Reports of the disastrous, still burning California wildfires are heartrending. Lives have been lost and entire communities have been destroyed. Some folks have lost everything, but there is something more.
Added to the distress of lost lives and property are reports that looters have found their way into the destruction to help themselves to anything of value that might remain.
As would be expected, outrage has been the prominent public response to such villainy, which brings to mind a question.
What was the public response to a similar situation that took place in Madera 126 years ago? How did Maderans react to the looting of Chinatown during the fire of 1891?
Although there are no Maderans alive today who remember that devastating conflagration, we do have an eye-witness account of the tragedy. It was recorded by J.B. Williams, who had been a resident of Madera for just one year.
Born in Wales on March 5, 1868, and lured by the promises of the John Brown land colonization scheme, Williams moved here in 1890 when there were “29 saloons, two churches, and one wine-cellar.”
He and his family lived on the corner of what is now Fifth and P streets in a cottage that was the first built west of E Street and north of Yosemite Avenue. This gave Williams a perfect vantage point from which to observe the horrific events of that fall evening of 1891.
Aroused by the shouts of “Fire, Fire!” Williams ran to the scene where he found most of Madera’s Chinatown in flames. After the fire was extinguished, he returned to his home to ponder what he had just seen. The next day he wrote an account of his observations.
Years later that account was given to the Madera County Historical Society. What follows is history in the raw, unadorned by interpretation: “The Burning of Chinatown,” by J.B. Williams.
“Chinatown was situated west of Madera and consisted of about 50 houses, the largest not being larger than 16 by 18 feet. Saturday night, Oct. 25, 1891, at 10 p.m., as I was sitting at the table reading a magazine, I heard someone shouting, ‘Fire, Fire! Do you see the fire? A house is on fire!’”
“I quickly ran out of the house and saw the flames of the burning buildings. I knew at once that the fire must be either in Chippeetown or Chinatown.”
“When I reached the street, I was joined by two friends. We all started to run toward the fire at a high rate of speed. One of my friends was taken with what he called a stick in his side. The other, being a little fat, could not run very far. I was soon left alone in the race, and therefore, arrived first at the fire.”
“I stood a little ways back from the fire, shading my face with my kerchief because the heat was intense. Looking at the flames as they shot skyward, they seemed eager to devour everything that came within their reach. They were hurried on in their course of destruction by the wind, which blew in fitful gusts.”
“In a very short length of time, both sides of the street were in flames. The Chinamen were hurrying to and fro bearing all sorts of household goods to a safe distance from the fire. Everyone seemed bent on securing as much of his own property as he could, caring nothing for anyone else (a feeling that is prevalent in the world at this age).”
“Moving my position of operation, I went around and got between the row of buildings and had an opportunity of seeing everything that was going on.”
“I saw acts being done that aroused my deepest sympathy for the Chinamen. I saw men who claim to be honest citizens of the United States plundering and carrying off everything of value that they could lay their hands on, under the pretence of taking it to a safe distance. That distance was generally very far away.”
“No one seemed anxious to subdue the flames, at least no effort was put forth to that effect. I believe one-third of the buildings could have been saved if the right thing had been done at the right time. The stores and restaurants were boldly entered by men with no other object in view than that of plunder. I saw many with boxes of cigars, pairs of socks, etc.”
“The barrels of liquor from the restaurants received special attention from some noble (?) young men who thought it would be a great shame to leave such precious stuff to be devoured by the flames when there were so many around who needed it.”
Williams remained in Madera for the rest of his life. Through his varied career and his participation in the First Baptist Church, of which he was a charter member, he became a well-known and still-remembered member of the community.
Throughout his 78-year stay in Madera, Williams made many lasting contributions to this city, but perhaps the most colorful and revealing were his recorded memories of the Chinatown fire of 1891.
Avarice and greed in the midst of tragedy have been around since the beginning of time, and no community is immune — not even our town.