‘The Blue Vault of Heaven’: Alonzo Delano and The Great Grass Valley Fire of 1855
August 29, 2015
Sept. 13 will mark the 160th anniversary of a pivotal event in Grass Valley history – the day the town almost died in 1855.
Gold Rush Grass Valley grew rapidly as it began to exploit its rich quartz gold veins, and, by 1855, it was a prosperous community of 3,500. While Grass Valley was not the rude, wild mining camp of a few years earlier, elements of the rough-and-tumble persisted.
It was a hard-drinking, hard-working, two-fisted town that was developing the trappings of civilization. Saloons were common and gambling was a favored pastime. Women were uncommon.
According to an 1852 account, Grass Valley had two women in town. In 1855, the numbers had increased but women were still relatively scarce.
Cries of “Fire! Fire!” would crescendo through streets suddenly alive with desperate action. Residents swarmed like ants battling the firestorm. But to no avail.
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Hundreds of wooden structures dotted the city, with only four "fireproof" brick buildings scattered on the landscape.
On March 5, 1855, the town incorporated and, a week later, the community elected city officers – including a five-member Board of Trustees, a Marshal, an Assessor, a City Clerk and a Treasurer.
Best remembered among these first officials was the City Treasurer Alonzo Delano, prominent merchant and celebrated Gold Rush author. Delano would play an important role in events to come.
While the new government was destined to be short lived (it was declared unconstitutional in 1856), the new Board of Trustees speedily passed 16 municipal ordinances. And the Town Marshal just as quickly enforced them.
On his first day on the job, the Marshal made four arrests – one for fighting, one for "fast riding," and he cited two women for wearing male attire in public.
The Grass Valley Board of Trustees also addressed the issue of fire, a plague that impacted most Gold Rush-era communities. Many towns up and down the Mother Lode had already suffered significant losses due to fire.
Grass Valley had experienced many, mostly small-scale fires and had inadequately responded. Hoping to remedy a potential disaster, the board passed an ordinance requiring every occupant of every building to construct a cistern holding at least 50 gallons of water and to have four fire buckets for each story.
This ordinance was never enforced – with tragic consequences. Delay would lead to devastation.
At 11 o'clock in the evening of Sept. 13, 1855, a fire broke out in the United States Hotel on Main Street and quickly spread through the heart of Grass Valley.
Cries of "Fire! Fire!" would crescendo through streets suddenly alive with desperate action. Residents swarmed like ants battling the firestorm. But to no avail.
The destruction was enormous. More than 300 buildings were destroyed in an area covering 30 acres. In the downtown business district only the four brick structures escaped. Every hotel and boarding house was ruined.
Homeowners and merchants believed their life savings and essential documents, mostly stored in the Wells Fargo vault, were lost to the fire. Dreams were reduced to ashes and all seemed hopeless. Newspaper accounts indicated that the loss of property was valued at $400,000 – in today's money, this loss would be $10 million. It was probably much more.
It is at this point that Alonzo Delano enters to save the day and bolster the town's resolve.
Alonzo Delano was not a miner. Instead he mined the miners as a merchant in various Mother Lode boomtowns. Mostly he failed, and gravitated to San Francisco where he established a business in 1850.
There he prospered, eventually moving to Grass Valley, the golden heart of the Northern Mines. In Grass Valley, he set up additional shops, became a banker and served as the Wells Fargo agent.
Delano was also a writer of note, whose sketches of gold camp life rivaled Bret Harte and Mark Twain in popularity.
Under his pseudonym "Old Block," Delano wrote about Gold Rush characters and incidents.
Marguerite Wilbur, a collector of his writings, wrote of Alonzo Delano: "Grass Valley knew him best of all … not only as a writer but as a sober and sound citizen who worked for the good of the community." The events of Sept. 13, 1855, would reinforce Delano's reputation as a "sober and sound citizen."
Among Delano's writings is a description published in "Old Block's Sketch Book of the Great Grass Valley Fire of 1855."
Delano wrote glowingly of the calmness and determination of the townsfolk: "On the eventful night which laid our town in ruins, which left us no cover for our heads but the blue vault of Heaven; … did you hear one word of wailing — one single note of despair? No, not one … Never in my life have I seen more fortitude or calmness displayed at misfortune than at that very hour; and what has, been the result? In little more than a month, a stranger, to visit us, would scarcely know that a fire had occurred which had wiped a town from existence."
Delano modestly failed to inform his readers that he had been instrumental in the town's recovery. One of the few items to survive the blaze was the Wells Fargo vault. As the town still smoldered, Alonzo Delano made a dramatic appearance, as Ezra Dane recalled in 1934:
Something was moving down the hill from the west end of town. It was a frame shanty, on rollers. And who was the figure in the rumpled frock coat directing its progress?
A profile view identified him as Old Block, setting an example of California courage for the citizens. A willing crowd gathered to assist in backing the building up against a brick vault, which was hot but still standing among the ruins where the express agency had been.
A few minutes later a 10-foot scantling was nailed over the door, roughly lettered "Wells, Fargo & Co.'s Express Office" — and Old Block … stood smiling behind his counter, amid the smoldering ruins and with the ground still warm beneath his feet, ready, as he said, "to attend to business."
This tiny shed would serve as the Wells Fargo temporary office and a touchstone of civic renewal.
The hot-to-the touch, debris-covered vault was unsealed, and, to everyone's relief, the important documents and currency inside were untouched by the flames.
Delano's resiliency gave hope to the weary population. And they would never forget. Delano was so admired for lifting the town's spirit in their hour of darkness, that upon his death in 1874, all the businesses in Grass Valley suspended operations in tribute and hundreds attended his funeral.
Following the Great Fire, Grass Valley quickly rebuilt.
Before the end of that year, new businesses and homes dotted the blackened hills and the streets were carpeted with wooden planks. The city government response to the fiery disaster of 1855? Delay. Grass Valley did not organize a regular fire department for three more years.
Gary Noy is a Grass Valley native, Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Sierra College Press, history lecturer, and the author of several books including "Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues." For more information, visit http://www.garynoy.com.
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