The 1923 Fire, and a pretty young tennis champion

“The fire started at midday in the scrubland of Wildcat Canyon. Two hours later, it rolled down the dry North Berkeley hills and quietly slipped into some of the city’s finest residences. Housekeepers washing up after lunch turned around in their kitchens to find flames reaching for the drapes like brazen cat burglars….”

So starts a wonderful piece published in The Oregonian on Monday this week about the Berkeley fire that swept through our city’s hills on September 17, 1923 and eventually destroyed more than 500 homes and damaged at least another 1,000.

The story, written by Douglas Perry, is actually about Helen Willis Wills, a stern, “comely” tennis player who was taking the country by storm with her strong performance on the courts.

Wills had returned to her parents’ house in Berkeley from New York to register for classes at Cal, just a few blocks north of the Berkeley Tennis Club where she had learned to play the game.


Wills became caught up in helping to fight the fire and was injured doing so, suffering a wounded eye and blistered feet. Perry interweaves her story with the dramatic tale of the unfolding drama of the runaway fire:

“The [UC Berkeley] dean of students gathered up men on campus and harangued them to ‘give their services to the stricken city’. Dozens of students ran into the massive black cloud that billowed toward the university’s front gates, but there was little they could do. The well-tended Cragmont neighborhood, favored by the university’s professors, quickly fell to the fire, vaporizing personal libraries and research files and half-written books. ‘We were wading through ashes of scholarship and literature,’ said one soot-covered student….Only when the winds shifted and softened in the evening, and humid conditions took over, did the fire ease up enough for the exhausted crews to collar it. The devastation ended right at the university’s gates.”

Read the full story on The Oregonian’s website, OregonLive.

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