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History of the Weaverville Fire District
Weaverville Fires and Firefighters
PRACTICALLY all of the business district of Weaverville was swept by disastrous fires during the first few years of the town's existence. Chinatown burned many times and whole blocks of residences were ravaged by conflagrations because of the lack of adequate fire protection and the hazardous building methods employed in the first construction period of Weaverville.
Weaverville streets were only 18 feet wide, the buildings were connected on both sides, and were of frame structure. Roofs, covered with sugar pine shakes, proved to be a bad fire menace as proven by the big fire of 1853. An excerpt from the Shasta Courier dated March 13, 1853, read as follows:
"Tremendous Conflagration! Weaverville in Ashes"
"We are pained to announce the sad intelligence that a most destructive fire occurred in the beautiful and flourishing town of Weaverville, the County Seat of Trinity, on last Monday, the 7th inst. Two-thirds of the town, composing the most- valuable buildings in it, has been swept away by this elemental scourge of California towns. We are indebted to Mr. E. A. Rowe of Cram, Rodgers & Company Express for the following particulars: The fire commenced among some old papers in the attic of the American Hotel about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and spread with inconceivable rapidity east as far as the Diana Saloon, on the same side of Main Street with the American, and west as far as the Magnolia Saloon, Where it crossed the street to the house, a boot and shoe store, next above the United States Hotel; thence sweeping both sides of Main Street as far north as the Mexican house known as the 'Spanish Corral'."
It will thus be seen that all of Weaverville, with the exception of the south side of Main Street from the United States Hotel eastward, had been utterly destroyed by fire.
(Explanatory Note: The American Hotel was located on the lot now owned by Birdie Newell which is the lot between the old Snug Restaurant and Frank Davenport's barber shop. The "Spanish Corral" was located near the spot where the residence of Rotarian Regan now stands. This will give the reader some idea of the extensive area which burned in the fire.)
"The losses from the fire, hurriedly totaled by Mr. Rowe, were as follows: Mr. Graham's American Hotel-$5,000; P. M. Eder & Bros., stock of goods-$15,000; Galland & Isaac's Clothing Store-$4,000; Post Office, owned by Mr. Davison-$3,000; Clifford's Store-$9,000; McKenzie dwelling-$1,500; L. Delap & Company's store-$2,000; Barber Shop$1,000; a storehouse and goods-$1,000; a new bowling alley-$2,500; Magnolia Saloon and Bowling Alley owned by McKenzie and Drahmer$10,000; Coleman & Co. Clothing Store-$1,000; Howe's large building known as "Headquarters"-$3,000; three carpenter shops-$6,000; paint shop, shoe shop, and blacksmith shop-$4,000; Dungey's Meat Market$1,000; Union Hotel, Schnabel & Co.-$5,000; gunsmith shop-$2,000; Hocker's dwelling house-$3,000; a tin shop-$1,000; Wood's blacksmith shop-$2,000; a 2-story dwelling house and storeroom with blacksmith shop in rear-$5,000; several small houses and a quantity of hay-$4,000; loss of goods from buildings not burned and injury to said buildings$6,000. Total losses estimated at $101,000."
This amount was under, rather than over, estimated. All of the buildings remaining on the south side of Main Street were much Charred and otherwise injured by the holocaust.
At the time of the fire, there were 14 stores doing business, seven saloons, five hotels, three restaurants, and many other mercantile business houses of all kinds.
"All letters and papers in the post office were burned, including the mail just made up for the States.
"The fire sped with such rapidity that just a few personal effects were saved from the burnt buildings. The county records and all the papers connected with the sheriff's office were preserved. Cram, Rodgers & Company's express was saved with difficulty.
"We have not heard that the fire has been attributed by the citizens to the bands of an incendiary. If the fire, as we were assured was the case, commenced among some old papers in the attic of the American-a portion of the house at the time unoccupied-the probability is that the destruction of our fair sister town was the work of one of those fiends ill human shape. "At the latest accounts, the citizens were getting ready to rebuild at once; and we would suggest that the best security they can have hereafter against a recurrence of this calamity is to build upon wide streets."
A fire prevention meeting was held and it was unanimously agreed to widen the streets-and, also, to build with fireproof material; hence, the brick structures with iron shutters and dirt roofs.
Manassas Bartlett, a pioneer resident and a skilled brick maker, was employed by several enterprising merchants to burn brick for the rebuilding of the town. One kiln was located about 300 yards north of what is now the Seventh Day Adventist Church; one was on the spot where John Basic now operates an auto court; and one was on the lots now occupied by John Biddle. In the fall of 1854, many of the brick buildings were completed and occupied.
There was no need for an organized fire department now, the town having been rebuilt with fireproof material. Excitement ran high at the rumor that running water was also to be brought into the town. Mr. Ware, a prominent businessman was boring the pipes to conduct the water down Court Street, at least as far down as the business district. This too would assure ample fire protection.
To clarify the art of pipe making ... The first water main was constructed of wood entirely. Lop were cut and pipes made from them after the heart of the logs was bored out with a long auger. The augers were operated by water power. The largest bore was four inches and the smallest, one inch. After jointing the ends on a lathe, they were ready to put together. The main itself was buried under two feet of earth to prevent checking. This main served as the town's water system for many years.
Each property owner in the residential districts was required to place a whiskey barrel under the eaves trough of his home as fire protection. Many of the home owners built a runway on the cone of the roof on which they placed several of the ornamental 50-gallon whiskey barrels filled with water. Though these containers were in some instances a bit unsightly, they proved to be very valuable in many cases and saved many homes from the ravages of fire.
Now the residents of our city saw with their own startled eyes water actually running through the new water system, and they experienced a feeling of great security' insofar as ample fire protection was concerned. As the editor of the Weekly Trinity journal wrote "Weaverville has now a first class fire protection system and there will never be another conflagration in town. However, shortly after that optimistic statement, two Chinese quarreled over the ownership of a bed. The larger of the two took possession of the coveted bed by sheer physical strength, but not for long did he hold his booty. Little John was incensed and, to even the score, set fire to the bed. The consuming flames spread rapidly and 22 buildings were destroyed by fire.
The next big fire occurred in 1866. All buildings north of the Native Sons hall on Main Street were of frame construction. The fire started in a building located near the spot where the telephone office now stands. Spreading with rapidity, it burned south as far as the Native Sons hall and north to the courthouse, where it leaped across the street in a westerly direction and burned south to the I.O.O.F. hall. Losses were estimated -it $100,000.
Once again the citizens of Weaverville pondered fire protection, and another idea was suggested and put into practice. A large wooden tank was placed at the intersection of Court and Taylor Streets. A tank was placed on the site where the bandstand is now; and one near the spot where the Trinity Theatre stands today. Capacity of these tanks was 1,500 gallons, and they were kept full of water at all times. Around a frame on the outer edge of the tanks were hung collapsible rubber buckets.
When a fire broke out, a bucket brigade was formed from the nearest tank to the fire, and water was rapidly passed along this human chain from the tank to the man on the roof of the burning building. Everyone on the chain faced the fire. The water buckets were passed from one man to the next man with the right hand, while empty buckets were returned with the left hand. Many buildings were saved by this simple method, although no thought was given to organizing a fire company or fire districts at this time. However, an unwritten law required all property owners to provide at their buildings sufficient ladders to reach the roof of the structure.
In 1897, a bad fire started in the Clifford building, which adjoined the residence now occupied by Mrs. Tatham. The fire swept northward, consuming everything on that side of the street to the intersection of Court and Church Streets.
. On the following day, a mass meeting was called by the agitated citizens of Weaverville and it was agreed unanimously that the local fire disasters were due almost entirely to the lack of organized fire fighting and equipment.
This time the citizens decided to do something definite about the now urgent hazard. However, several months passed without action. In fact, it was in April, 1898, before a petition was presented to the Board of Supervisors in the proper form. This form was one required by an act of the legislature of the State of California approved March 4, 1881. The act allowed unincorporated towns and villages to equip and maintain a fire department and to assess and collect taxes from time to time for that purpose. It also provided for creation of a board of fire commissioners in accordance with the above regulations.
The Board of Supervisors acted on the petition and appointed the following men to act as Fire Commissioners: H. T. Bush, D. P. Davis and W. S. Lowden. A survey was then authorized to determine the fire district boundaries.
All preliminaries necessary to form a Fire District were soon under way with boundary ordinances and regulations fixed. At the regular session of the commission held May 28, 1898, Ordinance No I was adopted. However, there was still no active talk of organized fire fighting or of an official department. Equipment still consisted of the old fire fighting bucket brigade. Reliance for fire protection depended entirely upon the drastic wording of Ordinance No. 1. This was soon to change.
On September 30, 1905, at 5:30 A.M., five pistol shots rang out and startled the sleepy inhabitants of the town. A great clanging of bells followed, and the dread shout of "Fire" was heard. Fire had broken out in Bing You's, a Chinese store in the heart of Chinatown. Oily smoke poured from the building which was located about where Lee's Super Market now stands. Spreading rapidly, the flames soon consumed all of Chinatown and leaped over into the Davis Blacksmith Shop. The Bush Tin Shop and the residence of Dr. D. B. Fields soon went up in flames, also. All the buildings on the east side of Main Street between the Pacific Brewery and the Boyce Livery Stable were burned to the ground. A portion of the livery stable, used to house freight team horses and to store hay and feed, was also destroyed.
Two wagons, loaded with lumber and owned by R. H. Junkans, were parked on the grade in front of the blacksmith shop. The heat from the roaring fire was so intense that it was impossible to hitch horses to the wagons to move their valuable cargo. However, one of the firemen thinking, perhaps, that he had heard a frail feminine voice crying, "Fireman! Save my chee-ild! "-rushed to the burning wagons, kicked out the chucks, threw off the brakes, and let the wagons roll ... which they did, straight for the fire where, arriving at the hottest spot, they came to an abrupt halt! The resulting blaze was spectacular.
Amidst all of the excitement, disaster and grief, one incident stands out as a comical high spot of the hectic fire fighting. A Hebrew novelty peddler had arrived in Weaverville the previous day with his buckboard loaded with trinkets which he intended to sell. The vehicle he was driving was in need of repairs, and he had parked it in front of Davis's Blacksmith Shop. The blacksmith had removed the wheels from the heavily loaded wagon and placed them against the wall on one side of the building with many other wheels which he intended to work on the following day. When the fire broke out, one of the first persons to arrive on the scene was the peddler. With his face contorted with suffering, he was screaming hoarsely, "My veels! My veels! MY VEELS!" He had harnessed his old horse and led it up to the wagon only to find the wheels missing. With sobbing breath and flashing eyes, he inquired about madly and soon was told where to locate his wheels. Rushing over to the burning building, he grabbed the first four wheels and hastily put them on his rig and, hitching the horse up in double time, he was off. The old rig quivered and shook in a queer, fast, shivering dance down the street that would have put a modem rumba dancer to shame. In his anxiety, the peddler had taken four wheels of different diameters and color which contributed to the oddly hippity-hopping motion of the weird vehicle.
The Chinatown fire, although disastrous, served in furthering fire protection in Weaverville. First, it cleaned out the imminent hazard that menaced the town for many years. Secondly, Ordinance No. 1 could now be applied on the rebuilding that would eliminate certain hazardous structures that before existed.
John H. Boyce, owner of the livery stable; G. T. Davis, owner of the blacksmith shop; and Wing Chong Kee Co. rebuilt their properties immediately after the fire, and, to make the property the more secure against the ravages of conflagration, installed a fireplug on the town's water main near their places of business and purchased 250 feet of 2 1/2-inch standard fire hose, which was equipped with a %-inch nozzle.
About the same time, P. M. Paulsen, owner of the Union Hotel, was doing likewise. He installed the fireplug near the bandstand on Court Street. Those were the first fireplugs installed in Weaverville.
On March 17, 1906, the fire commissioners met in regular session, and at that meeting decided to call an election to vote on a special fire district tax to raise $1,200 for the purchase of one second hand fire engine, 1,000 feet of hose, three hose-carts, and five hydrants. On April 3, 1906, an election was held for the purpose of voting on a special fire district tax to raise $1,200.- Sixty votes were cast for the issue and two against.
On May 23, 1906, a committee was appointed by the commission to take the necessary steps to organize a fire department. As a result, the following citizens were appointed on the committee: R. L. Carter, D. J. Hall, J. W. Bartlett, B. Barnickel and F. C. Meckel.
On Sunday evening, May 28, 1906, the committee announced a meeting in the courtroom, and 40 citizens of Weaverville assembled there. The meeting was called to order by C. H. Edwards, acting as temporary Chairman. Judge Bartlett read aloud a section of the code which required a foreman to be elected before any further action could be taken. After much discussion, some of it heated, as to the qualifications of various members to hold that position, a ballot was taken. Eight candidates received votes but, inasmuch as the law required a majority of all votes cast to elect a candidate, the rest of the evening was devoted to further balloting. R. L. Carter was finally chosen to serve as foreman until a regular election could be held. The new Foreman appointed C. Wm. White as secretary and H. Gray as Treasurer of the new organization. By request of the constitution and by-laws committee, the meeting was adjourned until June 3, 1906, until a report could be made. On that date, they assembled again and the first order of business was the election of officers. As a result of this election, the following men having received a majority of the votes, were elected to office: R. L. Carter, Chief; B. Barnickel, Foreman; Wm. White, Secretary; and H. Gray, Treasurer.
The constitution and by-laws committee made its report and, after a short discussion, those present signed the constitution and by-laws adopting the same. The signers became full-fledged firemen, and numbered 40.
Initiation fee was $1, plus $3 per year for dues, and a fine of 25 cents to be levied for absence from meetings or drills. The fire department really became active at this time and, after June 30, 1906, became the most active organization in the community. Their colorful uniform, adopted at the last meeting, consisted of a red flannel shirt with a blue shield and monogram, black pants with a dashing wide patent leather belt, and southwester hats. The young bloods of the town all yearned to join the organization, and it became necessary to conduct the meetings much the same as secret fraternal orders. Upon acting upon applications for membership, "blackballing" was resorted to frequently. Although the organization numbered two colored gents among its members, it was necessary for the applicant to be practically "lily white" to gain admission to the select group.
Very few members missed attending the meetings, partly because of the 25 cents absentee fine, but more often because of the expectation of the usual hot debates on controversial subjects for which they became famous.