A devastated San Francisco rebuilds

First brick building in SF

Again, after the fire of June 22, 1851 San Francisco courageously rebuilt, and this time many of the buildings were replaced by brick structures that proved much more resistant to fire. And when, on November 9, 1852, yet another fire broke out on Keary Street near Portsmouth Square, the same place where two of the great conflagrations had started, the flames were contained by the new brick walls between Washington and Montgomery and comparatively little damage was done. Had the buildings involved still been the flimsy wood frame structures of before the toll of this fire would also have been immense.

San Francisco 1851

Since then, until the earthquake and fire of 1906, many more fires occurred in the city and none had the impact of any of the six great fires. For years residents who had experienced these fires would talk of them as a wonderful experience. Those who had been burned out several times took great pride in relating how they had risen above their troubles, and there were all too many who had lost everything four or five times. The excitable Dr. William Rabe, burned out from his property on Clay near Montgomery several times, had the Latin motto ‘Nil Desperatum’ or ‘Never Despair’ placed over his door. The doctor was said to be flattered when his quote came to be used as a nickname.

SF seal

On November 4, 1852 the city council chose as the design for the seal of the city a phoenix rising from the flames in front of the golden gate with emblems of commerce along the side. Later, when a new seal was adopted for the consolidated City and County of San Francisco, a miner and a sailor stood on either side of a shield with the image of a steamship entering the Golden Gate and a scroll with the Spanish words ‘Oro en Paz, en Guerro Fiero’ or ‘Gold in Peace, in War Iron’ but the phoenix was kept and rose as a crest above the shield. San Francisco had risen from the ashes.






  1. Thank you for the explanation to your previous post John, much appreciated. 🙂

  2. What a fine series on San Francisco’s flaming history this has been! Reading it has me in goosebumps! Thanks for writing it!


    • I’m sure, Carol, that if they had modern arson investigations they would have had proof that most of the fires were set on purpose. San Francisco was full of crooks and the suspicion of arson was very high, so from the fires came the vigilantes. They hanged a few men but mostly they just ran the crooks out of town and into the gold country for someone else to deal with.

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