In light of recent events of the Napa and Sonoma counties fires, including the evacuation of Calistoga, an historical perspective of past fire threats is timely.
Wildfires and community conflagrations have occurred frequently throughout Napa County’s history. For instance, two early 1900s fires severely damaged Calistoga. Although both the 1901 and 1907 fires were major incidents, the 1901 fire was the larger and more devastating of the two blazes.
First-hand details about the 1901 fire were included within two manuscripts written by longtime Napa County residents. They are “T.B. Hutchinson of Napa,” by his son Fred Hutchinson and “Memoirs & Anecdotes of Early Days in Calistoga” by I.C. (Ira Clayton) Adams.
The Aug. 3, 1901 fire erupted shortly after 5 p.m. Adams wrote, “It was a very hot day and the extreme heat exploded two drums of gasoline in the back of the John Wolfe store on Lincoln Avenue.”
That inferno consumed almost the entire downtown Calistoga business district. A few buildings survived, such as the train depot. Adams believed the substantial open space between the depot and its neighboring building saved the depot.
As for the efforts to save Calistoga, Adams wrote, “The firemen ran the hose-cart down in front of the building where the fire started and attached the hose there, but the heat was so intense and the flames spread so rapidly, that they were unable to get to the hydrant where the hose was fastened. So it burned right where it lay.”
Adams also said the typically low summertime water pressure coupled with inadequate fire equipment hampered firefighting even further. However, they were not completely without a means to fight the conflagration. Adams continued, “and had it not been for the gasoline engine and pumping plant” the devastation would have been far greater.
Although they had some apparatus to fight the fire, many Calistogans took action on their own, including Adams. He wrote, “There was no water and as I worked for Mr. Grauss at the time, I remembered a barrel of salmon-bellies that we had just received the day before and rushing into the store...I got two buckets of brine and with this, the men on the (grocery store’s) roof put out the little fires out as they started. So from there (Grauss’s store) on to the railroad, the buildings were saved.”
While the Grauss building was saved, there were numerous buildings lost including the town hall. One man, Homer Hurst, rushed into the burning building and up its burning stairs to retrieve the town’s records.
As these heroics were being carried out, the fire created more hazards and chaos. According to Adams, two soda water tanks exploded, went airborne and crashed through the roofs of buildings blocks away. However, they caused no additional fires.
Hutchinson’s recollections of the 1901 fire began in St. Helena as his family watched the St. Helena Fire department crew head north. Spurred by rumors, the Hutchinsons and many St. Helenans followed that crew to see if Calistoga was really ablaze. Hutchinson wrote, “Sure enough, the smoke was thick and black...every building on Lincoln Avenue from the river to the railroad tracks had been destroyed.”
Hutchinson continued, “I have vivid recollections of looking out the window of our cabin (that night) and seeing Calistoga glowing in the darkness.” He added another personal memory: “we kids had a great time gathering melted glass and knives, forks and spoons from what was once the hotel.”
As for Calistoga’s recovery, Adams wrote, “As soon as the 1901 fire was over and while the ashes were still hot,” the first lumber order was placed to construct “a little building for dispensing liquor...”