County courthouse fire destructive

May 17, 2007 11:00 pm
The Del Norte County Courthouse burned to the ground on the night of January 18, 1948, and many land records were destroyed. There were many rumors as to the cause of the blaze, but the official verdict was of 'undetermined' origin. (Photo Courtesy of the Del Norte Historical Society).
The Del Norte County Courthouse burned to the ground on the night of January 18, 1948, and many land records were destroyed. There were many rumors as to the cause of the blaze, but the official verdict was of 'undetermined' origin. (Photo Courtesy of the Del Norte Historical Society).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Del Norte County's governmental business came to an abrupt halt during the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 1948, when fire broke out in Del Norte Court House.

The city and county had already set an elections for April and June, respectively. City councilors also had a sewer survey proposed when plans went up in smoke.

Scrambling quickly, then-County Clerk Emma Cooper alerted voters that they would all have to re-register or they could not participate.

City voters had until March 4 to register for the city's April 13 elections. Residents of the county had longer, until April 22 for the June primary election.

In addition, city candidates had to file their nomination papers.

The fire began at about 5:45 a.m. "in or near" the Office of the Superintendent of Schools, according to coverage by Del Norte Triplicate staff.

One of the first spectators on scene was a woman identified as "Mrs. Marian Cutler," who ran to the rear of the building.

She saw no flames outside, but "a furious fire ... in the back of the building and roaring up into the second floor."

Walter Rinemer, also interviewed, noticed that "the hottest and worst" of the fire was burning just inside a back hall.

Fire Chief Bill Marshall thought the blaze "probably" started in or near the office of the school superintendent.

The old wooden building, constructed in 1879, spread quickly. Not much was left for future generations.

Triplicate photos show Cooper holding a charred minute book – a record of governmental actions, and the fireproof vault that survived the blaze.

One of the most highly valued losses was a law library worth up to $40,000.

"It was one of the finest small law libraries in any county anywhere," said Judge Sam Finley.

Other losses included a surveyor's report and maps for a new county road system, records of cases under probate, and grand jury testimony.

Teachers' paychecks were lost, as were records of cases pending before San Francisco Superior Court and the District Court of Appeals.

The building, which cost $18,000 to build, carried $32,000 insurance – $20,000 on the structure.

The law library was insured for $6,000 and the building's contents were insured for $6,000.

None of the records were insured.