"Rising like a pillar of destruction against a blue sky, great clouds of smoke" towered over North Berkeley 75 years ago, March 1, 1939.

"In the first major disaster since the Berkeley fire of September 17, 1923, the four-acre timber and tar paper roof of the Berryman Reservoir, Euclid Avenue and Rose Street, went up in smoke this morning with a loss of between $75,000 and $85,000", the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that afternoon.

"The spectacular blaze for a time threatened to spread to scores of nearby homes. All Berkeley Fire Department equipment responded to a general alarm and fire engines and men were rushed from San Francisco and Oakland. Touched off by spilled boiling tar, the roaring flames spread over the heavy reservoir covering with terrifying rapidity. More than 200 WPA workers laboring on the reservoir roof and in the freshly cemented pit underneath barely had time to escape with their lives."

"Firemen and police officers were hampered in reaching the fire by residents of the area who, fearing a repetition of September 17, 1923, packed silverware and other valuables and sought to flee their homes."

Nearly 400 Berkeley High School students left school as the fire grew, many of them rushing to their homes in the threatened area or helping to lay hose.

The 1923 fire, driven by strong, dry, winds off the hills, had burned some 600 structures through the same neighborhood, down to the edges of the UC campus and downtown Berkeley. Barely a decade and a half in the past, it would have been fresh in the memory of most Berkeleyans.


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A "brisk north wind" had been blowing for three days before the 1939 fire, but had subsided on March 1. In the coming week it would rain heavily, setting a new March 36-hour record for precipitation in the East Bay, with nearly 3 inches falling at Chabot Observatory in Oakland.

EBMUD said that the water supply wouldn't be interrupted since the Summit Reservoir had been temporarily supplying neighborhood water while the Berryman construction continued. The project had been underway since July 1938. "All of the planking and wood work had been soaked with creosote and burned with tremendous fury," along with 1775 rolls of tar roofing paper.

The fire burned so hot that it cracked the new concrete shell of the reservoir.

It was announced that the reservoir, but not the roof, would be immediately rebuilt. The project was insured.

Transportation news

On March 1, the city manager announced that traffic conditions warranted a traffic signal at the corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. At the time, this was one block south of the UC campus border.

The Associated Students had petitioned the city and university for the signal.

Meanwhile, Berkeley's new Southern Pacific ticket office opened March 6, 1939, in a new building at the center of the Shattuck Square block where the old train station had stood.

Murder trial

Rodney Greig, the 21-year-old Berkeley resident who had stabbed Leona Vlught to death on a date, was still on trial in early March 1939. A defense expert argued for his insanity defense, citing "the youth's epileptic seizures, his 'emotional poverty and hypersensitivity' and his present indifferent attitude."

History events

This coming Sunday, March 9, the author of this column will co-lead a walk of the UC Berkeley campus outdoor sculpture collection with artist Bruce Beasley. BAHA and Berkeley Historical Society are also co-sponsoring a Thursday evening lecture series, with the first talk by Daniella Thompson on the history of Berkeley's First Unitarian Church on March 13. See the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association website for further details on tickets for both events.