Times Past

Disastrous 1886 fire destroys downtown San Luis Obispo

The Andrews Hotel at its grand opening in 1885 with the county military band. The hotel burned down on April 18, 1886.
The Andrews Hotel at its grand opening in 1885 with the county military band. The hotel burned down on April 18, 1886.

“We will just have to start building all over again.”

Confidence in the face of ruin was beautifully depicted in one of my favorite movies, 1936’s “San Francisco,” starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. Filmed during the worst years of the Depression, it showed an ebullient San Francisco rising from the ashes of the 1906 fire.

A similar scene could have been filmed here in San Luis Obispo in 1886. The very core of the town burned. And if the tone of the newspaper accurately states the mood of the business community, rebuilding would start the Monday after the fire.

On Palm Sunday, April 18, 1886, the elegant, wooden Andrews Hotel caught fire. The hotel opened July 3, 1885, a symbol of a new and buoyant economy. Its loss appeared to be a major setback to the city.

The fire spread from the hotel at Monterey and Osos streets on the site of the present Andrews Bank building. It crossed Monterey Street to the Loobliner Building, which housed San Luis Obispo’s post office and telephone office. The courthouse across Osos Street was also threatened.

Myron Angel’s newspaper, the Daily Republic, reported the holocaust:

“The Andrews [burned], together with the row of buildings facing the hotel on Monterey Street, including the Bank of San Luis Obispo to the livery stable on the east end of the row. The fire started in the east wing of the hotel and was discovered at 5:30 p.m. Its origin is not definitely known, but from its location the supposition is that it started in the flue leading from the reading room.”

The firemen immediately responded to the alarm. Crowds gathered as the upper floors of the large wooden structure quickly collapsed. The streams of water from the firemen’s hoses were unable to reach the upper levels.

Volunteers risked their lives saving the furniture of the hotel and the contents of the stores on the ground floor. Only three of the stores were occupied — a drugstore, a jewelry and confectionery store and the Wells Fargo and Stage.

The fire burned down to the second story and started to spread to nearby buildings.

Heavy streams of water were directed against the front of the bank, post office and livery stable facing the burning building and the Court House across Osos Street.

The heat became so intense that the firemen were covered with wet blankets and streams of water were constantly thrown over them.

Finally, the men had to abandon the front of the buildings on Monterey Street.

The wooden livery stable of McLeod & Payne quickly burned and the fire started to spread through broken windows to the inside of the brick buildings.

“The rear half of Forsyth’s Planing Mill was in flames when the hooks were attached to the front of the building and it was pulled down.

According to the Republic, “A well-directed stream of water soon stopped the progress of the fire there, and the house immediately in rear of the bank was also torn down.

“It was not until some hours after nightfall that our citizens could breathe freely and feel safe from a further spread of the fire.”

The Bank of San Luis Obispo, Watkin’s Bazaar, Dave Dunbar’s saloon, the post office, the telephone office and the livery stable were destroyed.

The fire was the most destructive in San Luis Obispo’s history up to 1886. At least $200,000 worth of property was destroyed, about half of which wasn’t covered by insurance.

A new grand hotel was started shortly after the fire. But on another site.

The Southern Pacific’s Coast Route was progressing from San Miguel to Paso Robles, the new town of Templeton and the Santa Margarita Ranch. The promoters of the Ramona Hotel, named after local heroine Doña Ramona Carrillo Pacheco Wilson, decided to build near the proposed railroad right of way at the present day Johnson and Marsh streets.

The new hotel included private baths in half the rooms. There was even talk of adding of Thomas Edison’s new incandescent lighting.

But the Ramona, like the Andrews Hotel, was built of wood. It burned to the ground in 1905.

This column is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the SLO County Library.