The Sawyer Tannery, still located on South Coombs Street in Napa, is both a structural icon and remnant from Napa’s early industrial history. Over the course of its long history, Sawyer would become a giant in its industry. Also during its years of operation, Sawyer and its surrounding residential neighborhood generally co-existed harmoniously. However, there were occasional incidents that disrupted that genial relationship, such as the time when Sawyer’s large water tank burst in 1890.
In the “Illustrations of Napa County, California with Historical Sketch” book published in 1878 by Smith and Elliot, the “B.F. Sawyer & Co.’s Wool Pullery & Tannery” was described as “the largest and chief manufacturing establishment” of Napa County. “The business was established by F. A. Sawyer in 1870, primarily as a wool-pulling operation. In 1871, B. F. Sawyer, father of the founder of the business became a partner, and the present firm name, B.F. Sawyer & Co., was given.”
Regarding the river-front plant, the publishers continued, “Every department of the business has gradually and constantly increased from the first, and they have added to their works until they have now one of the largest wool-pulling and tanning establishments on the Pacific coast.”
According to the publishers, in 1877, Sawyer processed about 300,000 hides that year, or approximately 1,000 hides per day. That same year, they processed about 1 million pounds of wool.
The publishers added, “The total of their business transactions for 1877 exceeded a half million dollars. To keep pace with their orders, the firm have expended about seven thousand dollars in improvements the past year, and have now facilities equal to the demand.”
One of those improvements was the addition of a large water tank. Although by 1890, the original tank had been replaced several years earlier. That newer tank was the cause of a sensational incident. According to a summertime 1890 Napa Daily Journal article, at about 5 a.m. “many residents of the southern part of town near Sawyer Tanning Co.’s buildings, were startled out of their slumbers by a loud noise, which to many sounded like the bursting of a steam boiler.”
The Journal continued, “On the third floor of the main building facing Grant avenue (now Coombs Street) is situated a huge tank used for supplying the Tannery with water, and which holds when full 20,000 gallons.”
The night watchman, John Crass, said that when that full to capacity tank burst, “the noise was deafening, and in a few seconds, the second and first floors were a lake of water.”
The Journal added, “The side of the building next to the tank was torn out and staves and pieces of hoop iron were scattered about the street. On the third floor was stored a large amount of wool and on the second floor between two and three thousand hides, which were all soaked with water, and will necessitate much labor to dry.”
As for the tank itself, it had been in use for about eight years prior to its self-destruction. The Journal continued, “but there never was a thought as to its insecurity. The tank was thought to be in good condition, but it seems the hoops which encircled it were much worn. All of these were snapped in twain as though they had been so much paper. The staves were 2-inch planks and six of these were broken into splinters.”
Although causing some significant damage to the Sawyer Tannery as well as to itself, the ruptured tank was to be salvaged. The Journal reported, “Work was commenced immediately upon the wreck, and in a few days, the tank will resume its former duties.”
Although this incident created a temporary setback, Sawyer eventually became the largest tanning company west of the Mississippi.