The SLO fire cleaned the city center of wooden buildings in the 1900s

ByShannon J. Cortes

Nov 20, 2021

The Hollywood movie sets of the Far West have a specific architecture. They use wood-frame buildings, often one-story with false façades, or two-story structures with a living room below and a hotel above.

Old photos of San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, Paso Robles, and Arroyo Grande have this look.

The wood-frame buildings held together by square nails made by a blacksmith were quick and inexpensive to build after ships and railroads delivered these materials to the central coast.

You can see the rough-sawn lumber used to build such structures when an old building is remodeled or demolished, like Sebastian’s General Store in San Simeon.

This type of construction is earthquake resistant but not fire resistant. Add termites and rot, and most of the original wood-frame buildings in downtown San Luis Obispo have been replaced with some variety of masonry.

At the start of the 20th century, fire departments still had horse-drawn engines. They were underfunded and heavily staffed with volunteers, and they certainly didn’t do fire safety inspections.

At least two masonry buildings in the city have metal shutters to close in case of fire: the Ah Louis store and the Sinsheimer building.

On July 15, 1903, a fire broke out next to the building that currently houses Giuseppe’s Cucina Rustica in San Luis Obispo. The structure was probably saved by the steel shutters on the wall.

The Southern Pacific Railroad’s water supply system may have saved the city, when the city’s system seemed to falter.

Still, the fire caused approximately $ 40,000 in damages. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $ 1.25 million in 2021 dollars.

Here is an account of this devastating fire, published on July 16, 1903 in the Morning Tribune. It has been modified for the length.

Forty thousand dollars of fire

Eleven companies run out and others lose heavily

All buildings total losses

Water shortage Handicaps Fire brigade – Loss partially covered by insurance

At 1.20 am yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out in the back of C. Childers’ bicycle boat on Higuera Street which, in ten minutes, had set fire to the premises of eleven commercial enterprises on one of the main business districts of San Luis Obispo.

In less than five minutes, the water had been turned on to fuel the flames in the store, but all the buildings were made of wood, and the water didn’t even smother the flames in one place.

By the time the fire was finally brought under control, damage of $ 40,000 was likely caused.

The fire started in flammable waste, excelsior and other packaging dumped in the vacant space under the Childers bicycle store.

All of the buildings that burned were flying over San Luis Creek, and the wind was perfect to spread the flames from one to the other with lightning-like rapidity.

SLO_1906SanLuisObispoFireDe (3)
San Luis Obispo Fire Department volunteers pose for a photo in 1906 with their horse-drawn chemical cart, now located in the lobby of Station 1. Gasoline engines were about to pull the horses out. Top row from left: Charles Hasse, John Isola, Manuel Lopez, Billie Bambrouck, John Kirkeby, Johnnie Martin, M. Parsons, Henry Berkemeyer, Frank Tercis and Warren M. John. Bottom row, Frank Soto, Ernest Taylor and Joe Ghigliotti. Their dog is sitting on the pipes, and their uniforms seem more suited to parades than to the hard work of fighting fires. Collection of Mrs. Callie M. John

The fire engine crew was some distance away on the sprinkler wagon and it was a few minutes before the engine could be fired, but there would have been no hope for the group of buildings. wooden even though two of these fire companies had been in operation without delay. . Chemical extinguishers, if the department had been equipped with them, could have extinguished the fire at its origin.

The destruction was so swift that almost nothing was saved. After realizing that the buildings were boarded up, most of the buildings could not be entered.

The Winter & Wade barbershop was one of the last to catch fire, but Ed Winters, after getting his razor business out of business, was unable to return for his coat and hat.

There were three directions to watch out for. At first it seemed that the wooden buildings at the back of Sinsheimer’s store would certainly communicate the fire to everything else in that block, and the firefighters’ attention quickly turned to stopping the spread of the fire near Sinheimer’s and the Cosmopolitan hotel. .

Interior of the fire station of San Luis Obispo.jpg
INTERIOR OF THE FIREFIGHTERS HOUSE – This was a side of the interior of the old San Luis Obispo Town Hall on Higuera Street when it housed the firefighters. Notice the racks that held the harness above the horses, ready for quick coupling. Centurama Edition of the Telegram-Tribune.

In the meantime, the wind had picked up and the great heat ignited the facades of the Wineman buildings across the street.

This divided the force so much that it seemed for a moment that the fire had to spread in two directions.

Sinsheimer Bros.’s large warehouse and basement were on fire and bags of sugar were out. However, not much was saved there and it was only through heroic efforts that the fire was stopped in that direction.

With the fire of the implementing company block, it became known that burning marks had been blown by the wind on two blocks among the residences and several were on fire.

1906-05-22 Cal Poly cropping
A South Pacific freight train passes northbound past Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo circa 1907. Frank Aston Tribune file

The Southern Pacific Company has a much greater force on its water line than the city, and opening that water through the city’s main lines has been of great help in saving the Wineman buildings. For a while, the city’s water on its own wouldn’t reach the second floor.

This is because the fire engine was used almost entirely to put out the fire on the north side.

All facades were burnt in the Wineman buildings and due to the thinness of the front firewall of the Implement company, the fire spread far under the tin roof and occasionally foiled the efforts of the firefighters.

Much water damage has been caused to much of the lodge properties on the second floor and possibly also to the large stockpile of equipment below.

Telephone operators
To file

Three Sunset Telephone cables were severed and it will be a few days before this part of the service can be restored. The line to San Francisco was cut for three or four hours. Only one cable and about 30 telephones remained in working order. Director Manning estimates the loss at $ 1,200 or $ 1,500.

The electric lighting plant was taken out of service due to crossed telephone lines and also cable cuts.

The fire was first seen by Frank Manning who was in Childer’s store looking out the back door. CK Forbes saw him around the same time and said that if he could have come down to the porch he could have run over it with his feet.

In less than two minutes, flames were pouring into the building. A small forge is being used in the back area of ​​the workshop for bicycle repair work and Mr Forbes says he thinks it is highly likely that a spark could have ended up in the garbage and flammable material under and near the back porch.

Now that the fire is over and this corner is completely cleared of wooden buildings, it seems certain that important stone or brick buildings will rise there immediately.

A very thoughtful and generous act will be remembered by firefighters and San Luis Obispans in general. The Dunning Glacier served free refreshing drinks to the firefighters and their hospitality was accepted and much appreciated.

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David Middlecamp is a third generation photojournalist and Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black and white films now includes a pilot’s license from drone certified by the FAA. He also writes the historical chronicle “Photos of the safe”.