While San Francisco grew at an astonishing rate in the years directly after the discovery of gold, with houses spreading in every direction and populated by people from across the world, there were drawbacks. By the turn of the next century the city was more than fifteen times larger than in 1849 but in all that time there was nothing, until the great earthquake and fire of 1906, to compare with the number of fires that tore through San Francisco from 1849 to 1851.
The first fire, which came to be called “The Great Fire” in those days, started at six o’clock in the morning on December 24, 1849 at a gambling parlor called Dennison’s Exchange on Kearny Street between Clay and Jackson and opposite Portsmouth Square. It spread rapidly to the east towards Montgomery Street. There was no wind but the buildings were nothing but shells made of wood with ceiling and walls of cotton cloth painted or papered over and they caught fire easily. No fire department existed then but the Mayor and other brave men either pulled down, or used gunpowder to blow up, a number of buildings in the fire’s path thus depriving it of fuel, and the flames finally died out.
Both Dennison’s Exchange and the Parker House were burned to the ground, as were all of the buildings but one on Kearny Street between Clay and Washington, as well as everything on the south side of Washington between Kearny and Montgomery. In all about fifty buildings were destroyed and damage amounted to over a million dollars. Most of these businesses were gambling parlors that commanded the highest rents in town and could not be allowed to stand vacant. Within days building began again on top of the ashes. In weeks the area was as densely covered as it had been before. Unfortunately the new buildings, though larger, were no better built than the ones that had been there before and would only serve to provide more fuel for the next conflagration.
However, the city of San Francisco did pass a resolution to organize a fire department. Three hand pumped fire engines, shipped from the east around the tip of South America, provided the basis for three fire protection companies, the San Francisco, the Empire, and the Protection Company. Frederick D. Kohler was chosen as the Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Volunteer Fire Department on January 28, 1850. It was the start of the San Francisco Fire Department of today.