San Francisco Earth Quakes And Fire

San Fransico earthquakes and a three-day fire that struck in 1906, razed the city, killed 3,000 people, and left a quarter million homeless.

The Gold Rush of 1849 had triggered its amazing growth, but the bustling city of St. Francis by the Bay had almost burned to the ground six times. In 1865, a violent earthquake shook San Francisco to its very foundations, but the people rebuilt. Even if they did have the reputation of being a bit wild, they were resilient.

Over 40 years later, San Francisco boasted a population of 400,000. It was the ninth largest city in the United States. One-third of it's population was foreign-born and one-third were the children of immigrants. North of Market Street, a five-square block area known as "Chinatown" housed 20,000 Chinese. San Francisco was a bustling metropolis and a melting pot of nationalities -- but 100 percent American.

In 1906, San Francisco was about to be shaken -- again. Pressure had built up on the San Andreas Fault and the fracture was about to give. When it did, 12,000 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb would be released and would be called the worst disaster ever to befall a North American city. San Francisco was totally taken by surprise.

Thomas Jefferson Chase, a Ferry Building ticket clerk and telegrapher, was walking up First Street in the predawn darkness of Wednesday, April 18. The city was quiet, except for an occasional horse-drawn delivery wagon rattling over the pavement. Before going to work Chase would eat breakfast, as was his custom, at a favorite restaurant on Market Street. The time was 5:12 a.m.

Chase was halfway to Howard Street when he heard a low rumble in the distance. "What can that be?" he asked himself as he stopped to listen. Seconds later, the ground heaved beneath his feet and large chunks of buildings began to fall around him.

In the fish wholesaler's district, four strong horses were just pulling a wagon into market. Suddenly the street around them shivered, then shook violently. The entire brick facade of a building came crashing down on the unfortunate animals who screamed and writhed in their death agonies. Amazingly, the teamster driving the wagon escaped with minor injuries.

At the Valencia Street Hotel, the violent shaking caused the earth -- a filled-in swamp -- to turn to liquid and the wooden hostel sank a full story into the ground, breaking a water main as it settled. Over 200 people perished in this building alone.

All over the city, buildings crumbled, streets twisted and turned, sparking electric wires wriggled and twisted like tortured snakes in the street, and the ground in some places turned to quicksand. People who could escape crumbling buildings fled outside in their night clothes. The great tenor Enrico Caruso, who had sung "Carmen" in San Francisco's Grand Opera House the night before, was shaken from his bed in the ornate Palace Hotel and ran into the street, his nightshirt flapping behind him.

The brick chimneys and the dome of the California Hotel gave way and crashed through the roof of Chemical Company No. 3 on Bush Street, mortally wounding San Francisco's beloved fire chief Dennis T. Sullivan. Police officer Max Fenner was killed when the cornice of a building fell on him. Seconds later a beautiful young girl, panicked by the structure crumbling around her, leaped from a fifth story window. She landed on the pile of rubble that covered Fenner. She died instantly.

Precarious ground liquefied beneath the wooden tenements in the poor section called South of Market, trapping inhabitants in the wreckage. Buildings collapsed like houses of cards. Those that didn't fall, leaned at crazy angles. Fires started immediately in some of the buildings and those who could not get free, or were not immediately rescued, burned alive.

About 50 seconds after the first jolt, the earthquake was over -- for the time being, at least. The shake had been felt from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Los Angeles, to central Nevada.

San Francisco was in turmoil. Those who were able to crawl from the wreckage picked through collapsed buildings, frantically calling their loved ones. With fires breaking out, firefighters and their horse-drawn engines raced through the rubble-littered streets. But when they hooked to the hydrants and turned on the water, only a trickle emerged -- then nothing. The earthquake had broken every main coming into the city and firefighters were nearly helpless. Soon a half dozen major fires were burning out of control.

Telephone and telegraph service was out. But there was temporary communication with New York and India along the Pacific Cable. Inside the city, communication was at a minimum. By that afternoon, it would cease completely.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Brigadier General Frederick Funston, the ranking army officer in San Francisco, arrived at the Hall of Justice where Mayor Eugene Schmitz had set up headquarters. City Hall had been practically destroyed. Funston and Schmitz held a hurried conference and the general put his troops at the mayor's disposal. They were ordered to work with police, fight fires, and distribute rations.

Then came another problem -- looters. Mayor Schmitz issued a hasty order that all looters would be shot. Shortly thereafter, a looter was caught trying to rob Shreve's Jewelry Store on the corner of Post And Grant Avenues. He was turned over to a soldier who immediately executed him, then left his body to rot in the street. This was the only suspected looter known to have been shot in San Francisco, though there may have been others.



At 8:14 a.m. a major aftershock jolted the city. Buildings which had been badly damaged in the earlier quake now fell in clouds of dust. Panic renewed.

W. D. Waters, battalion chief of District No. 7, and his men, rushed to a fire that had just gotten started at the corner of Hayes and Gough Street. No water was available though the hydrants, so the fire was out of control. Finally a water supply was found six blocks away. But how to get it to the fire? Waters and his men came up with the idea of connecting a series of pumpers between the water and the fire and bring water to the flames.

At about 9:30, someone in the Hayes Valley section kindled a fire to cook breakfast, not realizing that their chimney had been badly damaged by the quake. The chimney caught fire and soon the entire neighborhood was in flames. The so-called "Ham and Eggs Fire" would join with already established blazes that were now spreading rapidly through the city.

Refugees were literally heading for the hills. Some carried suitcases, others dragged trunks behind them. Horses were hitched to wagons piled high with furniture and personal effects. A Mr. Bacigalupi, who operated a record store in the Phelan Building, was running to check on the condition of his phonograph records. He passed one woman who was carrying her most prized possession -- her ironing board. Another man was seen to be rolling an entire barrel of whiskey down Market Street.

Many of the buildings downtown were built of brick and concrete. It was thought that they would withstand the flames that now crept up on them. Foremost was the Call Building, one of America's first skyscrapers. The Call Building caught fire at about 10:30 a.m. and burned from the top down, its elevator shafts acting as flues. In an hour and a half, it was gone.

With the destruction of the Call Building and other "fireproof" structures, General Funston decided that some of the other standing buildings should be blown up with dynamite to act as a fire break. Inexperienced men placed explosives, only to gut some of the buildings but not bring them down. Their efforts frequently did more harm than good.

Dr. George Blumer found a makeshift hospital of about 200 patients set up in the Mechanic's Pavilion. The tottering walls of City Hall, perhaps the most damaged of the large structures, had made the city's Emergency Hospital so dangerous that patients had been moved to the Pavilion. Dr. Blumer rolled up his sleeves and jumped in to help. He had only been working ten minutes when someone shouted, "The roof is on fire!" A policeman managed to crawl to the roof and put out the fire. Then another fire started, then another. Sparks from nearby buildings rained down on the Pavilion's roof like angry snowflakes. Patients were moved elsewhere as their former makeshift hospital blazed behind them.

Because of the "Ham and Eggs" fire, Mayor Schmitz ordered that all cooking would take place in the street until building inspectors could inspect chimneys. But San Francisco continued to burn -- the Winchester Hotel caught at 11 a.m., the Hearst Building at noon, St. Mary's Hospital at one- o'clock. The tenement houses South of Market were already in ashes. The entire Financial District was aflame. Army troops ran ahead of the fire, ordering people to evacuate. The last telegraph message out of the city was transmitted shortly after two o'clock, just before troopers ordered the building vacated. With all communication with the outside world gone, San Francisco was isolated.

The Palace Hotel, where Enrico Caruso had spent the night, was the most exclusive hotel in town. There was marble and glass everywhere, and bathtubs and telephones in every room. The Palace had been built to last. A special fire sprinkling system was installed and was thought to be able to withstand any assault by flames. At 3:30, the Palace caught fire when the sprinklers went dry. Firemen made a valiant effort to save the structure, but it was no use. Just before the hotel was abandoned, bartenders gave away bottles of fine wine. By five o'clock, the magnificent Palace was a smoking rubble.

By nightfall, the flames began to create their own superheated wind and a firestorm broke through the city. Those survivors who had been herded into parks and large open spaces watched in horror as buildings burned spectacularly around them. Some of the dead were hastily buried in Portsmouth Square, because there was no more room in the morgue.

The fire continued into the night. The Crocker-Woolworth Building went up at 9 p.m. Chinatown and the infamous Barbary Coast burned in the early morning hours. Water and food were at a premium and were doled out by the military. Waiting in line for rations became a way of life for San Francisco's residents over the next few weeks.

The fire continued for two more days until it burned itself out. There were 3,000 dead in the city. A quarter million were homeless.

Cleanup of the city began before the bricks were even cold. Money poured in from all over the country. Congress appropriated one million dollars for relief. The army donated a million rations.

Rebuilding began immediately. Construction workers poured into the city. Ten days after the last fires were out, the first streetcars ran again. Within two weeks, 225 miles of track was in operation. Within three years, a new San Francisco had risen from the ashes. The 28,000 buildings destroyed by the quake were replaced by 20,500 new ones. By 1915, a recovered San Francisco won the right to host the World's Fair.

Today, nearly one million people live in San Francisco. In 1989, another quake struck the city, but the new building codes prevented great damage. Less than 50 people were killed -- the majority of them perished when the upper portion of a freeway collapsed on vehicles below. But what about a quake the size of the 1906 earthquake. Can it happen again?

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the answer is yes. In research conducted since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the U.S.G.S. said there is a 70 percent change of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake striking the San Francisco Bay region by 2030. It not a matter of IF an earthquake will strike San Francisco -- it IS a matter of when. Authorities in the city prepare for the inevitable. They will not be caught short again.

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