FIRE AND NO FIRE DEPARTMENT!
By John M. Houston
The "Great Fire" on Beacon and Front Streets the night
of Jan. 2, 1903 described in the recent production of
"Exodus from Happy Valley" was not the first conflagration
to almost wipe out "old" San Pedro. Early in
October 1883 most of the town's business district went up in
flames. A fire of this nature was not uncommon in the
West, but the efforts of the frantic citizens to bring the blaze
under control. have a Laurel and Hardy film-comedy flavor that
made the occasion humorous despite the devastation.
The first character in this trag-comedy was
an old German named H. Meyers, who was seen staggering along
Front Street at the foot of Happy Valley about 1 a.m. He
is thought to have stopped between buildings, perhaps for a
rest, or perhaps to light his pipe, and fallen asleep.
About a half-hour later, E. C. Weldt of the Southern Pacific
Railroad noticed a small fire, and raised an alarm. Of
course, there were few to heed the call, except the fuzzy
patrons of the Happy Valley refreshment establishments;
Mr. Weldt then dashed down to the S. P. tracks to the roundhouse
which was below the Vinegar Hill bluff.
Fred Potter, an engineer, and several other
workers were aroused from their slumber. A locomotive had
to be fired up to act as a pump, and hose had to be procured in
an area that was poorlylighted. It was 25 minutes before
Switch Engine No. 2 was rolled out and ready to go. The little
locomotive took its place between Front Street and the channel
and started to squirt a gratifying a stream on the roaring fire
(which had now spread and threatened to consume the two blocks
that made up the business district).
Other sleepy citizens began to appear with
buckets and axes, including Mr. Campbell, the
schoolmaster. A lot of people were shouting orders and
progress was being made when the locomotive's water supply gave
out. After some confusion it was decided the switch engine
could pump salt water, so the hose was run down the the
channel. Again water played on the burning
buildings. A few minutes later, a coupling parted.
Again the water was cut off.
Meanwhile, other San Pedrans were not
idle. People and belongings were removed from the
buildings in the path of the flames. Others aroused the occupants
of several boarding houses and hotels. Captain Dick
Hillyer, the old-sea-dog who was the proprietor of the San Pedro
Hotel, and a Mrs. Dann, who appeared to be in the same establishment, narrowly
Ed Cobly was one man not distracted by the
noise and conflicting orders. Being deaf and mute, he went
about with an axe indiscriminately cutting down fences and
verandas regardless of their proximity of the fire.
Once the hose coupling was reconnected, the
valiant railroad crew once more placed a good stream of bay
water on the flames. Gradually the fire was
conquered. A cheer went up for the brakemen Weldt and
Wolverton, for Frank Oswald the yardmaster, and Fred Potter the engineer--all
The tired citizens were truly proud of all
who fought the flames. Many said they were "better
than a paid Fire Department." But some folks took the
"Big Fire" and no Fire Department as a warning.
Along with the newspaper, they said that San Pedro was growing
up and a volunteer company should be organized. Perhaps
the town should hire a constable and even designate a lock-up.
What happened to the old German? Did he
really start the "Fire of '83? Unfortunately H.
Meyers could not tell. he lost his life in the flames.