The Great Park Street Fire

Firefighters were able to  stop the flames from jumping Park Street except  at Webb. Flames spared the rest of the west side  of Park, but badly damaged the east side.
Oakland Tribune

The Great Park Street Fire

Smoke still pours from a fire neighborhood east of Park that destroyed much of the Street along Santa Clara and Webb avenues on Jan. 7, 1920. This is a detail of a panorama taken from Webb by an Oakland Tribune photographer. The building in the background center of this detail served as the Southern Pacific Railroad station and is now the site of Oil Changers.

An Oakland Tribune photographer set up his camera on Webb Avenue just across from Fire Station #1 and took this panoramic photograph of the damage caused by the 1920 Park Street Fire. The panorama stretches from the Joseph Knowland home and the Southern Pacific Railroad station on Lincoln Avenue on the right to Webb Avenue and the extent of the fire damage along Park Street and at Bank Alley on the left.
Photo Credit By: 
Oakland Tribune.

Almost 102 years ago a windswept inferno incinerated buildings on Park Street, Webb Avenue and today’s Times Way.

The San Francisco Bridge Company was dredging the Oakland Estuary on Wednesday, January 7, 1920, near the High Street Bridge. While work was underway, the company damaged the fourteen-inch main that carried water into Alameda. “Dredger Breaks City Water Main,” the Evening Times-Star told its readers. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

At 2:44 p.m., the next day, fire broke out in the packing room of William and Earl Bolt’s Kellogg Express Company at 2418 Lincoln Ave., just across the street from the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) station that stood on the site of today’s Oil Changers at Lincoln and Tilden Way.

The Alameda Fire Department (AFD) responded in full force. Some of the equipment stood at the ready at Station #1, just a block away on Webb Avenue.

The department deployed four combination hose-and chemical-trucks to fight the growing fire. These trucks stored bicarbonate of soda in the water tank. When the firefighters added sulfuric acid to the mix, pressure from the ensuing chemical reaction forced water from the tank and into the hoses. Firefighters also arrived at the Lincoln Avenue blaze aboard a Waterous pumper, likely Waterous’ first single-engine fire truck, which the prolific manufacturer had delivered to AFD in 1908.

AFD also used a Seagrave triple-combination truck to fight the blaze. This truck contained a water tank, a pump to deliver the water and hoses to disperse the water onto the fire. The city also sent a service truck to assist the firefighters.

Thirty-mile-an-hour winds gusting out of the northeast fed the flames. “Wind Uproots Trees, Lays Fences Low,” the Evening Times-Star headline read the day before the fire. This convinced AFD Chief Walter T. Steinmetz to call for outside help. Steinmetz knew that the wind could send flames racing south down Park Street into the heart of thebusiness district. He telephoned Oakland Fire Chief Elliott Whitehead, and Whitehead responded with a pair of motorized combination pump-and hose-wagons and a pumper with the capacity to send 1,200 gallons of water a minute onto the flames.

Steinmetz also asked for help from a private fire tug, as well as the fire boat from the San Francisco Fire Department. The fire was burning too far away from the Estuary for water from these vessels to reach the flames, however. SP pitched in with four railway switch engines equipped with hoses. The railroad used the water from the well at its station, which stood right across from Kellogg’s, where the fire had started.

“(SP) did effective work on the Lincoln Avenue side of the fire,” the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Pacific later reported. SP saved not only its fancy Queen Anne-style train station, but the stately Italianate-style house across Lincoln, home to the Joseph Knowland family. Joseph’s widow, eighty-seven-year-old Hannah, was living there at the time of the fire. SP firefighters also prevented the fire from jumping the tracks that ran on today’s Tilden Way and Lincoln Avenue. Thanks to railroad, the fire did not spread any further north along Park or west along Lincoln.

Damage to the 14-inch water main near High Street the day before left only a single twelveinch main to supply water to the fire hydrants in the vicinity of the blaze.

“Water flow showed a marked reduction in its early stages to compensate for the broken main, which was about a mile from the fire,” the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Pacific later reported.

To compensate for the low water pressure, firefighters connected Oakland Fire Departent’s large pumper to a hydrant on the Oakland side of Estuary.

They connected a pair of hose lines to that pumper and ran them across the Park Street Bridge to a hydrant in Oakland — a distance of 900 feet. These hose lines effectively stood in for the damaged fourteen-inch water-main.

The fire destroyed all the buildings on the east side of Park Street between Lincoln and Webb avenues, as well as several structures on north side of Webb. The fire jumped Webb and destroyed the Anderson Building on the southeast corner of Park and Webb. Habanas Cuban Cuisine stands at that site today.

The Anderson Building once housed Alameda’s first post office. The Masons held their first meetings in the hall upstairs. They had moved up Park Street to Alameda Avenue by the time the fire struck.

By 1920, the Woodsman of the World were holding their meetings in the hall. Firefighters contained the blaze at Park and Webb and saved Fire Station #1 from the flames.

A wood-framed fire station stood on the south side of Webb at the site of the parking lot just to the east of today’s Sandwich Board from 1877 to 1908. It served as home to Citizens Hook & Ladder No. 1 and Thompson’s Hose Company No. 1. They dressed the 1908 station — rechristened as Fire Station #1 — in stucco, making it better suited to resist any flames.

Fortunately the fire did not reach the station. However flames did wreak havoc with alarm wires that entered the station, putting the city’s entire fire-alarm system out of commission.

The fire jumped Park Street at Webb Avenue and destroyed the wood-framed building on the southwest corner of Park and Bank Alley (today’s Times Way). Street.

By 7 p.m., the fire was out.

Louis Durein owned a shoe store, two doors down from the Odd Fellows Hall at Park Street and Santa Clara Avenue — where diners enjoy Ole’s cuisine today. AFD records show that the fire had damaged Louis’s store and the Alameda Times-Star offices next door. Anticipating the worst, Louis had thrown his inventory out onto Park Street. Unfortunately, looters had helped themselves to much of that footwear. Louis took out an advertisement in the Evening Times-Star. He asked that those who were “safeguarding this stock” to “kindly return whatever they have to my store at their earliest convenience.”