The most heroic person in San Francisco that you’ve never heard of will likely be ignored again this week as The City commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire. But if the town’s leaders want to finally do the right thing, they will come up with a way to honor Frederick Freeman, the man who led the crews that saved vast sections of San Francisco from utter ruin — with not even a commemorative plaque for his efforts.
There is a fort named for Gen. Frederick Funston, and a boulevard, and there was once a playground in San Francisco that bore his name. But no such honors have ever been bestowed on Freeman, who, if he had not disobeyed Funston’s order to leave The City as it was burning to get more dynamite, would not have been able to stop the destruction of the waterfront and the railroad yards.
Yet as we come to the centennial of one of the biggest disasters in American history, it’s time to fix this omission from the history books and give Freeman his due. Consider this a call to action. Mayor Gavin Newsom has a perfect opportunity to right this long injustice, and at the same time, he can praiseall the other forgotten heroes of 1906.
Frederick Freeman was a Navy lieutenant, stationed on Mare Island the day the earth shook. The Annapolis graduate had been assigned to command the torpedo destroyer boat Preble and arrived in San Francisco about five hours after the temblor struck — just in time to see a black cloud hovering above that was as large as The City itself.
The Fire Department directed the sailors east of the Ferry Building to the foot of Howard Street, where an out-of-control fire was being fought by firefighters. Working with a battalion chief, Freeman directed the men at the scene — the 66 sailors from the Preble, Marines and firefighters — in pulling one hose line after another. Freeman also organized a schedule of light boats to make continual round trips to bring fresh water to keep the boilers heated on the Fire Department’s steamers — and to also quench the thirst of thousands of shocked and displaced citizens.
By early evening, Freeman and his men had beaten back the flames and saved the Pacific Mail Steamship company dock at Pier 40 and everything east of Spear Street to the waterfront. This included the Sailor’s Home, Folger’s Warehouses at Howard and Spear, and the Mutual Electric Company at Spear and Folsom. Freeman and his crew also rescued hundreds of residents on Telegraph Hill who were trapped by a horrific conflagration.
“The most heart-rending sights,” Freeman later wrote, “were witnessed in this neighborhood.”
Freeman’s story — and his contributions to The City — were not revealed for nearly 80 years after the big quake because the military documents outlining his actions were classified. And Funston, perhaps miffed at Freeman’s decision to stay on the scene, never gave the naval commander his due. Instead, Funston chose to accept the credit for the military’s decisions, many of which history has shown to be shortsighted and callous, as in the decision to dynamite buildings in an ill-fated attempt to stop the fires.
“Freeman’s actions were remarkable,’’ said John Cunnane, a supervisory park ranger with the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. “And it's just as remarkable that The City has still done nothing to honor him.’’
Freeman’s heroic exploits have been duly chronicled in two powerful books, “San Francisco Is Burning,” by Dennis Smith, and “Denial Of Disaster,” by Gladys Hansen and former city Fire Chief Emmet Condon. Freeman led firefighting crews back and forth across The City for more than three days before being relieved. And Freeman’s decisive thinking to save the railroad yards South of Market were one of the reasons San Francisco was able to rebuild so quickly.
“Any military person knows that in great battles there’s only room for one hero, and Funston decided to keep that distinction for himself,’’ Smith, a New York writer, told me in a telephone interview. “But it’s embarrassing to the city of San Francisco that it never put up a monument to Freeman and the firefighters that saved the town.”
Freeman died a broken man, beset by depression and battles with alcoholism. At one point, he was court-martialed for disobeying superiors, and his blemished record was later cleared by a presidential pardon a few weeks before his death.
The last gesture that ever reminded anyone of his ties to a great city came when friends poured his ashes into San Francisco Bay. There should be one more gesture — and there’s never been a more opportune time for it to occur.