SUNSET ON ‘‘NABOB HILL’’
Fascinating Diorama of San Francisco’s Palaces before 1906 Fire
being Restored at the Presidio Army Museum
The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 4, No. 2
“Nabob Hill” (nob Hill for short) which Robert Louis Stevenson called the “Hill of Palaces” was bathed in a fateful sunset April 18, 1906.
The palatial homes of the “Nabobs” - the Big Four Rail road Kings: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker; the mansions of Comstock’s Silver King, James Flood; banker Richard Tobin, the Townes, the Ponds, and on the crest of the hill, the unfinished Fairmont Hotel. They stood out starkly against a terrifyingly beautiful backdrop, the smoke and flames of the great fire which was devouring Chinatown below and gathering strength to climb through the night, block by block, to the crest of “Nabob Hill”.
This scene in exquisite detail will go on display at the Presidio Army Museum even before restoration is completed. It will be placed in position in one of the Museum’s galleries and visitors will be able to watch model builder Brian Chin and curator Eric Saul at work on it.
“One of the Nicest Pieces of Work”
It was one of 10 dioramas built by the display firm of Nelson-Green for the City of San Francisco’s historic exhibit at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 on Treasure Island.
In a letter to Jay Green, the designer, San Francisco’s photographer, Gabriel Moulin wrote : “In photographing the dioramas, we realized that this was on the nicest pieces of work that was turned out for the Exposition.”
The first of the dioramas, “San Francisco’s Presidio circa 1806” went on display at the Army Museum last summer. Thanks to the efforts of our Association President, Mr. George Dean and the good offices of Mr. Jack Spring, General Manager of San Francisco’s Park and Recreation Department, the “Fire of 1906 as seen from Nob Hill” also has been turned over to the Museum.
The diorama is a real historical treasure for it provides exact models of the palaces on “Nabob Hill”. Their burning ended a particular era of conspicuous opulence which San Franciscans of the day heartily approved and which has never been approached since.
“Sinful City Got What it Deserved!”
San Francisco was indeed a swinging City in 1906 and Tuesday evening, April 17 was perhaps the most lavish in its social history. The Metropolitan Opera Company opened its engagement with Carmen. Ladies, beautifully gowned and glittering with jewels, swooned over the golden voice of Enrico Caruso. Twenty-four hours later, some of them still wearing their diamond dog collars and jeweled stomachers were standing in bread lines.
At 5: 13 A.M., April 18, the great earthquake in 47 seconds left hundreds of people dead and dying and the City a devastation of fallen brick and stone and crazily tottering buildings. Worse yet, the quake started the great fire and made sure the firemen couldn’t put it out by breaking the mains and cutting off the City’s water.
All this horror, however, was not viewed everywhere as a massacre of the innocents. The Flying Rollers of the House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan, put on a parade complete with a brass band. The “wicked city” had got what was coming to it’.
The Rollers knew it was coming and had tried to warn the San Franciscans. They had sent a missionary, Mary McDermott, to convert the heathens, but the latter paid little attention to her.
Farther east, Bishop Hamilton warned his flock that San Francisco was “A City of saloons and anarchy, where Methodism flourisheth not,” and called on the faithful from Lawrence, Mass. to Trenton, New Jersey to raise train fare and send a missionary of their own to save the modern Sodom.
However, the City’s salvation already was under way. It started when the quake unceremoniously dumped a feisty red headed little general named Frederick Funston out of his bed in his home at 1310 Washington Street.
Throwing on his clothes, he “hastened on foot to the highest point on California Street which is popularly known as Nob Hill”. From there he saw the great fire south of Market Street and below him to the east, new blazes in the financial district. He also saw frustrated fire companies - their hoses flat for want of water. He knew what San Francisco was in for and what had to be done. (Story of the earthquake, fire, and General Funston, “At 5 feet, 4, the Tallest Man in San Francisco”, appeared in the Fort Point Salvo, Vol. 3 No. 2, May 1976)
Had he returned to Nob Hill later in the day, the General might have seen a fresh thirteen-year old girl whose father he knew. She was Phyllis de Young, now Mrs. Nion Tucker. She was the daughter of M. H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle and member of Mayor Schmitz’ Committee of 50 organized “to provide protection for the City and relief for the injured and homeless”.
“I Might Have Been One of the People in the Nob Hill Diorama”
“Our house was on California Street, west of Nob Hill, between Gough and Octavia,” Mrs. Tucker recalls. I was on Nob Hill that afternoon, the 18th, and I knew the Nabob Palaces well. My brother Charles drove me up in our Winton 6. We turned on Powell Street and went down to Union Square. The fire was eating into the buildings on the south side. Breuner’s Furniture Store had begun to burn. And then I could hardly believe my eyes!”
There were Ghost Chairs, Rocking, Rocking!
“In Breuner’s big window was a whole row of rocking chairs - all of them rocking as if the people sitting in them had just gotten up to leave. My brother told me it was the hot blast of the fire coming up from the floor that made them rock. But it certainly gave me a start!”
Back on the Hill, the Nabob’s palaces, mostly closed or serving public institutions, their builders all departed, waited for the fire to sweep them away. In the opinion of architects and artists, that was one good thing the conflagration did! But the great old mansions, to the last, were as fascinating as dreams - even bad dreams.
As they stood on their last afternoon, April 18, 1906:
(1) - left foreground, chart above) was what has been called the “delirium of a woodcarver” -the-million and- a-quarter dollar mansion of Railroad King, Charles Crocker, surmounted by a 76-foot tower. A few misanthropes speculated as to whether there were slits in the tower from which Crocker could pour down boiling oil if the proletariat ever stormed the hill.
Mr. Crocker, to see Mr. Medici
“Early Renaissance” was what Crocker wanted and he pursued the matter diligently. While in Italy buying paintings from the Gallery of the Medici’s, he is said to have insisted on speaking to Mr. Medici himself. He found however, that he has about four centuries late for an appointment with Lorenzo the Magnificent.
But no matter. Back in San Francisco, Crocker watched over 50 woodcarvers who were producing scrollwork decorations never before - or since - seen anywhere. And he had to decide whether his Gobelin tapestries “should be hung on the walls as paintings or on the floors as mats”.
The grand “Crocker Meissonier” was thought much finer than Collis P. Huntington’s mansion (2) next door. It was a severe Georgian house with hardly any ornament at all. It probably was the best architecturally of the lot. But it had its fantasy, too. It was filled with second-rate paintings and objects d’art Huntington had collected, believing, some said, that in acquiring them he would acquire the instinct of a gentleman as well.
James Flood’s $60,000 “Brass Rail”
Next (3) was the Palace of Silver King, James Flood. Using brownstone, which was just coming into fashion in the east, he built his 43-room mansion at California and Mason. He surrounded it with a $60,000 handwrought bronze fence and hired a man full time to keep it polished. San Francisco’s wags called it “Jim’s brass rail” and claimed Flood built it to remind himself of the days when he had tended bar at the Auction Lunch Saloon.
On the right side of California Street (foreground) stood the white mansion of Albion Towne (4). The only thing that remains of it is the doorway framed by graceful marble pillars. These may be seen today in Golden Gate Park. They are the “Portals of the Past” set by a reflecting pool.
Flanking the Towne House was the home of banker Richard Tobin (5) distinguished by its handsome mansard roof. Then came the Pond and Hamilton houses.
Mary Hopkins’ Nightmare
At California and Mason Streets stood the nightmare of nightmares (6), a castle past all imagining. Tight fisted Mark Hopkins had surprised the City by giving in to his wife Mary’s most cherished flights of fancy. He gave her a jumble of towers, turrets, steeples whose architecture ran the gamut from Norman to Carpenter’s Gothic to cuckoo-clock - with cuckoo predominating.
The best thing about the place was the stone foundation, three stories high, which shored up the lot on the steep Pine Street side. It stands to this day like a medieval bastion below the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
Mr. Hopkins, himself, never slept in his palace. Death took him before it was finished. His widow, Mary, married the young decorator who, likely, was responsible for the Palace of the Doges drawing room, the carved English oak dining room, the master bedroom of ebony, ivory and inset jewels. On her death, the house was given to the University of California. At the time of the fire, it housed the Hopkins Art Institute.
Stanford’s Towering Hall
Last but not least of the “Nabob’s Palaces” was Senator Leland Stanford’s mammoth wooden mansion set in a two-acre lot at Powell and California (7). On Mrs. Stanford’s death, the year before the fire, it passed to Stanford University.
The kingly residence was fronted by a flight of marble steps which led into a great circular hallway that rose to a height of 70 feet. Its only visible support was a sing le marble pillar. The floor was covered with signs of the Zodiac inlaid in black marble. Other noteworthy features included a hothouse conservatory and an East Indies Salon where stately waltzes were played “ in a misty Victorian elegance.”
At Last, A Touch of Beauty, The Fairmont
On the crest of “Nabob Hill”, overlooking the whole City, was the nearly completed Fairmont Hotel (8) designed in the shape of a European Palace with a first story of gray granite surmounted by five stories of cream marble and terra cotta. It was the most beautiful building on the hill.
Its site had been owned by James G. Fair, one of the Silver Kings and a partner of James Flood. Fair had planned to build his own palace there which would dwarf all the others, but after a bitter divorce gave up the idea. On his death the site became the property of his daughter, Tessie Oelrichs. In 1904 she announced she would build a grand hotel on it to be called “The Fairmont”.
As The Fairmont neared completion, Tessie’s marriage to New York socialite, Herman Oelrichs broke up. Shortly before the fire she traded the hotel to Dr. Herbert Law, who had made a fortune selling patent medicine and his brother, Hartland, for two income properties, the Realto and Crossly buildings on Mission Street. Both burned April 18, the first day of the fire, while The Fairmont looked down handsome and serene from the brow of Nob Hill.
Fire Sweeps Palaces at Dawn, April 19
Through the night of the 18th, servants and volunteers led by Professor Edmund O ‘Neil worked feverishly to rescue paintings, statuary, and other valuables. Most of the indifferent paintings in the Hopkins Collection were saved. Servants got Millet’s “Man with the Hoe” out of the Crocker Mansion, but Reuben’s “The Holy Family” and many other priceless paintings were lost.
Though a good deal of the statuary was piled in the garden of the Flood House, there was no one to haul it away.
Then, just before dawn, the fire which had been inching its way up the steep eastern slope of Nob Hill, swept over the crest. Mark Hopkins’ gabled and groined cracker box burned in an hour. Leland Stanford’s home followed - its great entrance hall serving as a chimney up which names shot high in the air. The Crocker, Flood, Towne houses and the rest died in the roaring conflagration.
The fire had some trouble scaling the foundations of The Fairmont. So it by-passed the hotel momentarily, sweeping west along Sacramento Street. But a breeze from the ocean turned it back and it struck The Fairmont full in the face.
About that time Novelist Gertrude Atherton happened to be on the bay in a launch headed for Oakland. She turned, and for a moment “forgot the doomed City as I looked at The Fairmont, a tremendous volume of white smoke soaring upward from where its unfinished roof had been - every window a shimmering sheet of gold”.
By mid-morning only two structures remained - the Flood Mansion and The Fairmont. Their interiors were gutted, but their stone walls still stood.
Racing West to Devour the Rest of the City
Without a moment’s pause the fires swept down the western slope of Nob Hill. Out Sutter, Pine, California, Sacramento Streets, gorging itself at the rate of $6,000,000 an hour. As it ate its way nearer and nearer to broad Van Ness Avenue where the final stand had to be made, it also drew closer to the home of Phyllis de Young who had seen sunset on “Nabob Hill” the day before.
“We were right there on California Street, two blocks west of Van Ness,” she remembers. “Our home was full of friends who had been forced to flee the St. Francisco Hotel, and the Anny also had it packed with dynamite. I can see my brother now clutching armloads of dynamite sticks and rushing off the deliver them to the soldiers who were blasting to stop the fire at Van Ness.
“You know, even when we were so excited and wondering if we were going to be burned out, little things happened that were funny.
“I’ll never forget one man trudging by our house clutching his prized possessions. Firmly jammed on his head was a glossy silk hat. In his harms he held a bird cage with his cat locked inside. On his shoulder, preening itself; was his bird. We all laughed, and it helped. I hope the man came through the fire and lived a happy life.”
Rebuilding Before the Bricks Had Cooled
The fire’s westward sweep was halted at Van Ness, and as Mrs. Tucker says, “It was literally true, rebuilding started almost before the embers cooled. I saw it. I was there.”
Up on “Nabob Hill”, Tessie Oelrichs, despite her heavy losses, bought back The Fairmont. She engaged noted architect, Stanford White, to supervise reconstruction and finish the hotel. She opened it a year to the day after it was burned out, on April 19, 1907. It was the first of the great hotels (The Fairmont, Palace, St. Francis) to open after the fire. In the City, still clearing away rubble and rebuilding in every direction, The Fairmont stood tall and serene, the most imposing building on the San Francisco skyline.
Again, the “Hill of Palaces”
Today, far handsomer buildings top Nob Hill. Beautiful Grace Cathedral stands on the site of the Crocker Mansion. Huntington Park occupies the site of Collis P. Huntington’s home. The great brownstone Flood Mansion is the exclusive Pacific Union Club.
Across California Street and a block east on Powell is the gracious Stanford Court Hotel. Next to it, at California and Mason, “Mary Hopkins’ Nightmare” has been replaced by the fine and stately Mark Hopkins Hotel. A little farther west, where the Towne residence stood in 1906 is the charming Huntington Hotel whose “Big 4” restaurant is filled with memorabilia of the titans who built the original palaces.
On the crest of Nob Hill stands The Fairmont, designed to resemble a European palace and endowed with a courtly graciousness. There it stands after 71 years, still San Francisco’s “Grand Hotel”.
Painter, Designer, Restorer ... Brian Chin
Last summer Brian Chin saw the handsome diorama “Presidio of San Francisco circa 1806” in the Army Museum and made a right turn in his career. He asked Curator Eric Saul about future plans for designing displays, building models and dioramas and in short order joined the Museum staff.
He and Saul now at work meticulously restoring the big diorama, “The Fire of 1906 as seen from Nob Hill” which is one of the finest of the group displayed by the City of San Francisco at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.
After the Exposition closed, the dioramas were stored. They were vandalized while in storage. Almost all the buildings in the Nob Hill diorama need repair and repainting. Ch in has built a new cable car replacing the one which was lost. He also will build from scratch a new model of the Albion N. Towne residence (right foreground in the Nob Hill scene) to replace the original.
Chin’s first assignment for the Museum was designing and pa in ting the Stephen Damian memorial panorama. It not only illustrates all the different guns which protected the San Francisco Bay in the days of coastal artillery, but also pictures the types of ships each weapon was designed to attack. The work required careful research as well as artistic talent.
A native of San Francisco, Brian Chin comes well equipped for his profession. He holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before joining the Museum staff, he started work on a second Masters in Film Production at UCLA. He has been a film animator and has produced stop-motion material and miniatures for filming. He also builds architectural models.
AT 5 FT 4 -THE TALLEST MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
April 18, 1906 Climaxed “Eternal Boy’s” Unbelievable Adventures
Called the “Eternal Boy” by William Allen White, his Kansas City roommate, stubby, redhaired Frederick Funston would never have been believed if Horatio Alger had dreamed him up.
Son of Kansas Congressman Edward H. Funston, his boyhood was spent prosaically enough in Iola, Kansas. In due course, he graduated from Iola High School and went on to the State University, but didn’t stay to get a degree. Instead, he took a job as a reporter on a Fort Smith, Arkansas paper.
In 1890, young Fred joined a Department of Agriculture expedition to the Dakota Badlands and the next year served as botanist on another expedition to Death Valley. When this was finished, he took a job on a Kansas City paper and roomed with his friend and Kansas University classmate, William Allen White.
In 1892, he was off to study the flora of Alaska. In 1893-94, he spent the winter alone in the Klondike. When the ice broke in the spring he built a boat and paddled 1500 miles down the Yukon to the sea where he boarded ship for California.
Later in ‘94, he tried to set up a coffee plantation in Central America but that didn’t work. He moved on to New York as an assistant comptroller for the Santa Fe Railroad. Then things began to happen.
Captain in the Army of Cuba
One day he visited an exhibition in Madison Square Garden put on by the Cuban Revolutionists who were fighting for freedom from Spain. A few fiery speeches, and Frederick was sold. He enlisted in the Cuban Army.
While waiting to be called up, he memorized the manufacturer’s instruction booklet on the Hotchkiss 12-pounder (rapid firing cannon). On the strength of this knowledge, he was made a Captain of Artillery on his arrival in Cuba in the summer of 1896. He knew precious little about Artillery in general, and nothing about military tactics, but he was a “take-charge guy” and men would follow him.
He fought in 23 engagements before being invalided home in 1898 shaking from malaria and with a bullet wound in one lung. By then he was a Lieutenant Colonel.
To the Philippines with Kansas’ Fighting 20th
Hardly had he recovered when the Spanish-American War broke out. Governor John. W. Leedy of Kansas remembered Frederick Funston and named him Colonel of the volunteer 20th Kansas Infantry.
Before taking the train to join his regiment which was in San Francisco en route to the Philippines, he bought another military manual. The story is told that when his father asked him, “What do you know about military tactics, Fred?”, he answered: “Not much, but I am halfway through this book and by the time I reach San Francisco, I will have mastered it.” That one book provided Colonel Funston’s formal military education.
Medal of Honor and a General’s Star for “Lucky Funston”
The Spanish-American War ended before the 20th Kansas went into action. That came early in 1899 after the Philippines under Emilio Aguinaldo had declared their independence and attacked American outposts around Manila. The Philippine Insurrection was on.
In its first engagement the fighting 20th went far past its objective, and kept on doing so. As General Arthur MacArthur’s drive to take the rebel capital Malolos reached the town, the Associated Press cabled: “Colonel Funston, always at the front, was the first man in Malolos, followed by a group of dashing Kansans”.
Shortly thereafter the hot pursuit through the jungle was brought up short at_ the Rio Grande near the town of Calumpit. The river was wide and swift and the rebels were well dug in at the only bridge.
Colonel Funston sent out a detail to scout for a crossing. They didn’t find one. But they did turn up a little raft the rebels had forgotten to burn.
This gave Funston an idea. If he could get it to the other side and secure its tow rope, maybe he could shuttle it back and forth with the help of the swift current and use it as a troop ferry. Two Kansas Privates, William B. Trembley and Edward White, volunteered to swim the river and pull the raft after them. They were covered by the regiments fire which included Gatling guns and a Hotchkiss revolving cannon. They made it and lashed the tow line to a bamboo stump. The raft was pulled back and Colonel Funston led the first seven men to cross on it.
Later he commented: “I had initiated this enterprise and felt that I must see it through. I could not but consider the outcome as doubtful and knew mighty well that if I should send a small force across and sacrifice it, I would be damned in my home state all the rest of my life and held up to scorn by all the corner-grocer tacticians in the country.”
Commanding General Arthur MacArthur was watching young Funston’s maneuver from a nearby bluff. He personally recommended the Colonel and his two swimmers for citations. All received the Medal of Honor and Funston was promoted to Brigadier General in the volunteers.
Capture of Aguinaldo and End of the Insurrection
It took a daring, almost suicidal ruse to run the elusive Emilio Aguinaldo to ground and break the back of the rebellion. Funston did it again, March 23, 1901.
He, one of his Captains, and Lazaro Segovia, a Spanish soldier of fortune who spoke Tagalog, broke Aguinaldo’s code and learned where he was. Funston’s plan was to dispatch a force of some 80 Maccabee Scouts (friendly Aztecs who had been brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards) as much needed replacements for Aguinaldo. They also would present the rebel leader with four “captured” American officers. Who was the first “captive”? Why, Frederick Funston, who else? After a hair-raising trek through the jungle when, even Funston thought the chance of success was about as good as a plugged nickel, they found Aguinaldo and captured him. For this exploit of great daring Funston was promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army.
All Funston’s Adventures only a Prelude to April 18, 1906
General Funston had the uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time. No people were more thankful for that than the citizens of San Francisco. He was there commanding the department of California when the great earthquake threw him out of bed in his home on California Street at 5: 13 a. m., April 18, 1906. He was the senior officer in the City. His superior, Major General Adolphus W. Greely, being on leave in the East at the time.
The great wrenching, twisting quake most powerful yet recorded, lasted about a minute. In that minute, stone cornices decorating the city’s buildings fell like giant cannon shot upon the streets below. Brick walls bellied out, buckled and crunched down crushing whatever lay beneath. Ceilings fell on sleeping people (150 were lost in one hotel alone). Then, south of Market Street, where working people lived, kitchen stoves which were boiling morning coffee began to set fire to curtains, floors, splintered walls. The holocaust was beginning.
At the first shock General Funston threw on his clothes and started forth. Writing later in Cosmopolitan Magazine he said: “I hastened on foot toward the business section ... arriving at the highest point on California Street which is popularly known as ‘Nob Hill’. Several columns of smoke were seen rising from the region south of Market Street with others rising apparently from fires in the financial district. Walking rapidly down California Street I found that several fires were burning fiercely.” He looked around - and really caught his breath!
“Where’s Your Water?”
Collier’s Magazine tells it: “A bank was on fire at Sansome Street. An engine company was already there; its hoses were down in the street but flat, their gleaming nozzles dry. The firemen ran from one hydrant to another.
‘Where’s your water?’ the General asked.
‘The quake’s broke all the mains!’
“The General was of well-tempered steel. But keen and resilient as he was, it took a moment to recover. For what the firemen had said was that San Francisco was doomed!” For the first time in his career Frederick Funston faced an enemy he was powerless to stop.
“I realized,” he wrote later, “that a great conflagration was inevitable and that the City Police force would not be able to maintain fire lines to protect property over the great area affected.” He decided on the spot to order out all available troops to help police and fire departments. But how to get the word to Fort Mason and the Presidio with the telephone lines down?
“Several men dashing wildly about in automobiles declined to help me,” he wrote, “for which I indulged in the pious hope they be burned out! So, I made my way, running and walking, to the Army stable on Pine Street near Hyde, a little more than a mile, where I arrived in so serious a condition I could hardly stand.”
At the stables he found two aides, Lieutenants Davis and Long and sent them on horseback to turn out the troops.
“You Tell General Funston!” .....
Fort Mason complied immediately, but Colonel Morris, Post Commander at the Presidio who didn’t care for young Brigadier General Funston told the aides to go tell him “he’d better look up his Army Regulations ... nobody but the President of the United States in person can order regular troops into any city.” Davis and Long were not about to carry that message. So they hunted up the post bugler and ordered him to sound the call-to-arms. He did it and the troops turned out (a lucky break for the aides and for Colonel Morris, too!)
After dispatching his orders, General Funston walked back home. By this time the streets were crowded with people peering anxiously at the columns of black smoke rising from the densely populated area south of Market.
“The thing that made the greatest impression on me” he said, “was the strange unearthly silence. There was no talking, no apparent excitement ... while from the great City lying at our feet there came not a single sound, no shrieking of whistles, no clashing of hells. The terrific roar of the conflagration, the crashing of falling walls and of dynamite explosions that were to make the next three days hideous had not yet begun.”
After a cup of coffee and instructions to his wife Eda to pack and get ready to move to the Presidio for their house probably would be burned (and was) the General hurried down town.
By 8 o’clock “the conflagration with a mile of from, was rapidly entering its way into the heart of the City,” he reported. Every building on Market Street was threatened. As troops began to arrive from Fort Mason and the Presidio, they were deployed along Market two to a block “with instructions to shoot instantly any person caught looting or committing any serious misdemeanor”.
Funston knew that without water the only hope of stopping the fire was to dynamite a corridor around it and destroy the fuel supply it-was feeding on. Dynamite had been sent for and 300 pounds was on its way from Pinole. But, as it arrived Mayor Eugene Schmitz stood up to the General, toe-to-toe, and demanded that no building be blasted unless it was sure to be burned. Understandably he was afraid of later lawsuits for unauthorized destruction of property. The result was the dynamite had to be placed too close to the fire. Its tongues of flame leapfrogged the blasted corridors and ate their way on - a block an hour.
Right here it should be said that Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz, former orchestra leader and considered by many as an ineffective “sawdust” Mayor rose to heights of courage and decisiveness equal to the General’s. Together they saved San Francisco.
Funston “Always at the Front”
True to his reputation in the Philippines, Frederick Funston again was “always at the front”. All that afternoon he was on horseback at the perimeter of the flames, his face black with soot, his clothes soaked from fire hoses. He looked, said one observer, as if he had just come off “some Civil War battlefield.” He kept office in the streets, dispatched urgent messages to Washington, issued orders with the fire roaring at his back. And those orders were as cool and competent as the fire was hot.
His call for tents promptly the War Department to order every stitch of canvass it owned to San Francisco. He ordered his engineers to set up sanitary precautions at the refugee camps and enforce them. He stripped the Army’s store houses of food and systematized its distribution to the hungry thousands. He ordered the older men and youths to dig mass graves and they turned to. He asked for authority to do what had to be done and President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft gave it to him.
During the ordeal he found time to help Mayor Schmitz organize citizens relief committees, merchants committees and other groups to meet vital needs that grew with every hour as the horde of homeless refugees reached and passed the 300,000 mark. Through it all he and the Mayor stood shoulder to shoulder.
No Night in San Francisco
The fire which had shown signs of subsiding about 6 o’clock the first day, flared again worse than ever. It was a night of horror; four square miles of the City were on fire. “The night was as light as day,” General Funston said, “and the roar of the conflagration, the crash of falling walls and the continuous explosion made a pandemonium simply indescribable.”
Funston had told the City’s leading business men and officials whom the Mayor called into a “Committee of 50” that a corridor had to be blasted for 60 blocks across the City. The bombardment got underway, but still the conflagration spread north and west.
It was decided to make a final stand the third heartbreaking day at Van Ness Avenue, widest in the City. Dynamite was all but exhausted. Tugs were sent racing up the Bay to Pinole for more but the crisis wouldn’t wait.
The Artillery Attacks
Captain of Artillery, Le Vert Coleman suggested the General Funston that his batteries blast a lane 50 yards wide on the east side of Van Ness. He ordered troops to evacuate the area, brought up his guns and started blowing some of the finest homes in the City to bits.
It wasn’t enough. Sparks leaped across the avenue and set the steeple of St. Mary’s Cathedral on fire. A man climbed out on the roof - some said a priest and others a sailor and smothered the flame. The fire crossed Van Ness at Bush Street and ate up an entire block. Still no more dynamite! As a last resort, soldiers, sailors, firemen, civilian volunteers lined up side by side armed with brooms, blankets, potato sacks - anything they could use to beat out flames.
Then their luck began to change. The Water Department, working around the clock, had gotten a main working west of Van Ness. At last more fire hoses filled! And the wind began blowing from the south, sending the fire back over areas it had already burned. It began to lose its fuel. But it wasn’t conquered yet. Sparks riding the wind lit new blazes to the north in the area of the docks. If they were lost, San Francisco, a seaport, would really be cut off from the world.
But now the Navy’s fireboats and all the City’s fire engines which were still working could pump water out of the Bay. Each was shooting 1,000 gallons a minute on the blaze.
Chianti Finally Puts It Out
The fire was trapped. As if to escape, it made one final dash up Telegraph Hill above the waterfront. Here were nestled the rose-grown cottages of San Francisco’s Neapolitan fishermen. In many of their cellars rested casks of red Chianti quietly aging. But of what use was good wine without homes to drink it in or friends to share it with? Swinging wine-soaked blankets, the rugged fishermen drove the last of the flames off their roofs and porches. At 7:15 a.m., Saturday, April 21, 1906, the great San Francisco fire was out!
General Funston, Mayor Schmitz and all who fought the desperate battle with them could draw their first deep breath in three days. So could Mrs. Funston who also had been working round the clock helping Miss Dora Thompson, Head Nurse, and her staff care for the flood of sick and injured people brought to Letterman Hospital in the Presidio.
However, San Franciscans would only rest a moment. While the fallen bricks on Market Street were still hot, they trooped back to survey the damage, start the tremendous job of cleaning up and building a new city. Just nine years after the disaster, in 1915, San Francisco presented to the world the great Panama Pacific International Exposition.
For his service during the San Francisco earthquake and fire Frederick Funston received no new medals. Instead he won the undying gratitude of a great city whose spirit was as indomitable as his. His bust was later placed in San Francisco City Hall where it can still be seen.
After his tour of duty in San Francisco, General Funston returned to the Philippines. Later he commanded our troops on the Mexican border. When Vera Cruz was occupied in 1914 he was appointed military governor of the city.
By 1917 he had attained the rank of Major General. Although no official announcement had been made, he was the choice of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to be Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
February 19, 1917
That evening Secretary Baker gave a dinner party for the President. Douglas MacArthur, then a Major, had the night duty in the Adjutant General’s Office in Washington. He received a telegram he knew must reach Secretary Baker immediately. He went to the Baker home and had to brush past a reluctant butler. He tried to catch the Secretary’s eye but the President spied him instead and called jovially, “Come in Major and tell us the news.” There was nothing for Macarthur to do but snap to attention, salute and blurt out: “Sir, I regret to report that General Funston has just died.”
As he was finishing a leisurely dinner with friends in a San Antonio hotel, the General was stricken with a fatal heart attack. He was 52 years old. President Wilson then chose General John J. Pershing to lead our troops to France.
Later William Allen White, by then the noted editor of the Emporia Kansas Gazette, summed up his lifelong friend, Frederick Funston: “Only a breath of wind, the flutter of a heart, kept ---Out of Pershing’s place in of the most colorful figures in the American Army, from the day of Washington on down. We had a man as dashing as Sheridan, as unique and picturesque as the slow moving, taciturn Grant, as charming as Jackson, as witty as old Billy Sherman, as brave as Paul Jones.”
General Funston lies at rest in the cemetery of the Presidio of San Francisco.
What Did Save Hotaling’s Whiskey?
We’ve all relished Charles K. Field’s hilarious, irreverent rhyme anent the great fire:
“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky;
Why did He burn the churches down,
And save Hotaling’s Whiskey?”
Well, the power that saved Hotaling’s Whiskey came from the U. S. Navy tug, “Leslie”. She had been built as a fireboat and mounted the most powerful pumps on San Francisco Bay. On April 20, 1906, she was tied up at the Hyde Street Wharf pumping her heart out. Her skipper was determined to save as much of the City he loved as his hoses could reach.
So he and his bluejackets strung a line from the “Leslie” up over the precipitous north slope of Telegraph Hill to Broadway, and down Broadway through the rubble to Montgomery Street. A handful of agile sailors snaked the hose up to the roof of a building and passed the word back: “turn ’er on!”
The “Leslie’s” engineer and other advisers told the skipper he was out of his mind. Their opinion went, “When your pumps build up enough pressure to force that water uphill for over a mile, your canvas hoses are going to come apart like wet cigarette papers.” But they didn’t! Oh, they sprang a few leaks here and there, but they kept the vital water running. And hour after hour, the bluejackets holding the nozzle on the Montgomery Street roof played a steady stream on every building they could reach.
As a result, two city blocks east of Montgomery and south of Jackson were saved. As luck would have it, the famous Bankers Exchange Saloon, legendary home of San Francisco’s Pisco Punch and A. P. Hotaling and Company’s spirits warehouse were within those blocks!
The handsome old Hotaling building with its iron shutters still stands on Jackson Street between Montgomery and Sansome.