The Hero Who Wasn’t There

elizname2smallIn 1906, San Francisco’s fire department was one of the most modern and efficient in the world.  At the sound of alarm bells, the superbly-trained firemen could hitch the horses, fire up the steam pump and be on their way to a fire in ninety seconds.  They had to be good.  In a city built mostly of wood, even a small fire could blaze out of control in no time.  The 58 fire companies were on constant alert to keep the city safe. 

The man responsible for them all was their legendary chief, Dennis Sullivan.  A vigorous man of 53, dtsullivanSullivan had been at his post for 13 years.  His men loved him, and there was nothing about fighting fires he didn’t know.  He had lobbied the city government for years to get the failing water pipes and cisterns repaired and to build a line to pump water from the bay in case of a big fire. “This town,” Sullivan had declared, “is in an earthquake belt.  One of these fine mornings we’ll get a shake that will put this little water system out, and then we’ll have a fire.  What will we do then?”  But the board of supervisors, rife with corruption, paid little attention.  

On April 18, 1906 at 5: 12 a.m., Sullivan’s prediction came true.  The animals sensed it first—dogs barking, horses shifting and whinnying.  Then, as a distant rumbling rose to a deafening roar, the quake thundered through the city.  The first shock lasted forty seconds, followed by a brief silence and another twenty-five second shock—little more than a minute in all.  But to the million Californians who felt it, the quake seemed to last forever.  The heaving, cracking earth toppled chimneys and towers, splintered rows of frame houses, twisted steel rails, bridges and pipelines.  People and animals were crushed by collapsing buildings and falling brick walls.  

Dennis Sullivan and his wife Margaret were asleep in their rooms on the third floor of the Bush Street fire station.  The dome of the California Hotel next door toppled onto the roof of the fire station, crushing the building.  When Sullivan sprang out of bed to find his wife, who’d been sleeping in the next room, he fell through the floor, all the way to the basement, where he was scalded by the steam boiler.  His men dug him out of the rubble and rushed him to a hospital.  Mrs. Sullivan survived, but Dennis Sullivan never recovered from his injuries.  He would die four days later. 

In the silence that followed the quake, survivors poured into the streets, gaping in horror at the damage.  The scene that met their dazed eyes looked like the end of the world.  But the worst was yet to come.  Fueled by broken gas mains, fires began to flare in the city.  The firemen rushed to do what they could.  But the odds were stacked against them.  Water was in short supply, the water mains broken, the cisterns in such poor condition that many of them were empty.  And the men had lost their beloved chief. 

sf-fire-1The wooden buildings burned like tinder.  The heroic firemen were driven back as fire swept through the towering office buildings and hotels in the downtown area.  The wealthier neighborhoods had suffered little damage from the quake because they were built on solid rock.  Now, with water gone, the military commander, General Funston, ordered that many of these homes be dynamited to create firebreaks.  Unfortunately the one man who knew how to use dynamite in fighting fires—Chief Sullivan—was gone.  As a result, many buildings were blown up unnecessarily, and some fires were even started by the dynamite.  The fires raged for three days.  

By the time the Saturday evening rain dampened the ashes, 490 blocks, totaling 2831 acres, had been burned and more than 450 lives had been lost.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy was the loss of the man whose leadership and experience could have made all the difference.                                                                                                            

My April Harlequin Historical HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE , is set against the backdrop of 1906 San Francisco in the last days before the quake and fire.  Dennis Sullivan appears as an offstage character, asubstitute-bride-cover friend and ally of my hero, Quint Seavers. 

Do you enjoy stories about real events and characters?  Do you have a favorite event?  A favorite real-life hero or heroine?



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23 thoughts on “The Hero Who Wasn’t There”

  1. Hi Elizabeth, what a wonderful post. I totally love reading stories that have a real historical event as the backdrop and references and appearances by real-life characters. Dennis Sullivan sounds fantastic…terribly ironic how he died.

    Thanks for this.


  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    What a wonderful post to read this very cold morning. Sometimes I wish people would listen more and talk less. If people had actually heard what Mr. Sullivan was saying, I wonder what the outcome would have been. Historical events in a story are always a plus. I feel as if I’m getting a history lesson but I know I’m not going to be tested on it later. Have a great day.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Tanya. Another irony of the disaster was that the commander of the army at the Presidio was back East attending his daughter’s wedding. General Funston, the acting commander was little more than a visitor who knew little about the city. Needless to say, he made some unwise decisions.

  4. Love your comment about the history lesson with no test, Roberta. I enjoy real history in books, too. And I appreciate authors who do their homework. Thanks for stopping by Wildflower Junction today.

  5. A great story, Elizabeth. I just read some interesting tidbits about a Chicago Fire in about 1875. Did you know there were several of them, not just the one where Mrs. O’Leary’s fabled cow kicked over a lantern. It’s like that big city burned down every once in a while.
    Okay THAT might be an overstatement…and London burned down several times…did you know that?
    Good grief, why not? It’s all made of wood!!!!

  6. Thanks for the sidelights, Mary. Wow, I didn’t know about the London fires. San Francisco had had other quakes and fires, too. The worst of the 1906 fires was called the “Ham and Eggs Fire” because a woman started it when she lit her stove to cook breakfast after the quake, and the leaking gas ignited. For weeks after the disaster, residents were required by law to cook outside on the sidewalks.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Paty. And it does give the readers a sense of history to put real events and characters in stories. Whether I do it, and I don’t always, depends on the story.

  8. Hi, Everyone,
    I need to be gone for the next few hours. But please feel free to add your comments and I’ll get back to them this afternoon when I’m home.
    Thanks for visiting,

  9. Very intriguing post, Elizabeth! I always love to hear about little known true facts. And to incorporate them into a story sure adds lots of realism. I can’t wait to read HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE. Somehow I missed getting it. I’ll have to order from Amazon because I really want to see how Quinn’s story comes out. I enjoyed THE BORROWED BRIDE so much. In fact, I still think of the story even now. You did a great job. I just love your writing voice.

  10. Elizabeth,
    Your story sounds fabulous. Yes, I do love stories woven around true life events. Your cover is amazing! As a Californian, I’d like to learn more about the highly publicized and infamous fire. Great info and blog today!!

  11. Loved your post, I do love stories based on real life events. I loved the history that you gave us today!

  12. Back! Thanks all of you for your comments.

    A special thanks for the kind words, Linda. And you didn’t miss HIS SUBSTITUTE BRIDE. It’s an April release and so will be in stores in a couple of weeks. Since you’ve read BORROWED BRIDE, I hope you’ll enjoy the sequel.

  13. Thanks Charlene. There are some incredible stories behind the 1906 quake and fire. I told just one of them today. Hope you were safe from the terrible fires CA has had in recent times.

  14. Although the quake did a lot of damage and probably accounted for most of the deaths, Kate, far more property destruction was caused by the fires. For example, the downtown buildings suffered only minor quake damage, but the fire turned even skyscrapers into burned out skeletons. The things I learned in my reasearch were just amazing.

  15. Glad you enjoyed the post, Quilt Lady. Some of the personal accounts of the quake and fire are incredible. I’m still waiting for the movie. The only movie I’m aware of so far is “San Francisco”, an oldie with Clark Gable and Jeanette McDonald. Did anybody see that one?
    Thanks again for your comment.

  16. I’d love to read something based on the 1900
    hurricane in Galveston, Texas. Honey’s grandfather
    was a survivor of that event and helped save others
    during that long night. We even have a copy of a
    letter sent to his family.

    Pat Cochran

  17. A true historic background/setting lends an extra layer of believability and character to a story and its characters. I really don’t have any particular favorite time period, each one has something special to offer a plot. Using a real person and some of their true experiences makes it even better. Would be interesting to learn more about the scottish and french settling of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and the irish settlement of the St. Lawrence Valley in Quebec.

  18. Wow, Elizabeth, what a fascinating post. I love it when real people are intertwined with imaginary ones. It adds so much depth to the story. Sounds like it’ll be a good ‘un. 🙂

  19. I enjoy mixing real and fictional characters, Anita. Whether I do depends on the story. And I love reading historical novels about real people.
    Thanks for your comments everyone.

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