"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Fire Repeatedly Destroyed Western Towns

by Don Baumgart

As western towns like Nevada City and Grass Valley grew from the tent clusters thrown up by gold miners, there were a lot of dangers to be avoided. Stage coach robbers took mine payrolls, crooked gamblers took the pay out of miners denim pants pockets, and claim jumpers took the gold itself.

But probably the greatest danger faced by those living in the new western towns was fire. Made of canvas and wood, the towns were easy prey to an overturned lantern, pipe embers, a careless match, or an unattended candle.

In March of 1851, at two o'clock in the morning as the town slumbered a fire started in a saloon on Nevada City's Main Street. The Nevada County Historical Society's Bulletin recalls that night, saying, "...so combustible were the closely packed shake and board shanties and canvas structures, that all thought of arresting the flames seemed futile."

Hard rock mining had arrived in the Gold Country and it was quite common to keep quantities of blasting powder on hand. "These exploded sending flaming brands into the air and spreading the flames far and wide. Standing in the city were many tall pitch pine trees, about whose spreading branches the flames writhed and twisted." Tongues of flame shot up the trees into the black night. The blaze caused a half million dollars in damage.

Another fire destroyed much of the rebuilt Nevada City five years later, in the summer of 1856, and came back for another visit in the fall of 1863.

Nearby Grass Valley was not much luckier in avoiding the early West's version of urban renewal.

A cry of "Fire!" roused sleeping residents there who found flames crackling and roaring through the tinder-dry buildings. It was a Wednesday night in September, 1855.

Hundreds of buckets of water were thrown, wet blankets were swung, but the all-night battle was won by the fire. More than 300 buildings that stood the day before were ashes when the sun rose again. Left standing were two buildings, both built of stone. Every hotel and boarding house in town was destroyed. The vault of the Wells Fargo building withstood the hottest of the fire, preserving its valuable contents.

The fire, that was found to have started in the United States Hotel on lower Main Street, cost Grass Valley an estimated loss of $400,000.

In these days we hear a lot about "preparedness for disaster" but how prepared was Grass Valley for this conflagration? Not very. A hook and ladder fire company had vanished after a year for lack of enough interest to keep it going. A city ordinance required every house to have 50 gallon of water in a vessel for fire emergencies. It wasn't enforced.

"Great as was the disaster, the people of Grass Valley were not discouraged," The Nevada County Historical Society's Bulletin reports. "With brave hearts and energetic hands, they at once commenced the work of rebuilding the burned city and recuperating their wasted fortunes."

Fires ran quickly through downtown wooden buildings, but stores and homes weren't the only frequent casualties of flames. Lumber mills and their wood resources also felt the heat.

In February, 1873 The Boca Mill and Ice Company store, eight miles from Truckee, sustained an $8,000 fire loss. Grass Valley's Mill Street Foundry was burned to the ground in 1865.

Fifty of the 75 houses in French Corral were destroyed by fire in 1853. The following summer flames paid a return visit, burning down the remaining 25.

Again and again towns were destroyed by fire, but the residents never gave up on their dreams. Eventually the dreams became built of brick, and many are still around.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006

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