San Francisco: More and More Questions

I feel like I’m experiencing the most basic frustration for historians: you dive into your sources looking for answers, and find only more questions. Expanding off the work I did for the small projects regarding fire districts, I’ve been looking into precisely where the water mains had burst, and what each would have meant for the ability of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) to combat the fires. The results, to say the least, have been rather interesting: not only were pipes inside the city damaged, I’ve located a USGS map that showed breaks to two of the major water mains several miles to the south of the city; these pipes fed some of the city’s major reservoirs, and their break would definitely have impacted SFFD efforts at firefighting. However, at the same time as I’ve discovered such illuminating information, I’m simultaneously gaining more and more questions.

For example, I still have yet to find much information on destruction other than the main portion around Market Street, aside from contemporary illustrations that southern San Francisco was “burning in spots.” Where were they burning? What caused the fires? How bad were they? What was being done to fight them? I’m still looking.

Recently, however, I suddenly came up with several new questions. I’d finally found a map that showed a day-to-day spread of the fires as well as their probably origin points, a big step up from simply knowing the extent of the devastation. In particular, I saw the origin point of what was called the “Ham and Eggs” fire. The story often told is that two days after the earthquake, someone was attempting to cook breakfast in a house unknowingly damaged by the earthquake, and started a fire that burned for three days. When I described this on the phone to my dad, an engineer and son of a chemist, he replied that the Ham and Eggs fire, rather than just a silly and perhaps apocryphal tale, felt like a textbook example of an unnoticed natural gas leak.

Did San Francisco use natural gas back then? If any part would, the rich and business districts would, which might explain why the wealthy portion of the city suffered more than the slums and Chinatown. Was there an infrastructure under the city for conveying natural gas? If so, where? Could any of them have been damaged? By law, modern day natural gas has the odor of rotting eggs artificially added, but in its natural form natural gas is both odorless and colorless. When was that law passed? Furthermore, if natural gas was used in San Francisco, was it citywide or used only by the elite? Would firefighters have been familiar with natural gas? The story is often told of firefighters attempting to create fire breaks, but through inexperience with gunpowder inadvertently setting more fires. Could their problem have actually been inexperience with natural gas–the explosions igniting natural gas lines? I do not know.

I originally thought of this project as a ‘plan B’, but as time has gone on it has blossomed more and more. On the one hand, I know I already have far more than I need for this class, but on the other I keep diving into it. Could this turn into an article or something bigger? I don’t know, but there’s only one way to find out.

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