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Rev. Albert Williams (1809-1893) was founder of San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church. He resigned his pastorship October 8, 1854. This account of the sixth Great Fire comes from his book "A Pioneer Pastorate and Times..." published in 1879.

The fire following the 1906 earthquake was San Francisco’s seventh great fire, but the city avoided its eighth when the San Francisco Fire Department, together with volunteers manning a bucket brigade, kept the 1989 Marina Fire from jumping to surrounding blocks.

So frequent and periodical were these fires, that they came to be regarded in the light of permanent institutions. Fears of a recurrence of the dread evil, in view of the past, were not long in waiting for fulfilment. On the anniversary of the fire of the 4th of May, 1850, came another on the 4th of May, 1851, the fifth general fire. The city was appalled by these repeated calamities. And more, it began to be a confirmed conviction that they were not accidental, but incendiary. On the 22d of June, 1851, the sixth, and, happily the last general fire, and severest of all, occurred. The fact that the point of the beginning of this fire was in a locality quite destitute of water facilities, with other attending circumstances, left hardly a remaining doubt of its incendiary character.

map of the June 1851 San Francisco fire

To the congregation of the First Church in general, in the burning of its church edifice, and, in addition, to a large number of its individual members, many of whom lost their all in this fire, the event was deplorably ruinous. The fire began in a small frame house on Pacific street, between Stockton and Powell streets, in the rear of the church, on the same block on which it was situated. When first discovered, a bucket of water might have extinguished the fire, but the preventive was not at command, or timely efforts to apply it were neglected. The time was Sunday morning. At the first bell-ringing for the eleven o’clock service, looking out of my north study window, from my residence on California street, I saw a dark cloud of smoke rising from the region of the church. In anxious haste I left for the threatening scene. On Stockton street I met a friend, who reported the fire as already beyond control, and our church beyond the power of preservation. Very many of the congregation were on the way to the church service at the beginning of the fire. The choir had made special preparation for the music of that day. I reached the church in time to assist members of the congregation in saving the books, organ, and other moveable articles, and last of all, helped to detach the pulpit and bear it to a place of safety. Meanwhile the fire had begun its destructive work upon the west pulpit end of the building, and from the burning masses around had gained such power that in a few minutes the entire structure was enveloped in the consuming flames. The eastern Stockton street front, supporting the belfry, last gave way, and the bell loosened from its lofty height fell into the street and was broken in the fall. In so brief a space of time, the church for which we had waited so long, and in the use of which so much gratification had been derived, was entirely destroyed.

Of course, a conflagration so extensive, with Broadway as its northern limit, southward to the Plaza, and eastward to the line of the Bay, entailed most oppressive losses, and was attended with many striking incidents. Our friends, De Witt and Harrison, saved their large warehouse on Sansome street, with its valuable contents, protecting it with blankets saturated with many thousand gallons of vinegar. Others of our people lost their all. Late in the afternoon, I went outside of the burnt district, seeking such of my congregation as had been extreme sufferers. Not to mention other cases of misfortune, I traced one family, consisting of a father, mother, and two daughters, to their place of retreat, a small room, in the middle of which was the small remnant of articles contained in a blanket, saved from a fully stocked store and a dwelling pleasantly furnished, together with much prized heirlooms from former generations. Only on the previous day, an additional supply of goods had been added to the stock of the store, all of which, according to wont, was fully paid for, but all in a moment was lost.

The lesson of this great fire was not neglected. With the impression of risks from incendiaries, and the fear of repetitions of what was believed to be villainous incendiary work, hundreds of citizens were organized as a corps for patrolling the city, especially in May and June, 1852, as a precautionary and preventive measure against incendiarism.

Mechanical labor, building materials, and many other articles of merchandise, rose to greatly enhanced values as a consequence, as had been the case in other preceding fires. Rents were greatly advanced, alike for stores and residences. In the case of the latter, dwellings in the vicinity of, and less commodious than my own residence, readily commanded $300 per month.

Again the congregation was obliged to seek temporary accommodations. Once, on Sunday evening, June 29th, we worshipped, by invitation, in the First Baptist Church. On the first and second Sundays of July, service was held in the Supreme Court Room, Marine Hospital building, on Stockton street. The place was small, and a change was made to the Superior Court Room, St. Francis Hotel, larger but insufficient in capacity.

IN: A Pioneer Pastorate and Times : Embodying Contemporary Local Transactions and Events, by Albert Williams, San Francisco, Wallace & Hassett, printers, 419 Sacramento Street, 1879.