevent any danger of a further blaze.

Thanks to Mike McNulty, who was on his way home, a more serious fire was prevented. McNulty chanced to look through the warehouse windows as he passed and noticed showers of sparks falling from the roof onto the floor of the warehouse. He at once ran around the brewery premises to where the fire alarm box is located me gave the alarm.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It may have been caused by a spark or may be the work of the incendiary who has apparently plied his work on other buildings in Santa Rosa lately. The damage to the roof was nominal.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1902

 

Fire Still a Mystery

The fire at the Peterson warehouse early Saturday morning is still a mystery. It may have been caused by boys climbing on the roof and playing with matches although it is not very likely. The more general opinion is that it may be work of the incendiary who fired the Robert Ross building on First street a few nights ago and also the Cnopius warehouse.

– Press Democrat, July 27 1902

 

DISASTROUS FIRE
Barn Destroyed and Horse Burned to Death Early Monday Morning

The barn back of E. H. Hollenbeck’s residence on Sonoma avenue was destroyed by fire at 1 o’clock Monday morning. The flames wiped out everything in the barn. A horse was burned to death. The conflagration was noticed by the crew of the night freight on the C. N. W. R. and the locomotive whistle was blown for sometime before the fire alarm was rung in. Before the fire department was called the barn was in ruins. The property was owned by Mr. Hollenbeck. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary. The barn was recently built.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1902

 

HORSES IN DANGER
A BARN AND CONTENTS DESTROYED AND 18 EQUINES RESCUED
Conflagration at 10:30 O’Clock Wednesday Night in the Rear of the Bizzini Place on Tupper Street

A large barn in the rear of the Bizzini place on Tupper street, between Henley and Brown streets, was destroyed by fire Wednesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 o’clock Jack Barrickio, who noticed the blaze, phoned into the fire station and the department responded quickly. An alarm was also rung in.

The barn contained sixteen head of horses, the property of Ross Garrison, the horse-trader, and a large quantity of hay and straw. The horses were all rescued by Mr. Garrison, Edward Campbell and Mr. Whitcomb. A few minutes later and three at least of the horses would have been burned. The burning straw and hay made a fierce fire, which was soon dampened by the streams of water poured on.

Despite the stormy weather a large crowd ot men, women and children hurried to the scene. The Bizzini residence is occupied by a family by the name of Brown. For a time the Browns feared some of their property in a barn on the place would be destroyed. The barn, however, being some distance from the burning structure, was not harmed.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. In response to a number of inquiries made at the scene no one could explain how it originated, other than it was incendiary.

– Press Democrat, December 11 1902

 

THE TORCH APPLIED
FIRE DOES DAMAGE AT ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE WORKS ON MAIN STREET
Third Attempt Made by Incendiary to Burn the Building Was Discovered Late Last Night

At 11:05 o’clock last night a fire was discovered in Robert Ross’ carriage works on Main street. Flames were burning in the top end of the building on the corner of Second street, on the roof and side of the structure. The fire department were soon on the scene and the fire was extinguished before much damage was done, except by water. How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly of incendiary origin. Mr. Ross inclines to the belief that the same party, who on two previous occasions has fired the building. is responsible for last night’s conflagration. The fire apparently caught from the outside as investigation last night failed to show where it had originated on the inside. From the corner the flames ran along the rafters for some distance. Lumber and tools in a portion of the building will suffer by reason of the water.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1903

 

Investigating the Recent Fire

The cause of the fire of Tuesday night, when for the third time an attempt was made to destroy the blacksmith shop and carriage manufactory of Robert Ross, is carefully investigated. A survey of the building on Wednesday showed that, as stated in these columns, the fire was started outside near the corner of First and Main streets. From there the flames traveled to the roof, finally burning through and working along and under the shingles towards the rear of the structure. It was thought by some that the flames might have originated in the paint shop, but this theory is incorrect. There was no fire inside the building except where it burned through the side wall and roof. Mr Ross says that a number of tools marked with his name have disappeared.

– Press Democrat, January 8 1903

 


INCENDIARY AT WORK
Another Attempt to Burn the Barn of Cnopius & Co.

At half past four o’clock yesterday morning the fire department were called to Second and Main streets where a conflagration was in progress in Cnopius & Co.’s barn and storehouse. The flames were burning among the bales of hay. The fire was soon subdued, and what would have been a bad fire but for the promptitude of the response to the alarm was averted. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1903

 

Want Light In Darkness

Residents and property owners of the vicinity of First and Main streets in view of the recent incendiary fires, petitioned the Council for a street light at the intersection of those streets for the protection of their property. The petition was referred to the Street Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 3 1903

 

APPLIED THE TORCH
AN INCENDIARY SETS FIRE TO A HOUSE ON D STREET ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Fire Was Discovered Shortly Before Midnight and Promptly Extinguished—Wanted to Drive Over Hose

About twelve o’clock the fire department was called to D street to extinguished a fire at No. 5, an unoccupied house. While the house is not a very valuable one the fire was a deliberate attempt to destroy the property.

The incendiary had placed a pile of blankets on the floor of a room in the corner and applied the torch. When discovered the fire was gaining headway. The flames were extinguished before much damage was done.

At the scene of the fire a youth from the country essayed to drive over the hose and was ordered to desist by Fireman Ed Hyde. He was abusive and Hyde without much ceremony jerked him from the vehicle. The youth afterward deemed it discretion to leave the hose and Hyde unmolested and went his way.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1903

 

PRETTY WARM BLAZE
Fire Department Busy On Thursday Afternoon

An alarm from box 52 called the fire department to Humboldt street on Thursday afternoon where a lively blaze was in progress, and before it was extinguished a barn and several tons of hay and two sheds and a summer kitchen went up in smoke and flame. The flames had gained considerable headway before the department were called. After the firemen arrived on the scene the conflagration was soon under control.

The fire originated on the grounds of the High School which adjoins the residence of G. W. Wallace of the Wallace Brokerage Company, who was the loser by the spreading flames through the fence. From Janitor Jones it was learned that the fire was started in some rubbish by a lad named Gardner, who had wanted to assist him in cleaning up the grounds. Jones says he cautioned Gardner not to start the fire.

Despite the warmth of the temperature there was the usual large crowd of spectators at the fire. They came in ail directions in vehicles, on horseback, in automobiles and a foot.

– Press Democrat, July 3 1903

 

HOUSE SET ON FIRE
DEPARTMENT CALLED SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT FOR FIRE ON FIRST STREET
Another Incendiary Fire Nearly Destroys an Unoccupied House — The Fire Had a Good Start

Last night shortly before midnight there was another alarm of fire and the department hurried to First street, near D street, where a fierce fire was in progress in an unoccupied house. The fire occurred just around the corner from the scene of the fire the other night, and like that one was the work of an incendiary. The building was damaged considerably and would have been entirely destroyed but for the exertions of the department. Two boys were noticed in the house in the morning, but no one was seen there later in the day. Fire Chief Adams had no hesitancy in saying that the fire was of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, July 4 1903

 

DISASTROUS BLAZE
RESIDENCE OF THE HON. J. T. CAMPBELL BADLY GUTTED BY FIRE LAST EVENING
Willing Hands Assist in Removing the Valuable Bric-a-brac — Fire Fighters Included a Number of Ladies

The pretty residence of the Hon. and Mrs. J. T. Campbell was practically gutted by fire last evening soon after six o’clock. Thanks to the energies of many willing hands much of the very valuable bric-a-brac and curios, which have been their great pride, were saved. Much of the furniture was rescued but of course many of the articles, including some of the curios and other furnishings were badly damaged or burned. From top to bottom the house was drenched with water and plastering and ceiling fell everywhere. The roof and the rear end of the residence was a prey of the flames to a greater extent than the front. What was a delightfully furnished house up to last night is now pretty much of a wreck.

How the fire originated is something of a mystery. There had been no fire in the house for some time, as a gas stove is used principally. The fire started in the upper story, and the burning roof was the first intimation to outsiders that a fire was in progress. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were enjoying a chat after supper totally unaware that overhead a fire threatened to destroy their home was in progress. Two theories as to the cause of the fire were advanced. It was suggested that probably the conflagration might have been caused by electric wires, or might have been caused by combustion in the storeroom which is under the roof in the rear of the house upstairs. In this storeroom a great many things were stored. The blaze was a stubborn one to get under control, but the firemen succeeded well.

Among those assisting in the removal of the curios and works of art so highly prized by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, were a number of the fair sex. They worked like Trojans and did not mind getting deluged by the water pouring through the roof. The fair fire fighters were indefatigable in their efforts and a number of men also assisted. The articles saved from destruction were carried into the residence of E. Morris Cox, which adjoins the Campbell home. The conflagration caused some little excitement while it lasted. It was very fortunate it did not prove worse.

 

  WILL PAY REWARD
Information as to Incendiary Wanted by the Marshal

City Marshal George Severson has offered a reward of fifty dollars for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, who has fired several buildings in this city of late. The Marshal is determined, if possible, to locate the guilty person and citizens should assist in the endeavor.

– Press Democrat, July 8 1903

 

THE FIRE RECORD
LAST MONTH WAS RECORD BREAKER FOR FIRE ALARMS AND FIRES HERE
Fire Chief Thanks Citizens for Help at Depot Fires — Urges Purchase of New Engine and More Hose

Last month was a record breaker for fire alarms and damage done by fires in Santa Rosa. There were nine alarms of fire during the month. The most serious of the fires were those that destroyed the depots and other buildings on Sunday. July 5, and the one that destroyed $2,400 of the property at the residence of the Hon. J. T. Campbell. Fire Chief Adams made his report at the monthly meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night at the city hall. In making his report Chief Adams urged the purchase of another fire engine and 1,500 feet of new hose. He called attention to the destruction of fire hose at the time of the depot fire. A new engine and more hose are necessities, he said. Chief Adams thanked the citizens for the assistance rendered the regular firemen on the occasion of the depot fire. Acting President L. L. Veirs was in the chair and Commissioners Fred King, C. D. Johnson and G. S. Brown were present. At the other fires outside of the two mentioned considerable damage was done. The Council at its meeting subsequently ordered the purchase of 1,000 feet of new hose.

– Press Democrat, July 22 1903

 

NEW RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE
CONTRACTOR BUSH’S HOME ON SOUTH E STREET RUINED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Residence Had Just Been Completed and Family Were About to Occupy the Same

At a few minutes to ten o’clock on Wednesday night fire was discovered in Contractor H. N. Bush’s new residence on South E, street and before the flames were extinguished the house was completely gutted.

The residence had just been completed and Mr. and Mr. Bush and family were ready to move into the place. In fact they thought something of moving in the beds Wednesday night and occupying it for the first time, but later derided to give the paint more time to dry. The family had been occupying the barn in the rear of the house which was completed first. Some articles were moved into the new house on Wednesday, principally canned fruits and preserves.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It started first near the roof and when the flames were noticed first they had gained considerable headway. The fire department were summoned by a still alarm and had a long run to the fire. There was a copious supply of water but the new lumber made the fire a stubborn one to fight.

The gutted residence was one of the neatest and best in the neighborhood and was built by Mr. Bush himself, and the loss is considerable for him. The house cost about $2,600 and was insured for $2000 in a company represented by B. M Spencer.

As usual there was a very large crowd of spectators at the fire, many of whom walked to the scene, while others went in automobiles and vehicles and on bicycles. It is thought by some that the fire was deliberately started by an incendiary. Others say that it may have been a case of spontaneous combustion caused by painters’ rags. The residence had bean wired for electricity but had not been connected.

– Press Democrat, September 17 1903

 

May Be an Incendiary Here

There is an impression around that there may be an incendiary in Santa Rosa at tho present time, judging from the several suspicious fires that have occurred here lately. Fire Chief Adams says beyond doubt in his opinion the conflagration that gutted the Bush residence on E street on Wednesday night was the work of an incendiary.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1903

 

INCENDIARY AGAIN AT WORK
Fourth Attempt to Burn Robert Ross’ Carriage Repository

Shortly before one o’clock on Monday morning fire was discovered in the rear of Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets. The fire was of incendiary origin making the fourth attempt to burn the building. Little damage was done by the fire. Had the flames once gained headway the result might have been very serious.

The identity of the miscreant remains a mystery and not only Mr. Ross but other property owners in the block and in the neighborhood would like to have the matter solved. This fire like the preceding ones was started with the aid of kerosene, the odor being plainly detected by those early at the scene of the conflagration.

After the fire was about over, Mr. Ross who was naturally somewhat excited got into a controversy with the Fire Department officials over the taking of a hose through the store room used as a carriage repository, with the result that he was temporarily placed under arrest upon a charge of using language too strenuous to suit the occasion. Later he appeared and paid a small fine, which ended the matter.

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1904

 

FIRE DAMAGES THE TOSCANO HOTEL
CONFLAGRATION ORIGINATED IN ROOM IN THE UPPER STORY OF THE BUILDING
Exact Cause of the Fire Not Known— Building Drenched With Copious Supply of Water Thrown

Considerable damage was done by a fire at the Toscano hotel at Seventh and Adams streets yesterday evening about half past five o’clock, for which the fire department was called by an alarm rung in from Box 25. The fire started in room 3 on the upper story of the hotel building. The room was gutted and its contents were destroyed. In addition other parts of the building were charred, but owing to the prompt work of the department the damage was not nearly as serious as it otherwise would have been, as the flames had considerable headway at the time of the alarm and it seemed as if the entire upper portion of the place was on fire. The smoke was so dense that the firemen had considerable difficulty in at first locating the seat of the conflagration. The room in which the fire started was like a blazing furnace when the department arrived and the fire was spreading.

Two streams of water were quickly poured on the flames and the fire was soon extinguished. The building was drenched with water and this and the smoke will necessitate the complete renovation of a part of the interior of the building. Many willing hands removed most of the furniture and effects from the building, and these articles were piled up here and there, some distance from the scene of the conflagration.

 The hotel is owned and occupied by Mrs. T. Guidotti. The fire was discovered by A. Guidotti. The origin of the fire at present is somewhat of a mystery. There was no stove in the room and the flue from the stove below runs up in another room The fire seemed to have started in the corner of the apartment. The occupants of the hotel could not account for the fire, and there were suggestions that the origin might have been of an incendiary nature. Chief Adams picked up a piece of newspaper in the room most damaged by the fire and it smelt strongly of coal oil. Strange enough this piece of paper was not singed and everything else in the room was charred. Another report at the fire was that a man had laid his lighted pipe on the bed in the room, but this story was not confirmed. A defective flue was also suggested. The building was insured. The water was played on the flames with so much effect that the roof overhead was not damaged. The fire occasioned some excitement among those living in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel and some of them were prepared to remove their belongings and did do so until assured that the danger of the fire spreading was past.

– Press Democrat, April 16, 1904

 

FIREBUG AT WORK SATURDAY NIGHT
ATTEMPT TO BURN THE “STAR FEED MILLS” AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Fire Started in a Bale of Hay in the Rear of the Building — Flame Seen By Passerby on the Street

On Saturday night shortly after eleven o’clock Loren Jenkins, Will Carter and Val Calhoun while walking along Fourth street, chanced to notice a flame shoot up into the air in the rear of the Star Feed Mills at Fourth and A streets where the hay is stored. They gave the alarm at once and Mr. Jenkins ran to Fourth and Washington streets and turned in an alarm from the box there.

He then rushed back to the place and by this time Police Officer Boyes had arrived on the scene. Jenkins was assisted through the window and unfastened the door on A street. Police Officer Boyes made his way as quickly as possible to the fire and chanced to see a small hose attached to a faucet kept for supplying the boiler in the mill. He quickly turned on the water and extinguished the blaze, which had been kindled on a bale of hay.

The department were quickly on the scene and Police Officers Boyes and McIntosh and Fire Chief Adams made an investigation of the premises. At first it was thought that an electric wire had caused the fire. Investigation proved, however, that this was not the case and that it was a deliberate case of incendiarism. The fire had been started on top of the bale. Had the flames gained headway the old frame building would have gone up in smoke. The prompt action of the youths after they had noticed the flame through the windows on Fourth street and the prompt application of the hose undoubtedly saved a worse conflagration and damage to the contents of the mill and building.

– Press Democrat, May 1 1904

 

YEARS’ FIRE RECORD IN SANTA ROSA
ANNUAL REPORT OF FIRE CHIEF ADAMS PRESENTS INTERESTING STATISTICS
The Loss by Fire and the Insurance on the Property—The Causes of Conflagrations of Past Year

Fire Chief Adams has filed his annual report at the City Hall, which gives statistics regarding the fire record in Santa Rosa for the past year. The Chief states that there were thirty-eight alarms of fire in the city during the year. At thirteen of these fires the engine was used. At twenty-fie the chemical extinguishers were brought into play. The loss by fire in Santa Rosa during the twelve months was $57,017.05. The insurance on the property was $25,217.90, and the net loss was $31,799.15. Of the total number of fires seven were of incendiary origin; three were caused by children playing with matches, thirteen were chimney fires and nine fires resulted from unknown causes.

– Press Democrat, May 4, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT MADE TO BURN ROSS’ BUILDING
TORCH IS APPLIED FOR SIXTH TIME
FLAMES DISCOVERED IN ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE REPOSITORY SATURDAY NIGHT
Identity of the Incendiary Still a Mystery — Prompt Work of Firemen Prevent a Serious Fire

For the sixth time the firebug who seems bent on destroying Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets, applied the torch on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about eleven o’clock and an alarm brought the department in quick time to the place.

The fire was burning in the paint shop which occupies the second floor facing on First street near the end of the building. A hose was attached in a few seconds and the flames were extinguished before much damage was done to the building. The glow of the fire could be plainly seen through the windows and the smoke poured through the roof. Like the five other previous attempts, it was a deliberate plan on the part of the firebug to destroy the premises. Mr. Walsh ahs [sic] the paint shop, and a buggy in the shop was pulled out of the way of the flame by one of the firemen. Like all the previous fires, the work of the incendiary was discovered before the flames had made much headway.

The fire had probably been smoldering some time before the flames shot up. The odor of something burning was noticed some time before the alarm was turned in summoning the fire department. The fire was in among the paints and had it gained much headway the inflammable material would have kindled a fierce blaze. A large crowd was attracted to the scene of the fire in a very few minutes and some little excitement was caused.

The identity of the firebug is apparently as much of a mystery as it has been at the fires that have preceded the one of Saturday night. It has also been noticeable that the incendiary chooses either a Saturday night or Sunday night for his work. While at a loss as to the identity of the guilty person, Chief of Police Severson intends to make a rigid investigation and will probably offer a reward for the necessary information that will lead to the arrest of the guilty party. Once before Mr. Severson offered a reward but without result.

Why this place should be singled out by the incendiary is also mysterious. Mr. Ross has been in business here for many years and so far as is known there is no reason for the dastardly attempts made to destroy his premises on six occasions. This was talked of very generally among the crowd gathered at the fire Saturday night, but no solution could be arrived at. One thing is sure, everybody in the neighborhood would like to have the guilty one brought to justice, as a fire once started in that section, if it got headway, would be very disastrous.

– Press Democrat, May 16, 1904

 

MAY OFFER REWARD TO CATCH FIREBUG
WORK OF INCENDIARIES DISCUSSED AT FIRE COMMISSIONERS’ MEETING
Fire Chief’s Report Discussed—Rigid Investigation Ordered of Main Street Fires

The Board of Fire Commissioners met last night…Commissioner Reynolds called attention to the frequent attempts to burn the Ross building on Main street and asked if some steps should not be taken to locate the incendiary.

Fire Chief Adams said in view of the investigation he had made he was confident that all the fires had been of an incendiary nature.

It was suggested that possibly the last fire in Walsh’s paint shop in the Ross building, might have been caused by spontaneous combustion as it occurred among the paints.

The matter was discussed at some length. It was remarked that three of the fires reported for the month by the Fire Chief had been of incendiary origin…Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that the city should offer a standing reward of one hundred dollars for the information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

– Press Democrat, May 18, 1904

 

ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO BURN BUILDING
FIERCE FIRE IN THE CHARTRAND BUILDING AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Conflagration on Saturday Night Looked Threatening for Some Time and Was Stubborn One to Handle

Another determined effort was made to burn down the Chartrand building at the corner of Fourth and A streets about half past eleven o’clock on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about the same time at night as one the occasion of the first application of the torch a few weeks ago. That attempt was also on a Saturday night.

The fire on Saturday night was in the rear end of the room occupied by A. Sander’s second hand store. The flames broke out and spread with great rapidity, as a few minutes before the alarm was given Police Officer Mclntosh had passed by the premises and could not detect anything wrong.

When the department arrived the fire had gained considerable headway in the rear of the building and the flames shot up for a fierce conflagration. A line of hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of the streets named and water was thrown on the flames. The fire engine ran back to Fourth and A streets and another line of hose was attached to the hydrant there and the engine was soon pumping away with remarkable promptitude. The engine was moved to this hydrant so as not to be too close to the heat of the burning building in the event of the fire getting beyond the control of the firemen.

The fire did considerable damage to the stock in Sanders’ store and water and smoke assisted. The fire was a stubborn one and it was some time before the flames were subdued. Then Chief Adams detailed Fireman Doc Cozad to watch the premises and a section of hose was left attached to the hydrant.

The first attempt to burn the building was in that portion of it occupied by the Star Feed Mill. The building is owned by A. E. Chartrand and alongside the part where the fire was started he is erecting a new brick building. A large crowd of people gathered at the scene of the fire, coming from all parts of the city. The accepted theory is that the fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin.

– Press Democrat, May 29, 1904

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RAILROAD SQUARE’S ON FIRE

“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.


NEXT: SANTA ROSA, WE HAVE A FIREBUG

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

 

FIRE DOES GREAT DAMAGE
The Loss Estimated at $100,000 – Fire the Worst in the History of the City
CAUSE UNKNOWN
FANNED BY A HIGH WIND THE FLAMES SWEEP ON IN MAD FURY
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

 

LUDWIG’S ADDITION
THE RESIDENTS OF THAT SECTION TURN OUT ENMASSE TO SAVE THEIR HOMES
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

 

TO REBUILD AT ONCE
PRESIDENT POSTER ARRIVES AT MIDNIGHT AND LOOKS OVER THE GROUND
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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THE FALL AND RISE OF SANTA ROSA HIGH, PT. 1

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
 
 
FIRE LOSS NOT LESS THAN $100,000, WITH $65,000 INSURANCE

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.

EXPLOSIONS HEARD

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.

LITTLE SALVAGED

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.

FIRE EQUIPMENT INADEQUATE

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.

YOUTHS DISCOVER BLAZE

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 HURT

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.

SPARKS FLY BLOCKS

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.

INSURANCE RECENTLY DOUBLED

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.

OLIVIA QUESTIONED NEED

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.

FIRE SEEN MANY MILES

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

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

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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