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The Dire Calamity and the Greater San Francisco

Pioneer San Francisco received a rude awakening Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906.

The awful call came without warning like a mysterious bolt of lightning, rushing through the upper strata of the earth, causing devastation, terror and death at the hour of thirteen minutes past five o’clock in the morning, when a large majority of the city’s people were still asleep in their homes.

It seems as if all-wise Providence had chosen the most fortunate hour for the appalling catastrophe.

If the seismic disturbance had occurred in the daytime when the busy thoroughfares of the metropolis were lined with people, or in the evening when the theatres were crowded, there would have been a still more horrifying chapter in the world’s history than the one which the city by the Golden Gate has just contributed.

Terrible as the distress and the calamity appear, the people of San Francisco and California have ample cause for genuine and deep-felt gratitude.

The earthquake shock did much damage.

There is little use in denying this fact as there is in exaggerating the results of the temblor.

The first heavy shock, a few minutes after five in the morning struck terror to the bravest and coolest of the city’s sleeping populace. In a few seconds the streets in the residence districts were lined with people who rushed out of their apartments and homes in night attire. Furniture, pianos, book cases danced through the rooms as if possessed with demons; crockery and china ware dashed out of their snug closets on the floors; chimneys toppled over and houses cracked, crushed and caved in.

The lower portions of the city, and particularly where the buildings were resting on "filled" ground, seemed to have fared the worst.

The region along Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets from Dolores down to Potrero avenue, was badly shattered, as was also the neighborhood bounded by Mission, Seventh, Harrison and Fourth streets. In Hayes Valley the earthquake did considerable damage and the City Hall was badly shaken.

Most of the old buildings along Montgomery street and east along the water front were badly cracked by the shock.

The Valencia Hotel near Eighteenth street, caved in, and in the fall killed a number of lodgers and injured others.

The large five-story Brunswick Hotel on Sixth and Howard streets, with its three hundred rooms which are all reported to have been occupied, collapsed to the ground.

Another lodging house on Seventh and Howard streets was crushed to the ground by a falling brick wall. But few of the occupants of these houses escaped.

A portion of the large Cosmopolitan House, on the corner of Fifth and Mission streets, came down with the first shock.

The Portland House, on Sixth street, between Mission and Market, collapsed, and it is stated that about sixty persons were entombed among the crashing ruins. Their heart-rending cries for help were heard a block away. A large number of these, however, were saved before the fire overtook them and taken to the emergency hospital established at the Mechanics’ Pavilion.

Another lodging-house, the Royal, on the corner of Fourth and Mission streets, caved in and buried the unfortunate lodgers in the ruins. It is reported that a large number of these victims were rescued by brave and more fortunate men who happened to be close to the scene of destruction.

The Wilson House, a four-story structure with eighty rooms, at 775 Mission street, fell to the ground in a heap of ruins. So far as can be learned but a few of the inmates were saved.

Nearly all the lodging-houses south of Market street met the same fate.

North of Market street the human beehives fared better. The Lick House and the Russ House on Montgomery street, were badly shattered. The St. Nicholas Hotel, on Market street, was thoroughly shook up, and when the inmates stepped from their beds they found the rooms flooded with water from the tank on the roof.

The Luxembourg, at Stockton and O’Farrell streets, a three-story house, was partly crushed under tons of falling brick from an adjoining building, but it is stated that only one man and woman were killed at this place.

The old California Hotel, in Bush street, was badly shaken. It was here that the late lamented Chief Sullivan of the Fire Department received the injuries whch caused his death.

But although the damage from the earthquake was great, San Francisco would have recovered from the shock in a marvelously short space of time.

It was not the earthquake, but the fire – the great terrible fire – that destroyed pioneer San Francisco.

For three days and three nights that awful conflagration swept the stricken city, devouring half a century’s fruition of human energy, skill and ingenuity.

Fires broke out in a half dozen places shortly after the earthquake and although our excellent fire-fighters responded promptly to the call of duty, they were greatly handicapped at the very start by the lack of water, many of the mains having been broken by the temblor. Despite the firemen’s heroic efforts the fire spread.

The old buildings south of Market and east of Seventh burned like so many boxes of matches, and the people fled before the ravaging elements to the nearest place of safety.

Men, women and children, most of them poorly clad, clutching a family picture, carrying some relic, a bundle of bed clothes, a grip or dragging a trunk, hurried away from the scorching flames to what destinations they knew not.

They were actuated by but one thought – to get away from the terrible fire.

The gloomy tide of humanity rolled on, out through the Mission Road to the cemeteries, over the hills to Golden Gate Park and on to the beach. It was one mighty surging wave of human faces of living grief and throbbing despair.

Wednesday afternoon the fire broke out in Hayes Valley and swept on towards the St. Ignatius College, on Van Ness avenue, totally destroying that noble structure.

The fire made short work of Franklin Hotel; it blazed in a few minutes and fell into Market street.

The Mechanics’ Pavilion was an easy prey to the flames, but the sick and injured were rushed out to other improvised hospitals before the fire reached the pavilion.

East and west, north and south, the terrible conflagration ate its way.

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning the lower portion of Market street, Chinatown and Nob Hill was one seething furnace.

Thousands of angry flames shot high into the sky, and the cracking timbers, the falling buildings and the terrific roar of the fire sounded like a dozen cyclones.

Thursday morning dawned on the dire calamity, but it brought additional terror to the stricken people. The fire was still raging worse than on Wednesday and the black smoke hung over the doomed city like a shroud of death.

Thursday, Thursday night, Friday, Friday night and Saturday the all destructive fire continued its work of devastation unabated.

It was a panorama that people who saw it will never forget and never wish to see again, but through it all for three days and three nights the brave fire laddies fought the merciless element. Many of them dropped utterly exhausted at their post of duty, which was quickly taken up by one of their comrades. They stood in the smoke of the roaring furnaces to fight the flames and cases are on record where police officers and volunteer firemen had to continually apply a stream of water on the regular firemen on duty in order to keep them from being burned or scorched.

Dynamiting of buildings was resorted to in order to confine the fire, but the flames were no sooner subdued in one place before they broke out in another.

As is usual in all cases of extraordinary emergency those who knew it all were profuse in their gratuitous advice of how things ought to be done and the great San Francisco fire produced a few fire experts who were brim full of good ideas and wonderful theories, but they all kept at a very safe distance from the fire.

Expressions were frequently heard from all sides to the effect that if the late Chief Sullivan had been well and alive the fire would have been confined within a very limited area. No doubt there was considerable truth in these statements. Fire fighting was the chosen profession of the late chief, and he had made a life study of the conditions presented by a big fire in San Francisco. In fact, he had often stated that San Francisco could not always escape a big conflagration, and he predicted on more than one occasion the great fire with its causes and terrible results which we have just passed through, but which he was not permitted to combat.

Time and again had he asked the ex-Board of Supervisors to provide an adequate water supply for the protection of the city against fire, and as often did he ask in vain.

But regardless of the various and adverse comments both during the progress of the fire and afterward, the fact remains that every member of the San Francisco Fire Department battled for days and nights with the raging elements as men never fought before. They were also ably assisted by the Police Department and the Federal troops.

Cool headed persons – men who had not lost any portion of their reason, neither as a result of the shake or of the excitement, know from close observation that the work of fighting the great fire was both skillfully directed and effectively carried out, and if there should be any doubting Thomases who do not believe that such is the case let them, if they are capable, study the fire line.

To us it seemed more like a miracle that anything else that the fire was stopped at its present limits.

The burned district extends from Twentieth and Mission, Twentieth and Dolores, Gough Street, Golden Gate Avenue and Van Ness Avenue to the City Front and from the Potrero to North Beach.

It is stated that the edge of the fire limit is over twenty-nine miles long and the burnt area is compused as being over eight square miles. The property loss is variously estimated between $200,000,000 and $400,000,000. The exact loss of life has not yet, and never will be ascertained, but Coroner Walsh estimates it at not less than fifteen hundred.

Compared with the Chicago fire in 1871 the burned district in San Francisco is six times the size of the one laid bare in Chicago, and the property loss and loss of life comes very nearly in the same proportion. The dire calamity is the greatest and most distressing event of its kind not only in the history of our country, but within the annals of the world.

Terrible as the disaster still appears before our eyes, it has already been fraught with many and wonderful blessings, and San Francisco’s sad misfortune will in time prove to have been her best fortune.

Organized Labor
Official Organ of the State and Local Building Trades Councils of California
San Francisco
April 21, 28, and May 5, 1906 [Combined edition].

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