Boca Beer: Flames werent just for fire-brewing
August 13, 2007
The Boca Beer brewery started producing its famous mountain thirst-quencher in 1876. Maybe it was the beer, the water or just human nature, but strange things occurred around this bend in the Truckee River, often involving fire.The Boca Beer brewery was a great success from its first shipment and remained a success well into the early 1890s. The beer it produced was pure American gold, brewed by a tight-knit, mostly German clan, and that sometimes led to unexplained behavior.Fire was always a threat, but in the fall of 1884, the brick and rock furnace let loose with a rumble, and the very brick seemed to catch fire. The wooden structure around the furnace exploded in flames, as a massive chimney fire erupted with shower of sparks, spreading a dusting of hot cinders over the complex.The furnace building burned, and the chimney was damaged, but the rest of the brewery was spared. A new furnace was quickly built and production resumed.
A few weeks later, workman Joe Kluge was sent inside one of the giant wooden cooling vats to apply a coat of varnish. As it was completely dark inside, Kluge took a candle in with him to light the work. The alcohol-based varnish fumes slowly filled the tank, and Kluge went to the manhole to get a breath of fresh air. As he took a breath, an alcohol fireball of blue flame erupted and filled the tight space. Kluge caught on fire, and screamed for help. He was dragged out of the tank by the crew, and his smoldering clothes put out. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over much of his body, but eventually recovered under the care of Truckees Dr. William Curless.
They say strange things occur in threes, and the third one is the strangest. William Hesse Jr. was the well-respected company secretary and son of the founding superintendent of the Boca Brewing Company. In May of 1885 a small unexplainable fire occurred in the malt room of the brewery, but was quickly put out by an alert watchman. Two more suspected arson fires occurred in July in the San Francisco warehouse that also had links to Hesse. In July of 1886, in his plush San Francisco offices, Hesse was arrested on charges of attempted arson. It was the London fire insurance companies that were filing the charges based on the testimony of E. L. McLellan. McLellan testified that Hesse had hired him to burn the brewery and the San Francisco bottling plant down for the insurance money.Hesse was to pay McLellan $1,600 for the dastardly deeds, which never succeeded, but if they had, would have crippled the company but put a pile of cash in Hesses grasp. The brewery alone was insured for $80,000. High-powered lawyers filed reams of paperwork in San Francisco courts, and by August the original general arson charge had been dismissed, but three new specific arson charges had been filed. Both Hesse and his father were removed from the company and new management installed.By September 1, Hesse was cashed out of all of his accounts and was on the run. Much as Hesse had tried to accomplish, a fire started in the ventilating system of the malting room, but was quickly put out. By then Hesse had skipped out on his $6,000 bail and was running a coffee stand in Munich, leaving his father out of the bail money.
Some incidents had a perfectly reasonable explanation. Such as when in April of 1888, a long simmering feud erupted. On the south side of the Truckee River, the brewery was populated by mostly German-born and German-speaking Americans. On the north side of the river, the Boca Mill & Ice Companys loggers and mill men were mostly French-Canadian, and friction between the two had been going on for years. Mostly they stayed apart, with a saloon on each side of the river.Just after quitting time, two Brewery men walked downstream to the bridge, crossed and went into the town of Boca. They visited the saloon, priming themselves with Boca Beer for the evening, then went to the hotel dining room. They were in a loud, boisterous mood and were singing and hollering, and the Boca men took offense.Fightin words were exchanged, and mill man Charles Hood drew his pistol and hit beer man William Beck in the head with the gun, causing it to fire, brushing a bystander. Chaos almost followed, but cooler heads prevailed and the two brewery men were escorted to the bridge.Beck filed charges in Truckee Justice Court, and Truckee Constable James Reed investigated, but since Hood had disappeared, the case was dismissed. A truce was declared, and Boca Beer was poured freely on both sides of the river again.
The Boca Brewery was still making money in 1893, but competition had reduced its market share. Still, the beer was popular right up to the end.As with many big, old wooden buildings, fire wins in the end. At about midnight on January 10, 1893, a passing freight train crew looked across the river, and saw flames erupting from the brewery. The engineer whistled an alarm, then went to the Boca station to telegraph Truckee for help. The flames, it turned out, had started in the bottling room, among the oldest, driest timbers of the mammoth structure. While there was generally a good supply of water available, the sub-zero temperature had frozen some of the mains, preventing the use of fire hoses when the fire was first discovered. The massive structure was a lost cause.Now there was one life lost in the inferno. Billy The Goat was accidentally locked in the bottling room that night, and the thought was that he kicked over the wood stove in an escape attempt. Billy was quite a character, having been around the brewery a dozen years. He would taste and consume anything put in front of him, such as old coveralls soaked in beer mash and grease. He also had eaten rubber boots, a pot of paint left unattended, rusty nails, railcar grease, old cigar stubs, and especially the leftover food scraps of the boardinghouse. To test his taste buds, brewery workers even soaked a plug of stale tobacco in kerosene, gave it to Billy, which he promptly chomped down every morsel. The crew couldnt get rid of Billy for a week after that, as that seems to have been his favorite flavor.Billy also drank all the beer he could, water being out of style for the Angora goat. Billys mate survived the fire and was brought to Truckee, where she was a saloon curiosity for the rest of winter before becoming a family pet.
The burning of the brewery caused much excitement among the tramps who frequented the Boca area, looking to pick up anything of value left unprotected. Kegs of beer, slightly singed, were seen being hauled off, even as the flames burned. A party atmosphere lasted for a few days in both Boca and Truckee, as kegs of the free stuff were found and tapped, before it warmed up. In Truckee the party got so out of hand that many of the beer drinkers ended up in jail for their troubles. Constables Reed and Long were busy for a month locating unburned kegs, and sending them off to San Francisco for safekeeping.The brewery was not rebuilt; instead the $39,000 insurance money was collected and the remnants of the business, including a few unburned sheds, the ice pond, the Truckee River bridge and surrounding timberland with excellent quality spring water, were quickly sold off .The Boca Brewery passed into Truckee history, with only a few bottles and labels left to remind us of the life and times of Boca Beer. Cheers.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.