It was Christmas eve morning in gold rush San Francisco, 1849. Dennison’s Exchange, a Kearny Street saloon* facing Portsmouth Square, burst into a “mass of soaring flame,” lighting up the Parker House next door. On the opposite side of the block, on Montgomery Street between Washington and Clay, was Victor Leroy’s “handsome and capacious” store, which faced Yerba Buena Cove, back when the water came up to where Transamerica Redwood Park is today.^ The first great fire of San Francisco was under way.
The conflagration moved clockwise around the block over the course of the day-and-night, and as the north side of the block blazed from the Merchants’ Exchange to the Baltimore Restaurant, Alcalde John W. Geary ordered men to destroy as-of-yet-unharmed buildings for a possible firebreak. The “rear frame part” of Leroy’s store was pulled down during the operation, and with a bit of luck and the aid of an engine, the block was turned to embers as Christmas Day was beginning.
With no fire insurance available in gold rush S.F., there were those like Leroy, who having suffered damages by orders of city authorities, expected recompense. With Victor’s store looted+ during the fire as well, he found his situation even more difficult as he now owed others for items he couldn’t deliver or sell. In the weeks following the fire, Leroy would search high and low: “one box, marked G D F, No. 5, five boxes wine, marked G F, and about 16,000 segars in boxes of 250 and 100 each,” or for a “buff Leather Trunk, with oval top, containing clothing, etc… supposed to have been put on board some vessel during the late fire.” While an 1850 S.F. directory has Leroy’s residence as Clay street wharf, and it’s possible he would’ve listed this as his address before the fire, it may also be that the rear of Victor’s building had been his living quarters.
On Thursday, Feb. 28, 1850, an auction# took place on Clay Street, near Montgomery, for “six lots on Leroy place,” an unknown street made up of two dead-end-half-blocks sharing Sacramento Street. Today, if you’re riding the 1-California bus west on Sacramento from the Financial District or Chinatown, Leroy is located in the middle of the block, between Jones and Leavenworth, where the bus begins descending Nob Hill’s west side. At the time, this would have been fairly undeveloped territory, perhaps a few wooden frame houses dotting the hill. Could it be that the sale of one or more of these lots was to go toward Victor Leroy’s indemnification? Though the timing is right, there’s just no telling. What we do know however, is that as late as August 1850, Leroy was still trying to recoup losses from the city as a claim of his was transferred during an aldermen meeting to a “committee on Finance.”
Despite the chaos of the fire and staggering losses for folks like Leroy, San Francisco would prove resilient. In just four days “the almost magic appearance of some four or five house frames” could be seen rising from the ashes. In just twelve days, “the sound of a musical band” came from a newly built El Dorado at Washington and Kearny, and in addition “lights flash[ing] from the windows, and doors” could be seen, while “the chinking of coin, the clinking of glasses, the busy hum of voices” was heard. Though perhaps most importantly of all, an organized fire department would finally take shape, and suggestions would be made for “depots of [water to be placed] at different sections of the city.”
Today, walking to the north-end of Leroy Place, knowing something about Victor Leroy and the fire of Dec. 24, 1849, you’ll find an interesting coincidence. For on your right, hidden by buildings until you’re standing right next to it, is a massive water tank. Known as the Jones Street Tank, it was built in 1908 in reaction to the earthquake and fires of 1906. A plaque, garden and tank-house front Jones Street, but you cannot see the actual tank from Jones, only from Leroy.~ While Leroy Place’s relation to Victor Leroy may have been lost once those initial lots were numbered and sold in 1850, its historical juxtaposition today is testament to how S.F.’s unknown streets can also be keys to the city’s earliest community and history.
* Curtis, Battels & Baker, who met aboard the Oregon before arrival in S.F., bought Dennison’s Exchange just weeks before to the fire.
^ Portions of the hull and rudder of the Niantic, a ship-turned-storehouse, were recovered from near Transamerica Redwood Park during an excavation in 1978. Today, they are on display at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
+ Those tried and convicted of looting during the conflagration were sentenced to months and/or years of hard labor in the streets with ball and chain.
# The auctioneer was John Middleton of Middleton, Berry & Co., who later that year, like E.V. Joice and A.A. Selover, would become a proprietor of the Union Hotel.
~ Pre-Jones Tank Leroy Place saw its share of fire, however. Namely a blaze on the Fourth of July 1897 that started at 12 Leroy and torched the street along with houses on Golden Court.
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