This is a slightly condensed version of an article originally printed in the Mendocino Beacon on March 7, 2013.

On October 17, 1870, a fire broke out in Mendocino on the corner of Main and Kasten. It started about 3 a.m. in the Saint Nicholas Hotel, which stood where Gallery Books is today. Mendocino’s newspaper at the time, the Independent Dispatch, reported that the fire “spread west to Heeser Street with the help of an east wind,” and consumed most of the business portion of town, 25 structures in all.

Historic Buildings line a dirt street

West Main Street Before the Fire, c. 1866. Carlson’s City Hotel is on the left with a tall flag pole in front of it. Left of the hotel is William Heeser’s store. The land, buildings, and stacks on the south side of the street were owned by the Mendocino Lumber Company. (Photographer: Martin Mason Hazeltine)

Many of the buildings now associated with Mendocino were erected after the fire, though the Masonic Temple and Presbyterian Church are exceptions, as are the homes of the founding families: the Kelleys, the Fords, the Lansings, and the Heesers. Their homes lay east of the inferno’s reach.

The Mendocino Lumber Company’s cookhouse and lumber yard were located on the headlands and survived the fire, but not without a struggle. The night the fire broke out, every effort was made to save all the milled lumber that was stockpiled on the headlands; Heeser’s general store at the west end of Main Street was razed to the ground to create a fire break. Since Mendocino had no fire department at the time, its citizenry fought the blaze with buckets. The water came from the water towers dotting the town, or perhaps from the Kelley pond.

Mendocino Historical Research Inc. printed a map in 1987 that helps establish which buildings were destroyed by the fire. It places four saloons along the stretch of Main that burned; three hotels, at least one with a livery; six miscellaneous retailers; Mendocino’s original post office and Odd Fellows Hall; Murray’s pharmacy; Heeser’s general store; at least one bank; perhaps a butcher; and the Independent Dispatch. The building housing the press and machine shop suffered severe damage.

William Heeser and William Kelley owned much of the commercial property that burned. Both men were landlords when the fire broke out. Heeser ran his general store and had just founded the Bank of Mendocino, which probably sat next door to the post office, flanked on the other side by Padden’s Saloon. A few doors east of Padden’s, John Murray ran a pharmacy on property that Kelley probably owned. It had an upstairs hall with a piano, making it a popular gathering place. Murray hosted dances and theater along with community meetings and even jury trials.

The City Hotel, owned by John Carlson, burned that night. The three-story stage stop at the west end of Main Street had a livery, and one report suggests the horses stabled there found shelter from the flames in Heeser’s orchard, which stretched north behind his house. Carlson had no insurance, but he rebuilt his hotel, making it bigger and more modern. It was dismantled in 1917 and the wood was used to build the cookhouse at Boyle’s Camp on Big River. All that’s left today is its water tower, the oldest in Mendocino.

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. Visit the Kelley House Event Calendar to schedule a Walking Tour.