The Great Fire of 1904

By John Bonnell -  Editor’s Note:  Harriett Burt


Editor’s Note:  The late John Bonnell grew up in Martinez.  He was the grandson of J. J. McNamara, a turn of the century enterprising businessman who was a builder, an entrepreneur developing the Bay View Pavilion, a downtown merchant, a Town Trustee and Mayor, helped re-establish a regular ferry service to Benicia in 1913 that existed until 1962 when the Martinez-Benicia Bridge opened, and was the force behind Martinez’ true movie palace, the State Theater.  In retirement, John used his writing and research skills to record significant events and people in the history of Martinez.  One of his most dramatic pieces was “The Great Fire of 1904”, the most devastating of about five multi-structure fires in the downtown during the first 50 years of its existence. As he noted in the prologue, “After each disaster most of the destroyed buildings’ owners quickly rebuilt, using the wood frame construction popular in that period.  Given the relatively primitive science of fire-fighting, the widespread use of that type of construction created the potential for more and greater trouble in the future.  It wasn’t long in coming.” And when it did, two complete blocks bounded on the north by Escobar St., the east by Ferry Street, the south by Ward Street and on the west by Estudillo would be leveled.   Bonnell’s article is edited and updated by Harriett Burt.


A brisk northwest wind was blowing off Carquinez strait and cooling downtown Martinez on Friday Evening, August 19, 1904.  About 8:45 p.m. H. A. Grimm was walking eastward across the old wood bridge over Alhambra Creek on Main street.  As he left the bridge he glanced northward up Estudillo Street and his eye caught a strange orange-red glow inside a large wooden warehouse on the northwest corner of Escobar and Estudillo Street, a block away (Ed. Note: former site of the Martinez News Gazette, now a private parking lot).  The warehouse was rented by J W. Oltman for the manufacture of refrigerant and fruit baskets.

Grimm shouted “Fire!” as he raced past the grocery store of A. J. and J. J. McMahon on the southeast corner of Main and Estudillo Streets. Other strollers in the area echoed Grimm’s shout as he reached the warehouse.  It was locked, but Grimm could see that the interior was filled with glowing smoke as he peered through cracks between the building’s wooden walls.  Within moments, the entire interior of the building exploded in flames, and the explosion tore great holes in the roof and blew out the entire south wall of the building, showering neighboring buildings along Main and Ferry Streets with flaming embers and debris.

By the time the eighteen-man Martinez Volunteer Fire Department arrived, flames were shooting more than fifty feet into the night sky, and nearby buildings along Main Street including  J. J. McNamara and George J. Winkleman’s Alhambra Meat Market, the Bank of Martinez which then faced Main Street and Maximillian Bergamini’s grocery at the northwest corner of Main and Ferry, (Ed. site of the former Union Bank) were all ablaze.  The story was no better along the west side of Ferry Street, where Edwin Morgan’s hardwood store and the large and ornate livery and meeting hall owned by Henry Curry and Reese Jones (Ed. Where the former McMahon-Telfer building stands today) were already burning out of control.

At first firemen were delayed because sections of firehose had not been recoupled after the last fire before being reeled onto their carts, but it was soon very apparent that no mere six streams of water could ever contain or control the enormous, fast-spreading fire.  (Ed.  According to the late Monroe Stinson, the MVFD would have had about six hand-operated pumpers with buckets hanging from them, about 6 reels of hose on carts also hand-pushed and one cart with two or more soda and acid extinguishers and some five gallon pump cans. This was stored at specific locations around the city from F and Alhambra, to Ward and Estudillo, Estudillo and Jones and in Fairview).

 By 9:10 p.m., it was obvious that all the buildings mentioned above (ed. the entire block bounded by Estudillo, Main, Ferry, and Escobar Streets) were doomed to destruction, so the firemen began to concentrate their efforts on protecting the buildings along the south side of Main Street and the east side of Ferry Street.  As firefighters fought the blaze, residents, friends, neighbors and passersby tried valiantly to save whatever they could from the now doomed buildings.  George and Josephine Winkleman and their six and five year old sons lived above the meat market and barely escaped down a narrow, steep stairway  with their lives and a handful of belongings before the rear wall of their building was ablaze.  At Curry and Jones’ livery and meeting hall ( at the northeast corner of Ferry and Escobar -Susan B. Anthony spoke there in 1896), so many people were trying to save the horses, wagons, carriages and tack that everything jammed up at the doors.  After Henry Curry arrived from his home on Escobar, he took charge, order was restored and all the animals, vehicles and tack was saved in an incredibly short span of time.

By 9:20 the firefighters realized they could not save the buildings along the south side of Main Street (from Starbucks east to Barrellista currently) and thus decided to make another stand along the east side of Ferry Street between Escobar, Main and Ward Streets (Whiskey Lane and the Front Room among other businesses), where the wooden sidewalks and storefronts were already smoking from the intense heat.  Left to their fate, the large and grandiose Commercial Hotel on Main Street and five or six other businesses including Reed’s Stationery and Candy. (Ed. Now offices, restaurants and several of Martinez’ newest businesses extend to the southwest corner of Ferry and Main Streets).

Heat from the firestorm was so intense that it cracked windows, melted paint, scorched both sidewalks and buildings and started many spot fires all along Ferry Street from Escobar to Ward.  Firemen drenched themselves in water to keep their clothing from burning, but the clothes dried almost immediately.  While successfully trying to save the large Martinez Hotel (Ed. on the southeast corner of Main and Ferry, it was completely destroyed by fire in 1939), firemen soaked hotel blankets in dirty water running from the hotel’s gutters and wrapped them over themselves for protection but within minutes the blankets began to scorch again.

For a time, it appeared that at least the two blocks of Ferry east to Las Juntas Street were about to burn.  Small fires were breaking out everywhere, spread by embers pushed by the northwest winds. Most were put out before they could spread.  But despite valiant effort it seemed that man would simply be unable to control this fire.

However, just when all seemed hopeless something miraculous occurred:  the northwest winds that were pushing the flames south and east died down about 9:45 p.m. They were replaced by a southerly wind strong enough to push the flames back toward the burned out area.  The firemen rushed to seize their opportunity, and by 10:15 p.m. had all the small fires east of Ferry controlled and extinguished.  Though it smoldered for several days, the Great Fire of 1904 was over.

The devastation, however, was breathtaking.  Two full city blocks, containing one half of the downtown commercial establishments, were in ashes with only the brick and mortar vault of the Bank of Martinez still standing.  Fortunately, no lives were lost and only a few firefighters and helpers were injured, none seriously.  Damage totaled over $100,000, a significant sum in those days; $32,500 was covered by insurance.  Two neighboring communities, Benicia and Concord, sent help to fight the fire, Benicia’s firemen arriving by boat as there was no direct ferry across the strait between 1888 and 1913.  

Water pressure for firefighting, which had been a serious problem in the 1891 fire was not a problem in 1904 thanks to the quick thinking of a Martinez Water Department employee who called the Main Pumping Station in Concord within moments of hearing the initial alarm so the pumps produced at full capacity from the minute the fire hoses were recoupled and reeled onto their carts.   (Editor’s Note:  It made no sense to this editor that Martinez would be connected to a Concord water system as Martinez water came from the West Hill Water and Electric Company formed in 1887 by D. R. Thomas who owned Thomas Hill and nearby parts of the Franklin Hills west of downtown which had numerous springs. But Martinez Water System history records tell the story.   The City not only contracted with Thomas to supply the town with water but accepted his suggestion  that pipes be laid to downtown from wells at “the mouth of Alhambra Valley” to ensure an adequate supply which he controlled.  In 1898, Thomas sold his company to the Port Costa Water Company which also had wells and a pump station near Concord.  So when disaster struck in 1904, the Port Costa pump station in Concord came through and the Concord firefighters came to the rescue. The City bought the infrastructure for its water system from the Port Costa Water Company in 1918 when it formed the City of Martinez Water System.  It continued to buy water from Port Costa for a number of years.


Following the fire the Town Trustees approved an ordinance that prohibited any new wood frame structures in the downtown business district.  Slowed by the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake that heavily damaged several new stone and brick structures that had been built in the burned out area (Ed: including the facade of the new Bank of Martinez building.  The downside of the ordinance has played out a century later when the City first passed an ordinance and eventually enforced  a requirement that all un-reinforced masonry buildings in the downtown be brought up to current standards of earthquake resistance.  That process is currently ongoing as part of “The Martinez Renaissance”).   It took ten years to complete rebuilding the two blocks that had burned in 1904.  When the Curry Building (now known as the McMahon-Telfer Building) on Ferry Street and the City Hall Apartment Building (Ed. Originally built as housing for the newly organized  Martinez Fire Department full-time, trained firefighters organized as a result of the great fire. It is now offices and restaurants) opened in 1914, only a few lots remained vacant in the burned out area. 

Most businessmen rebuilt on their old property or on adjoining properties quite quickly.  A few moved to undamaged buildings across Ferry Street. McNamara and Winkleman rebuilt the Alhambra Meat Market on the southeast corner of Main and Estudillo.   In all, 20 establishments were destroyed. 


(Editor’s note): After the fire the wooden sidewalks were gradually replaced with concrete while artistic tile and plaster decorative work adorned the new brick and stone buildings. In 13 years, professional full-time Martinez fire fighters rode to fires in motorized fire trucks starting with a 1917 America LaFrance which developed 75 horsepower to handle 350 gallons per minute.  According to Stinson, it could have been used in early 1917 on a fire near Ward and Smith Streets that destroyed several buildings including the National Hotel and six residences including those of F. Barlettani and J. W. McClellan.

 Martinez was fortunate the 1904 fire wasn’t far, far worse.  Although blocks untouched by the fire were still crowded with wood-frame buildings for some time after 1904, only a few significant fires have taken place in the century since such as the Martinez Hotel, a 1904 fire survivor because of its location on the southeast corner of Main and Ferry.  It burned to the ground 35 years later. Paul’s Restaurant on Alhambra was another loss in the early 1980s.  But there have been no fires in the last 113 years on the scale of the 1904 conflagration….knock on wood or on un-reinforced masonry that’s been brought up to code..


Sources:  John Bonnell manuscript from Martinez Historical Society archives; Notes on the history of fires in downtown Martinez compiled by Monroe Stinson in July, 1981.  Interviews with Tim Tucker, Martinez City Engineer;  Alan Pellegrini, interim manager, Martinez Water Department;, a staff member in Contra Costa Water District Public Relations department, and  John Burgh and Bette Boatmun, members of Contra Costa Water District Board of Directors.


Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160