From the San Francisco Examiner - September 8, 1907




Firemen by Determined Effort Save Stables and the Sutro Baths


Famous Old Hostelry Had Just Been Refitted at Very Heavy Expense


The Cliff House is gone! The far-famed hostelry San Francisco's boast – the world's acclaim – is leveled to the ground. It's tower and its turrets, the open balconies and its secluded apartments, with all their wild romance and their historic significance, are now a heap of blackened ruins.

In less than two hours of yesterday afternoon, the glinting white walls that for more than eleven years had defiantly challenged the angry ocean and the furious tempest, were caught up by fire and devoured to the last little splinter.

It was just past four o'clock when it was discovered that the Cliff House was in flames. James M. Wilkins who had managed the hotel for many years, and who had been the host of the old Cliff House that was burned on Christmas Eve of 1894, was standing on the south balcony of the main floor with Watchmen Owen Mulvaney. They were looking down along the far stretch of beach, dotted here and there with lounging idlers and romping merry-makers.

Suddenly, a puff of smoke came up through a small square hole that electricians had cut in the flooring of the balcony.

"Fire!" Shouts Manager

"The hotel is afire!" Shouted Wilkins. "Turn in the alarm!"

"Telephone to John Tait," cried Mulvaney.

Mulvaney rushed to the fire alarm box and Wilkins ran to the north side of the hotel where the telephone was located.

Up to that moment, all that Wilkins had seen was that little puff of smoke issuing through the hole in the veranda. But the fire, starting as it did on the bottom-most floor of the hotel, had spread with frightful rapidity. And while Wilkins was yet tugging at the telephone, the whole north wall of the building came crashing in, and Wilkins was enveloped in smoke and flames.

Picture "Jim" Wilkins, the suave courtly, affable host of years gone by, battling for his life amid the black, stifling air of those fire-swept halls, penned up there, single and alone, and seemingly fated for a terrible death in the very place over which he had been lord and master for so long a time.

Wilkins ran towards the nearest exit, as he thought. He struck a solid wall. Then he thought of a window near the telephone booth. He reached the window and was beaten back by the flames. Turning, he fled into the barroom. That, too, was filled with smoke. Wilkins was choking now. He held a hand to his mouth and staggered out into the main corridor. There the smoke was denser and the heat greater.

Fights Death Alone

Wilkins could go no further. He made one last plunge into the darkness and fell to the floor unconscious. Just then Captain Kelly of Chemical Engine No. 8 led his men into the burning building. They fought their way inch by inch, and they came at last to the unconscious form of Wilkins. Fireman Fred Klatzel took firm hold of the helpless man and dragged him out into the open air, where he was revived.

Beyond Wilkins and Mulvaney, there were only three persons in the building when it began to burn. There were a Japanese, his wife, and their child. Those three were working in the laundry below stairs, and they escaped at the first cry of fire.

A moment after the daring rescue of Wilkins, all of the firemen were driven from the hotel by the flames which now enveloped the whole structure. There was not the last chance of saving the hotel from total destruction.

In an effort to save the stables and the great Sutro Baths the firemen ran their engines and their hose down into the very face of the fire and stood to their task against blistering heat. The north wind favored them, and they saved not only the baths but also the stables which caught fire a score of times.

Historic Sutro Heights and all other buildings on the bluffs back of the Cliff House were for more than an hour in grave danger of destruction. The burning brands carried on the wind from the Cliff House fire strewed the whole steep slope of the heights, and dry grass, the fences and the roves of many houses, including the residence of James M. Wilkins, were several times in flames. Detachments of firemen were hurried up over the precipitous places and in every instance they succeeded in extinguishing the blaze.

The burning of the Cliff House was a wondrous sight, viewed from whatever point. Whether one looked in from the sea, or up from the beach, or down from the heights, the scene was from every angle wild and spectacular. Hanging there over the edge of the cliff, big and alone, with the booming surf spraying its seaward wall, the flame-wrapped building seemed to be a thing apart from the earth – a something sent from the unknown to hold the human mind in awe and wonderment.

Veritable Inferno

Looking down into the seething roaring cauldron from the parapet of Sutro Heights, the burning hotel took on the aspect of an inferno. Seen from the southern stretch of beach, the darting, snapping flames seemed to be dancing out in maddened efforts to catch and destroy the buildings that lay smiling far beyond their reach. Far out by the famous Seal Rocks, the crew of the lifesaving station bobbing about on the waves in their little boat, had an entirely different view of the fire. To them the swaying structure seemed always toppling towards the seas. But that was an illusion, for after the flames died down for lack of something to feed on, it was seen that the whole giant frame of the hotel had crumbled in upon itself, and that the ashes of its timbers lay heaped on the great flat rock where the proud walls had lately reared.

It is a long way out to the Cliff House from the heart of the city – a full five miles; and not everyone can scoot out there to the ocean's edge in a fast automobile. For those reasons, and, for the reason that it was some time before the burning of the big hotel was generally noised about town, there were but few persons – not more than two or three hundred – who witnessed the last red hour of one of the world's finest resorts.

A Notable Resort

Through the belching flames there came visions of some of many persons and events that had contributed to make the Cliff House a familiar and a pleasing name throughout the whole of Christendom. Princes, presidents, prima-donnas and peasants, all had graced the hostelry during its long and busy life. The rich and the poor, the high and the low of all the earth, or so many of them as lived or sojourned in the city by the Golden Gate made the Cliff House their one chief pleasure place. Between its lower balcony and its lookout tower there was little of human interest that did not occur and recur. Its midday lunches and its midnight suppers included men and women in every walk of life, in every civilized country there are those who can tell a hundred tales of interesting things that happened out there where the sea dogs bark and where the evening sun slips down behind the waves.

There are people in many lands who will mourn the Cliff House.

Building Unoccupied

At the time of the fire the Cliff House was unoccupied. It was being refitted and remodeled by the Cliff House Company, a corporation that had leased the property for a term of years. The work mapped out by the new lessees had progressed so far that they expected to reopen the hotel within the next thirty days. it was their intention to make the Cliff House a much finer and more pretentious place than it had been before. The corporation had already spent much money on it and the investment is a dead loss, excepting so much of it was covered by insurance.

John Tait of Tait's Cafe, who was the active head of the leasing corporation, stated last night that the loss of his concern would be about $50,000, He said that $35,000 of that amount was secured by insurance.

The loss of the Cliff House building falls on the Sutro estate, the heirs of Adolph Sutro being its owners. The original cost of the second, or new Cliff House, said James M. Wilkins yesterday was about $60,000. The new Cliff House, was first opened to the public on January 14, 1896, and had been running almost continuously ever since that time.

Soon to be Rebuilt

San Francisco will not be long without its Cliff House. A new building will soon be perched on the rocky site of the old landmark, and the new structure will rise as soon as the ruins of the old are swept into the sea.

John Tait, the lessee of the Cliff House, stated last night that he had already closed negotiations for a lease on the new structure that is to be.

A new building that will far surpass in magnificence the old one is to be erected as soon as possible. "The plans of the Cliff House Company will be carried out in the new structure, as we have already negotiated a lease," he said.

No man of any consequence has ever visited San Francisco, without being taken to the Cliff House. The hotel register would make a catalogue of illustrious names. General Grant on his return from his trip around the world, was banqueted there. The Princess Louise, the Marquis of Lorne, President Hayes and President Harrison tasted of its good cheer and others before counting.