Portions of this document were published in Maj.-Gen. Greely's final report on the Army's role in the San Francisco disaster. Unfortunately, several key paragraphs were removed, most dealing with criticism of City officials, and the move by the Army to run all dynamiting operations to stop the Great Fire. Coleman's report was of great interest, and was one of the few documents requested of the War Department by UC historian H. Morse Stephens. This is the first publication of Capt. Le Vert Coleman's complete report found at the National Archives in 1987.
Presidio, San Francisco, Cal.
Sir: Pursuant to orders of the Commanding Officer, I have the honor to submit the following brief report concerning work performed under my direction in stopping the San Francisco fire by the use of dynamite and other high explosives, and the subsequent work of destroying dangerous walls in clearing the thoroughfares of the city, immediately after the fire.
The work of stopping the fire by dynamiting buildings was performed from about 9:00 a.m., April 18th to about 3:00 p.m., April 21st 1906. The destruction of dangerous standing walls was performed from 7:00 a.m., Monday the 23d of April to 1:00 p.m. Monday the 30th of April.
About 6:30 a.m. the morning of the earthquake April 18, 1906, the Fire Department of the City of San Francisco sent a messenger to the Presidio requesting that all available explosives with a detail to handle them be sent to check the fire as the earthquake had broken the water mains and the fire department was practically helpless.
I reported with the messenger to the Commanding Officer Colonel Charles Morris, A.C., who ordered me as Ordnance Officer to provide the necessary explosives. I then sent about forty-eight barrels of powder in field battery caissons under the charge of 1st Lieutenant Raymond W. Briggs, A.C., to the Mayor. As the caissons were not suited to carrying large amounts of explosives I procured two large wagons, and, having loaded them with the remaining powder and with about 300 pounds of dynamite procured from the civilian employes of the Engineering Department - the only dynamite procurable at that time - I reported to the Commanding Officer Colonel Charles Morris, A.C., on O'Farrell Street. By his orders I immediately proceeded to the Hall of Justice and reported to the Mayor.
Here I found Lieutenant Briggs with the powder I had sent, and also a large supply of dynamite provided by Mr. Birmingham [John Bermingham, Superintendent] of the California Powder Works. General Funston, and the Mayor, who were both present at the time, placed me in charge of the work of handling all the explosives.
At this time Lieutenant Briggs had begun dynamiting buildings on Montgomery Street under orders from the Mayor, and a Captain of the Fire Department was also dynamiting buildings on Montgomery Street. Mr. Birmingham was ordered by the Mayor to report to me - he was a civilian expert on explosives - unfortunately he was so far under the influence of liquor as to be of no service, and, lest he should in that condition cause serious accident, I sent him away.
After supplying a few boxes of dynamite to the Captain of the Fire Department on Montgomery Street, I found no one left to do the work I had assigned except Lieutenant Briggs and a few enlisted men and civilians who had volunteered to help us.
During the first day of the fire, and until the evening of the second day, the city authorities withheld their permission to blow up buildings except those in immediate contact with those already ablaze. Consequently, although we were able to check the fire at certain points, it outflanked my party time and again, and all our work had to be begun over.
From this time until about 3:00 p.m. on the 21st of April, Lieutenant Briggs and myself were almost constantly employed in fighting the fire with explosives.
It was soon found that dynamite produced the best results and, except [for] a little gun cotton supplied from Mare Island, no other explosive was used.
On Thursday night the 19th of April, when the fire reached Van Ness Avenue, I received authority from Colonel Morris to use my judgement in the demolition of buildings in the burning district. After this we blew up buildings far enough ahead of the fire to make a clearing along Broadway, Franklin, Gough Street, etc., which the fire was unable to bridge, and in this manner the fire was stopped after it had crossed the broad Avenue of Van Ness and the fire department seemed powerless.
While in this work whole blocks were blown up [and,] not a single demolition was made without a careful but rapid consideration of the conditions of the wind, fire and water supply as they existed at the time, Lieutenant Briggs and myself rapidly conferring before each demolition and obtaining our authority for specific buildings from the District Commander Colonel Charles Morris, A.C.
In this manner buildings were blown up far enough ahead of the fire to avoid feeding the fire with flying embers and to effectually stop the fire for lack of fuel, by cutting a broad open belt ahead of the fire. Had not this course been pursued in accordance with the authority from the District Commander, Colonel Morris, the fire would unquestionably have destroyed the present unburnt portion of the city, in the same manner and for the same reasons that it devoured the burnt districts, after crossing the broad thoroughfares of Market Street, Van Ness, and others, where authority was not granted to clear a bare space sufficiently broad to arrest the course of the flames.
My party comprised two officers: Lieutenant Raymond W. Briggs, A.C., and myself, and three enlisted men who volunteered for the work, these were: Master Electrician John L. Davis, A.C., Electrician Sergeant Winfield S. Williams, A.C. and Corporal John E. McSweeney, 66th Company Coast Artillery.
Naval gunner Hull [a pencilled question mark appears after the name "Hull" in the typescript]; another naval gunner name unknown, and an Ensign, name unknown joined us for a little while at Franklin Street. Hull assisted us for a little while but soon left, the others did not engage with us in the work inside the buildings. George F. Ryan of 2221 California Street, an employee in the Quartermaster's Department at the Presidio, did good work during Thursday night on Franklin Street and Electrician Sergeant Jenkins, A.C., assisted in the work on Friday the 20th and throughout the remainder of the work.
Mr. Carson, an employee in the civilian pay list of the Engineer Department, assisted for a while during the fire on the 18th and 19th. These men were the only ones in the service or employment of the Government that were connected in any way with the destruction of buildings by high explosives to stop the fire.
The party being very small for the work required, officers and men alike performed throughout, the work of breaking into basements, laying the charges, running the electric conductors, fuzing the charges, firing them, handling the dynamite, and all other accessory work. In all the work every precaution was taken to warn citizens out of the houses and adjacent streets, and much difficulty was experienced in clearing these buildings of panic-stricken citizens. Fortunately, however, none of the citizens were injured.
As this work was done under most exceptional circumstances as a voluntary service in saving lives and property, and as, among other trying conditions, the charges often had to be laid in buildings already on fire; the dynamite had to be carried by hand through showers of sparks; the wires, constantly shortened by repeated explosions, could be replaced only by climbing poles in the burning district and cutting down street wires; as often, in order to stop the fire in time, buildings had to be blown up from such a short distance, and with such short lead wires that the party was struck by falling debris, it is respectfully recommended that Master Electrician John L. Davis, A.C., Electrician Sergeant Winfield S. Williams, A.C. and Corporal John E. McSweeney, 66th Company Coast Artillery, who were with us throughout, be reported to the War Department as having repeatedly throughout the period from 9:00 a.m. April 18, 1906 to about 3:00 p.m. April 21st 1906, performed in the face of the fire acts of "special gallantry and signally efficient performance of duty" by constantly and cheerfully risking their lives by fire, explosion, and flying debris, in performing the work of dynamiting buildings whereby the fire was stopped.
I have the honor to call the especial attention of the War Department to the zeal, initiative, special gallantry, and signally intelligent and efficient cooperation of 1st Lieutenant Raymond W. Briggs, A.C., without whose assistance the work could not have been done in time to accomplish the checking of the fire, and I therefore recommend him especially for the commendation of the War Department.
The names of the three enlisted men given above are selected for their conspicuous and invaluable services and while the other men mentioned rendered good services, the initiative special gallantry and efficiency of Davis, Williams and McSweeney make them deserving of the above especial mention.
On Monday the 23rd of April I took charge of the same party under orders from the Post Commander, Colonel Morris, A.C., and from the Division Commander General Funston, and from that time until 1:00 p.m. the 30th of April we were engaged in destroying by dynamite the dangerous walls left standing in the thoroughfares of the city. In this as in the work done during the fire, these men displayed the finest qualities in the face of new but equally difficult obstacles. The walls, some of them seven stories high, being in a tottering condition, the civilian riggers would not tackle them. Fresh winds, and on one occasion an earthquake shock threw bricks and debris about the party, and one five story wall fell while the charge was being placed and before it could be fired.
Fortunately, aside from minor injuries, no one was injured except Electrician Sergeant Williams. While firing a charge on Van Ness Avenue with Lieutenant Briggs and myself, the wire being too short, the debris enveloped the party, knocking down Sergeant Williams and breaking his ribs. He was up immediately and, in spite of directions to the contrary, continued his work during the fire and for three days later, when compelled to seek medical aid.
(Signed.) Le Vert Coleman
Captain Artillery Corps.,