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Nonfiction Firefighting, real Tom Sawyer make for lukewarm read

  • Published Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer – and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco” by Robert Graysmith (Crown Publishers, 258 pages, $26)

The lengthy title of Robert Graysmith’s (“Zodiac,” “Auto Focus”) book would seem to sufficiently encapsulate the volume. But if the author had dared to lengthen the title any further, he could have included, “a look into the subculture of urban 19th-century volunteer firefighters.”

While the real-life Tom Sawyer gets the largest type on the cover and Graysmith addresses the connection of a real person to Mark Twain’s fictional character, the bulk of the narrative chronicles the evolution of municipal firefighting as played out in corrupt and volatile 1850s San Francisco.

As the California gold rush burgeoned, boomtown practices in San Francisco quickly created a tinderbox of flimsy, combustible wooden structures. “San Francisco was the most exciting and swiftest-moving city on earth. Every day on average thirty new houses were built, two murders committed, and one small fire set.” Unfortunately, there were no fire engines and no readily available water. When men with firefighting experience in New York came west to San Francisco, they organized firefighting companies, often forming the groups based on ethnic or gang ties.

Politics and firefighting went hand in hand, and the private volunteer fire companies had rich sponsors. Affiliation with a firehouse commanded respect and provided substantial opportunities for political advancement. The competitive desire to arrive first at a fire often took a violent turn. While companies battled each other for the honor of being first to put out a blaze, buildings burned to the ground.

In these early days of San Francisco, the steep, muddy streets paved only with occasional rough planking and glass bottles were hazardous even in the daytime. Unlit streets at night were particularly dangerous, littered with the detritus of frontier life. Abandoned wagons and crates, rocks, bands of feral pigs, sinkholes and mazelike streets on hilly terrain could make it nearly impossible to move a one-ton, water-filled pumper engine through a dark town.

Graysmith recounts the firefighting companies’ use of torch boys in responding to fires throughout the city. A boy made himself invaluable by knowing the most expedient route and running ahead of the fire engine, shouting out hazards as his torch lit the way. In return he received free room and board at the firehouse.

One of those torch boys was a real-life 18-year-old Tom Sawyer, who arrived in California with aspirations to seek gold and perhaps someday be a coal pusher or fireman on a steam ship.

In time, he made the acquaintance of a young reporter, Samuel Clemens, later known as Mark Twain. Although Graysmith attempts to make much of the Twain connection to Sawyer in San Francisco, he admits that Twain never acknowledged this Tom Sawyer as the model for his fictional character. However, Twain apparently never challenged Sawyer’s claims to be the inspiration for the name.

Graysmith’s story is populated with vignettes of a rogue’s gallery of characters. The author’s bibliography indicates he has done his research, but the result is an almost overwhelming compilation of statistics, anecdotes and trivia, which do not necessarily add up to a coherent or compelling narrative. Interspersed are references to a San Francisco arsonist as well as the continuing thread of Tom Sawyer and his relationship to Mark Twain.

If you want to read about arson or Tom Sawyer, it may not be worth your effort to pull out those tidbits. But if you are interested in the checkered history of firefighting companies, reading Graysmith’s account is sure to be enlightening.

Lois Carr is a retired librarian living in Wichita.

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