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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Fires that Shaped Our Town

The burnt Methodist Church on South Lassen Street in 1915

by Susan Couso

Humans have had a rather fickle relationship with fire. The force which provides heat and light and cooks our food can also be dangerous, destructive, and deadly.

We’ve taken for granted the usefulness of the flame which warms our homes, lights the way and sparks life in our automobiles, but this same force can break its bonds and extirpate our world.

Susanville has dealt with this temperamental element since the town was founded. In fact, Isaac Roop, Susanville’s founder, came to Honey Lake Valley in hopes of beginning anew after he lost everything to a fire in Shasta City. On June 14th, 1853, at about 9:00 A.M., Roop lost his hotel, store, and all other possessions.

The loss, which amounted to $10,000, left him penniless.

Roop is said to have laid out the streets of Susanville to include an especially wide main street, in hopes of preventing the spread of embers if and when a fire broke out.

On March 17th, 1865, Roop’s plan was tested. A fire broke out in Wentworth & Wilson’s livery stable on the southeast corner of Main and Gay Streets. It swept eastward, eventually burning every building between Gay and Union Streets except for the Magnolia saloon.

Gone were Freidman’s saloon, Dr. Moody’s drug store, Jacob Smith’s brewery, and several other businesses, as well as dwellings. Without a means to fight the fire, people could only watch as livelihoods and possessions disappeared into the ether. But the flames, even with a southwesterly wind, never crossed Main Street.

The town recovered and things progressed as usual until November 7th, 1881. At about 12:15a.m., Saturday morning, something sparked into flames at Hiram Skadan’s livery stable. The abundant fuel contained in the structure propelled the blaze.

The stable was destroyed, along with sixty horses and the stock of the Oroville & Alturas Stage Company. With the livery in ruins, the fire moved on through Otto’s Blacksmith Shop and the homes of the Frank Strong and Alex Shinn families.

With total losses, there was joy and relief that no one was killed.

At about 2:00a.m., on the morning of September 23rd, 1882, disaster struck again. Judge Hendricks’ wife saw four men run from the woodpile and into the alley behind Simon Blum and Jules Alexander’s store.

The judge went to investigate, and immediately saw flames beginning to disperse from behind the business. The fire spread through Blum & Alexander’s, jumped Main Street and on through two entire blocks of Susanville’s business area, as well as destroying Susanville’s Chinatown.

Gone was the Magnolia Saloon and Cutler Arnold’s old log hotel, the first ‘hotel’ built in Susanville.

Witnesses reported that coal oil had been smeared on the sides of the outbuildings in the alley behind Blum & Alexander’s store. The combustion was efficiently fueled and unstoppable. This fire not only brought terrible losses, but the suspicion that, for the first time in Susanville’s history, someone had intentionally set the blaze.

January 19th, 1883 was a frigid day with very little wind. It was about half past seven in the evening and the thermometer was down near zero as shouts of, “fire”, once again startled the citizens of Susanville.

It all began in Henry Bereman’s new saloon, and rapidly turned to the east. It spread to the jewelry store, barber shop, saddlery shop, and sped on through Mrs. James’ millinery and to the Cohen Bros. General Store.

To the west of Bereman’s establishment was the new ‘fireproof’ store of Blum & Alexander, built after the last conflagration. Blum & Alexander’s store not only survived, but helped to stop the path of the inferno, although several other businesses, including Greehn & Asher and Solomon Nathan’s, were badly marred by the flames. The Steward House, across main Street was saved, but scorched by the intense heat.

Fires continued to plague Susanville. Businesses and homes were razed, and lives were disrupted and devastated.

In January 1885, the town’s first attempt at professional fire suppression emerged when Susanville Hose Company No. One was formed. The volunteers met weekly to learn how to best deal with the recurring problem and to master the fire equipment. Officers included Blum and Alexander, who had a lot of experience with fires, and had shown that their ‘fireproof’ store was worth the extra time and money.

On July 19th, 1893, at 10:00 P.M., the last great Susanville fire of the 19th Century occurred, and it was a true inferno. It began behind the Steward House Hotel on the northwest corner of Main and Gay Streets, and soon decimated the hotel. It then swept across the street to Cain’s Livery Stable which was burned to the ground, killing many horses. A high wind propelled the embers onward at a fantastic pace, beyond control of any human force.

It crossed the streets and continued its eradication of the town, eventually annihilating five blocks of business enterprises and ending at the Masonic Lodge. With the exception of one restaurant, every business in town was vaporized.

Susanville had learned many lessons in the previous 50 years. Though many hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost, the town eventually emerged. And as some moved on, most businesses rebuilt, revamped, and created structures which would much better withstand an approaching blaze.

Most of all, Susanville citizens understood how fortunate they were that through the fires of the past fifty years, not one person had perished.

The Masonic Hall at the corner of Main and North Lassen Streets after the fire of 1898. Lassen Historical Society photo

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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