Thursday, January 24, 2013

[californiadisasters] 100 Years Ago Today Los Angeles Firefighters Battled the Famous Brennan Hotel Fire


Dear Friend of the LAFD,

     We would like to share a story with you that turns 100 years-old today. Not just any story. A story that is one of the most talked about fires in the history of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

A fire so vicious it injured 30 rugged firemen, burying five, and nearly cost the Chief of the Department his life. A fire where chorus girls in makeup rewarded exhausted firemen with kisses as they exited the smoke-filled building. A fire where likely more pictures were taken than any other fire in the horse drawn era (1877-1921). A fire so fierce it inspired the instant making of a movie. A fire where the Los Angeles Mayor actually pulled hose-line, and thousands of spectators powerlessly watched wide eyed.

This is a story like no other, and just when everyone thought the flames were out...

Los Angeles Examiner

January 24, 1913

Fed by paints, oils and wallpaper of the stock of the Los Angeles Wallpaper and Paint Company, at 529 South Main street, a fire, discovered shortly before 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, swept from top to bottom of the five-story building with the fierceness of flames in a furnace, inflicting a loss of about $100,000 and furnishing a thrilling spectacle to many thousands of persons during the stubborn fight which lasted till nightfall before the firemen had conquered. The fire started in the rear part of the ground floor of the paint company's store, but the cause of it is not known. As soon as Chief Eley arrived he saw the seriousness of the menace and a second and a third alarm followed in rapid succession, until all of the fire companies of the central portion of the city were massed in the struggle to keep the flames within the four walls and save what could be saved from the burning building.

Fire Chief Eley, but lately risen from a sick bed, led his men with persistent courage, forcing his way again and again into the gas-choked basement and the first floor, until a final venture into the death tap almost cost him his life.

An explosion of turpentine casks had thrown a group of firemen out through a basement entrance and had covered another group with a mass of wallpaper from shattered shelving. Immediately following the rescue of these men, just before 5 o'clock, Chief Eley, who had already fainted twice from exertion and exposure to choking fumes, made his way from the rear alley forward through the basement, determined to learn personally if there were other stocks of explosive oils that would endanger the lives of his firemen.

Presently the absence of the chief was noticed, and a dozen firemen began a frantic search for him.

Firemen J. Reyes of Engine Company No.5 came upon the chief, lying unconscious on the basement floor about 35 feet from the Main street front.

Reyes picked Chief Eley up in his arms and carried him to the front and up a ladder through the sidewalk door. Eley was hurried to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, unconscious and in a serious condition. He was treated with oxygen, and after an hour recovered consciousness. Late last night he was reported by the physicians in charge to be resting easy and in no danger.

(J. Reyes, now fifty years later as Capt. Reyes, L.A.F.D. retired, states that Chief Eley tripped and fell through an open shipping hatch into nine feet of hot water and turpentine in the basement. Reyes, assigned to Engine Co.5, left his company and entered the hot water and rescued the chief swimming to the hatch opening where Eley was lifted out of the water with a pike pole. Reyes himself became extremely ill from inhaling the turpentine fumes and the hot water he swallowed making the rescue. However, he was not taken to the hospital or listed among those treated. According to Capt. Reyes, as he recalls the incident, Assistant Chief O'Donnell threatened to dismiss Reyes for leaving his company, but Capt. Stephen Queirolo, a natural leader during those early days, threatened to leave the job if Reyes was penalized for his bravery so the matter was dropped. Reyes received no recognition for his act.)


Shortly after the chief was taken away in the ambulance the word spread among the firemen that he was dying, and they continued the fight under a pall of sadness in that belief.

The four upper floors of the burned building were occupied by the Hotel Brennan. The lodgers had ample warning, and all had left the lodging house before there was any danger to life.

The value of stock of the paint company is placed at $60,000. It is a total loss.

The furniture of the Brennan was worth about $15,000, and it is almost entirely destroyed by the fire and water.

The building, owned by Gustave Brenner of San Francisco, is estimated to have been worth about $75,000, and half of that is the estimate of loss. None of the walls fell.

Wing's Cafe, a chop suey place, which occupied one of the ground floor rooms adjacent to the paint company, suffered a loss of about $5,000.


Insurance of $67,500 was carried on the building. The paint company carried insurance to the amount of $20,000. S.M. Green, proprietor of the Brennan, had $10,000 insurance on his furniture, and the cafe was insured to the amount of $3,000.

From 2 o'clock until after 6 Main street and Fifth and Sixth streets were blocked to traffic. Masses of spectators were packed against the ropes at the street corners, and thousands more watched the fire from the roofs of the Kerkoff, Central, Pacific Electric, Security and other tall buildings in the vicinity.

A portion of the matinee audience at the Burbank theater had reached the house before the streets were closed, and most of them sat through the play, in ignorance of the thrilling scenes in real life that were being enacted just on the other side of the swinging doors.

The Optic theater, next door to the paint store, was filled with an audience watching the moving pictures when the fire was discovered. The manager announced that an accident to the film mechanism compelled a suspension of the entertainment, and the theater was emptied without confusion.


Rehearsal was on at the Century theater, just north of the burning building. The stage was drenched with water and the rehearsal and evening performance were abandoned. The chorus girls, in their makeup, watched the fire, and, in their enthusiasm over the daring shown by the firemen, rewarded some of them with kisses as they came out of the smoke-filled storerooms for breathing spells.

There were thrilling rescues of women in grave peril, but the women were moving picture actresses and the rescuers were actors with terra cotta complexions and black, cornice-like eyebrows. The "movies" man was on hand within half an hour of the time the fire started, with camera and company, and seizing a time when the ladies in front were not in use, the brave rescuers carried limp women down them, while the cameraman worked his crank and shouted hoarse directions.

So realistic was all this that a policeman was deceived and, rushing forward, seized an apparently unconscious girl from the arms of an actor and was rushing to an ambulance with her when her friends effected a genuine rescue.


Probably in all thirty firemen were overcome temporarily by the gas inside the building. Some of them were revived and returned to their work. Firemen were taken to hospitals for treatment.

A second and then a third alarm brought all the downtown fire apparatus to the scene. Twenty lines of hose poured their streams into the building from Main street, from the alley in the rear and from the roofs of the buildings across the alley.

Four engines, the tower, two hook and ladder trucks and three of four hose wagons were grouped at the Main street front. Two engines were at Sixth and Main, and three at Fifth and Main streets, and three more at the Fifth street mouth of the alley in which there was a cluster of ladder and hose trucks.

The firemen fought against great odds, as the combustible stock of the paint store, in the rear of which the fire started, blazed fiercely in spite of the torrents of water that were poured upon it. The flames swept up an air shaft and spread to every floor of the hotel, and down into the basement, where most of the paints and oils were stored. Embers fell all about the block, but with the competent force and equipment Chief Eley had brought to the contest, there was at no time any real danger of the fire spreading beyond the four walls.

Mayor Alexander was on the scene and occasionally lent a hand at tugging at a line of hose. Later he visited the Receiving Hospital and shook hands with each of the injured firemen, congratulating them on the courage with which they had fought till overcome.


Meyer Lissner, whose Lissner building abuts on the alley directly opposite the burned building, watched the fire closely. It is a coincidence that Gustave Brenner, owner of the structure that burned, was chairman of the rump Republican State convention, held at the time Lissner as chairman of the Republican State Central committee, was directing the activities of the faction in control.

The most tense period of the fight came at a time when thousands of watchers thought the spectacle was ended. A sullen roar came from the basement, the muffled report of an explosion, presumably of turpentine casks.

Lieutenant J. Smith, R. Conklin and Ed Welte of Engine Company No.24 were entering the basement and they were hurled back to the street by the force of the explosion.

On the ground floor a group of firemen were working desperately when an avalanche of wall-paper, jarred from shelves by the explosion, came tumbling down upon them.


Captain C.F. Blackwell, Howard Dyer and Roy King of Hose Company 23, William Shiller of Engine Company No.7, and J.F. Corneaugh of Truck Company 1 were buried under the debris and were immediately in danger of suffocation, their situation being all the more critical because the room was thick with smoke and gases.

A score of their comrades rushed in and dug frantically till all of them were rescued and carried out, to be hurried away to the Receiving Hospital.

Following the rescue of Chief Eley, Assistant Fire Chief O'Donnell took charge of the fight and remained on duty till all further danger had passed.

A.W. Dominguez, captain of Engine Company 14, was enjoying a day off when the alarms sounded. He made all speed to the fire and worked with his men all through the afternoon.

John B. Conlon, who recently retired as battalion chief of fireboats of the New York fire department after thirty years of service, was an interested spectator.

H.W. Broughton is president and H.C. Grupe is secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles Wallpaper and Paint Company, which, after Brenner, is the heaviest loser in the fire.


A horse hitched to a delivery wagon stood in the alley when the fire lines were closed and rather than try to get him out through the dense crowds he was unhitched and taken out to Spring street through a liquor store.

Many of the lodgers in the Hotel Brennan saved some of their effects. Motormem and conductors in uniform, a large number of who roomed there, went into the building long after it had been deserted by its dwellers and came out with grips, suitcases and trunks, drenched but happy in the rescue of their possessions...

Here is a list of the most seriously injured firemen working at this fire. There were 30 firemen in all requiring treatment by those listed were as follows:

  • Chief A.J. ELEY--Overcome by smoke and fumes: in Columbia Hospital; condition serious, but not fatal.
  • CHESTER HOPKINS--Operator for Assistant Chief O'Donnell, overcome by smoke.
  • HOWARD DYER--Engine Co.23, slight cut on head.
  • R.W. KING--Hose No.23, overcome by smoke.
  • W.SHILLER--Engine Co.7, overcome by smoke.
  • C.F. BLACKWELL--Engine Co.23, overcome by smoke.
  • M.R. KLINE--Engine Co.3, cut on foot by glass.
  • H.H. RHOADES--Truck No.6, hand cut by glass.
  • HARRY COONEY--Hose No.6, overcome by smoke.
  • R.G. SCHUTE--Engine Co.24, overcome by smoke.
  • J.F. CORNEAUGH--Truck No.1, contusion of back and overcome by smoke.
  • LEONARD GRIFFIN--Engine Co.3, inflamed eye and overcome by smoke.

This is but one story of a Fire Department drenched in rich history, centered around bravery. May it remind us of the daily courageous acts of firefighters world wide and the countless stories gone untold.

LAFD Historical Archive


Researched by Fred S. Allen & Frank Borden

Edited & Submitted by Erik Scott, Spokesman

"Serving with Courage, Integrity and Pride"

Public Service Officer
Emergency Public Information (EPI) Center 
Los Angeles Fire Department
500 East Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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