A few buildings were saved in the heart of the Great Fire, including the U.S. Mint at Fifth and Mission streets. Others saved included the U.S. Post Office at Seventh and Mission, and the California Electrical Works at Second and Folsom. In each case a few men, and a minimal amount of water, was sufficient to save the structures. This eyewitness account is from one of the few by people who fought to save the U.S. Mint.
May 11, 1906.
DEAR BROTHER You have heard many conflicting accounts of how the United States mint was saved, and I want you to know the exact facts as they were, as I saw them on April 18.
When the earthquake at 5:15 a.m. rocked the city, hundreds of buildings south of Market Street were either thrown down or badly shattered. The mint, however, escaped serious damage, though its great chimneys are cracked and seem to lean toward the center of the building, where a great court is located. Small chimneys were thrown in every direction and furniture overturned. Fire broke out shortly after the earthquake and by 9 oclock the entire district south of Mission was a mass of fire, which leaped from block to block as though through dry grass. It swept Mission Street clean, scorching the south side of the mint but doing no great damage, for the iron shutters on the windows shielded the inner woodwork of the offices and melting room.
Superintendent Frank A. Leach arrived at the mint from Oakland early in the morning, and immediately charge of operations. Through his coolness and ability the men under him worked to the best advantage. He took his turn at the hose with the others, and did not ask his men to go where be would not go himself. It is remarkable how he has stood the strain of the fire and press of business since.
About fifty of the mint employees succeeded in reaching the building before the soldiers barred the way to all comers. Then a detachment of artillerymen, commanded by lieutenant G. W. Armstrong of the Sixth Infantry, entered the building to serve more as a guard than as a band of firefighters. Later, Lieutenant Armstrong and a few of his men did take an active part.
Within the yard of the mint is an artesian well which proved the only water available. The pump connections were badly broken by the earthquake, yet the engineer, Jack Brady, did a lightning job in repairing the pumping plant, making connections in short order that ordinarily would require a long time. He finished his splendid work just in time to supply the fire fighters [all Mint employees] with two streams of water.
Meanwhile the fire swept up Fifth Street, devouring the Metropolitan Temple, the Lincoln school, and the great Emporium. These huge buildings, full of inflammable material, sent great bursts of flame two or three hundred feet into the air. The hot breath of the fire fiend made our roof very uncomfortable for those who were up there. On the west side, a lot of frame buildings made a fierce heat that was hard to stand against, especially since the openings of our roof were bursting into flames from the flying cinders.
With three others I had the pleasure of working for over an hour on this shaky roof, throwing buckets of water on the blazes as the sprang up. At any moment another earthquake might have sent the great chimneys tumbling down on our heads. Three of us refinery men then went down into our department, which is located at the northwest corner of the top floor. Here we knew we would catch it most of all, for the fire was now burning over toward Market Street in the group of structures comprising Hales, Breuners, Emma Spreckels and Windsor Hotel buildings.
Fanned by a whirlwind of their own making, the flames leaped 200 feet against the north wall of the mint. The roaring was awful as the great buildings crashed and fell, while the bursting of large pieces from our own walls sounded like shells exploding against our mint. We stuck to the windows until they melted, playing a stream of water on the blazing woodwork. Then, as the flames leaped in and the smoke nearly choked us, we were ordered downstairs, for it was supposed that the mint was doomed.
Employees and soldiers stood around the door, nearly strangling, and wondering what chance we would have for our lives if we were driven into the street, where masses of flames bordered either side. Some, who for reasons best known to themselves, did not show up when the mint was in danger, now say we could have escaped if we wanted to. There is not a man of us, whose judgement is worth anything, who does not know that we were prisoners and fighting for our lives, as well as the preservation in good shape of over $300,000,000 in the vaults.
Finally we made our way back through the smoke to the refinery, and with a hose succeeded in putting out the burning interior, where the flames had gotten under lively headway. We then climbed out on to the roof and played the hose on the red hot copper surface over the gold kettles. There we worked for an hour, ripping up sheet copper and playing the water and using the hose where they would do the most good.
At a little before 5 oclock we were free to go and see what had become of our various homes. The north side of Market street had not then burned, and after dancing over the hot cobbles of Fifth Street for a block we reached the sheltered side and looked back on the battle-