The massive Earthquake that struck San Francisco in April 1906 destroyed much of the old city’s historic waterfront, including most of the dives, dance halls and brothels that led to the Barbary Coast’s notoriety – but one important building survived: the one holding all the whiskey.
A. P. Hotaling’s warehouse on Jackson Street was, at the time, the West Coast’s largest whiskey repository. On April 18, fires that followed in the earthquake’s wake made a first attack on the building, which was saved by some quick-thinking firefighters.
On the second day of fires, the Army showed up with the intent to destroy the building in order to save a government building next door, but, allegedly, when the Army discovered that the building was holding such valuable (and flammable) cargo, they decided instead to move the whiskey, and attempt to save the whole block.
In an extraordinary show of bravery, ingenuity, and effort, salt water was pumped through hoses stretching an incredible eleven blocks from the Embarcadero to Jackson Street while much of the rest of the city burned. When it seemed that the salt water might be inadequate, sewer water was pumped using wine pumps out of nearby basements. This almost unbelievable effort during over two days of fiery inferno saved Hotaling’s warehouse, and most importantly, the whiskey stash. Most of the city was not so fortunate, with the earthquake and fires destroying an estimated 28,000 buildings including City Hall and iconic mansions.
When the devastation of the city was revealed in the following days, commentators from far and wide offered up the opinion that San Francisco had paid the price for its legendarily sinful ways. Local poet, Charles Field responded with the bit of wit that now decorates the plaque marking the site:
If, as they say, God spanked the town / For being over-frisky, / Why did He burn His churches down / And spare Hotaling’s whiskey?
The Pacific Heights home of A. P. Hotaling and his family did not get away so easily: it was dynamited as part of the firebreak. The former Hotaling warehouse no longer houses whiskey, and like much of the area is now home to upscale offices.