Grace Under Fire

As San Francisco burned, 100 years ago this month, a hardy band of men worked feverishly to save the city’s mint—and with it, the U.S. economy

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Shortly after the shaking stopped, the crew spotted fires springing up in the tenements around them. Night supervisor T. W. Hawes instructed the men to close and lock the iron security shutters on the mint's ground-floor windows, normally left slightly open to admit light. To keep the blazes away from the mint's wooden window frames and other potential points of entry, Hawes ordered the men to remove everything flammable from around the building's exterior, and to use water from the courtyard well to extinguish any encroaching fires.

The well was an uncommon feature among San Francisco's major buildings. And in a stroke of astonishing good luck, just ten days before the quake plumbers had completed installing internal fire hoses around the building—a recent construction innovation. But the quake had damaged the mint's water pump. As the men scrambled to repair it, Hawes directed them to douse the fires around the building with, of all things, a mixture of sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, barrels of which were kept inside the mint to manufacture coins.

After about an hour, with small fires now surrounding the building, an engineer named Jack Brady got the pump to work. But while the flowing water was a welcome sight, Hawes needed more men—and San Francisco firemen, busy elsewhere, were nowhere in sight. Help came from Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, San Francisco's ranking military officer. Worried that criminal gangs from the city's notorious Barbary Coast might attack the mint and loot its vaults, Funston dispatched a squad of ten soldiers to aid in the building's defense. Along with a few day-shift employees who lived nearby and had rushed to the mint to lend a hand, the soldiers brought the number of defenders to around 60.

Burning ash rained down from the smoke-filled sky onto the mint's roof, which was littered with debris from recent construction. Hawes put the reinforcements to work immediately, ordering "everything on the roof that would burn thrown into the [court]yard," wrote mint employee Harold French.

By around 9 a.m., Hawes had done all he could to secure the mint. But refugees fleeing past the building from downtown brought news of huge fires that seemed to be merging into one horrific conflagration—headed right for the mint. Hawes must have wished that his boss, Mint Superintendent Frank Leach, were at his post. But Leach lived across the bay in Oakland, an almost unimaginable journey in the postquake chaos.

Yet Leach was just two blocks away at the corner of Market and Powell streets—where rifle-toting soldiers, positioned along Market Street since martial law was put in force less than three hours after the quake, were refusing to let him pass.

There was little in Frank Leach's biography to expect great acts of heroism. Before being named by President McKinley in 1897 to head the mint, he'd spent most of his adult life running small newspapers around Northern California, with a two-year detour in the California Legislature as a Republican representative.

Now, unable to cross the police lines to get to the mint, he was faced with the prospect of losing not only the most beautiful building west of Denver but also, and more important, some $300 million in its vaults. Still in the consciousness of Americans at the dawn of the 20th century was the Panic of 1857, a three-year economic downturn triggered in part by the loss of 15 tons of California gold when the SS Central America sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. Leach could only imagine the consequences if the mint gold—nearly 30 times the value of that carried by the Central America—were to be lost.

Leach had been asleep at home when the earthquake struck; he later recalled that the temblor "seemed to threaten to tear our house to pieces....Then there were the terrifying noises...the cracking and creaking of timber....the smashing and crashing of falling glass....And the thumping of falling bricks...from the chimney tops....The air was filled with dust. It seemed as if the shaking would never cease....For a few seconds I [thought] the end of the world had been reached."

After establishing that his family was safe, Leach rushed to the ferry terminal determined to get to the mint. Across the bay, pillars of smoke were already rising over San Francisco. The ferries bringing refugees to Oakland were returning to San Francisco without passengers, with entry to the stricken city sealed off. But Leach explained his position to a ferry official, who allowed him to board.


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