The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: As Told by Eyewitnesses

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: As Told by Eyewitnesses

by Charles Morris

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In the wake of San Francisco's 1906 catastrophe, an enterprising publisher dispatched journalist Charles Morris to obtain firsthand narratives from survivors. Morris's gripping report was rushed to press a few weeks later, providing "a complete and accurate account of the fearful disaster which visited the great city and the Pacific coast, the reign of panic and lawlessness, the plight of 300,000 homeless people, and the worldwide rush to the rescue."
The first comprehensive account of the calamity, this historic chronicle traces the chain of events from the initial earthquake and fire to the rescue activities, recovery operations, and the colossal task of rebuilding. Packed with tales of narrow escapes, devastating losses, incredible feats of heroism, and heartwarming acts of generosity, the book is complemented by fifty-nine original full-page plates.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486810102
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 01/14/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 33 MB
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About the Author

A journalist, novelist, and author of popular historical texts, Charles Morris (1833–1922) began his career as a professor at Philadelphia's Academy of Ancient and Modern Languages. His books include The War with Spain, Civilization: A Study of Its Elements, The Greater Republic, and the Dictionary of Universal Biography.

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The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

As Told by Eyewitnesses

By Charles Morris

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81010-2


San Francisco and Its Terrific Earthquake.

On the splendid Bay of San Francisco, one of the noblest harbors on the whole vast range of the Pacific Ocean, long has stood, like a Queen of the West on its seven hills, the beautiful city of San Francisco, the youngest and in its own way one of the most beautiful and attractive of the large cities of the United States. Born less than sixty years ago, it has grown with the healthy rapidity of a young giant, outvieing many cities of much earlier origin, until it has won rank as the eighth city of the United States, and as the unquestioned metropolis of our far Western States.

It is on this great and rich city that the dark demon of destruction has now descended, as it fell on the next younger of our cities, Chicago, in 1872. It was the rage of the fire-fiend that desolated the metropolis of the lakes. Upon the Queen City of the West the twin terrors of earthquake and conflagration have descended at once, careening through its thronged streets, its marts of trade, and its abodes alike of poverty and wealth, and with the red hand of devastation sweeping one of the noblest centres of human industry and enterprise from the face of the earth. It is this story of almost irremediable ruin which it is our unwelcome duty to chronicle. But before entering upon this sorrowful task some description of the city that has fallen a prey to two of the earth's chief agents of destruction must be given.

San Francisco is built on the end of a peninsula or tongue of land lying between the Pacific Ocean and the broad San Francisco Bay, a noble body of inland water extending southward for about forty miles and with a width varying from six to twelve miles. Northward this splendid body of water is connected with San Pablo Bay, ten miles long, and the latter with Suisun Bay, eight miles long, the whole forming a grand range of navigable waters only surpassed by the great northern inlet of Puget Sound. The Golden Gate, a channel five miles long, connects this great harbor with the sea, the whole giving San Francisco the greatest commercial advantages to be found on the Pacific coast.


The original site of the city was a grant made by the King of Spain of four square leagues of land. Congress afterwards confirmed this grant. It was an uninviting region, with its two lofty hills and its various lower ones, a barren expanse of shifting sand dunes extending from their feet. The population in 1830 was about 200 souls, about equal to that of Chicago at the same date. It was not much larger in 1848, when California fell into American hands and the discovery of gold set in train the famous rush of treasure-seekers to that far land. When 1849 dawned the town contained about 2,000 people. They had increased to 20,000 before the year ended. The place, with its steep and barren hills and its sandy stretches, was not inviting, but its ease of access to the sea and its sheltered harbor were important features, and people settled there, making it a depot of mining supplies and a point of departure for the mines.

The place grew rapidly and has continued to grow. At first a city of flimsy frame buildings, it became early a prey to the flames, fire sweeping through it three times in 1850 and taking toll of the young city to the value of $7,500,000. These conflagrations swept away most of the wooden houses, and business men began to build more substantially of brick, stone and iron. Yet to-day, for climatic reasons, most of the residences continue to be built of wood. But the slow-burning redwood of the California hillsides is used instead of the inflammable pine, the result being that since 1850 the loss by fire in the residence section of the city has been remarkably small. In 1900 the city contained 50,494 frame and only 3,881 stone and brick buildings, though the tendency to use more durable materials was then growing rapidly.

Before describing the terrible calamity which fell upon this beautiful city on that dread morning of April 18, 1906, some account of the character of the place is very desirable, that readers may know what San Francisco was before the rage of earthquake and fire reduced it to what it is to-day.


The site of the city of San Francisco is very uneven, embracing a series of hills, of which the highest ones, known as the Twin Peaks, reach to an elevation of 925 feet, and form the crown of an amphitheatre of lower altitudes. Several of the latter are covered with handsome residences, and afford a magnificent view of the surrounding country, with its bordering bay and ocean, and the noble Golden Gate channel, a river-like passage from ocean to bay of five miles in length and one in width. This waterway is very deep except on the bar at its mouth, where the depth of water is thirty feet.

Since its early days the growth of the city has been very rapid. In 1900 it held 342,782 people, and the census estimate made from figures of the city directory in 1904 gave it then a population of 485,000, probably a considerable exaggeration. In it are mingled inhabitants from most of the nations of the earth, and it may claim the unenviable honor of possessing the largest population of Chinese outside of China itself, the colony numbering over 20,000.

Of the pioneer San Francisco few traces remain, the old buildings having nearly all disappeared. Large and costly business houses and splendid residences have taken their place in the central portion of the city, marble, granite, terra-cotta, iron and steel being largely used as building material. The great prevalence of frame buildings in the residence sections is largely due to the popular belief that they are safer in a locality subject to earthquakes, while the frequent occurrence of earth tremors long restrained the inclination to erect lofty buildings. Not until 1890 was a high structure built, and few skyscrapers had invaded the city up to its day of ruin. They will probably be introduced more frequently in the future, recent experience having demonstrated that they are in considerable measure earthquake proof.

The city before the fire contained numerous handsome structures, including the famous old Palace Hotel, built at a cost of $3,000,000 and with accommodations for 1,200 guests; the nearly finished and splendid Fairmount Hotel; the City Hall, with its lofty dome, on which $7,000,000 is said to have been spent, much of it, doubtless, political plunder; a costly United States Mint and Post Office, an Academy of Science, and many churches, colleges, libraries and other public edifices. The city had 220 miles of paved streets, 180 miles of electric and 77 of cable railway, 62 hotels, 16 theatres, 4 large libraries, 5 daily newspapers, etc., together with 28 public parks.

Sitting, like Rome of old, on its seven hills, San Francisco has long been noted for its beautiful site, clasped in, as it is, between the Pacific Ocean and its own splendid bay, on a peninsula of some five miles in width. Where this juts into the bay at its northernmost point rises a great promontory known as Telegraph Hill, from whose height homeless thousands have recently gazed on the smoke rising from their ruined homes. In the early days of golden promise a watchman was stationed on this hill to look out for coming ships entering the Golden Gate from their long voyage around the Horn and signal the welcome news to the town below. From this came its name.

Cliffs rise on either side of the Golden Gate, and on one is perched the Cliff House, long a famous hostelry. This stands so low that in storms the surf is flung over its lower porticos, though its force is broken by the Seal Rocks. A chief attraction to this house was to see the seals play on these rocks, their favorite place of resort. The Cliff House was at first said to have been swept bodily by the earthquake into the sea, but it proved to be very little injured, and stands erect in its old picturesque location.

In the vicinity of Telegraph Hill are Russian and Nob Hills, the latter getting its peculiar title from the fact that the wealthy "nobs," or mining magnates, of bonanza days built their homes on its summit level. Farther to the east are Mount Olympus and Strawberry Hill, and beyond these the Twin Peaks, which really embrace three hills, the third being named Bernal Heights. Farther to the south and east is Rincan Hill, the last in the half moon crescent of hills, within which is a spread of flat ground extending to the bay. Behind the hills on the Pacific side stretches a vast sweep of sand, at some places level, but often gathered into great round dunes. Part of this has been transformed into the beautiful Golden Gate Park, a splendid expanse of green verdure which has long been one of San Francisco's chief attractions.

Beneath the whole of San Francisco is a rock formation, but everywhere on top of this extends the sand, the gift of the winds. This is of such a character that a hole dug in the street anywhere, even if only to the depth of a few feet, must be shored up with planking or it will fill as fast as it is excavated, the sand running as dry as the contents of an hour glass. When there is an earthquake — or a "temblor," to use the Spanish name — it is the rock foundation that is disturbed, not the sand, which, indeed, serves to lessen the effect of the earth tremor.


Leaving the region of the hills and descending from their crescent-shaped expanse, we find a broad extent of low ground, sloping gently toward the bay. On this low-lying flat was built all of San Francisco's business houses, all its principal hotels and a large part of its tenements and poorer dwellings. It was here that the earthquake was felt most severely and that the fire started which laid waste the city.

Rarely has a city been built on such doubtful foundations. The greater part of the low ground was a bay in 1849, but it has since been filled in by the drifting sands blown from the ocean side by the prevailing west winds and by earth dumped into it. Much of this land was "made ground." Forty-niners still alive say that when they first saw San Francisco the waters of the bay came up to Montgomery Street. The Palace Hotel was in Montgomery Street, and from there to the ferry docks — a long walk for any man — the water had been driven back by a "filling-in" process.

This is the district that especially suffered, that south of Market and east of Montgomery Streets. Nearly all the large buildings in this section are either built on piles driven into the sand and mud or were raised upon wooden foundations. It is on such ground as this that the costly Post Office building was erected, despite the protests of nearly the entire community, who asserted that the ground was nothing but a filled-in bog.

In none of the earthquakes that San Francisco has had was any serious damage except to houses in this filled-in territory, and to houses built along the line of some of the many streams which ran from the hills down to the bay, and which were filled in as the town grew — for instance, the Grand Opera House was built over the bed of St. Anne's Creek. A bog, slough and marsh, known as the Pipeville Slough, was the ground on which the City Hall was built, and which was originally a burying ground. Sand from the western shore had blown over and drifted into the marsh and hardened its surface.

When the final grading scheme of the city was adopted in 1853, and work went on, the water front of the city was where Clay Street now is, between Montgomery and Sansome Streets. The present level area of San Francisco of about three thousand acres is an average of nine feet above or below the natural surface of the ground and the changes made necessitated the transfer of 21,000,000 cubic yards from hills to hollows. Houses to the number of thousands were raised or lowered, street floors became subcellars or third stories and the whole natural face of the ground was altered.

Through this infirm material all the pipes of the water and sewer system of San Francisco in its business districts and in most of the region south of Market street were laid. When the earthquake came, the filled-in ground shook like the jelly it is. The only firm and rigid material in its millions of cubic yards of surface area and depth were the iron pipes. Naturally they broke, as they would not bend, and San Francisco's water system was therefore instantly disabled, with the result that the fire became complete master of the situation and raged uncontrolled for three days and nights.

Although the earthquake wrecked the business and residential portions of the city alike, on the hills the land did not sink. All "made ground" sank in consequence of the quaking, but on the high ground the upper parts of the buildings were about the only portions of the structures wrecked. Most of the damage on the hills was done by falling chimneys. On Montgomery Street, half a block from the main office of the Western Union Company, the middle of the street was cracked and blown up, but during the shocks which struck the Western Union building only the top stories were cracked. Similar phenomena were experienced in other localities, and the bulk of the disaster, so far as the earthquake was concerned, was confined to the low-lying region above described.


From the origin of San Francisco the earthquake has been its bane. During the past fifty years fully 250 shocks have been recorded, while all California has been subject to them. But frequency rather than violence of shocks has been the characteristic of the seismic history of the State, there having been few shocks that caused serious damage, and none since 1872 that led to loss of life.

There was a violent shock in 1856, when the city was only a mining town of small frame buildings. Several shanties were overthrown and a few persons killed by falling walls and chimneys. There was a severe shock also in 1865, in which many buildings were shattered. Next in violence was the shock of 1872, which cracked the walls of some of the public buildings and caused a panic. There was no great loss of life. In April, 1898, just before midnight, there was a lively shakeup which caused the tall buildings to shake like the snapping of a whip and drove the tourists out of the hotels into the streets in their nightclothes. Three or four old houses fell, and the Benicia Navy Yard, which is on made ground across the bay, was damaged to the extent of about $100,000. The last severe shock was in January, 1900, when the St. Nicholas Hotel was badly damaged.

These were the heaviest shocks. On the other hand, light shocks, as above said, have been frequent. Probably the sensible quakes have averaged three or four a year. These are usually tremblings lasting from ten seconds to a minute and just heavy enough to wake light sleepers or to shake dishes about on the shelves. Tourists and newcomers are generally alarmed by these phenomena, but old Californians have learned to take them philosophically. To one who is not afraid of them, the sensation of one of these little tremblers is rather pleasant than otherwise, and the inhabitants grew so accustomed to them as rarely to let them disturb their equanimity.

After 1900 the forces beneath the earth seemed to fall asleep. As it proved, they were only biding their time. The era was at hand when they were to declare themselves in all their mighty power and fall upon the devoted city with ruin in their grasp. But all this lay hidden in the secret casket of time, and the city kept up to its record as one of the liveliest and in many respects the most reckless and pleasure-loving on the continent, its people squandering their money with thoughtless improvidence and enjoying to the full all the good that life held out to them.


Excerpted from The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire by Charles Morris. Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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