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The Great Quake: 1906-2006
San Francisco Chronicle


April 18, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - On Saturday night - three days after the April 18, 1906, earthquake and fire had wrecked San Francisco - a hard rain fell on the city.

Steam rose from the ruins. The city lay in absolute darkness. No lights were permitted, no fires.

What was left was "thousands of acres of quiet desolation," William Bronson wrote in his classic, "The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned."

"Only scattered marks of a great city remained. The City Hall and its records, the libraries, the courts, and jails, the theaters and restaurants, had vanished," Bronson said. "The heart and guts of one of the world's best loved cities were gone."




To be specific, 522 city blocks, four square miles of the city, 2,593 acres, 28,188 buildings - all destroyed. For 99 years, until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the San Francisco earthquake and fire stood as the largest natural disaster in U.S. history.

The year 1906 was at the beginning of a terrible century of wars, but after the fires went out 100 years ago, it looked as if San Francisco had been bombed. The steel and concrete buildings were burned-out hulks; the streets in the burned district stood out amid the shells of a city.

"The fire had done its work thoroughly, leaving nothing half burned ...," Charles Sedgwick wrote. "Streets were no longer defined, no longer recognizable, and were still as a desert.

"The whole scene resembled more some ancient ruins in Egypt or Greece from which the dust of ages had recently been removed, than a modern American metropolis ..."

Jack London thought San Francisco looked like "the crater of a volcano."

Writing in Century magazine that summer, Louise Herrick Wall said she found the ruins of San Francisco had "majesty and dignity ... strange and terrible is the destruction ... like a beautiful city a thousand years dead ..."

In New York, Will Irwin, who had been a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, wrote what he called "the obituary" of the city: "The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, most light hearted, most pleasure-loving city of this continent, and in many ways the most interesting and romantic, is a horde of huddled refugees living among the ruins."

Sister Eugenia Garvey, who had seen the destruction of her school and led a band of nuns back into the city to help the injured, was haunted by nightmares. "I have nightly dreamed that walls and houses are falling on me," she wrote her superiors. "No description (of California) will ever tempt an easterner to turn westward. Indeed I marvel how anybody will remain here who is free to get out of it!"

Postmaster Guy Gould was also seared by what he had seen. "Men and women went crazy ... men were shot, soldiers were shot, bullets were like hail. Saloons were looted, soldiers were drunk, all kinds of outrages were done. I feel as if I lived a century, I pray I may never, never witness such things again.

"I should not write this, I know, but it is burned into my brain ..."

John Jorgensen, who worked for a brokerage firm, had gotten a pass from the governor of California to cross the bay from Oakland to go to San Francisco on business.

"I reached the Ferry Building Saturday at 12:15, and then commenced my long walk home," he wrote in a memoir of the quake for his family. "I was not long on the road before I was halted by an officer with a big revolver and pressed into service, viz, heaving brick. I was dressed up in a $40 suit of clothes and carried a gold handled cane; there was one man with a silk hat and hundreds of others with different kinds of outfits.

"They were all stopped, and if the men with drawn revolvers failed to get you, the soldiers were always in the way with their bayonets ready to shoot the first man who refused to obey. There were a number of men killed for this reason."

Jorgensen threw bricks from the rubble heaps for half an hour, then talked his way out of it and made his way to an unburned district, dodging Army patrols.

Actor John Barrymore, famous for his gaudy lifestyle, was also pressed into duty clearing rubble. "It took an act of God to get Barrymore out of bed," the wits said, "and the U.S. Army to get him to work."

For a few days, the city seemed to be stunned. The Army fed people, but there was no gas, no electricity, no public transportation and no work.

The Rev. Charles Lathrop, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, wrote later, "I neglected to say that the church was destroyed and everything in it.

"I did not try to save anything, partly because I was busy with the injured, partly because I did not care. I lost all sense of possessions and values and found myself pitying the people who were really killing themselves guarding and carrying their possessions."

Some San Franciscans tried to comfort themselves with the remark of Jimmie Britt, the prizefighter: "I'd rather be a busted lamp post on Battery Street than the Waldorf Astoria."

But nothing could mask the truth - there were a quarter-million refugees, and they had to find a way to survive in the wreckage of their city.


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Scripps Howard News Service,

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