Fire in 1909 left Vacaville without
Valiant men were able to save nearby Presbyterian Church
Over the years, disastrous fires took their toll in the
town that was once rich with hotel facilities including
the Davis House, the Windsor Hotel and the Miller House.
By the turn of the century, Vacaville had only one hotel
left. It was built in 1884 and named the Williams, after
its builder. The hotel was sold and renamed many times over
the years between 1884 and 1909. During those varying ownerships,
the hotel's names included the Williams, Western, and then
the Brunswick, the Vaca Valley and finally the Raleigh Hotel.
It was located where the Old Post Office Seafood and Grill
July 11, 1909, began hot, and only a gentle breeze disturbed
the dry air. Sometime during the morning, in what may have
been a defective chimney flue, a fire started between the
ceiling and the roof and slowly spread between the walls
of the rear of the building. G.B. Larose finally discovered
it around noon. By then it was burning fiercely and a disaster
was in the making.
After spreading the alarm, he and Sam Bentley, each with
one of the small chemical fire extinguishers that were scattered
in various parts of town, tried to control the blaze. The
flames were hard to get at and the small stream thrown by
the chemical extinguishers could not reach the source of
Within a few minutes the fire department had two hose carts
on the scene and began the battle against the fire. One
hose was taken to the rear of the hotel and another onto
the roof, but the fire had such a good start and was so
fierce that water could not control it. The hose on the
roof was withdrawn because the men weren't able to stand
the intense heat. All of a sudden the roof collapsed, causing
a mighty ball of flames to roar skyward.
As the fury of the flames increased, the intense heat melted
the only power line running from the power house to the
pumps at the wells. It ran down Main Street and directly
in front of the hotel. When the pumps shut down there was
only gravity flow left to supply water pressure to the hydrants.
The pressure at the hoses dropped so much that it left the
firemen almost helpless.
Some effort was made to rescue the hotel's furniture, but
the flames spread so fast that very little was removed.
The piano was saved and the property of some of the patrons,
but the great bulk of the furniture was lost.
Realizing it was useless to waste their energies on the
hotel, the firemen turned their attention to saving the
Just across Parker Street from the burning hotel stood
the Presbyterian Church. For a while the firemen thought
they would be able to save the church from burning, but
the intense heat began to scorch the east side of the church
and the water pressure was not sufficient to send a stream
to the eaves. The only way to reach the fire was from the
roof and Guy Bassett, although not a member of the fire
department, George Akerly, and C.E. Lawrence dragged a line
of hose to the steep roof. They were able to keep the roof
wet and by filling a small bucket with water, Bassett was
able to creep to the edge and splash water under the eaves
that had begun to burn.
If it had not been for a row of trees along the sidewalk
keeping some of the heat from the body of the building,
it is probable that no one could have saved the church.
The high steeple soon began to smoke and burn. Unable to
reach the fire because of insufficient water pressure, it
was feared that the main building still would burn. With
this new danger, the firemen redoubled their efforts. Sam
Bentley, chief of the fire department, Buck Cline, M.T.
Jewell, Frank Costello and B.R. Beard worked their way up
inside the steeple, and with a small chemical extinguisher
were able to reach the fire to partly extinguish it.
But it wasn't enough. The intense heat began producing
its own wind, spreading flames and burning brands throughout
the area. Everyone realized that if the church became enveloped
in flames, they would soon spread to the parsonage and from
there, to other residences. Then it very well may have been
impossible to keep the flames from spreading throughout
the town with so many wooden buildings on the north side
of Main Street.
In the rear of the hotel, across a narrow alley, was a
small barn full of hay. Occasionally the firemen would turn
the hose on it. George Crook, with a few helpers, formed
a bucket brigade and managed to keep the fire from spreading
in that direction.
Diagonally northwest across Parker Street from the hotel,
where the Bank of America is today, was the Solano Soda
Works. Mr. Larose, owner of the Soda Works, turned his attention
to saving his property. Having a good well, he attached
his gasoline engine to the pump and was able to keep the
roof and sides wet. Reuben Smith handled the hose on the
roof and other workers kept the sides wet with buckets of
To the east of the hotel, and about 75 feet from the annex
to that building, was a row of wooden buildings. The first
structure, owned by F.B. Chandler and occupied by E.M. Williams
as a residence began to smoke, so men formed a bucket brigade.
Frank McKevitt Jr., wrapped in a wet blanket, sprayed water
from a small hose onto the side of the building as men passed
buckets of water to the roof. It seemed as if the entire
town had turned out to help.
A 100-gallon oil tank in the rear of the hotel, about a
third full, exploded during the fire. One end of it barely
missed striking G.W. Crystal and Sam Bentley, who were nearby.
A piece of the tank landed nearly a block away.
Back at the church, firefighters still could not sufficiently
reach the smoldering fires in the steeple to entirely extinguish
them. They were afraid to wait for the fire to burn down
to a point where they could apply water. They could not
climb far enough up into the interior of the steeple and
any ladder they could use in the close quarters was too
short to be of service. Not being able to force the water
up to the fire because of the low water pressure, they decided
the only way to stop the fires in the steeple was to remove
it. In a spectacular show of courage, Guy Bassett, George
Akerly and C.E. Lawrence began to chop, saw and kick apart
the structural parts of the steeple and finally managed
to pull it to the ground with ropes.
The church and nearby buildings were saved, but the Raleigh
Hotel burned to the ground. Vacaville was without a hotel
and a new one would not be built until 1920 when the two-story,
34 room Vacaville Hotel on Merchant Street opened for business.
As luck would have it, that hotel would only last for 16
years when it too was destroyed by fire in 1936. As for
the church, it continued to serve Vacaville residents until
the 1960s when it was torn down to make way for a Safeway
Store. Today, the modified old Safeway building is Gold's
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