California Historical Articles
San Francisco Earthquake - The Doomed City
( Originally Published Early 1922 )Earthquake Begins the Wreck of San Francisco and a Conflagration without Parallel Completes the Awful Work of Destuction Tremendous Loss of Life in Quake and Fire—Property Loss $200,000,000.
AFTER four days and three nights that have no parallel outside of Dante's Inferno, the city of San Francisco, the American metropolis by the Golden Gate, was a mass of glowing embers fast resolving into heaps and winrows of grey ashes emblematic of devastation and death.
Where on the morning of April 18, 1906, stood a city of magnificent splendor, wealthier and more prosperous than Tyre and Sidon of antiquity, enriched by the mines of Ophir, there lay but a scene of desolation. The proud and beautiful city had been shorn of its manifold glories, its palaces and vast commercial emporiums levelled to the earth and its wide area of homes, where dwelt a happy and a prosperous people, lay prostrate in thin ashes. Here and there in the charred ruins and the streets lately blackened by waves of flame, lay crushed or charred corpses, unheeded by the survivors, some of whom were fighting desperately for their lives and property, while others were panic stricken and paralyzed by fear. Thousands of lives had been sacrificed and millions upon millions of dollars in property, utterly destroyed.
The beginning of the unparalleled catastrophe was on the morning of April 18, 1906. In the grey dawn, when but few had arisen for the day, a shock of earthquake rocked the foundations of the city and precipitated scenes of panic and terror throughout the business and residence districts.
It was 5:15 o'clock in the morning when the terrific earthquake shook San Francisco and the surrounding country. One shock apparently lasted two minutes and there was an almost immediate collapse of flimsy structures all over the former city. The water supply was cut off and when fires broke out in various sections there was nothing to do but to let the buildings burn. Telegraphic and telephone communication was shut off. Electric light and gas plants were rendered useless and the city was left without water, light or power. Street car tracks were twisted out of shape and even the ferry-boats ceased to run.
The dreadful earthquake shock came without warning, its motion apparently being from east to west. At first the upheaval of the earth was gradual, but in a few seconds it increased in intensity. Chimneys began to fall and buildings to crack, tottering on their foundations.
People became panic stricken and rushed into the streets, most of them in their night attire. They were met by showers of falling buildings, bricks, cornices and walls. Many were instantly crushed to death, while others were dreadfully mangled. Those who remained indoors generally escaped with their lives, though scores were hit by detached plaster, pictures and articles thrown to the floor by the shock.
Scarcely had the earth ceased to shake when fires broke out simultaneously in many places. The fire department promptly responded to the first calls for aid, but it was found that the water mains had been rendered useless by the underground movement. Fanned by a light breeze, the flames quickly spread and soon many blocks were seen to be doomed.
Then dynamite was resorted to and the sound of frequent ex-plosions added to the terror of the people. All efforts to stay the progress of the fire, however, proved futile. The south. side of Market street from Ninth street to the bay was soon ablaze, the fire covering a belt two blocks wide. On this, the main thorough-fare of the city, are located many of the finest edifices in the city, including the Grant, Parrott, Flood, Call, Examiner and Monadnock buildings, the Palace and Grand hotels and numerous wholesale houses.
At the same time the commercial establishments and banks north of Market street were burning. The burning district in this section extended from Sansome street to the water front and from Market street to Broadway. Fires also broke out in the mission and the entire city seemed to be in flames.
The fire swept down the streets so rapidly that it was practically impossible to save anything in its way. It reached the Grand Opera House on Mission street and in a moment had burned through the roof. The Metropolitan opera company from New York had just opened its season there and all the expensive scenery and costumes were soon reduced to ashes. From the opera house the fire leaped from building to building, leveling them almost to the ground in quick succession.
The Call editorial and mechanical departments were totally destroyed in a few minutes and the flames leaped across Steven-son street toward the fine fifteen-story. stone and iron Claus Spreckels building, which with its lofty dome is the most notable edifice in San Francisco. Two small wooden buildings furnished fuel to ignite the splendid pile.
Thousands of people watched the hungry tongues of flame licking the stone walls. At first no impression was made, but suddenly there was a cracking of glass ,and an entrance was affected. The interior furnishings of the fourth floor were the first to go. Then as though by magic, smoke issued from the top of the dome.
This was followed by a most spectacular illumination. The round windows of the dome shone like so many full moons; they burst and gave vent to long, waving streamers of flame. The crowd watched the spectacle with bated breath. One woman wrung her hands and burst into a torrent of tears.
"It is so terrible! she sobbed. The tall and slender structure which had withstood the forces of the earth appeared doomed to fall a prey to fire. After a while, however, the light grew less intense and the flames, finding nothing more to consume, gradually went, leaving the building standing but completely burned out.
The Palace Hotel, the rear of which was constantly threatened, was the scene of much excitement, the guests leaving in haste, many only with the clothing they wore. Finding that the hotel, being surrounded on all sides by streets, was likely to re-main immune, many returned and made arrangements for the removal of their belongings, though little could be taken away owing to the utter absence of transportation facilities. The fire broke out anew and the building was soon a mass of ruins.
The Parrott building, in which were located the chambers of the state supreme court, the lower floors being devoted to an immense department store, was ruined, though its massive walls were not all destroyed.
A little farther down Market street the Academy of Sciences and the Jennie Flood building and the History building kindled and burned like tinder. Sparks carried across the wide street ignited the Phelan building and the army headquarters of the department of California, General Funston commanding, were burned.
Still nearing the bay, the waters of which did the firemen good service, along the docks, the fire took the Rialto building, a hand-some skyscraper, and converted scores of solid business blocks into smoldering piles of brick.
Banks and commercial houses, supposed to be fireproof though not of modern build, burned quickly and the roar of the flames could be heard even on the hills, which were out of the danger zone. Here many thousands of people congregated and witnessed the awful scene. Great sheets of flame rose high in the heavens or rushed down some narrow street, joining midway between the sidewalks and making a horizontal chimney of the former passage ways.
The dense smoke that arose from the entire business spread out like an immense funnel and could have been seen for miles out at sea. Occasionally, as some drug house or place stored with chemicals was reached, most fantastic effects were produced by the colored flames and smoke which rolled out against the darker background.
When the first shock occurred at 5 :15 a. m. most of the population were in bed and many lodging houses collapsed with every occupant. There was no warning of the awful catastrophe. First came a slight shock, followed almost immediately by a second and then the great shock that sent buildings swaying and tumbling. Fire broke out immediately. Every able-bodied man who could be pressed into service was put to work rescuing the victims.
Panic seized most of the people and they rushed frantically about. Toward the ferry building there was a rush of those fleeing to cross the bay. Few carried any effects and some were hardly dressed. The streets were filled immediately with panic-stricken people and the frequently occurring shocks sent them into unreasoning panic. Fires lighted up the sky in every direction in the breaking dawn. In the business district devastation met the eye on every hand.
The area bounded by Washington, Mission and Montgomery streets and extending to the by front was quickly devastated. That represented the heart of the handsome business section.
The greatest destruction on the first day occurred in that part of the city which was reclaimed from San Francisco Bay. Much of the devastated district was at one time low marshy ground entirely covered by water at high tide. As the city grew it became necessary to fill in many acres of this low ground in order to reach deep water. The Merchants' Exchange building, a fourteen-story steel structure, was situated on the edge of this re-claimed ground. It had just been completed and the executive offices of the Southern Pacific Company occupied the greater part of the building.
The damage by the earthquake to the residence portion of the city, the finest part of which was on Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, was slight but the fire completely destroyed that section on the following day.
To the westward, on Pacific Heights, were many fine, new residences, but little injury was done to any of them by the quake.
The Palace Hotel, a seven-story building about 300 feet square, was built thirty years ago by the late Senator Sharon, whose estate was in the courts for many years. At the time it was erected the Palace was considered the best equipped hotel in the west.
The offices of the three morning papers, the Chronicle, the Call and the Examiner, were located within 100 feet of each other. The Chronicle, situated at the corner of Market and Kearney streets, was a ten-story steel frame building and was one of the finest buildings of its character put up in San Francisco.
The Spreckels building, in which were located the business office of the Call, was sixteen stories high and very narrow. The editorial rooms, composing room and pressroom were in a small three-story building immediately in the rear of the Spreckels building.
Just across Third street was the home of the Examiner, seven stories high; with a frontage of 100 feet on Market street.
The postoffice was a fine, grey stone structure and had been completed less than two years. It covered half a block on Mission street between Sixth and Seventh streets. The ground on which the building stood was of a swampy character and some difficulty was experienced in obtaining a solid foundation.
The City Hall, which was badly wrecked by the quake and afterwards swept by the fire, was a mile and a half from the water front. It was an imposing structure with a dome 150 feet high. The building covered about three acres and cost more than $7,000,000.
The Grand Opera House, where the Metropolitan Opera Company opened a two weeks' engagement the previous Monday night, was one of the oldest theaters in San Francisco. It was located on Mission street between Third and Fourth streets and for a number of years was the leading playhouse of the city.
In 1885 when business began to move off of Mission street and to seek modern structures this playhouse was closed for some time and later devoted to vaudeville. Within the past four years, however, numerous fine buildings had been erected on Mission street and the Grand Opera house had been used by many of the leading independent theatrical companies.
All efforts to prevent the fire from reaching the Palace and Grand hotels were unsuccessful and both were completely destroyed together with all their contents.
All of San Francisco's best playhouses, including the Majestic, Columbia, Orpheum and Grand Opera house were soon a mass of ruins. The earthquake demolished them for all practical purposes and the fire completed the work of demolition. The hand-some Rialto and Casserly buildings were-burned to the ground, as was everything in that district.
The scene at the Mechanics Pavilion during the early hours of the morning and up until noon, when all the injured and dead were removed because of the threatened destruction of the building by fire, was one of indescribable sadness. Sisters, brothers, wives and sweethearts searched eagerly for some missing dear one.
Thousands of persons hurriedly went through the building inspecting the cots on which the sufferers lay in the hope that they would locate some loved one that was missing.
The dead were placed in one portion of the building and the remainder was devoted to hospital purposes. The fire forced the nurses and physicians to desert the building; the eager crowds followed them to the Presidio and the Children's hospital, where they renewed their search for missing relatives.
The experience of the first day of the fire was a great testimonial to the modern steel building. A score of those structures were in course of erection and not one of them suffered. The completed modern buildings were also immune from harm by earthquake. The buildings that collapsed were all flimsy, wooden and old-fashioned brick structures.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 18, the first day of the fire, an area of thickly covered ground of eight square miles had been burned over and it was apparent that the entire city was doomed to destruction.
Nearly every famous landmark that had made San Francisco famous over the world had been laid in ruins or burned to the ground in the dire catastrophe. Never was the fate of a city more disastrous.
For three miles along the water front buildings had been swept clean and the blackened beams and great skeletons of factories and offices stood silhouetted against a background of flame that was slowly spreading over the entire city.
The whole commercial and office section of the city on the north side of Market street from the ferry building to Tenth street had been consumed in the hell of flame, while hardly a building was standing in the district south of Market street. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, despite the heroic work of the firemen and the troops of dynamiters, who razed building after building and blew up property valued at millions, the flames spread across Market street to the north side and swept up Montgomery street, practically to Washington street. Along Montgomery street were some of the richest banks and commercial houses in San Francisco.
The famous Mills building and the new Merchants Exchange were still standing, but the Mutual Life Insurance building and scores of bank and office buildings were on fire, while blocks of other houses were in the path of the flames and nothing seemed to be at hand to stay their progress.
Nearly every big factory building had been wiped out of existence and a complete enumeration of them would look like a copy of the city directory.
Many of the finest buildings in the city had been leveled to dust by the terrific charges of dynamite in hopeless effort to stay the horror of fire. In this work many heroic soldiers, policemen and firemen were maimed or killed outright.
At 10 o'clock at night the fire was unabated and thousands of people were fleeing to the hills and clamoring for places on the ferry boats at the ferry landing.
From the Cliff House care word that the great pleasure sort and show place of the city, which stood upon foundation of solid rock, had been swept into the sea. This report proved to be unfounded, but it was not until three days later that any one got close enough to the Cliff House to discover that it was still safe.
One of the big losses of the day was the destruction of St. Ignatius' church and college at Van Ness avenue and Hayes street. This was the greatest Jesuitical institution in the west and built at a cost of $2,000,000.
By 7 o'clock at night the fire had swept from the south side of the town across Market street into the district called the West-ern addition and was burning houses at Golden Gate avenue and Octavia. This result was reached after almost the entire south-ern district from Ninth street to the eastern water front had been converted into a blackened waste. In this section were hundreds of factories, wholesale houses and many business firms, in addition to thousands of homes.
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