A fifth fire destroys San Francisco

The greatest of all the conflagrations that ravaged gold rush San Francisco occurred on May 4, 1851, one year to the day after the second fire, but it actually started an hour before midnight on the evening before at the upholstery store of Baker and Messerver on the south side of Clay Street across from Portsmouth Square. A strong wind blew in from the west and the flames spread rapidly towards the bay. Then the wind shifted, blowing hard from the south, roaring along the planked streets like they were giant blowpipes that fanned the fire into a fury so hot the water to fight it turned to steam.

4 May1851 fire

All night the flames raged. In Monterey, a hundred miles to the south, the reflection was said to be visible in the sky. By morning San Francisco was a smoking ruin. The heart of the city was destroyed, an area three quarters of mile long by a quarter of a mile wide, or sixteen square blocks and parts of seven more. With one thousand buildings gone and damage valued at ten to twelve million dollars, this fire was bigger than all the others combined.

Portsmouth Square 1851

Little was left but the sparsely settled outskirts. The new Customs House was gone as was the Union Hotel and the Jenny Lind Theater, located on the former sites of Dennison’s Exchange and the Parker House. The banking houses of Page, Bacon, and Co., Burgoyne and Co., and Wells and Co. were flattened. Several iron houses, imported because they were touted as fire proof, were destroyed. The iron door and window shutters expanded in the great heat and refused to open, trapping those inside. Many roasted in the flames. Brick buildings supplied with iron shutters suffered the same fate. The old adobe City Hall also went as did the above water parts of the hulks of the ships Niantic, Apollo and General Harrison.

Niantic storeship

Bank of James King of William

Five of the new brick buildings along Montgomery Street survived, among them the banking house of James King of William. Also saved were the El Dorado and Veranda gambling parlors. At the warehouse of Dewitt and Harrison, since no water was available, workers broke open kegs of vinegar and soaked blankets in the liquid then covered the building with them. Eighty thousand gallons of vinegar were used but the warehouse didn’t burn. By breaking apart the wharves to stop the spread of flames a number of valuable ships and other watercraft were spared. And once again the resilient people of San Francisco set about to rebuild their city, this time better and more resistant to fire.



  1. Thomas Alderton says

    My G/G/Grandfather left Providence, Rhode Island in November 1849 and headed for San Francisco by way of the Isthmus. He was employed by the Cooke Bros of Providence, who had set of shop on California Street , the first building east of Montgomery.

    He remained, along with other employees, in their brick (fireproof) building and survived to write about the fire.

    I have some of his papers and letters. One of great interest is his May 7th, 1851 letter.

    I would be interested in some information about the fire and pictures/photos in the area of the Cooke Bros. business.

    Thank you

    Tom Alderton

    • Thank you for writing, Thomas. The story of you great, great Grandfather surviving the fire of May 1851 is fascinating. I’m sure his letter about it is equally so.

      I have never seen an actual picture of any of the San Francisco fires. Most images from that era were drawings, perhaps made for a newspaper or magazine. Cameras were rare. If a photograph does exist the chances are it would be in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Good luck in your search.

      John Putnam

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.