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                                                                                     Fires Raze Downtown Tiburon
  By Robert L. Harrison

Tiburon has suffered through four major fires since 1890. The business district on Main Street was destroyed three times by blazes and a fourth inferno took down the extensive Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) shop buildings.

On November 13, 1890, the town experienced its first serious conflagration. The fire originated in a defective flue in the Tiburon Hotel, eventually destroying at least five shoddy constructed, highly flammable saloons or stores. Several sneak thieves exploited the fire and a good many
articles were stolen. The value of property lost in the fire was estimated to be $25,000 (about $700,000 in 2017 dollars). Tiburon’s recovery from the November fire appeared to be swift. A December report indicated, “Every building in town erected—since the fire—has a saloon in it,
or a saloon connected with it.” The Tiburon Hotel was replaced within a week by a temporary canvas structure and by mid-December a new building stood in place of the old one.

Nearly sixteen years later, on September 13, 1906, a more extensive fire destroyed much of the town. Though occurring in the same year, Tiburon’s fire had no connection with the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Rather, it started with a spark from the chimney of Paul’s Bakery that ignited the roof of Fearn’s Saloon. Within an hour and a half, flames had destroyed the business district on Main Street.
Regrettably, the railroad’s four-inch fire mains were shut off for repair. Many locals volunteered to fight the fire, along with Northwestern Pacific (NWP) Railroad employees and a detachment of soldiers from Angel Island. Even the society ladies of Belvedere formed a bucket brigade,
braving the grimy, choking smoke and were instrumental in saving two homes. Several buildings were lost including five saloons, a general store, a barbershop, a butcher shop, and three dwellings. Also lost was the Hotel Tiburon, formerly the forty-room Sonoma House moved to
Tiburon on a barge from Donahue Landing on the Petaluma River in 1887. The value of the lost buildings was said to be about $55,000 (about $1.4 million in 2017 dollars).

                              Tiburon Main Street – September 14, 1906. The Day After the Fire.
                                                 Looking north from the Corinthian Yacht Club Driveway
                                                         Tiburon School and St. Hilary’s Church on the hill in the distance
                                                           Provided by Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society Archives

While the fires of 1890 and 1906 were significant, the two 1921 fires did the most awful damage to Tiburon. The first on February 24th burned the NWP machine and car shops. The fire in the NWP shops started at 4:15 a.m. in an attic above the office of the car department
foreman. The cause of the flames was believed to be defective electric wiring. The NWP shops were an extensive facility large enough to re-build and repair locomotives, freight, or passenger cars on the railroad. One passenger coach, one electric motor coach, and two flat cars under
repair in the car shop were destroyed. The car shops were a total loss valued at $150,000 to $200,000 ($2.0 to $2.7 million in 2017 dollars).
A strong firefighting effort by the NWP and Sausalito Fire Departments contained the fire to the car and machine shops. During the blaze the roundhouse with seven locomotives caught fire three times but the flames were quenched by the hard work of the combined firefighting crews.
The paint shop and blacksmith shop were also saved.  Of the 187 men employed in the shops, eighty-six lost their jobs. All of the employees lost their tools and working clothes. Work on a temporary machine and car shop was started immediately.  The homes located in close proximity to the rail yard were saved. This was a particularly laudable outcome because, during the four hour battle, a strong north east wind drove flying
sparks toward the residential section of town.

The fire that destroyed the NWP shops was only the first to call on Tiburon in 1921. On April 4th, the business section on Main Street was destroyed for the third time in thirty-one years. The fire started in Sullivan’s Pool Hall—a facility known as Sullivan’s Saloon and Pool Hall before the town, along with the rest of the nation, “went dry” with Prohibition on January 17, 1920. Nine-year-old Marjorie McNeil was the first to notice the fire. She was awakened at 2 a.m. by a bright light shining in her face. She ran through the neighborhood rousing those still asleep.
With the fire out of control, Tiburon sent for help from San Francisco. When San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) Chief Thomas Murphy reported that his fire boats were out of service but he would send help if transport could be provided, the ferryboat Tamalpais was dispatched.
Engine Company 12 including eight men, a motor driven engine, and hose wagon arrived in Tiburon too late to save the buildings on Main Street—eleven commercial buildings and six dwellings were destroyed. The value of the lost property was estimated at close to $100,000
($1.5 million in 2017 dollars).

                        Tiburon Main Street - April 5, 1921. The Fire Still Smoldering.

                                                   Looking northeast from the Corinthian Yacht Club driveway.

                                       Water supply tanks above the rairoad fuel oil tank on the hill in the distance.

                                               Provided by Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society Archives

The SFFD men performed in an able and fearless manner and saved the balance of the town. The town noted their appreciation for this help in a letter to Chief Murphy dated April 30, 1921, including a locally collected contribution of $257.75 to be placed in the SFFD “Widows and
Orphans Fund.”

One common victim of each of the fires on Main Street was its famous saloons, serving rowdy railroad gandy dancers, sailors, and soldiers from nearby bases, as well as seamen from the cod fishery on Belvedere Island. That the saloons remained a clandestine operation during
Prohibition was one of the worst kept secrets in Marin. In the Prohibition era, boats loaded with illicit liquor motored under the buildings on the Bay side of Main Street and the liquor was brought up through trap doors in the floors above. It is said that the McNeil Building, re-built in
1907 after the second fire on Main Street and still standing today, was saved by the firemen in 1921 because they knew that was where the booze was stored.

Tiburon Main Street - April 1921. Fire Damage to the North Side of Main Street
Looking east from Ark Row.
The McNeil building, last on the right is still standing. Today it houses Waypoint Pizza restaurant.
Provided by Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society Archives


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