Great Bakersfield Fire of 1889
|Date||July 7, 1889|
196 buildings destroyed,|
$1 million property damage,
Marked the transition from a frontier town to a metropolitan city.
The Great Bakersfield Fire of 1889 was a conflagration in Bakersfield, California. The fire would burn for three hours and destroyed most of town (later reincorporated as a city). In total, 196 buildings were destroyed, one man was killed and 1,500 people were homeless. The fire marked the transition of Bakersfield from a frontier town to a metropolitan city.
Prior to the fire, Bakersfield could best be described as a frontier town. Most of the buildings were constructed out of wood in a low density configuration. Buildings were also set back from the sidewalks. The town did have a network of fire hydrants. Water was delivered by Scribner's Water Tower.
The Great Fire
The fire started on July 7, 1889. Accounts vary as to the start of it, however, the best supported view was that it began in Mrs. N. E. Kelesy residence (near the intersection of 20th Street and Chester Avenue). She was in the process of preparing Sunday dinner, which was an all day affair. Apparently gas fumes from the stove caught fire, and subsequently caught the house on fire. Smoke was spotted at 9:00 am, and firefighters were quickly dispatched.
At that point, the fire was too large for a single hose, connected to a single fire hydrant to handle. More men were dispatched, and a subsequent connection would be made at a neighboring hydrant. It was at this point that a horrific discovery was made. There was not enough water pressure in the line to deliver water to the fire.
The fire jumped to the undertakers building, located next door. Since the town was mostly constructed out of wood, the fire quickly jumped from building to building. The town's fire engine finally arrived, but it took 20 minutes for enough steam pressure to build for operation. At that point, the fire was large enough that little could be done to stop it.
When the fire reached the Southern Hotel, it was hot enough that the solder, used in the indoor plumbing, was liquefied. Because of the updraft created by the fire, the solder flew into the air and rained down on the streets below. Later, the fire jumped to Scribner's Water Tower at a location which firefighters could not reach it. However, the structure was saved when Will Houghton leaned out a neighboring window and threw a bucket of water on it. In the Kern Valley Bank, a bathtub filled with water was used in an attempt to save that building, but the effort failed. After three hours, the fire was extinguished.
The results of the fire were devastating. Fifteen city blocks were destroyed which was most of the city. In total: 147 businesses, 44 homes and 5 hotels were destroyed (a total of 196 buildings). One man was killed in the fire, and 1,500 people were homeless. Property damage was estimated at an even $1 million. The only two structures to survive in the central business district were Scribner's Water Tower and St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
The local newspapers were destroyed, however, George Wear (who owned the Gazette) saved a hand press. With that, news about the fire was published. The next day, food began to arrive from neighboring ranches. The water tower would continue to provide drinking water. Haggin and Carr brought supplies from their store in Belleview Ranch, and businessmen from neighboring Sumner also assisted. Later money and clothing began to arrive. Tehachapi even donated $74.50 to assist. Later, assistance began to arrive from Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Fresno. However, by that point, rebuilding efforts were well underway.
After the fire, the Fresno Expositor predicted that the citizens of Bakersfield would not rebuild, and simply drift away. The prediction was understandable. The town did not have direct rail access. The Southern Pacific Railroad was constructed to the east, through Sumner. With the importance of the railroad, it was believable that Sumner would become the dominate town.
The city leaders would act in a completely opposite direction than the Fresno newspaper predicted. Instead of moving away, they started planning a town three or four times bigger than the one which was destroyed. In 1890, the town had a population of 2,626, but the new town was planned to support a population of 10,000 - 15,000 people.
With this attitude, most of the buildings were rebuilt larger and grander than the previous. Most were constructed out of brick with an ornate and decorative style. The look of the town had been transformed from a frontier style, to a metropolitan style. The finest was the Southern Hotel, which cost $110,000 to construct. The hotel was three stories tall and contained 84 rooms. All of the rooms were equipped with hot and cold running water and gas. Designed for a city 10 times the size of Bakersfield, it was considered a rival to the finest hotels in San Francisco.
The city leaders planned for a population of 10,000-15,000 people. By the 1900 census, the city had grown to 4,836, an 84% increase. With the construction of the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad through Bakersfield in 1898, and the discovery of oil in 1899, Bakersfield grew to a population of 12,727 in the 1910 census (a 163% increase). By comparison, in the 2010 census, Bakersfield had a population of 347,483.
- Maynard, John. Bakersfield: A Centennial Portrait. Cherbo Publishing Group. Encino, California: 1997. ISBN 1-882933-19-2. Page 29.
- Bailey, Richard. Heart of the Golden Empire. Windsor Publications, Inc. Woodland Hills, California: 1984. ISBN 0-89781-065-1. Page 61.
- Maynard, John. Bakersfield: A Centennial Portrait. Cherbo Publishing Group. Encino, California: 1997. ISBN 1-882933-19-2. Pages 29-30.
- Bailey, Richard. Heart of the Golden Empire. Windsor Publications, Inc. Woodland Hills, California: 1984. ISBN 0-89781-065-1. Page 61-62.
- Maynard, John. Bakersfield: A Centennial Portrait. Cherbo Publishing Group. Encino, California: 1997. ISBN 1-882933-19-2. Page 31.
- Bailey, Richard. Heart of the Golden Empire. Windsor Publications, Inc. Woodland Hills, California: 1984. ISBN 0-89781-065-1. Page 62.
- Population and Housing Data Archived 2012-01-20 at the Wayback Machine.. City of Bakersfield. Accessed: 05-11-2011.