Monday, April 18, 2016

This Day in San Francisco History: Earthquake!

Street cracked near the San Francisco waterfront, 1906 California Historical Society
Street cracked near the San Francisco waterfront, 1906
California Historical Society
At 5:15 on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude jolted San Francisco, waking the city’s more than 400,000 residents. Buildings and homes toppled. Fires lasting several days destroyed what the earthquake did not. Thousands fled. Approximately 3,000 perished. The city lay in ruins.

Enveloped in dim light and smoke-induced darkness, survivors found crude shelters and joined bread lines. The sick and injured were brought to makeshift tent camps, where they were fed and received medical attention. About 250,000 people were left homeless, finding relief in numerous refugee camps, supply stations, police stations, hospitals, and post offices around the city.

We recall that day in the city’s history with these offerings from the California Historical Society Collections (view many more items related to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake online at the Online Archive of California).

View from Telegraph Hill of smoke and fire, 1906 California Historical Society
View of smoke and fire from Telegraph Hill, 1906
California Historical Society
By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck. 
—Jack London, author and Collier’s special correspondent
Survivors making their escape from the burning city, 1906 California Historical Society
Survivors making their escape from the burning city, 1906
California Historical Society
Like the story of the flight from Pompeii is the story of the flight from San Francisco. True, it was not amid flying scoria that the multitude made its way from the city, but amid a rain of falling cinders, in blinding smoke and a heat that beat over the earth like the heat of the Day of Judgment. The rush of the grand army of refugees was not so great toward the Presidio as has been reported, but down the neck of the peninsula toward San Mateo and Redwood City, across the bay to Sausalito, San Rafael, Tiburon, Napa and Petaluma, and greatest of all toward Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda, the eastside suburbs beyond the harbor. 
—Bailey Millard, San Francisco author and historian 
City Hall, 1906 California Historical Society
City Hall, 1906
California Historical Society
It is just possible that the most dramatic point in San Francisco when that terrible rumble began was in the immediate vicinity of that imposing pile, San Francisco City Hall, that structure that cost millions upon millions to erect and years of labor to accomplish. . . . I was within a stone’s throw of that city hall when the hand of an avenging God fell upon San Francisco. The ground rose and fell like an ocean at ebb tide. Then came the crash. Tons upon tons of that mighty pile slid away from the steel framework and destructiveness of that effort was terrific. 
—Fred J. Hewitt, San Francisco Examiner reporter
Refugee cook and coffee station, 1906 California Historical Society
Refugee cook and coffee station, 1906
California Historical Society
Men and women cooked on improvised stoves on the sidewalks and as the crowds passed they called out invitations to stop for a rest and a cup of coffee. Up on the hill the wealthy were taking strangers into their homes, regardless of any risk they were running. I recall the picture of Henry J. Crocker laughing heartily as he carried the pails of water from the faucet in his garden to a little iron stove, probably one of his children’s toys, set up by the curb in front of his red stone mansion. 
—Arnold Genthe, photographer
Ferry Building, 1906 California Historical Society
Ferry Building, 1906
California Historical Society
As this shock stopped I crossed over to the east side of the street. By this time the power lines were dead. As soon as I reached the curb a second shock hit. This was harder than the first. I was thrown flat and the cobblestones danced like corn in a popper. More brick and glass showered down on the sidewalk. As on the west side of the street these buildings were all one story. if I had been a block or two further down on First Street I would not be here today. . . . The entire south wall of the Ferry Building was out. It crashed through the driveway down into the Bay. The waves were lazily lapping at the pilings as if nothing had happened. 
—Thomas Jefferson Chase, Ferry Building ticket clerk and telegrapher
Bread line, 1906 California Historical Society
Bread line, 1906
California Historical Society
For several days I went to the Presidio and each day volunteered to help with the unloading and food handling. The first day I had taken a basket and was given a piece of meat, two potatoes, and a few cans of miscellaneous food. The next day I took some paper bags and was given flour, sugar, oatmeal, and coffee, all dipped from large bulk containers. A week later regular supplies began arriving for those shops which had not been burned, and we gave up accepting rations, These were issued for a long time to people who had no means of purchasing food. 
—Howard T. Livingston, mechanical engineer
Shreve Building, 1906  California Historical Society
Shreve Building, 1906
California Historical Society
The city is a mass of ruins from the Ferry Building or water front west to Van Ness Ave., and across town from north to south. Within the above radius not business house is left standing. Dohrmann Commercial Co., Shreve & Co., every jeweler are a thing of the past. Not a hotel in town, restaurant or cafe. 
—Ernest H. Adams, sales representative for Reed and Barton
Military refugee camp at the Presidio, 1906 California Historical Society
Military refugee camp at the Presidio, 1906
California Historical Society
The rations, tents, and blankets on hand at the army posts adjacent to the city were dealt out to the sufferers with no account of the responsibility involved; and within two days, relief supplies from neighboring states and cities and army supplies from various army posts had begun to arrive and were being distributed under the supervision of Maj. C. A. Devol, depot quartermaster, and Maj. C. R. Krauthoff, depot commissary. The sick from the city hospitals and many of those injured in the earthquake were sent to the general hospital at the Presidio. 
—Frederick Funston, Brig.-Gen. U.S.A.
View of Mission Street from 4th Street, 1906 California Historical Society
View of Mission Street from 4th Street, 1906
California Historical Society
Words fail utterly when I attempt to convey an adequate idea of the dynamic energy manifested in each of these larger movements, as they appear vicious in the extreme, and forceful to a degree far beyond anything I had ever experienced or imagined as possible. The blows were delivered as intense, instantaneous and resistless shocks, of startling severity and limitless power, crushing everything that offered sufficient resistance, and rending and tearing everything that did not bend to their requirements. The building rocked and swayed in an alarming way, while at every lurch there came the sound of groaning lumber, the creaking of nails and spikes being drawn, the snapping of painted woodwork, all of which, when joined by the rattle and jar of everything loose, filled the room with a confused din that was disconcerting in the highest degree. 
—Joseph H. Harper, engineer
Sewing class at the refugee shack camp at Lobos Square, 1906 California Historical Society
Sewing class at the refugee shack camp at Lobos Square, 1906 
California Historical Society
The nation and the world were generous in the aid sent to the city’s inhabitants. Relief stations were set up throughout the city, our Haight-Ashbury Station being located in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association building on Page near Stanyan Street. Here our relatives drew their rations. Father would not permit his immediate family to draw rations because his salary continued. 
—John J. Conlon, Wells Fargo Bank employee
Refugee camp in the Potrero District, 1906 California Historical Society
Refugee camp in the Potrero District, 1906
California Historical Society
As we returned to camp, we encountered one of the long lines waiting for their turns to draw rations. A young mother turned away with her well-filled basket, wheeling her baby before her. “I want to go home, mamma, I want to go home,” pleaded the little one, as she passed into the darkening aisles of the Park. “We haven't any home, dear; lie down and let mamma cover you up,” she replied, in the softest and most comforting of voices. 
—Emma M. Burke, wife of San Francisco attorney Bart Burke

Panoramic view of Stockton Street, Union Square, Post Street, and the St. Francis Hotel, 1906 California Historical Society
I say, it took a brave soul to calmly determine–amid such scenes—to call the past dead, and commence to laboriously build anew. But I heard such heroic resolve expressed, and I saw it magnificently displayed in faces. And action quickly followed decision, for San Francisco today has some three hundred new structures in the burned area. They are cheap, unpretentious, frame affairs, but they have a beauty of their own–standing there on the old site–the reflected beauty of an invincible courage; the one great quality (worthy of being Divine) which is poor Humanity's own. 
—Charles B. Sedgwick, editor of The British-Californian


Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources
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