Monday, September 17, 1923 began like any other day. In her last year at UC Berkeley, Ursula Cheshire likely had breakfast with her sorority sisters at Zeta Tau Alpha house at 1700 Euclid Avenue before walking to classes on campus. But little did she know she would never step foot inside that house again.
As the hours passed, the day grew hot and windy, with low humidity. At noon-time, about three miles north of Berkeley, a gale blew down a high-voltage wire in Wildcat Canyon, starting a grass fire that steadily spread to a grove of eucalyptus trees.
“[Then,] sweeping over the grassy dry hills, fanned to a tremendous speed, the flame soon devoured the obstacles in its path, and hurled itself over the brow of Hangman’s peak to the top-most houses on Shasta street…” (From The Daily Californian, September 19, 1923)
Between 2 pm and 6 pm, the fire swept down the hillside toward the bay and the university, laying waste to residential districts in the northern section of Berkeley, including Cragmont and Euclid Avenues. Described in the San Francisco Chronicle as the worst fire the east bay had ever known, the conflagration raged for hours despite the efforts of 7,500 fire fighters from Berkeley and surrounding communities (including San Francisco) to distinguish it. (Below is a video from the Prelinger Archives with incredible footage of the fire and people trying to save their possessions.)
Thousands of UC Berkeley students and other Berkeley townspeople had also “thrown their force into the battle.” A row of homes at the edge of the fire zone had even been dynamited to stay the spread of flames. While male students helped fight the fire, the women of the university banded together to form relief units, providing the men with sandwiches, coffee, cigarettes and first aid.
The Daily Californian (September 19, 1923) attributed the speed of the fire to a fierce north wind that “carried sparks and blazing embers for blocks,” and a lack of water pressure in the hillside districts. Around 4:30 pm, a sudden change of wind slowed the blaze and helped the fire fighters wrestle it under control.
While the flames spared the university campus, they devoured nearly 500 homes north of it—including some of the city’s finest—rendering 3,000 people temporarily homeless. Among the residences destroyed were those of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president emeritus of the university, and architect John Galen Howard. More importantly to Ursula, Zeta Tau Alpha house was one of 18 fraternity, sorority and club houses burned to the ground that day.
According to the Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 20, 1923):
“Personal losses of clothes and furnishings were felt by all members of the various houses. Some students barely escaped with enough clothing to enable them to make an appearance on the campus. Many are now wearing borrowed clothes.”
A reporter for The Daily Californian offered this description of the streets that evening:
“…consuming flames showed some mercy to goods stored in the open streets…[The] streets and vacant lots are littered. Phonographs, chairs, dressing tables, pictures, a baby’s crib, a handsomely carved teakwood cabinet, a washing machine, three cups and saucers set along a cement retaining wall, bed clothes…On the street below, a grand piano stands in isolated grandeur…”
Perhaps that piano was the one belonging to the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha, the one they saved, as Ursula notes in this story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle two days after the fire:
“One of the first Greek-letter sorority houses to be rebuilt in Berkeley will be the Zeta Tau Alpha house. There at the scene of wreckage yesterday the girls of the sorority poked about in the ruins, bringing to light pieces of broken china bearing the crest of the national sorority and twisted, melted pieces of silver upon some of which could be still traced the shield and crest. According to…Miss Ursula Cheshire, senior, the girls of the house saved the greater part of their clothing and the piano. The rest of the house furnishings were burned. The building did not belong to the Berkeley organization. The chapter plans to rebuild immediately upon a new lot already owned by it next door to the present Theta Chi house on Le Conte avenue.”
Or, perhaps the piano Ursula played and sang along to with her sisters at ZTA was the salvaged upright piano spiritedly played by a young woman at the 4:37 mark in this rare footage of scenes during and after the fire:
Ursula was lucky: her mother still lived in their family home in San Francisco. I imagine Ursula inviting some of her sisters to stay with her there until they could find alternative living arrangements. Thankfully, few students were hurt and nobody died that day, but it sure was a dramatic start to Ursula’s last year as a college coed!