San Francisco Thursday April

The wind had shifted. Now the inferno turned its attention westward. Block by block, it savaged some of the city's finest houses. As the mayor, chief of police, and members of the municipal council retreated from building to building before the flames, they decided the city would make one last stand.

The final line of defense, they announced, would be Van Ness Avenue—a broad residential boulevard bisecting San Francisco from north to south. The street lay directly in the fire's path: if they could use it as a firebreak, they might be able to halt the advance. But if this last effort failed, what remained of the city would surely be lost.

Early the previous day, an enormous earthquake had shattered the city's core, snapping cast-iron water mains like twigs, toppling thousands of chimneys, and upending coal-burning stoves and boilers. Electrical utility poles fell over, bringing down live wires in showers of sparks. Gas lines ruptured. Kerosene and oil poured out of burst fuel tanks. In seconds, sparks and fuel combined, and dozens of fires exploded across the city. Then, energized by the wood in the city's buildings, small fires coalesced into mighty firestorms. Even when firefighters could maneuver around the piles of earthquake debris in the streets, they found no water in the hydrants.

By noon on the 19th, the fire had destroyed almost ten square kilometers of the city east of Van Ness Avenue. The financial district, Market Street, and the district south of Market were smoking ruins,

Chinatown was ablaze, and the docks, ferry terminal, and Telegraph Hill were under siege. The U.S. army had tried to deprive the fire of easily combustible material by blowing up hundreds of undamaged buildings in front of the flames. But so far their efforts had been futile, and supplies of dynamite were almost gone.

Orders went out to concentrate all soldiers, police, workers, and fire engines for the climactic fight along a sixteen-block section of Van Ness. They would raze the houses along the east side of the boulevard. So the last pounds of dynamite were brought on wagons from the Presidio and Alcatraz, placed in the buildings' basements, and connected to fuses. Police and volunteers rushed from house to house to evacuate residents. And because there wasn't enough dynamite, the army wheeled field cannon into position along the west side of Van Ness. The guns' muzzles pointed across the street.

The fire crested Nob Hill a few blocks to the east, enveloped the brand-new Fairmont Hotel, and now surged down California, Sacramento, and Washington Streets toward Van Ness. A broad wall of flames and smoke closed in on the defenders.

At 4 p.m., the cannon opened fire on the elegant mansions lining the east side of the street. "The sight was one of stupendous and appalling havoc," wrote a correspondent for The New York Times, "as the cannons were trained on the palaces and the shot tore into the walls and toppled the buildings in ruins." Simultaneously fuses were lit, and as the dynamite exploded, "the dwellings of millionaires were lifted into the air by the power of the blast and dropped to the earth a mass of dust and debris."

For hours, above the roar of the approaching flames, the air shook with the steady concussion of exploding artillery shells and dynamite. When the fire reached Van Ness, it seemed it would breach the defensive line. "The fire spread across the broad thoroughfare," wrote the Times correspondent, "and the entire western addition, which contains the homes of San Francisco's wealthier class, seemed doomed." But when the smoke cleared the next morning, the defenders found to their joy that their strategy had been largely successful. The flames had jumped the street in only a few places.

By then, though, it was obvious that much of the city had been obliterated. Hundreds of thousands of people had no shelter or food, and authorities feared famine and epidemic. Looking across San Francisco's smoldering hulk that day, no one could have imagined that such appalling destruction would also produce some good; that it would not only lead to a rejuvinated city but also trigger a wave of events that would sweep around the world and, years hence, help create the Federal Reserve System of the United States—the country's bank of last resort, an essential defense against financial panic, and one of the most important new institutions of the twentieth century.1

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