1906 Earthquake and Fire- An overview



 

 

San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories … Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone.  

Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible over a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights the lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke. San Francisco … is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped tens of thousands of refugees.  
Jack London, May 5, 1906
 

By Georgia I. Hesse 

 

At 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, most citizens of San Francisco lay quietly asleep, undisturbed. For others, music lovers and newspapermen, performers and city-dads and swells, sleep had arrived around 3 a.m., following a stunning performance of Bizet’s "Carmen" at the Grand Opera House on Mission Street with Enrico Caruso performing the role of Don José. 

James Marie Hopper, a critic for the Call, walked the few steps to his paper to turn in his review. Later, he wrote, "I can still see Caruso striking open the gates of the arena … I see him stab, I hear [Olive] Fremstadt’s scream, Caruso’s wail of remorse, glutted passion and remorse commingled; I see his magnificent crawling movement to her as the curtain comes down. … I went up to my room. `Fine night,’ said the elevator-boy. `Beautiful,’ I answered." 

Twelve minutes later, the earth trembled for about 40 seconds; a rupture along the San Andreas fault shook the land "as a terrier shakes a rat," reported philosopher William James from his flat at Stanford University. The earth rumbled and roared. Streets split open. Power cables writhed and wriggled. Chimneys trembled and tumbled. Gas and water mains split and fires exploded to burn against the sky for three days and nights, turning black night into red noon. 

When it was over, the "Paris of the West" had been reduced to Refugee City. 

A century later, it is difficult to conjure up the cataclysm: more than 3,000 people dead, 28,000 buildings destroyed, almost 500 blocks leveled by a ’quake estimated at 8.3 on the Richter scale. (The Richter was not in use at the time.) 

Yet ruins stage their own romance, as enthusiasts of history recognize. There remains a fascination with the shards of San Francisco that remain from that dreadful day. 

Mission Dolores. The oldest extant structure in the city, Misión San Francisco de Asís looks remarkably as it did when the chapel was completed in 1791. Its four-foot thick adobe walls covered with stucco, its hand-carved reredos and side altars and its high, beamed ceiling endured the stresses of 1906 with barely a twinge. Sixth in the Alta California chain of 22 missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, Dolores was consecrated with a Mass sung on June 29, 1776, five days before the upstart Americans pronounced their Declaration of Independence. At the time, it was a simple shelter of branches about two blocks east of the present chapel near a stream called Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (because it was discovered on the Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows - Dolores). 

To step into the chapel today, its stunning ceiling beams bathed in amber light, their chevron patterns reflective of Ohlone basket designs, is to feel a sense of sadness at the nearly-forgotten heritage from that early settlement, a small stone of history lost in the rivers of 21st-century traffic. (Lieutenant José Joaquín Moraga, leader of the 1776 colonizing expedition, is buried within the church. A tombstone that honors the family of José de Jesus Noé near the entrance is presumed to be the burial place of Noé, last Mexican alcalde [mayor].) 

In the tranquil graveyard on the chapel’s south side lie some of San Francisco’s most celebrated characters, the famous, the infamous, the good and the lawless, several bearing names echoed by surrounding streets: Don Luís Antonio Argüello, first governor of California under Mexican rule; Francisco de Haro, first alcalde of San Francisco; Father Francisco de Palou, who designed the mission; James P. Casey, corrupt city supervisor, editor of the Sunday Times, and murderer of fellow editor (of the Evening Bulletin) James King of William; Charles Cora, gambler and powerful thug, who shot and killed George W.H. Richardson, a U.S. Marshal. (Four days following the death of King, Casey and Cora were surrendered to members of the Vigilante Committee. They were hanged from a window in Fort Gunnybags, the vigilantes’ headquarters.) 

The small museum in the chapel is worth a visit, as is the ornate Basilica of San Francisco (1913) next door where most religious services now are held. 

Earthquake Walk. An easy downtown amble begins at Lotta’s Fountain at the meeting of Kearny, Market and Third Streets. In an hour or two (or more, depending on the visitor’s curiosity and/or meals enjoyed en route), it’s possible to see the major sites that remain from that horrific April morning as well as new ones dating from the South of Market renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s. 

Lotta’s Fountain commands a space where once a watering trough served horses and later a public fountain served humans. In 1875, the beloved actress of Gold Rush days, Lotta Crabtree, the "California Diamond," presented this fountain to the citizens. During the aftermath of the ’quake it served as a meeting place and message center for the homeless, and here on Christmas Eve of 1910, soprano Luisa Tetrazzini sang carols to enthusiastic listeners aswarm in the streets. Each April 18 at around 5 a.m., hundreds of traditionalists - including some ageless witnesses to the conflagration - gather to celebrate courage and survival. 

A few steps east on Market at the corner of New Montgomery, the regal Palace Hotel (at its opening in 1895 the largest in the country, some said the world) outlived the earthquake but perished in the following fire. It has remained in earthquake lore because Caruso and several other artists who had performed in "Carmen" were guests there. Caruso, the story goes, rushed around the lobby and outside, clad in a fur coat over pajamas, muttering fearfully (as quoted by the town’s top photographer Arnold Genthe), "’Ell of a place, ’ell of a place! I never come back!" He never did. 

The Palace reopened as early as 1909, grander than ever. Its gorgeous Garden Court now serves breakfast, lunch and dinner under a lofty canopy of magnificent leaded glass. Wooded, cozy Maxfield’s and the Pied Piper Bar (named for its signature Maxfield Parrish painting) are open for lunch and dinner as is Kyo-ya, one of the city’s finest Japanese restaurants.
Walking south (right) from the Palace’s main entrance to Mission Street, then right again, leads you to the California Historical Society, which hosts traveling as well as local exhibits in its public gallery and offers many materials for study by appointment. A specialty bookshop off the lobby presents an excellent selection, mostly of Californiana. 

A shocking story was reported on the police blotter to have occurred at the corner of Third and Mission Streets just after the ’quake: "… a building collapsed in such a manner as to pinion an unknown man to the ground. His cries attracted people on the street, who attempted to rescue him but … Realizing that he would soon be burned to death he begged the bystanders to kill him. After some hesitancy, a large, middle-aged man stepped forward, and after a few words with the unfortunate prisoner, he whipped out a revolver and shot him through the head, killing him instantly. He then requested the witnesses to accompany him to the Hall of Justice, where the Mayor, who after hearing the circumstances and seeing the man’s distressed appearance, commended him for his humane act." 

In the middle of the next block (right) between Third and Fourth Streets, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was founded by Irish immigrants in 1851, was rebuilt in red brick in 1872, destroyed by the earthquake-fire in 1906 and reworked in 1909 in Gothic Revival style. Some reused bricks and walls still bear fire scars; inside, find handsome marble columns and a Tiffany clerestory window. Classical music concerts (free) are often held on Wednesday noons. The Mexican Museum (now at Fort Mason) will move to a new pedestrian plaza to the east of the church by about 2007, where it may be joined by the Contemporary Jewish Museum now at 21 Steuart Street. 

Although some structures along here have nothing to do with the earthquake, they will surely interest strollers in the area. Across the street from St. Patrick’s, the Center for the Arts in Yerba Buena Gardens brings vibrance, flair and much-needed green open space to a neighborhood that during the ’60s and most of the ’70s was squalid, sordid and frequently unsafe. Ground for Moscone Center North was broken in August, 1978, between Mission and Howard, Third and Fourth Streets. The cultural, entertainment and commercial oasis features a range of attractions, restaurants, museums, public art and formal gardens, starring the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and waterfall. 

On the southeast corner of Fourth and Mission, edging Yerba Buena, the prominent Bacigalupi & Sons (phonographs, pianos, slot machines) almost evaporated when the South-of-Market fire converged with the blazing wall spreading from the San Francisco Gas and Electric plant. Today, the Sony Metreon multimedia center stands here, featuring a 15-screen movie complex (including a giant IMAX theater), high-tech stores, a video arcade and hands-on games. Metreon also offers dining purlieus of various kinds, including Jillian’s sports bar with a 50-foot video wall and LJ Martini Club & Grille with an open-air terrace. 

"The buildings across the alley from the mint were on fire, and soon great masses of flames shot against the side of our building … The glass in our windows, exposed to this great heat, did not crack and break, but melted down like butter; the sandstone and granite … began to flake off with explosive noises like the firing of artillery. … The roar of the conflagration and crashing of falling buildings, together with the noises given off from the exploding stones of our building, were enough to strike terror in our hearts, if we had had time to think about it." (From Recollections of a Newspaper Man, 1917, by Frank Leach, superintendent of the U.S. San Francisco Mint.) 

The Old Mint at the corner of Fifth and Mission Streets, where prostitutes and pimps drank, danced, fought and carried on "a doomsday bacchanalia" on April 18-19, still stands as one of the city’s most impressive Neoclassical buildings. It survived because an independent water system had recently been installed and because brave employees fought the searing heat and masses of flames from the inside out. As a result some $200 million in silver and gold were saved. When the dazed fighters emerged from hours of battle, they beheld the rest of their city in smoldering ruin. 

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the Old Mint closed its doors in 1995. The San Francisco Museum & Historical Society and the city itself plan to make of the Old Mint a large city museum and a Visitor Center to be operated by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Restaurant and retail space also are planned, with the reopening scheduled for 2006. 

While walking west toward Seventh and Mission and the Old U.S. Court of Appeals & Post Office, one glances south at Sixth where, in a clutch of depressed rooming houses, Nevada House collapsed in a domino effect that demolished every building on the block. One William F. Stehr lived to write: "As I was tugging at it [the door of his room], I felt the floor tilting and sinking … I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floor collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and the top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed." 

The Beaux Arts Post Office building, born in August, 1905, had 46 men on duty when the inferno began. Although U.S. soldiers ordered everyone out following the first temblor, 10 men on the third floor refused to depart, beating flames with water-soaked mail sacks. Assistant to the Postmaster William F. Burke described the scene thus: "Walls had been thrown into the middle of various rooms, destroying furniture and covering everything with dust. In the main corridors the marble was split and cracked, while the mosaics were shattered and had come rattling down upon the floor. Chandeliers were rent and twisted by falling arches and ceilings."

Jackson Square

 



If, as they say, God spanked the town For being over frisky, Why did He burn the churches down And spare Hotaling’s whiskey?

 

 

The most enticing stroll through what remains of 1906 San Francisco is made along arts- and antiques-filled Jackson Square, really not a square at all but one-block Jackson Street between Montgomery and Sansome. However, in 1971, landmark status was awarded to the Jackson Square Historic District, composed roughly of the 4 ½ blocks bounded by Jackson on the north, Sansome on the east, Washington on the south and Montgomery on the west. (Columbus Avenue comes slicing at it from an angle.) This is the city’s only vestige of the early commercial area. Here one gets a real sense of 19th-century scale and style. Most of the buildings rise fewer than 40 feet along narrow, tree-lined streets and are somewhat freakish in having survived the 1906 earthquake. 

One of the leaders in this first business district was William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who headed the local office of the St. Louis banking firm of Lucas, Turner & Co. 

Montgomery Street, which farther south became "The Wall Street of the West," here marked the original shoreline of the port of Yerba Buena, and its small cove swarmed with piers, warehouses, shipping offices and small factories. Rather naturally, as all seaports, it early attracted other action: saloons, boarding houses, gambling dens, dance halls and ladies of the evening. Soon the nickname Barbary Coast was tacked onto this part of the district, after the notorious Barbary pirates of North Africa. Indeed, this Barbary Coast is thought to have given currency to the term "to shanghai" (to kidnap men to make up a ship’s crew, especially with the aid of "Micky Finns," another local creation). 

What a difference a century makes! Today, decorators and antiques dealers ensconce themselves behind smart brick facades and Italianate pediments. Architects, advertising agencies, and attorneys also make themselves at home in a casually chic setting that suggests summer Sundays at an outdoor café. 

Historically, this is Gold Rush Country. On May 12, 1848, a Mormon firebrand named Sam Brannan (for a time he published the town’s first newspaper, the California Star) was seen running up and down Montgomery Street, waving a quinine bottle filled with gilded flecks. "Gold!" he shouted. "Gold! Gold from the American River." It wasn’t long before miners, ’49ers, were dumping nuggets and dust on the counters of the Assay Office on Gold Street to be weighed and assayed. 

The Assay Office has metamosphosed into Bix, a rather snazzy restaurant and supperclub at the heart of the matter of Jackson Square. 

Gold Street connects to Jackson by an alley named Balance Street, not because of the scales used to weigh gold, but because an abandoned ship of that name lies somewhere beneath the sidewalks. In fact, much of downtown rises upon the bones of dozens of vessels left behind to sink as their crews rushed to the Sierra country in search of gold. The National Maritime Museum supposedly has identified the remains of at least 42 of them. 

A level 1 ½-hour walk can begin in the west at the ornate Belli Building, 722 Montgomery. Built originally as a tobacco warehouse, then a theater where delicious child star Lotta Crabtree performed, it has served most recently as offices for the late lawyer Melvin Belli, the King of Torts. Damaged in the 1989 earthquake, it is now being allowed to molder while Belli’s heirs carry on internecine warfare. 

Neighbors to the north are the Genella Building (site of the town’s first Masonic Lodge), the Golden Era at number 730 (which housed a respected literary weekly) and, across Jackson at 800 Montgomery in the remains of what was Gen. Sherman’s bank, William K. Stout’s Architectural Books. This last is a fine, cramped, crowded repository for art and history and well as architectural materials. Cut west a few steps on Jackson to Thomas Brothers Maps, a treasury for mapaholics. 

Returning east, note the architectural differences on the north and south sides of Jackson. The Moulinie Building at 458-60, for instance, is unadorned brick; on the south the historic Hotaling Building at number 455 is all arches, pilasters and Corinthian capitals. This atmospheric building recalls one Anson Parsons Hotaling, operator of the whiskey distillery that inspired the ditty quoted above. This largest liquor warehouse on the West Coast escaped destruction in 1906 due to the heroic efforts of Navy Lieut. Frederick Newton and his men who ran a hose all the way over Telegraph Hill and down to the square, snuffing out the flames with salt water. Note a plaque on the side that repeats the query about God’s spanking the town. Tiny Hotaling Street connects Jackson and Washington and is lined with delightful, restored 19th-century brick houses. 

The Solari Building East at 468-70 Jackson is notable as the house where Ina Coolbrith, the poet laureate of California, was the schoolmarm to Jack London. (She was born Josephine Smith, niece of Joseph, the founder of the Mormon church.) 

At 435 Jackson, the Medico-Dental Building sits upon the hulls of two abandoned ships.



 

The Ferry Building. The pièce de résistance remaining from post-1906 San Francisco is the 1898 Ferry Building at the meeting of Market Street and the Embarcadero. The terminal, modeled by New York architect A. Page Brown after a railway station designed for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was topped by a minaret inspired by the 12th-century brick Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain. For decades, it served the city as landmark as well as transportation hub; the 240-foot tall clock tower soared sky-high above the great bay and 50,000 ferry passengers per day commuted to the business district through its courtly, two-story interior, crossing the bold mosaic floors beneath brick and ceramic arches. 

Then came the "Dark Age," as described by Ferry Building historian Nancy Olmsted: "The opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, along with mass use of the automobile, rendered the daily commute by ferryboat obsolete. By the 1950s, the Ferry Building was used very little. … To cast the once-prominent structure into further obscurity, the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway was built across the face of the Ferry Building in 1957, and remained for 35 years." 

In 1906, two fireboats, joined by naval tugs, had kept the Ferry Building from burning in order to create an escape hatch through which thousands of residents were ferried to safety. The severe Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 so weakened the Embarcadero Freeway that San Franciscans, who always had resented "the monster," succeeded in a vote to tear it and its adjoining arms down, thus erasing the ugly wall between the city and its seafront symbol. 

The Ferry Building as it exists today, reinvented in a four-year effort of private and public collaboration, reopened in April, 2003, as a repository of excellence. The renowned Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market has returned. Inside the dramatic, 660-foot long, sky-lighted nave, the Ferry Building Marketplace is a vibrant collection of (at this writing) 51 retail outlets representing the finest of Bay Area produce, wines, restaurants and cafés, specialty shops and one bookstore, Book Passage. (Of particular interest in this context would be "Three Fearful Days - San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 Earthquake & Fire," compiled by Malcolm E. Barker for Londonborn Publications; 1998.) 

The Bay Crossings Store sells ferry tickets to Vallejo, Alameda/Oakland, Tiburon and Sausalito as well as for bay cruises, whale-watching sailings and more. Already, ferry ridership totals about 15,000 passengers daily; water transit is expected to triple in the next 10 years. 

Indeed, the success of the Ferry Building Marketplace heralds the rebirth of the entire waterfront from the baseball Giants’ old fashioned state-of-the-art SBC Park in the south to Fisherman’s Wharf in the north. That takes the ’quake: only in San Francisco. 

Georgia I. Hesse was founding travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner and held that position on the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle for 20 years. She has contributed to several anthologies, is a co-author of travel guides to France and California published by Fisher and by Berlitz, and teaches travel writing and related courses at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Georgia holds the Chevalier/Ordre de la République from Tunisia and the Ordre du Mérite from France. She is a graduate of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, and attended the University of Strasbourg, France, on a Fulbright scholarship. She claims to have been born on Crazy Woman Creek near Buffalo, Wyoming.