Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive




By John M. Houston

    The "Great Fire" on Beacon and Front Streets the night of Jan. 2, 1903 described in the recent production of "Exodus from Happy Valley" was not the first conflagration to almost wipe out "old" San Pedro.  Early in October 1883 most of the town's business district went up in flames.  A fire of this nature was not uncommon in the West, but the efforts of the frantic citizens to bring the blaze under control. have a Laurel and Hardy film-comedy flavor that made the occasion humorous despite the devastation.

    The first character in this trag-comedy was an old German named H. Meyers, who was seen staggering along Front Street at the foot of Happy Valley about 1 a.m.  He is thought to have stopped between buildings, perhaps for a rest, or perhaps to light his pipe, and fallen asleep.  About a half-hour later, E. C. Weldt of the Southern Pacific Railroad noticed a small fire, and raised an alarm.  Of course, there were few to heed the call, except the fuzzy patrons of the Happy Valley refreshment establishments;  Mr. Weldt then dashed down to the S. P. tracks to the roundhouse which was below the Vinegar Hill bluff.

    Fred Potter, an engineer, and several other workers were aroused from their slumber.  A locomotive had to be fired up to act as a pump, and hose had to be procured in an area that was poorlylighted.  It was 25 minutes before Switch Engine No. 2 was rolled out and ready to go.  The little locomotive took its place between Front Street and the channel and started to squirt a gratifying a stream on the roaring fire (which had now spread and threatened to consume the two blocks that made up the business district).

    Other sleepy citizens began to appear with buckets and axes, including Mr. Campbell, the schoolmaster.  A lot of people were shouting orders and progress was being made when the locomotive's water supply gave out.  After some confusion it was decided the switch engine could pump salt water, so the hose was run down the the channel.  Again water played on the burning buildings.  A few minutes later, a coupling parted.  Again the water was cut off.

    Meanwhile, other San Pedrans were not idle.  People and belongings were removed from the buildings in the path of the flames.  Others aroused the occupants of several boarding houses and hotels.  Captain Dick Hillyer, the old-sea-dog who was the proprietor of the San Pedro Hotel, and a Mrs. Dann, who appeared to be in the same establishment, narrowly escaped.

    Ed Cobly was one man not distracted by the noise and conflicting orders.  Being deaf and mute, he went about with an axe indiscriminately cutting down fences and verandas regardless of their proximity of the fire.

    Once the hose coupling was reconnected, the valiant railroad crew once more placed a good stream of bay water on the flames.  Gradually the fire was conquered.  A cheer went up for the brakemen Weldt and Wolverton, for Frank Oswald the yardmaster, and Fred Potter the engineer--all heroes!

    The tired citizens were truly proud of all who fought the flames.  Many said they were "better than a paid Fire Department." But some folks took the "Big Fire" and no Fire Department as a warning.  Along with the newspaper, they said that San Pedro was growing up and a volunteer company should be organized.  Perhaps the town should hire a constable and even designate a lock-up.

    What happened to the old German?  Did he really start the "Fire of '83?  Unfortunately H. Meyers could not tell.  he lost his life in the flames.

The Shoreline, September 1977

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