Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Arson Takes a City

Cara Grandle here,

This is the second post in a series of four covering crazy disasters, some more natural than others, that folks had to deal with as they worked to carve out a settlement or homestead in the mid-1800s.

Last month we covered locusts and all the crazy destruction they brought. Now we’re going to talk fire.

Fire has been an issue to lots of big cities.

Fire is something we still deal with nowadays. Think of all the systems, people, and equipment that is dispatched when one home burns, let alone a whole forest or town.

There have been so many fires over the course of history you can look up a list of great city fires in Wikipedia. A Wiki page! Ugh. That is too many losses, yet they still occur.

Many of the fires before the 20th Century had a lot in common. The buildings were all made out of combustable material and the sidewalks that were used to keep the people from walking in the “mud” were also made out of easily burned material. (See my post on The Great Manure Crisis Here.)

The Great Chicago fire of 1871 is one such fire. But an interesting fact that earned a space on this blog isn’t about the fires themselves, but about how they were started.

Many of the big city fires started as an act of arson.


Somebody started it on purpose.

Da, da, daaaaah.

Can you hear the Perry Mason theme song in the background?

Why would anyone want to burn down a town? What would be their motive? Was the intention to burn a city? 

Well, I have a least one answer to those questions and it involves the San Francisco Fire of 1851 as an example.

Picture the times:

1851 California, less than a year after it became the 31st state, the gold rush that started in 1849 is in full swing. Those folks hunting treasure had been pouring into the city for two full years. The harbor was packed with ships that had been dry-docked, run aground, left to rot, or used as stores. They sat crowded alongside the ones in use.

Many convicts shipped from England to Australia were coming into the city via boat as an alternative to serving out there full sentence. Many of these men banded into gangs called the Sydney Ducks. As a group, they usurped political power, corrupted officials, conducted secret trials, lynchings and deportations. Things were so bad that they were the catalyst for the first Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Needless to say these men were trouble with a capital T.

And what do you get when you mix crowds of people, gold, hard times, and ex-cons? Thieves and opportunists.Fellows who would do anything to make a future better than the one they could expect.

So these unsavory men, who where no longer interested in the back breaking labor of mining, needed money.

They would find a hotel with lots of customers, or at least one wealthy one, suspected of keeping their coin with them. They would enter the building, find a hidden corner, start a fire, and then rob the guests after they escaped the hotel for safety.

There was so much of this going on, that even though they never proved it they believe this was how the San Francisco Fire of 1851 began.

On May 3rd at 11pm, a fire broke out in a paint and upholstery store that was located in the space above a hotel. Winds picked up. The fire burned for 10 hours burning 2000, yes 2000, buildings, businesses, and homes covering a very populated 18 blocks. The destruction claimed three-quarters of the city. Nine lives were lost.

All because of greed. So on top of natural disasters, crazy weather patterns, and things like locusts, the settlers had to face greedy men.

But they always began again. I like that reminder. It’s never too late to start over.

Interesting side note:

One of the hotels that was claimed in the fire was owned by Domenico Ghirardelli, who after the loss, would go on to found the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. (A win for Chocolate lovers everywhere.)

I love that starting over for Mr. Ghirardelli brought about such a long lasting legacy. Have you ever faced a natural disaster or man made disaster? Have you ever been pressed into a “We will rebuild.” Season? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Next month we’ll talk about the effect of cooooold, cold weather. The lyrics to that song, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” comes to mind. And also Psalms 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Until next time, blessings on your new year!

If you've made it this far, I'd like to tell you about something new. I started a podcast. If you are a podcast listener and you need a dose of joy-meets-common sense, come on over to Life Caraphrased. 

CaraGrandle is a Historical Romance Novelist who prefers to write about the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest. Think trappers and loggers and scroungy-backed woodsmen. She is represented by the Steve Laube Agency. Cara leads the author4TheAuthor writers group on Facebook, home to 190 writers. Together they're pressing back on busy and making a space for their dreams. 

Cara is currently out on submission. Follow her journey on her Facebook author page.

Prayers much appreciated. Smile.


  1. Interesting history about the fires. I've wasn't at home (and our family home was safe) but saw the destruction that resulted in other areas of our town that a tornado swept through. Psalms 46:1 is one of my favorite promises.

    1. I really like that Marilyn. I looked up the verse and it says "Tested help". So glad the Lord has us covered. My childhood home burned as well. It was a complete loss with no insurance. I too have see the Lord's care.

  2. I did not know this. I love history and you make it more fun. Great read.

  3. What struck me is that men deported to Australia escaped their British overlords and made their way to America. I just assumed they all stayed where they had been transported. Now there's an idea for a historical romance...a falsely accused and convicted man escapes a life sentence in Australia and makes his way to San Francisco where he finds love in the midst of disaster. :-)

    Such an interesting post!

    1. I know right. I love that idea too. There are so many possibilities. They are called the Sydney Ducks if you ever want to research them.

  4. Great post, Cara! Very fascinating and informative!