April 20, 2009
1906: Hotaling’s Whiskey is spared by the Great Fire and Earthquake
As of Friday the 20th, San Francisco was still on fire. The Great Earthquake had happened two days earlier, but the Fire (or fires) that devastated the city were still well underway.
The eastern quarter of the city — nearly five square miles — would be almost completely destroyed. But after the smoke cleared, a few precious blocks would emerged unscathed. Among these survivors would be the two blocks bounded by Montgomery, Jackson, Battery and Washington Streets.
Oceans of ink have been spilled in documenting the incredible individual heroism and unfathomable professional incompetence displayed in fighting those fires. One of the best books on the subject is “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906” by Philip Fradkin, from which I’ve swiped much of today’s timecapsule.
This is the story of a single building, but one of vital importance to the delicate Western palette: AP Hotaling & Co.â€™s warehouse at 451 Jackson Street — the largest depository of whiskey on the West Coast.
Day One: the first escape
Hotaling’s warehouse was threatened on the very first day of the fires, Wednesday, April 18th. This particular blaze was one of the many inspired by rampant and ill-advised dynamiting, in this case by an allegedly drunken John Bermingham, not coincidentally the president of the California Powder Works.
Encouraged by the blast, the fire roared towards the whiskey-packed warehouse. Its cornices began to smoulder, but a quick-acting fireman bravely clambered to the top and hacked them off.
This was Hotaling’s first escape.
Day Two: the Army and the Navy
On the second day, the Army arrived — with orders to protect the adjacent Appraisers Building by dynamiting the warehouse. The Appraisers Building was, after all, government property. In this case, though — unlike in so many others all around San Francisco — the managers of the warehouse were able to make the officer in charge listen to reason:
“On account of the large stock of whiskey in the warehouse, the consequences of a dynamite explosion would be the immediate combustion of all this vast amount of highly inflammable spirit, which would flow all over the place in a liquid wave of flame, and be virtually certain to destroy (the Appraisers Building).”
Instead, a motley crew of waterfront toughs were hired to empty the warehouse, rolling the heavy wooden casks to a vacant lot, two blocks away. The Army posted guards and gave them orders about dealing with would-be booze thieves — shoot to kill.
By midnight, twelve hundred barrels had been moved — but then the fire struck again. This time the saviour was a single length of hose from a Navy fireboat off the Embarcadero. The hose ran from the boat over Telegraph Hill, up along Broadway, and all the way to Montgomery Street, pumping sea-water eleven blocks and saving the Bank of Italy, the Appraisers Building — and Hotaling’s warehouse.
Day Three: saved by sewage
By noon on the third day, another thousand barrels had been rolled to safety — but then the wind shifted. The fiery maelstrom ravaging the Barbary Coast now bore savagely down on Jackson Street. All seemed lost, and it was decided to abandon ship — the heavy iron shutters of the warehouse were bolted and the men turned to helping save documents from the Appraiser’s office.
But then the wind relented, and warehouse manager Edward Lind was struck by a hopeful inspiration. What about the sewer from the construction site next door? Hey, water is water. Two wine pumps were found, and a “compote of the sewage and (salt-water) seepage” was pumped out of the ground. A bucket brigade slopped the foul-smelling goo onto the whiskey barrels remaining in the warehouse.
Lind remembers that “it was horrible. One side of Jackson Street was a roaring fury of flame, with walls toppling, and smoke choking people. The evil-smelling stuff made a steam that was suffocating as it evaporated on the roasting woodwork.”
But that muck did the trick. The opposite side of Jackson was completely destroyed, as you can clearly see in the dramatic photo at the top of the post — but on this Friday, April 20th — Hotaling’s Whiskey was saved.
As the Argonaut would later report, “while millions of dollars worth of normally non-inflammable material was reduced to ashes, (thousands of) barrels of highly inflammable whisky were preserved intact in the heart of the tremendous holocaust.”
The fires are out, as are the poets
By Saturday the 21st, San Francisco’s fires were out. Every other stock of whiskey in the city had been destroyed, but Hotaling’s — by the grace of God, man, sewage, and the Navy — had been spared.
The burning of San Francisco was greeted by a good many clergyman as divine retribution for its wicked, wicked ways. The fact that houses of worship were incinerated right along with everything else — and that Hotalingâ€™s whiskey warehouse was spared — inspired an immortal piece of doggerel by poet and wit Charles Kellogg Field:
If, as some say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the Churches down
And save Hotalingâ€™s Whisky?
That last line originally read “and saved Old Kirk’s Whiskey”, since that was the bottling name of the liquor — but somebody at Hotaling’s wisely changed the last line of the verse for advertising purposes — and it stuck.
A bronze plaque bearing those modified lines is attached to the old Hotaling warehouse today — but an even more fitting memorial was produced for the 2006 earthquake centennial by the Anchor Distillery — a limited edition single malt barrel-aged rye called “Hotaling Whiskey“.
That’s the spirit!