The great conflagrations in Baltimore and San Francisco, which completely destroyed millions of dollars of banking property and devastated the principal business sections of those cities, occurred during the administration of Mr. Ridgely.
The Baltimore fire started on Sunday morning, February 7, 1904, between the hours of ten and eleven o'clock. It originated in the warehouse of the John E. Hurst Company, at the corner of German and Sharp streets, and was immediately followed by a succession of explosions, causing the flames to rapidly extend to adjoining buildings. A strong wind was blowing at the time, and within an hour or two a dozen buildings were involved, and the fire continued to advance to the north and east, destroying everything in its path and increasing in intensity until at sundown eight or ten entire blocks were in flames or in ruins. Early on Monday night the wind shifted in the opposite direction, carrying the flames toward the waterfront. Dynamite was freely used in an effort to stay its progress, but without effect. Fire engines were sent from Washington, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, New York and other nearby cities, but notwithstanding this assistance the fire continued to burn with ferocity until Sunday night, when everything was consumed to the waterfront of the inner harbor.
Early on Monday morning the Governor of the State, by proclamation, declared a legal holiday, extending from February 8 to February 22, in order to protect maturing paper and afford the banks an opportunity to secure temporary quarters and resume business. The buildings of twenty banks and trust companies were completely destroyed, and for a number of days the greatest anxiety prevailed in regard to the safety of the cash and securities stored in their overheated vaults, twelve of which were known to contain eighty or ninety millions of dollars in loans and discounts, securities of various kinds, clearing house exchanges, and cash. Fortunately, however, these vaults stood the test of the fire, and when they were opened, after being allowed to cool, their contents were found to be well preserved. While many of the banks lost their records in whole or in part, there was not a single instance of loss of securities or cash, and when business was formally resumed on February 23d, nearly all matured paper, checks and drafts were honored when presented for payment. None of the banks suspended as a result of the fire, and business was not even interrupted, except during the progress of the fire, the banks having secured temporary quarters in other sections of the city.
The total value of the property destroyed by this conflagration has been estimated at between one hundred and twenty-five and one hundred and fifty millions of dollars. The total value of the banking houses and furniture and fixtures of the ten national banks whose buildings were destroyed, as shown by their last report of condition made to the Comptroller of the Currency im-mediately before the fire, was two millions, two hundred and twenty-one thousand, nine hundred and eighty dollars. Their net loss over and above insurance has not been stated.
On the morning of April 18, 1906, as the result of a severe earthquake, fire broke out simultaneously in several widely separated sections of San Francisco, and owing to the breaking of the Spring Valley Water Company's mains, there was no water supply with which to combat the flames. Dynamite was used in an effort to check the spread of the fire, but with little or no effect. Every banking house in San Francisco was practically destroyed, with the exception of the Columbia Savings and Loan Society, an institution which did not transact a commercial business, and the Market Street Bank, a small institution, whose premises were damaged but not destroyed.
The direct fire losses to the banks consisted of their furniture and fixtures, and the banking houses of such institutions as owned their buildings. The indirect losses through loans never have been made public.
The fire raged fiercely for about three days, and when it was finally brought under control an informal meeting of the bankers and representatives of financial interests was held and arrangements were made for the protection of bank vaults and their contents and for continuing legal holidays by proclamation of the Governor as long as the emergency made it desirable or necessary. The clearing house association appointed an emergency finance committee and arranged for advancing to depositors in the banks limited amounts on account to enable them to meet their personal needs. Quarters were provided for the clearing house banks at the United States Mint and a manager for the banks was appointed. A number of banks opened accounts with the Clearing House Bank by depositing cash against which they issued orders in favor of their depositors who applied for small advances. These advances were made in the form of promissory notes. Practically during the whole period that the Clearing House Bank was in operation most of the banks had no available records showing the amounts due their respective depositors, their books being locked up in their overheated vaults.
In the meantime the banks had made or were making arrangements for office accommodations in private residences in the western quarter of the city and were doing the best they could in the way of handling business until some permanent order could be established. They were without books, stationery or other supplies. Everything of that nature that had not been destroyed by the fire was locked in their vaults, which could not be opened for several weeks, and it was some time subsequent to the regular resumption of business before many of the banks were able to accurately adjust their accounts.
At a meeting of the Clearing House Association on May 16, it having been ascertained that nearly all the banks had gained access to their vaults, it was determined that business could be safely resumed on May 23d, and it was so ordered, and all the banks regularly reopened on that date.
As an instance of the precaution taken by some of the banks to safeguard their assets, when the fire approached dangerously near the Crocker National Bank, and building after building had been consumed, the coin vault was thrown open and a score of clerks hurriedly stacked the coin in trays and loaded it on coin trucks with a haste accelerated by the information received that dynamiting was to commence in the immediate vicinity. All the securities of the bank, books of account, current statements, deposit slips and checks for April 17th, were loaded on a dray and hauled to the St. Francis Hotel, which at that time was thought to be out of the danger zone, and were carried to a room on the second floor, where they were placed under guard made up of the officers and clerks of the bank, who relieved each other in shifts. Toward midnight of the same day the fire reached the block on which the hotel was located, making it necessary to again move the bank's valuables to safer quarters. They were then removed, part of the way on wheelbarrows, to the home of one of the officers of the bank in the western addition, a section not reached by the fire, and were stored in the basement of his house, where they remained over night and part of the next day, when they were packed in trunks and chests and conveyed to the wharf at Fort Mason, where they were placed on a Government tug stationed there and subsequently transferred to the safe deposit vaults of the bank, where all the appointments were intact.