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San Francisco April 1906: Ordinary people in extraordinary times

by Steve McKee on April 16, 2006

Because my job has me thinking about the effects of earthquakes on built structures almost on a daily basis, I knew I wanted to do a special column to honor the big anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire. When I came across a website that chronicled thirty eyewitness accounts from those terrible days I found it fascinating to read the day-to-day descriptions of the events, both large and small. Somehow it was the small details that brought the experience to life.

I’ve compiled here some of the most compelling images as told in letters and other writings by Charles Sedgwick, Frederick Collins, Jack London, Charles Kendrick, Emma Burke, and Arnold Genthe. Jack London needs no introduction. Arnold Genthe was an accomplished photographer who created most of the lasting images we have come to know from the earthquake and fire.

For those of us who reside today in earthquake country, take comfort in the fact that we live in a time of much better engineering and fire codes! For a more technical discussion of seismic design in houses, go to www.smckee.com and find my “Architalk” article dated May 30, 2004. The eyewitness accounts I found so interesting can be found at www.sfmuseum.net/1906/ew.html.

April 16, 5:13 a.m.

(Burke:) The shock came, and hurled my bed against an opposite wall. I sprang up, and holding firmly to the foot-board managed to keep on my feet to the door. The shock was constantly growing heavier; rumbles, crackling noises, and falling objects already commenced the din.

The door refused to open. The earthquake had wedged it in the door-frame. My husband was pushing on the opposite side and I pulled with all my strength, when a twist of the building released it, and the door sprang open. It grew constantly worse, the noise deafening; the crash of dishes, falling pictures, the rattle of the flat tin roof, bookcases being overturned, the piano hurled across the parlor, the groaning and straining of the building itself, broken glass and falling plaster, made such a roar that no one noise could be distinguished. . . . I never expected to come out alive. With ever-lessening intensity, it finally quit.

(Sedgwick:) Buildings by the dozen were half down; great pillar, copings, cornices and ornamentations had been wrenched from the mightiest structures and dashed to the ground in fragments; the huge store-windows had been shattered and costly displays of goods were like litter on the floors. The sidewalks and roadway were covered with fallen stones, wooden signs and the wreckage of brick walls, the car tracks were twisted, the roadbed here fallen, there lifted, and everything on every hand was either broken, twisted, bent or hideously out of place.

(Burke:) We took a few bricks and built a fire between them in the middle of the street, like every one else, and ate our breakfast on the steps of our home.

(Genthe:) The fire had started simultaneously in many different places when the housewives had attempted to get breakfast for their families, not realizing what a menace the ruined chimneys were. All along the skyline as far as the eye could see, clouds of smoke and names were bursting forth. The work of the fire department had been hampered, as the water mains had burst. . . .

I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. “Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.” I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special, stuffed my pockets with films and started out.

(Kendrick:) As I reached Bush and Kearny streets two young men were peering into the windows of Robinson’s Pet Shop, and one of them called to me to suggest that we free the birds and animals. We broke in the door and turned loose these creatures, among which were several small monkeys.

Businessmen make their peace

(Sedgwick:) The big-business men were game losers from what I saw of them. They would come tearing down Market street in their automobiles (to salvage documents from their offices), in instances only half dressed, but the sight of the shattered buildings and glimpses of the on-rushing flames; obtained from the side streets, with firemen doing anything but contesting their progress with water, for of water there was none, were generally sufficient to deaden their haste. Few proceeded. Most of them seemed to realize that it was all up with poor San Francisco, and while, no doubt, they had heavy heart they showed no emotion, but quietly turned back. Hundreds of those men were engaged they and their automobile – in relief work soon after, their own losses and cares for the nonce forgotten.

(Burke:) In the days that followed men met, were introduced, exchanged business cards of places consumed by the flames, appreciated the joke, and went their way.

A Caravan of Trunks

(London:) All night these tens of thousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the labor ghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened with possessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the street clothing and treasures they had dragged for miles.

They held on longest to their trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women. Before the march of the flames were flung picket lines of soldiers. And a block at a time, as the flames advanced, these pickets retreated. One of their tasks was to keep the trunk-pullers moving. The exhausted creatures, stirred on by the menace of bayonets, would arise and struggle up the steep pavements, pausing from weakness every five or ten feet.

(Kendrick:) Many women were carrying babies in their arms, while over their shoulders were slung big bundles wrapped in bed sheets. All were fleeing the holocaust and trying to take as much as possible with them to the Presidio or Golden Gate Park, which appeared to be islands of safety.

(Sedgewick:) Every street leading away from the doomed city was thronged with people, who, while not perhaps gay, could not be said to be sad or despondent. Folks were dressed in their best presenting an uncommonly smart appearance.

(Genthe:) No one who witnessed these scenes can ever forget the rumbling noise of the trunks drawn along the sidewalks – a sound to which the detonations of the blasting furnished a fitting contrapuntal accompaniment.

Fiery splashes from a burning sea

(Sedgwick:) That night I climbed to the summit of Russian Hill to view the conflagration, and never shall I forget the sight. It was weirdly beautiful. A thousand banners of flame were streaming in the cloudless sky from spires and domes and lofty roofs, the under-scene being a sea of glowing gold, angry and tumultuous, but brilliant beyond anything I had ever seen or conceived of; and magnificent in irresistible power, its great flaming waves leaping upon or dashing against the strongest creations of man and obliterating them. Noise as of a hundred battles in progress, with myriad giant guns in play, told of the fierce, relentless destruction as towering buildings, eaten loose, toppled and fell, or were lifted skyward by thundering dynamite, to then scatter and drop, throwing up huge fiery splashes from the burning sea. . . .

The bay, as I passed down the hill, appealed to me as having never looked more serene and peaceful, lit up as it was by a bright moon and with reflected lights from the shipping gleaming prettily on its calm waters. A strong contrast, indeed, to the turbulent scenes being enacted on the other side of the eminence!

Exhaustion on night two

(Burke:) The immense fires started by the earthquake now made such a ruddy glow that it was easy to see everything, although the flames were two miles away. No lights were allowed in the Park, and all was soon quiet except the wail of a baby, the clang of an ambulance, and the incessant roll of wheels and tramp of feet, as the people constantly sought refuge. People were all about us in huddled groups, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion on the lawns and under the shrubbery.

(Sedgwick:) The streets were full of people, recumbent, and some in sound sleep. They seemed to find a greater sense of security close to mother earth. In my wanderings I passed through Washington Square, and there I witnessed a strange sight, the living and the dead lying peacefully side by side on the green sward. All through the night the police wagons brought their dead to the public squares, and the down-town undertakers did the same thing, not knowing where else to take them, I suppose. The living would roll over closer, to make room for their silent brothers.

Watching one’s home get blown up

(Genthe:) On my way to the Bohemian Club I met Charles K. Field. “You dummy,” he said. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that your house is going to be blown up?” As was the first time I had thought of such a possibility. Turning back I hurried up Sutter Street to find a militiaman guarding the entrance of my studio.

“You can’t get in here,” he said, handling his rifle in an unpleasant manner.

“But it’s my home,” I said. “I don’t care whether it is or not. Orders are to clear all houses in the block. If you don’t do as I say, I shoot, see?”

There were rumors that some of the militia, drunk with liquor and power, had been shooting people. I did not want to argue with him, but I did want to get inside, with the hope that I might save a few of my things.

“How about a little drink!” I asked.

“Well, all right,” he replied eagerly . . .

So I brought out for him a bottle of whiskey and while he poured himself drink after drink, I sipped a fine wine, if not with the leisurely enjoyment that is called for, at last getting some of its exquisite flavor without having to gulp it down with barbarous haste. When my militia friend had absorbed enough of his bottle, he pushed me through the door saying, “Now you have got to get out of here or I’ll have to shoot you, see?”

From a safe distance I watched with others the dynamiting of the block of our homes. There was no expression of despair.

“Well, there it goes!” “That’s that!” being the only comments heard.

Waiting in the dark and the rain

(Burke:) That night a horseman dashed about the Park shouting,” The fire is under control,” and handclaps and hurrahs came from out of the dark copses and lawns and joy flowed like a wave over the great concourse hidden in the shrubbery.

It rained a little the fourth night, and as the weather continued threatening and we had no tent, we returned to our desolated flat. In the night, it poured.

The fallen chimneys had torn through the ceiling, into two of our rooms; the flat tin roof had thus been bent down, and now acted as a funnel. We heard an ominous drip, drip, and then a steady splash.
We dared not light a candle – it was against military orders. So we groped along, hand in hand, through the fallen furniture, pictures, and bundles and found the water beating a merry tattoo on my sewing-machine, velvet carpet, and some overturned books.

(Collins:) We never closed our eyes that night and it began to rain and a cold mournful wind began to howl around open chimney holes and busted roofs. At 5 o’clock a rifle shot was heard on the block and some young fellow fell dead who was misprudent enough to venture out to borrow some whiskey for his sick mother.

The rain just poured in torrents soaking bedding grass and ground and peoples’ clothes. With it a cold wind. People are draggled with mud, and there is hardly a house left that isn’t twisted or unsafe.

In the aftermath

(Burke:) Today Nob Hill stands almost as bare as when it was primitive, rolling sand. The wall of the Flood Building, a chimney of the Crocker home, alone remain to tell of the old landmarks. (Genthe:) During the day, piling bricks became the enforced pastime of pedestrians. Any man walking through the burned district was likely to be stopped by a soldier or marine and ordered to do his share. Several times while I was out taking pictures, I was put to work.

Rebuilding started while the ruins were still smoking. On top of a heap of collapsed walls, a sign would announce, “On this site will be erected a six-story office building to be ready for occupancy in the Fall.” An entertaining illustration of the indomitable spirit of San Francisco.

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