Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mud and Fire: the connection

While preparing this week's class on early San Francisco, I wanted to look into the status of the streets in the wild, boom-town early years of the Gold Rush. Not to my surprise, I learned that the streets of San Francisco in the early 1850s were not much better than the streets of other cities of the time. In fact, because of the frequent soggy weather in that part of the world, they were probably worse.

As in all but the most commercially dense areas of the biggest cities, city and town streets were mostly unpaved. A favorite joke of the time told about a man who was up to his neck in mud on a New York street. When an alarmed neighbor ran out to assist him, he cheerily called out, "no worries, I have my horse under me." That this was a popular joke, tells us that many people could clearly identify with this man's predicament.

In San Francisco, "instant city" that it was (I take that phrase from a 1975 book by Gunther Barth), paving of streets was not a major priority until fires moved the issue up the priority list. The streets were so bad that one enterprising person put up a sign at the intersection of Clay and Kearney reading: "This streeet is impassable, not even jackassable."

What connection between muddy streets and fires, you ask? Good question.

It seems that as a stop-gap (something to be expected in an instant city more interested in making money off gold rush miners than quality of life matters), the city fathers put down planks over the mud.

Now, it doesn't take the brilliance and training of an urban planner to know that there are going to be big problems with that--those planks are guaranteed to be slippery when wet and a fire hazard when dry.

And that's exactly what happened. Between 1849 and 1854, San Francisco suffered through six major fires, the flames of which were certainly encouraged by that dry planking on the streets. Only after the sixth disastrous fire did the city begin laying its first pavement.

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