“The Most Terrible Was Yet To Come”: San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

For San Franciscans April 18, 1906 was indeed a day to remember. Why? In the early hours of Wednesday an earthquake struck. It lasted approximately a minute, but that was enough time to cause considerable damage. Chimneys were knocked over, bricks showered down burying humanity, horses and everything else that happened to be in the streets. Wooden homes were shaken with such a ferocity that most were only heaps of wood, when all was said and done. At the time of the quake most San Franciscans were still asleep, causing numerous people to be trapped in the rubble of their homes. Fred Hewitt, who was outdoors when the quake struck, described the second shock as being worse than the first.

The first portion of that shock was just a mild forerunning of what was to follow. The pause in the action of the earth’s surface couldn’t have been more than a fraction of a second. It was sufficient, however, to allow me to collect myself. In the center of two streets rose to my feet. Then came the second and more terrific crash.  The street beds heaved in frightful fashion. The earth rocked and then came the blow that wrecked San Francisco from the bay shore to the Ocean Beach and from the Golden Gate to the end of the peninsula.

Before the quake animals became jumpy, the only warning anyone had that something was amiss. Not long before San Francisco was shaken to its very core, it was reported that horses had become upset. As evidenced by the animals during the 2004 tsunami, they appear to have a sixth sense.

Buildings sitting on former swamps sank before collapsing. The ground had turned into ‘liquid’ due to soil liquefaction. The Valencia St. Hotel was a prime example. The four story hotel sank three levels, killing the majority of the hotel residents. Aftershocks continued to, if possible, further wreck the city. Amidst the quakes, those who were brave enough and able, sought to help survivors out of the wreckage. James Hooper, who had been digging through debris, gave up looking for the dead when a boy questioned why they were even digging for “those that’s dead”.

His remark struck us all as being profoundly true, that without another word we all quit.

Almost instantly fires broke out and to make things worse so many of the water mains were broken. It would be next to impossible to put the quickly growing fires out, but still the firemen would persist. Soon the blaze was out of control. Brigadier General Frederick Fuston took command of the situation when he believed, and most likely rightly so, that the local law enforcement would not be able to control the situation. Chaos would break loose, it was just a matter of time. No matter how correct Fuston was in what he was doing, without orders from President Roosevelt it was still illegal.

Eugene Schmitz

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Fuston ordered troops to the Hall of Justice, where they reported to Mayor Eugene Schmitz. Schmitz also had a hand in illegal doings. His term had so far been riddled with corruption. In fact in a year he would be sitting in jail, guilty of extortion. In the mean time  he ordered troops to kill looters or those “in the commission of any other crime”.

Eugene Schmitz: The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force, and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons engaged in Looting or the commission of Any Other Crime. I have directed all the Gas and Electric Lighting Co.’s not to turn on Gas or Electricity until I order them to do so. You may therefore expect the city to remain in darkness for an indefinite time. I request all citizens to remain at home from darkness until daylight every night until order is restored. I WARN all Citizens of the danger of fire from Damaged or Destroyed Chimneys, Broken or Leaking Gas Pipes or Fixtures, or any like cause.

He also had them enforce a ban on the sale of alcohol.

Tragically, Schmitz’s orders resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. Soldiers, militia and other irregulars shot people, merely assuming those people were looters or some other type of criminal. It didn’t matter if a person was returning to his home to salvage a few things. Both men and women were killed, other times they were beaten unmercifully. In another incident, soldiers would not allow volunteers for the fire department to pass a fire line and aid the firemen on the other side. It wasn’t until a “prolonged argument” that the volunteers were able to pass. That is not to say all of the soldiers were like that. In fact there are accounts that applaud the help that the soldiers rendered in that horrible time. A flag collector, resigning his flags to their fate,  raised the Star and Stripes outside of his home, as the uncontrollable blaze approached. A group of soldiers were apparently so overcome with patriotism that they helped to save the house.

Firefighters tried using firebreaks on the conflagration, since water was so scarce. Unfortunately they ended up spreading the fire, due to their lack of knowledge on the use of dynamite. Later those who were more experienced would do effective work with the explosives. By this time a water source had been discovered that helped put out the small fires that were started by the explosives. James Stetson reported on one way of creating firebreaks.

A soldier would, with a vessel…containing some flammable stuff, enter the house, climb to the second floor, go to the front window, open it, pull down the shade and curtains, and set fire to the contents of his dish. In a short time the shades and curtains would be in a blaze.

At last when firefighters were able to hold the monstrous fire at bay, it crossed a firebreak. In the bay US Navy tug boats struggled to save the South Pacific Railroad yard by pumping water from the bay. It was a success. Later they would, with the local fire department, bring the fire again under control. This time to save the waterfront.

Amidst the fire a few brave souls remained behind. Determined employees saved the Post Office. A mix of employees and soldiers were able to rescue the US Mint from destruction.  Those who could do nothing further abandoned their homes, forcefully or voluntarily, and fled by train or ferry. Others headed for quickly forming refugee camps. William Keller was forced by soldiers to evacuate his mill, which may or may not have been saved with effort, incurring a loss of $20,000. More than once refugees would be forced to relocate as the fire ‘chased’ them. On the 20th  the fire claimed another area that had been considered safe from the fire’s clutches. That same day Schmitz, not knowing the fire had spread, sent a telegram to the War Department telling them that the fire was under control. In the Dunkirk of San Francisco, the USS Chicago and a flotilla of other vessels evacuated about 20,000 people, as the fire spread to their homes. The South Pacific Railroad carried refugees out of harms way, free of charge.

A mixed force of the fire department and civilians, having located another water source and with the aid of firebreaks, were able to hold the fire back. Finally on the Saturday the ‘war’ had ended. In the end over 200,000 people were homeless. The Red Cross was given funds by the federal government to aid the stricken city. They provided food clothing and the like for the survivors. The amount of deaths ranged anywhere from 700 to 3000. They city was eventually rebuilt and became a thriving city of commerce once again. People built small ‘shacks’, to live in until they could get back on their feet. As time passed the shacks were replaced with real homes.

Source: Kurzman, Dan. Disaster!; Smith, Dennis. San Francisco is Burning.