The Great Fire of 1849

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.

San Francisco harbor 1849

1849 San Francisco fire

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.

Portsmouth Square 1849

Frederick D. Kohler

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.



  1. Good to see your blog: San Francisco history is largely misunderstood, when it is not ignored. I’m researching Robert Parker who built the Parker House: I’m interested in discussing that part of the history and its context. I have accumulated a trove of clippings from early newspapers, and now have a fair sketch of his amazing life. Perhaps you could advise me how to share such information so it would be enjoyable for others. Robert was half-brother to my great-great grandfather, Benjamin Parker; I know his ancestry and much of his descent; his many California “firsts” and towns he helped to found. Except for his hotel (and its conflagration), the history societies seem to know nothing about him.

    • It’s always good to hear from someone who has a decided interest in what happened in early California, Jay. It was a fascinating era.

      Like so many others I really know very little about Robert Parker and the Parker House, except that it was on the square and shared space with one incarnation of the Jenny Lind Theater. There is a drawing of the square in 1851 that will run in my Dec. 15 blog titled “A fifth fire destroys San Francisco” that shows the Parker House and the buildings nearby and has a list of the firms in each. If you haven’t seen it I expect it may interest you.

      As far as getting the information you have found out to the public, the best way I have found is WordPress. If you need help getting started I can give you a little boost and put you in touch with someone who knows all the secrets. I, for one, would be very interested in what you have found.

  2. A fascinating site for such an interesting period in American history. This fire features in an episode of my historical novel Whorticulture so many thanks for the depth of your research!

  3. Nathaniel Hawthorne says

    Hi I am writing a paper about the Great Fire. Everything I have read neglects to mention death figures. Was anyone killed in the fire? Do we know specifics, if you happen to know? Thx.

    • Thanks for writing, Nathaniel. I’m sorry but I don’t know how many died in any fire accept the March 4th, 1850 fire where two children were killed. San Francisco was a brand new town full of mostly strangers. It’s hard to say what really happened but I wouldn’t be surprised if some succumbed to the smoke and were never missed or reported. Good luck on your paper.


  1. […] houses to deprive the fire of fuel. This scorched Earth technique worked, though there were no buildings left on the south side of Washington between Kearny and Montgomery. The good news? Few people died, it’s easy to rebuild tents, and the city decided to create a […]

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