Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

By John F. Burns; Richard J. Orsi | Go to book overview

5
Capturing California
Joshua Paddison

Late in the evening of May 3, 1851, as San Francisco was once again easing from boisterous Saturday night to quiescent Sunday morning, a fire started somewhere among the hotels, gambling houses, and saloons of its crowded downtown plaza. The flames spread quickly through the city, licking at canvas and devouring wood. The first major blaze in more than seven months, it caught even the fire-hardened residents of gold-rush San Francisco by surprise. A twenty-nine-year-old German visitor named Heinrich Schliemann, many years before archeological discoveries in Troy would propel him to international fame, outran the fire from his plaza hotel to the top of Telegraph Hill, where he watched the city burn. “It was a frightful but sublime view, in fact the grandest spectacle I ever enjoyed, he wrote later. “[T]he whole beautiful city was burned down. The roaring of the storm, the cracking of the gunpowder, the cracking of the falling stonewalls, the cries of the people and the wonderful spectacle of an immense city burning in [the] dark all joined to make this catastrophe awful in the extreme. 1 The fire raged all night and into the morning, traveling from block to block by way of wooden sidewalks and sewers. “The insatiable flames came roaring and rushing onward, darting its thousandforked tongues of fire far up into the midnight sky, reported witness Mrs. D. B. Bates. 2 Eighteen city blocks, including more than fifteen hundred buildings, were destroyed; dozens of people died, some trapped in “fireproof” brick houses, others crushed by falling debris. 3

For survivors (as well as for subsequent historians), the temptation to view San Francisco's many fires as metaphors has been strong. William Taylor, a Methodist minister from Virginia who spent seven years proselytizing the sailors, miners, and prostitutes who thronged San Francisco in the early 1850s, saw the holocaust of May 3–4, 1851, as a physical representation of California's spiritual corruption. The

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