The current heat wave in California reminded me of a past heat wave that helped destroy the dreams of one of America’s most prolific writers.
It was August,1913 and the temperature reached 100 degrees in Sonoma County, California. Jack and Charmian London had just completed construction of their new home, located on their ranch they called Beauty Ranch.
Jack London loved the ranch, which he and Charmian had put together from several parcels of property, growing the original 130 acre ranch into a total of 1200 acres. The ranch was their base – home.
As Jack’s writing had provided a larger and larger income, it was natural that the couple considered building a larger and more impressive home to live in, instead of the rustic ranch house they had been living in. They would call the house Wolf House – Jack London’s close friends called him Wolf.
In 1910, when construction began, the Arts and Crafts architectural movement was in vogue.
Wolf House was designed in this style by Albert L. Farr, a San Francisco architect, who had designed many homes in the Pacific Heights section of the city.
The house had 26 rooms, including Jack’s writing room, 19 x 40 feet, where he intended to continue his 1,000 words a day writing schedule. Beneath it was another 19 x 40 foot space, containing his personal library.
Some friends of my blog will remember that during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, both Jack and Charmian, who were very good photographers, were asked by Colliers magazine to photograph the disaster. Having experienced the San Francisco tragedy first hand, earthquake safety was uppermost in their minds. Therefore, they built their new home on a huge floating slab, strong enough to support a 40-story building.
They new house symbolized London’s wondrous success –rising from the working class to become a respected, internationally known and financially successful author. Jack and Charmian looked forward to moving in on August 23, 1913.
Jack, Charmian, Jack’s step-sister Eliza and the ranch crew could only stand by helplessly, watching the roof cave in with the flames and embers swirling through the air. By dawn, the great symbol of London’s success was destroyed.
According to Dale L. Walker in his telling of the disaster in “Wolf House Burning”, Charmain London wrote in her diary,
”Dear mate- he is so brave and cheerful. I don’t believe a soul knows his secret heartsorrow.” Charmian later wrote that the “razing of his house killed something in Jack, and he never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss”
There was insurance and Jack pledged to rebuild Wolf House, but he never did. His health began to decline and he died 3 years later on November 22, 1916. He was only 40 years old.
The cause of the fire? The suddenness was suspicious. Arson was suspected. Perhaps, an ex-employee set the fire in anger. Perhaps, a rebellious political activist set the fire to protest the wealth Wolf House symbolized. Many possible suspects were identified, but nothing was proven.
The Wolf House fire was a well known mystery, that was not solved until 82 years later. In 1995, Robert N. Anderson, a retired professor at San Jose State University, and a team of 10 experts set out to finally determine the cause of the fire.
They examined every possible cause for flames to suddenly break out. The house was wired for electricity, but was not yet hooked up to the generator, so this was ruled out as a cause. There was no lightning storm in the sky and this too was ruled out.
It was dark outside at night, so that any person approaching the house would have to carry a lantern to see by and thus expose himself to being seen by ranch employees. One by one, every possibility was examined and ruled out.
As they examined the remaining charred wood of the house, it became clearer and clearer that supporting timbers in the dining room were burnt more thoroughly than in the other rooms, indicating that the fire somehow began either in the dining room or the kitchen next to it.
But how? There was no one there. Since the London’s had not yet moved in, the house was empty of furniture – there was nothing that could burn except the house itself.
Then they realized that the dining room fireplace mantel was the only one of nine fireplaces in the 15,000 square foot house that was finished in wood – all the other fireplaces were finished in stone. Further, it was known that the wood panels and finishing woods chosen for the house were of extremely high quality walnut and oak.
These expensive woods would require expert finishing by skilled craftsmen. Jack London always preferred to use natural products. The appropriate natural product for finishing these woods would be linseed oil. Workmen had been finishing the wood the day before, possibly disposing of the oily rags in the dining room fireplace – the only fireplace in the house surrounded by wood that could burn.
Those linseed oil soaked cotton rags in a confined area in extreme heart could spontaneously combust, creating a flame. The flame would have reached the wood paneling around the fireplace. Because it was night and there was no one on the property to see it, the flames continued to the next piece of wood and so on until the entire house was engulfed in flames.
Spontaneous combustion was the conclusion. Oily cotton rags on a very hot day – just like our past few days here in Southern California, where the temperature has been over 100 degrees.
By the way, the ruins of Wolf house can be seen whenever you like. The stone exterior has been propped up with metal bracing. It is located in Jack London State Historic Park, near the town of Glen Ellen, in the middle of what is now the Sonoma, California wine country.
PS: Listeners to my audiobook “The Cruise of the Snark” will recall that it was while sitting around the swimming pool at Beauty Ranch that Jack, Charmian and Charmian’s uncle Roscoe dreamed up the idea of building a boat and cruising the world.
That boat would be named the Snark. They never finished cruising the world, but they had a heck of an adventure.
Here’s a link to a free preview of the audiobook, so you can hear what I mean: