Fire Lays Fernside in Ashes

The Cohen family estate Fernside 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 today’s 77th Avenue and San Leandro Street in Oakland.

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..