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Berkeley, a Look Back: Paper’s warehouse erupts in flames

Seventy-five years ago this month, on May 3, 1943, “one of the most spectacular fires in the city’s history” erupted at 2015 Allston Way east of Milvia when the newsprint warehouse of the Berkeley Daily Gazette burned. The paper found its own operations front-page news as the blaze was investigated for possible arson.
“It was very unusual that it broke out simultaneously in two opposite ends, as reported” said Fire Chief Meinheit. “The first units of the Fire Department were there almost instantly, but the roaring flames had spread so quickly it was impossible for the firemen to enter the building.”
“Between 300 and 400 tons of newsprint stored in the building were totally destroyed, along with many of the Gazette’s files, valuable records, metals, some machinery and supplies of every description.”
“Several adjacent buildings were damaged by the flames and heat. Flaming embers and bits of burning roofing paper were caught up by a 28-mile-an-hour wind and carried as far as nine blocks from the raging inferno.”
The one-story building stood where the eastern portion of the downtown YMCA is now located, across the street from the Post Office and the old Elks Club (now part of Dharma College). The Elks Club suffered several thousand dollars of damage as windows cracked in the heat, smoke damaged furnishings and pieces of concrete fell off the facade.
In describing the adjacent buildings, the Gazette provided an interesting snapshot of businesses downtown circa 1943. To the west was the “Y”, and its parking lot. To the east was the Shattuck garage, which did maintenance and repair work on automobiles. The main Gazette offices stood to the north, on Center Street, about where Berkeley City College is now. Next door on Center Street was the “Exide Battery Station.” The “Art Bookbindery” was at 2024 Center, and various parking lots and garages were elsewhere on the block.
Airport dreams: Exactly 75 years ago, on May 25, 1943, Berkeley’s city manager told the City Council that there would be a mass informational meeting in June at the Claremont Hotel to discuss a full-fledged airport on the Berkeley waterfront. The project was apparently being promoted by the Chamber of Commerce.
“According to reported statements from representatives of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the Berkeley site presents the most favorable so far suggested and in point of accessibility and adaptability would equal the Alameda airport. The proposed Berkeley airfield is scheduled for commercial purposes and anticipates the tremendous increase in postwar aviation developments.”
Now pause for a minute and consider. Would Berkeley be better off today if an airport had been built on the waterfront in the 1940s? This was only one in a long string of development proposals enthusiastically promoted by the local business community and some other civic leaders for Berkeley’s waterfront from the 19th century onward.
The planned projects included a deepwater port, an army air base, a Navy dirigible base, a world’s fair site and massive landfill for industrial, commercial or housing development.
Fortunately, none of the came to pass, including the proposed 1943 “Golden Gate International Airport.” Would you trade any of those developments for the Berkeley Marina and waterfront today?
War news: By mid-May of 1943 the international press was reporting the April death of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The high-ranking officer had been a target of American forces since leading the successful attack on Pearl Harbor. History now tells us American warplanes, tipped off by intelligence work, intercepted and shot down his plane over Bougainville Island when he was on an inspection tour.
Steven Finacom is a Bay Area native and community historian in Berkeley.

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