Fiery End to Cohen’s Palatial Fernside Estate

On March 24, 1897, a fire destroyed Fernside, the Cohen family’s palatial villa. "All the fire left of Fernside," Edgar Cohen wrote in a description of a similar picture in his photo album. He did not take this photograph.

Tragic blaze compounds widow Emilie Cohen’s woes

The fire that destroyed Emilie Gibbons Cohen’s Alameda mansion in 1897, brought tragedy home to her at Fernside once again.

Almost 10 years before the fire Emilie received distressing news from New York. Her husband and the family patriarch, Alfred, was possibly near to breathing his last. Emilie boarded a train for Chicago, where she met her ailing husband.

Alfred had fallen ill while on Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) business in New York. The railroad had already dispatched a special train to get Alfred home to California.

His son and daughter-in-law William and Alice boarded the train with him. William worked as Albert’s private secretary.

Emilie, William and Alice were with Alfred when death came to him on Nov. 16, 1887, as the train was passing through Sidney, Neb.

William wired the news to two of CPRR’s founding members, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, who arranged for a special locomotive to take Alfred’s body home. The family met this locomotive at the nearest large rail depot at Cheyenne, Wyo., 101 miles away from Sidney.

Five days after his death the man who built the San Francisco & Alameda Railroad — the final link in the chain that became the transcontinental railroad — lay in state at Fernside.

"The flags over the public buildings in Alameda were flying at half staff," the Daily Alta California told its readers. The newspaper stated that Alfred left an estate valued at $5 million. He was laid to rest at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Fire visits Fernside

Almost 10 years after her husband’s death tragedy struck Emilie once again. Her home burned in a spectacular fire that started in the attic on Tuesday morning, March 23, 1897. A man driving a milk wagon noticed smoke coming from the roof of the mansion just after 6 a.m., and sounded the alarm.

"There were plenty of (fire) engines, but no water," the San Francisco Chronicle reported the next day. "The nearest hydrant was some distance from the house and there was but little pressure."

Three days after the fire the Daily Alta California reported a strange twist in the story.

According to the newspaper, "two or three years ago" the Artesian Water Company had decided to install a new water main into Alameda from its wells in Fitchburg, which was centered on todays 77th Avenue and San Leandro Street.

In order to do so the company needed permission to place the main across the Cohen property. Agents from the company approached Emilie Cohen with an offer.

If she would allow the company to lay pipe through her property its workers would provide her a fire hydrant at no cost. She refused, instead charging the company $100 a year to use her land. That decision proved costly.

"Had there been a hydrant as proposed, the house would have undoubtedly been saved," the Daily Alta California stated.

As the fire blazed neighbors stepped in and tried to save the home’s precious fixtures. The newspaper blamed the "injudicious zeal of neighbors," who "wrenched away the chandeliers, allowing gas to escape" for spreading the fire.

According to the Chronicle the flames "made the house a veritable fiery furnace. The old wood burned like tinder." Because the water pressure proved insufficient the firefighters turned their attention to saving the furniture on the ground floor. Unfortunately the flames wreaked havoc on the home’s second and third floors. Half of the valuable paintings in the third-floor gallery fell victim to the fire.

Fortunately Emilie was not living in the house when the fire broke out. She was staying across Versailles Avenue with her son Edgar. There was, however, a watchman staying at the house, but he had made his rounds and gone back to bed at 5:30 a.m., some 30 minutes before the milkman noticed the smoke and sounded the alarm. The family told the Chronicle that the coachman was the first member of the staff to notice not just smoke, but flames.

Emilie watched as the home’s cupola collapsed and a gas explosion blew out the front walls. People debated the origin of the fire. Edgar blamed it on spontaneous combustion of mothballs. Emilie was convinced that an arsonist had started the blaze. She told the Chronicle that the Cohens had bitter enemies because they refused to move the fence that blocked a much-wanted extension of Lincoln Avenue.

Reach Dennis Evanosky at editor@alamedasun.com.

The Fernside mansion in all its glory. Likely the largest single-family residence ever built in Alameda.