Times Past

When fire came to San Luis Obispo

Justh, Quirot & Co. lithograph of the San Francisco Fire of June 22, 1851. It was the sixth “Great Conflagration” since Christmas 1849.
Justh, Quirot & Co. lithograph of the San Francisco Fire of June 22, 1851. It was the sixth “Great Conflagration” since Christmas 1849.

We were awakened by an early morning call last Sunday.

My brother in El Paso wanted to know how we were. He said it was all over the news channels that fire a threatened our Mission.

Chuck had conflated the images of Hearst Castle with his memories of Mission San Luis Obispo.

I did not realize my brother’s error. My mind flashed back to the summer of 1985 when, during the Las Pilitas Fire, portions of San Luis Obispo were evacuated.

Many of today’s mammoth fires affect wilderness areas and communities built in their midst. Earlier fires were the great enemy of cities and towns on America’s western frontier.

San Francisco was repeatedly hit by catastrophic fires.

A series of windswept blazes began on Christmas Eve, 1849. The fires continued sporadically, leveling large sections of the wooden “gold rush” city until the fires of May and June 1851, when they destroyed most of San Francisco.

San Francisco continued to have many fires, but none were as destructive — until the earthquake-related fire of April 18, 1906.

Early San Francisco newspapers, such as the Alta California, report 253 fires between 1851 and 1856. Nearly a third of those were deliberately set. The construction of cisterns and water-supply systems, along with a volunteer fire department, better contained the post-1851 fires.

Is it any wonder that San Franciscans have traditionally extended great honor to their firefighters?

Thirty-five years after San Francisco’s 1851 fires, San Luis Obispo was only a remote hamlet in the shadow of “The City” to the north. Nonetheless, the little town of less than 3,000 aspired to greatness. Southern California, which had previously been the “backward” part of the state, was experiencing what is called the “land boom of the ’80s.”

The 1870s had been marred by a nationwide depression. As the national economy recovered, so too did western migration. In 1883, the Southern Pacific opened its “Sunset Route” from New Orleans, the first all-weather railroad passage west.

The rival Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crossed the Colorado River near the town of Needles. The Southern Pacific reacted by cutting fares between Mississippi and Los Angeles by two-thirds or more.

San Diego’s population jumped from 5,000 in 1884 to 32,000 three years later. Los Angeles went from 11,830 to more than 100,000 by 1887.

An increased demand accompanied this growth for the sort of agricultural products — beans, dairying, fruit, vegetables and wheat — produced along the Central Coast, and San Luis Obispans were in a “bullish” mood during the mid-1880s.

The town extended roughly from Nipomo to Santa Rosa streets between Islay on the east and the scandalous Sycamore Street — the former “red-light district” renamed Walnut Street on the west. It had developed a water works sufficient to support no fewer than 17 fire plugs.

Myron Angel, the city’s leading booster, described the newly completed system in his 1883 “History of San Luis Obispo County.”

“... with cast-iron pipes seven inches in diameter, in the main streets ... the pressure is such as to throw a heavy stream from the fire hose over the highest building in the city, and over 100 feet on level ground, and with an abundant supply which may be turned on in a few minutes warning, the city is well protected from fire.”

The assurance of adequate fire protection prompted the construction of a number of new structures including a large, modern hotel.

The Andrews Hotel, which opened July 3, 1885, was an opulent symbol of the boom times that were anticipated once the westward migration “discovered” this place of a fertile valleys and gentle climate.

Within less than a year, San Luis Obispo would have to start building a replacement for its charred ruins.

To be continued.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com