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Berkeley Wildfire of 1923 Left 1,000 Students Homeless

By Steven Finacom, Physical and Environmental Planning
posted September 16, 1998

A close brush with disaster occurred 75 years ago Thursday (Sept.17) when the Berkeley wild fire of 1923 roared down the dry north Berkeley hills toward the campus, driven by hot, dry winds.

The Campanile bells were rung and the dean of men told students to "give their services to the stricken city." Hundreds rushed into the endangered area to fight the fire, rescue invalids and the aged, and carry belongings to safety. The football team came from practice to help.

"The conflagration was pouring an impenetrable barrage of dark, black smoke over the city," the Daily Californian reported the next day. "The city seemed doomed. Flames broke a fiery, red path to the region around Euclid Avenue. Soon the entire area from Hearst Avenue north to Rose Street, and south to Oxford was a flaming mass of crackling ruins."

Houses burned across Oxford Street and Hearst Avenue from the campus. Finally, the wind changed and the fire could be stopped. Then the university grounds and buildings became a haven for refugees.

Piles of salvaged furniture and belongings were scattered about.

Hundreds of women students turned Stephens Hall -- then the new student union -- into a bustling and efficient relief center. Several hundred members of the student Cadet Corps volunteered for guard and relief duty.

In its wake the fire left a ghostly forest of chimneys. Nearly 600 homes were destroyed.

About one quarter of all academic personnel, including dozens of professors, were burned out. Staff from librarians to stenographers lost their homes.

Also lost were irreplaceable personal libraries, research collections, unpublished manuscripts and works of art. "We were wading through ashes of scholarship and literature," recalled undergraduate Hildegarde Flanner.

About a dozen Northside fraternities, sororities and residential clubhouses burned, along with many apartments and private homes where students lived. One thousand students -- one in 10 -- were left homeless.

The university did not suffer physical damage from the fire, except for fencing and trees burned in Strawberry Canyon. Relief funds were raised and distributed, burned textbooks and class notes replaced, and temporary housing found in private homes and apartments throughout Berkeley.

Although much of Berkeley had burned, most homes in the hills were quickly rebuilt. Only one part of the landscape substantially changed; the university bought a square block near campus, which became today's Oxford Tract. It is still used for experimental growing grounds.


Commemorating the Wildfire of 1923

The 75th anniversary of Berkeley's 1923 fire will be commemorated Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at the Veteran's Building, 1931 Center St., in downtown Berkeley three blocks west of campus. A slide show on the fire, original 1923 film of the disaster in progress, and videotaped interviews with survivors will be shown.

The free event is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Historical Society, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the city of Berkeley.

The same evening at the same location the Historical Society opens a museum exhibit examining the events and impact of the 1923 fire.

Later in September, historical and architectural walking tours of the fire zone and a poetry workshop by 1923 fire survivor, Berkeley resident, poet and playwright James Schevill will be offered.

For information, call the Historical Society at 848-0181 or visit its web site at

You can also read about the 1923 fire -- and other natural disasters that have affected the Berkeley campus -- in the new Chronicle of the University of California, a history journal now on sale at the Historical Society Museum and the General Book Department of the ASUC Store on campus.


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