Fire!

By Nora Sawyer, Sausalito Historical Society

On the evening of June 10, a plume of smoke rose above downtown Sausalito. As fire trucks rushed by, sirens blazing, I craned my neck, trying to locate the fire. Of course, my first concern was that everyone affected by the fire escape unharmed. But, as I triangulated the location of the smoke, another worry pushed through: wherever that fire was, it looked like someplace historical.

Fire itself is historical in Sausalito. On July 4th, 1893, fire consumed much of Sausalito’s downtown. The blaze came in the midst of debates surrounding Sausalito’s incorporation. In his book Moments in Time, Sausalito Historical Society founder Jack Tracy notes that while prior to the fire “public opinion held that paid fire departments were an unnecessary burden on taxpayers,” the fire of 1893 “changed many minds concerning the need for firefighting equipment and trained men.” 

 The El Monte Hotel a few years after the fire of 1893. Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The El Monte Hotel a few years after the fire of 1893.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Most accounts blame the fire on fireworks launched from the roof of El Monte Hotel. A notice published on June 30th promised a variety of volatile-sounding rockets, including a dozen 12-star Roman candles, a half dozen Japanese night shells, a quarter dozen large surprise boxes, and something called a “No. 1 meteoric battery.” As Jack Tracy wrote in a 1976 article for the Marinscope,

Perhaps it was the package labeled “surprise boxes” that started things.  At any rate, the residents of Sausalito were in for quite a surprise that night.

No one was ever sure what happened, but around 9:30 p.m. on July 4th an inferno broke out. George Ginn’s saloon, the Hunter’s Resort, located directly below the grounds of the El Monte Hotel (where the former City Hall building now housing Gene Hiller’s menswear stands today) was engulfed, flames bursting out of doors and windows throughout its upper story.

There was not much wind at the time, but the flames spread northward roughly from Excelsior Lane to the building which today houses the Casa Madrona hotel. Ten buildings were destroyed, and the fire damage totaled $30,000 – quite a sum of money then. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

Still, there were significant losses. The Sausalito News reports that George Ginn lost his dog Budge in the fire, as well as “all his wearing apparel,” and “a valuable Native Son’s badge.” Though he escaped with his cash box, Ginn’s losses were valued at a minimum of $1,000. Jacques Thomas, the barber, lost a building he “had only just finished moving and improving,” valued at $1,800. A headline in July 5th’s San Francisco Call declared: “The Heart of Sausalito Destroyed. LEVELED TO THE WATER."

The San Francisco Examiner reports that as the Tamalpais Hotel went up in flames, “the boiler in the basement exploded, sending the roof 300 feet in the air” in a blast that was heard for miles around. The Sausalito News adds that “The cover of the same was blown in front of the Hotel Sausalito, falling near some ladies.”

Though the Examiner reports no injuries, the Sausalito News notes that John Schnell, a prominent businessman and Sausalito’s first postmaster, “had a narrow escape; he was struck in the leg by a piece of iron from the bursting boiler at the Tamalpais Hotel.”

The Sausalito News reports that “nearly a thousand people witnessed the fire.” Many of those present joined in to battle the blaze and keep it from spreading.

The town's people with the voluntary help of transient visitors, yachtsmen and others. . . formed a cordon along the edge of the bluff and fought the fiend as fiends would fight a fiend whenever he sought to affect a lodgement on the summit of the hill.

Finally, despite the noise, heat, and smoke, “pluck, endurance and intelligence won the day, and beat the enemy back.”

There are many who deserve praise for their laudable aid but the NEWS has not their names at this writing. A man had one of his wrists badly cut by broken glass. . . It was an exciting night and one that will be called up, of no protection against fire for a lack of water and a fire engine.

In the same issue, another column begins with an exhortation: “Incorporation! Incorporation! Fire Department needed.” And Sausalito’s citizens agreed; when it came time to vote on August 26th, incorporation passed.

The smoke I spotted on that June evening 125 years later originated just south of 1893’s conflagration, in an alley next to a 126-year-old building on Princess St. As in 1893, citizens rushed to help, and this time well-equipped fire crews were not far behind. Soon, the fire was out. The building, old enough to have witnessed the fire that destroyed much of downtown, survived.