A second fire consumes San Francisco

May 4, 1850 fire

A little more than four months passed since the first Great Fire in San Francisco when, around four in the morning on Saturday May 4, 1850 at a drinking and gambling house called the United States Exchange, flames broke out again and spread quickly east, north, and west. The fire consumed the entire block bounded by Kearny, Clay, Montgomery and Washington, save for a couple of lucky houses, and moved on to sweep two entire blocks between Montgomery, Washington, Dupont [since renamed Grant] and Jackson, with only a few buildings near the corner of Jackson and Montgomery surviving. In all three hundred buildings went up in flames and the damage was estimated to be three to four million dollars. Where the first fire had hit the gamblers and speculators hardest, the brunt of this one fell directly onto the merchants.

San Francisco 1850

The new fire department, while valiant in their effort, was ineffective and, as in the case of the first fire, a number of buildings had to be blown up or torn down to stop the march of the flames. One life was lost, there were several injuries, and the police had difficulty in stopping the looting and pilfering that went on during the ordeal. The fact that the US Exchange was located at the exact spot where Dennison’s Exchange had been when the first fire began led to a suspicion that an arsonist started both fires. The mayor issued a reward of five thousand dollars and several people were arrested, but no evidence could be found against them and they were let go.

Annals of San Francisco 1850

Rebuilding started at once but again the structures were just as flammable as those before. The city council did pass regulations intended to help. One punished anyone who refused to help fight a fire with a fine not to exceed one hundred dollars. Another authorized the city to dig artesian wells and construct reservoirs across the city, and a third required every householder to always keep six buckets of water available to fight future fires. The last two of these laws, while well intentioned, had no effect as the next fire would strike before there was time for them to be put in place.



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