Nobody knows for sure what started the “Great Fire” of Oct. 1, 1889, which destroyed most of downtown Cambria in the area now known as “East Village.”
But late historian Wilfred Lyons believes the cause was hot ashes thrown out after someone cleaned a fireplace.
“Soon a wind came up, blowing the ashes against the back of the hotel, catching the building on fire,” Lyons wrote on his 2005 Christmas card. Soon the whole area was ablaze, the wind blowing the fire to other buildings.”
The blaze “spread rapidly, and in a half an hour, the entire block was a mass of fire,” according to Wilmar Tognazzini’s accounts in “100 Years Ago, Excerpts from the San Luis Obispo Morning Tribune and the Daily Republic, 1889.”
Area historian Dawn Dunlap said the fire went “west, a little north and a little east.” Hardest hit was the area that’s now the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Main Street. The fire eventually extended almost to where JJ’s Pizza and its parking lot are now, Dunlap said, up Bridge Street and down to Santa Rosa Creek (destroying the “high-toned Cambria Hotel” and other buildings), and down Main to where the Chevron station is now.
The blaze moved so quickly through the wooden buildings that “there was not even time to get out the contents of the stores or buildings. Hardly anything was saved, and the town is destitute,” according to the report sent by telegraph to The Morning Tribune.
Firefighters couldn’t stop the raging fire due to a lack of water.
Fortunately, the only fatality was a horse that ran back into the fire, although a child died later of pneumonia caused by exposure and smoke.
Six homes were destroyed. Among the burned-out businesses besides the Proctor Hotel were a furniture store, lumber mill, doctor’s office, paint and equipment store, blacksmith shop, hardware store, post office, Odd Fellows hall, photo studio, saloon, drugstore, saddlery and livery and the offices of The Cambria Critic newspaper (the fourth time in six years owner-editor Roma Jackson had been burned out, he said.)
The loss in 1889 dollars was estimated at more than $150,000. Few of the burned-out structures were insured, because insurance companies didn’t like the risks involved.
Some notable buildings survived, including the Old Santa Rosa Chapel, Hesperian Schoolhouse and J.D. Campbell, Grant-Lull, Smithers, Leffingwell and Guthrie houses.
A move to relocate the town, perhaps closer to Leffingwell Landing, was short lived. Many businesses rebuilt, but Mrs. George Proctor reportedly sold the hotel lot the day after the fire. And J.D. Campbell’s obsession with the town’s lack of water with which to fight the fire resulted in his developing the town’s first water system.