Kern Valley Bank

Comments Off on Kern Valley Bank

The great fire of 1889, which raged for three hours through Bakersfield, took place on the Sunday afternoon of July 7. While families were attending church, an inferno started innocently enough…

Kern Valley Bank at 18th and Chester after the great fire of 1889.

Kern Valley Bank at 18th and Chester after the great fire of 1889.

The great fire of 1889, which raged for three hours through Bakersfield, took place on the Sunday afternoon of July 7. While families were attending church, an inferno—which, according to Wallace M. Morgan’s History of Kern County started innocently enough: reportedly in the kitchen where a Mrs. N.E. Kelsey was preparing Sunday supper—was consuming almost all of downtown.

One such structure through which the flames rampaged was the Kern Valley Bank. A beautiful and dignified structure, it was a cornerstone of our blooming downtown scene, and a shining example of how our architecture was, indeed, in step with that of cities like San Francisco. The brick exterior was one of the things that saved the building, as almost all others were made of wood.

In a harrowing recollection of the blaze, Fire Captain H.P. Bender wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Cora, “With this demon we could not stay…The heat had become so intense that we had to turn the water on ourselves to keep from burning up…Some of us even had to hug the ground to keep from being melted down where we stood.”

Doomed from the start, bucket brigades were employed to take on the blaze, as our water system had completely failed due to natural causes (roots had grown into the water tank, leaving practically no pressure in the hydrants).

The damage was more than considerable. There were rumors going around all of California, speculating that Bakersfield would simply be no more; premonitions of residents merely packing up and settling elsewhere abounded. Forty-four homes, 147 businesses and shops, and five hotels were laid to waste, and with a population of a few thousand at the time, the “village” of Bakersfield seemed utterly devastated.

“The Kern Valley Bank building, then just being completed, was gutted,” The Daily Californian further reported. (It was, in fact, dedicated the very day prior to the carnage.) “But the walls were left standing, and were not torn down in the process of reconstruction.”

Though the bank may not have lasted, Bakersfield obviously did. The residents were just as proud then as they are now, and they defied the rumors that our town was doomed. “On the day following the fire, there was a mass meeting at the court house to provide relief for the homeless…it was agreed to decline all offers of assistance, the sentiment being that Bakersfield could care for its own.” And care, it did. Structures were rebuilt—in brick this time—and in as little as 10 days, many of the shops had been restored, and our city’s pride remained intact.

Article appeared in our 31-2 Issue – June 2014

© 2011 - Bakersfield Magazine Inc.
Wordpress Themes
Scroll to Top