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Sunday, August 20, 2000

Vacaville in Ashes

Jerry Bowen

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June 6, 1877.
The north wind was hot and harsh on the dry landscape surrounding the small town of Vacaville. At the southwest end of town, Tom Wilson had just returned from Suisun, put his horse in the barn and gone into the house. It was quiet in their home because his mother, Luzena, and sister were visiting Yosemite. Tom sat down and began writing a letter, all the while savoring the solitude.

I. F. Davis, an experienced hotel man from Oakland, had refurbished the two-story hotel, and his new ad in the Weekly Solano Republican boasted “This house has been thoroughly overhauled, refitted and refurbished from cellar to garret.” He had also installed the only fire protection equipment in town. It consisted of “a large water tank high enough to provide pressure to flood every room and throw water over the entire building.”

It was just another summer day with nothing out of the ordinary happening other than there were Gypsies camped outside of town. The town’s citizens wondered who the tramps were that had been hanging around for the last few days. In the past, gypsies, tramps and hobos were to blame for much of the crime in the area.

All of a sudden, the peace and tranquility was shattered by the much feared cry of, “Fire! Fire!”

Wilson rushed out of the house just in time to see flames shoot through the roof of his hay filled barn. The wind quickly carried firebrands from the barn to Sturgill’s blacksmith shop and then to the Methodist Episcopal Church a quarter mile away. It appeared as though the sky was raining fire for miles around. In a twinkling of an eye, the entire line of buildings extending from the blacksmith shop to the bridge on the east end of Main Street were enveloped in flames.

With no water, no ladders, no buckets or any other firefighting equipment available, there wasn’t much the townspeople could do to fight the roaring flames. In an attempt to save what possessions they could, several individuals began throwing furniture and valuables into the street only to watch helplessly as it all burned to ashes, anyway.

Somehow, after removing all the carpeting and furniture, friends of G. B. Stevenson were able to save his wood frame house by covering the sides and roof with wet blankets and carpeting.

When J. B. Lewis attempted to save his building, he fell from the roof, injuring his side.

Mrs. Jeanne Stevenson was so frightened by the blaze she gathered her children together and headed north without looking back or stopping until she reached Winters.

One after another, the buildings comprising about one half of the business district of Vacaville on the north side of the street to the Main Street bridge were consumed by the insatiable flames. Gone were the Chinese wash house, livery stable, barber shop, general merchandise store, saloon and restaurant, paint shop, butcher shop, homes and the Union Hotel.

By some miracle, none of the buildings on the south side of the street (today’s Merchant and Main streets) burned. Prevailing winds and heroic efforts of the people saved the structures from the greedy flames. As luck would have it, the Davis Hotel on the corner of today’s Merchant and Davis streets wasn’t touched at all by the devouring inferno.

In the aftermath of the fire, it was learned that if just the minimum amount of fire protection equipment had been available - ladders and buckets, the blaze probably would have been contained to Wilson’s barn and Sturgill’s blacksmith shop. The simple act of putting out the sparks and firebrands would have been easy, had they only been able to reach them.

The fire left a scene of desolation with only the walls of the brick paint shop remaining upright and a lone safe standing amid the ashes of Mr. Plaisted’s saloon and restaurant. The rest of the burned area was leveled completely.

Later, it was determined the monetary loss amounted to $54,200. Unfortunately, total insurance coverage only amounted to $18,600.

Some people had no insurance at all and others only had coverage for a portion of their losses.

A. E. Ward lost everything he owned when his home burned to the ground. Neighbors came to the rescue by collecting about $400 which was enough to allow him to rebuild.

Mrs. Luzena Wilson was the one to suffer the heaviest loss. She lost the barn with hay valued at $2,500, a Chinese wash house worth $500, and a house with furniture, $6,000. Her total insurance coverage only amounted to $1,000, leaving her with a loss of $8,000, a considerable sum of money for the times.

P. J. Chrisler and R. H. Magill representatives of Home Mutual Insurance Company of California were on the ground while the ruins were still smoldering and satisfied all insurance claims to the complete satisfaction of the victims. Vacaville quickly began the process of rebuilding.

It had been a bad day for the Vacaville townspeople and one would think valuable lessons about fire protection and insurance had been learned. In my next article, we will see if they did.