The Great Fire: Sacramento, 1852

All of California’s early mining camps and towns were vulnerable to fire, because all contained ramshackle wood buildings and other highly flammable components. Bells began frantically ringing in Sacramento ten minutes past eleven o’clock on the night of November 2, 1852, when smoke was seen billowing from a millinery shop.  A gale wind had already risen that night, instantly fanning flames greedily fueled by boards, shingles, canvas, gunny-sacked grains; barrels of liquor, kerosene lamps and tallow candles. Firefighters rushed in, but without cisterns they were helpless to control a crackling, roaring wall of flame that some said was visible from 100 miles away. The inferno blasted sporadically across forty square city blocks, claiming 13 lives, devouring most structures yet by-passing others. Several new brick stores, supposedly impervious to flames, were demolished.  More than 80 percent of Sacramento was reduced to rubble; hundreds lost their homes, clothing, provisions and furnishings. The terrible conflagration, known ever afterward as The Great Fire, occurred on election night—prompting many citizens to suspect arson. This suspicion was never proved. Within a month, 761 structures were re-built, many of them in brick; many installed with iron shutters to help prevent fire-wind fanning.

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