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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: San Francisco burns, and New Hampshire Fire comes through

April 08. 2013 7:45PM

At 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, windows rattled briefly in San Francisco, California. After about 20 seconds of silence, a violent earthquake shook the city. Over 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed by the quake and its aftershocks, and by the fires that resulted. These were caused mainly by ruptured gas mains. However, desperate firefighters also started fires when they misused dynamite as they set about demolishing buildings to create firebreaks. More than 3,000 people died in the disaster, and more than half the population of 410,000 was left homeless.

The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company had hundreds of insureds in San Francisco. It quickly dispatched a trusted officer of the company, Assistant Secretary William Byron Burpee, to the scene. Burpee had been one of the young men who, in the early days, had spent winter nights in the office, stoking the stove fires. He proved to be the perfect person to be entrusted with settling the claims arising from the catastrophe.

Burpee spent several months in San Francisco and vicinity. It is fortunate for us today that he wrote letters home to his wife Mattie, who stayed behind in Manchester. A reader of this column, Marguerite Walsh, the great granddaughter of William and Mattie Burpee, has generously shared some of these with the author. Burpee's letters give a glimpse into his experiences in the destroyed city. For a time he stayed at the home of Mattie's brother, Nathan Batchelder and his wife Sadie. They had been fortunate as their house at 150 Central Street on Ashbury Heights had been spared heavy damage. On May 9 he wrote, "Now don't worry at all about me, for I am all right. When I can get certain things straightened out can make rapid progress."

Burpee's letter of May 20 gives a sense of the drama of the situation, "Sadie and I have been out walking since dinner. Up on top Buena Vista hill we had a most excellent view of the burned city. Just stop and think that the burned area here is about five or six miles long. It is estimated that nearby 6,000 acres were burned over and about thirty thousand buildings destroyed. I am not going to write about my troubles out here but I will just say once for all that it is the damnedest, mixed up (expletive) of a mess from an insurance standpoint that God ever heard of before.We have a lot of money at stake and you will of course know that I must see it through. We can adjust any losses quickly when we get everything right for it." Burpee mentioned that Sadie had just moved her cooking indoors as the gas line had been reconnected to her stove. Since after the earthquake she had been cooking meals on the street on a makeshift wood or coal stove.

On June 6 Burpee wrote, "Lots of companies are broke, but don't want to admit it." The company was hampered by the loss of its records in the vault of its San Francisco general agency; nevertheless, it was one of the first insurers to begin payment of losses, and one of the first to complete its settlements. While some companies tried to avoid paying claims, and others simply ran out of money, New Hampshire Fire made good on every claim. By honoring its insurance contracts, the company effectively provided an influx of over $500,000 cash that would help San Francisco to rebuild.

A few months after the earthquake and fire, New Hampshire Fire published ads in newspapers in Boston, Chicago and New York in order to reassure its stockholders and insureds that it would remain solvent despite the heavy losses. The company bragged that it could meet all of its obligations and still have $1 million capital and another $1 million surplus on hand. A company publication proclaimed, ".the great San Francisco conflagration was an object lesson that will long be remembered. It was a drama in which the staunch old New Hampshire Fire played a most honorable role and made an enviable record.the company loomed up very large in the smoke-laden atmosphere of the doomed city."

Next week: Business grows and a shiny new headquarters is built.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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