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First-Hand Experience of the San Francisco Earthquake
Digital History ID 1158

Author:   Emma Burke

Annotation: An attorney's wife offers a vivid first-person account of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Document: No one can comprehend the calamity to San Francisco in its entirety. The individual experience can probably give the general public the clearest idea. I was one of the fortunate ones, for neither personal injury nor death visited my household; but what I saw and felt I will try to give to you.

It was 5:13 a.m., and my husband had arisen and lit the gas stove, and put on the water to heat. He had closed our bedroom door that I might enjoy one more nap. We were in a fourth-story apartment flat, said to be built with unusual care.

Twelve flats, so constructed, occupied a corner one block from Golden Gate Park. All our rooms, six in number, opened into a square reception hall, from which the stairs descended.

The shock came, and hurled my bed against an opposite wall. I sprang up, and, holding firmly to the foot-board managed to keep on my feet to the door. The shock was constantly growing heavier; rumbles, crackling noises, and falling objects already commenced the din.

The door refused to open. The earthquake had wedged it in the door-frame. My husband was pushing on the opposite side and I pulled with all my strength, when a twist of the building released it, and the door sprang open.

We braced ourselves in the doorway, clinging to the casing, Our son appeared across the reception room, and my husband motioned to him to stand in his door also, for fear of the chimney.

It grew constantly worse, the noise deafening; the crash of dishes, falling pictures, the rattle of the flat tin roof, bookcases being overturned, the piano hurled across the parlor, the groaning and straining of the building itself, broken glass and falling plaster, made such a roar that no one noise could be distinguished.

We never knew when the chimney came tearing through; we never knew when a great marine picture weighing one hundred and twenty-five pounds crashed down, not eight feet away from us; we were frequently shaken loose from our hold on the door, and only kept our feet by mutual help and our utmost efforts, the floor moved like short, choppy waves of the sea, crisscrossed by a tide as mighty as themselves. The ceiling responded to all the angles of the floor. I never expected to come out alive. I looked across the reception-room at the white face of our son, and thought to see the floors give way with him momentarily. How a building could stand such motion and keep its frame intact is still a mystery to me.

Stand in front of your clock and count off forty-eight seconds, and imagine this scene to have continued for that length of time, and you can get some idea of what one could suffer during that period.

Talk about DeQuincey's "Vision of Sudden Death"!

With ever-lessening intensity, it finally quit.

My husband told me to dress quickly and get down our tortuous stairs to the street. I rushed to the window and saw my neighbor of the lower flat standing in the middle of the street in her nightclothes, clasping her little babe in her arms. I called to her and asked if I should fling out some bedclothing to wrap them in. She said her husband had gone into the house to get their clothes. The street was black with people, or rather white, for they were mostly in street undress.

Then I turned to dress myself. What a change in values! I had no thought for the dress I had cherished the day before, I was merely considering what was warmest and most substantial. A coarse wool skirt, and a long coat lined with white silk and highly decorated with trimming. Did I choose the latter because it was pretty? No, indeed! but because it was warm and long. My diamonds and money were thrust into a hand-satchel, and we hastily made our way to the street.

The electric poles stood in the most inebriated attitudes the length of our street. Chimneys on roofs, chimneys in the street, bricks and broken glass everywhere, stone steps gaping apart, wooden ones splintered, and buildings themselves at strange angles!

We walked around to the Park Emergency Hospital, three blocks away. We were anxious about the great buildings in the business section, and hoped to obtain some news there, The street was elevated at one point several feet, and a great broken water-main was flooding that section.

The hospital is a one-story, low stone structure, with tiled roof. Its stone facing had nearly all fallen away, the chimney was gone, and the tiles were twisted and broken, All the timbering that supported the roof was exposed to view; the stone arch over the entrance was crumbled and just ready to fall.

The matron had just been removed unconscious from a heap of brick, mortar and general debris. The attendants were making frantic efforts to get the ambulance out. Tumbled piles of stones were in front of the doors, and one door was so wedged that it could not be moved.

But the ambulance was found to be narrower than the remaining door, willing hands were lifting and turning the great stones out of the way , and finally the frightened horses hauled it out over an amount of debris that in ordinary times would have been considered insurmountable.

After a half-hour we came up to our flat to take an inventory of the situation. I walked over the remains of my choicest china, porcelain, and cut-glass, without a feeling of regret or a sigh or tear. Everything seemed so insignificant, and the world so far away. That is, the world we had lived in. All estimates of value were annihilated. Human life seemed the only thing worth consideration.

The spirals of smoke now began to ascend from various places In the business section, and we realized how completely we were at the mercy of fire, with the broken water-mains, and reservoirs perhaps destroyed. The gas and water had been cut off immediately to most of our homes. The power-houses were down and the electricity gone too.

We took a few bricks and built a fire between them in the middle of the street, like every one else, and ate our breakfast on the steps of our home.

Frequent "tremblers" sent us scurrying to the road, and as night came on, we gathered some bedding together and went into the Park, the Mecca of all the city, All day I had been feeding homeless ones who had drifted out from the Mission district, where great clouds of angry smoke were rising and large areas had already been devastated.

As I took my load to go, I saw a mother and daughter sitting in the next alcove, into which four doors from flats opened. They were weary, and the girl almost fainting. Everything they had was burned, and they had had nothing to eat all day, I told them they could go up in our flat and sleep, if they. wished. They were afraid; so was I. Then I gathered all the door-mats in the alcoves about, went upstairs and found two old comforters, and made them a bed.

I gave them food, and hastened to the Park through the gathering twilight, My husband and son had spread a mattress under the protecting branches of some bushes, with a great eucalyptus-tree towering over us. We crawled in, sleeping crosswise of the mattress, and my long coat kept me snug and warm.

The immense fires started by the earthquake now made such a ruddy glow that it was easy to see everything, although the flames were two miles away. No lights were allowed in the Park, and all was soon quiet except the wail of a baby, the clang of an ambulance, and the incessant roll of wheels and tramp of feet, as the people constantly sought the refuge of People were all about us in huddled groups, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion on the lawns and under the shrubbery.

Late in the night I heard a cry, "Bakers wanted! Bakers wanted!" over and over - the first cry of a stricken people for bread. Later came another through the silent night - "Union telegraphers wanted" - to tell the world our awful plight.

Morning came, and my husband was detailed to take charge of the water distribution at the entrance to the Park. Water was now more precious than gold, and not a drop must be wasted. Many of the mains were broken, and no one knew how the reservoirs were.

A large iron caldron was secured from the engineer of the Park, and two stone-masons volunteered their aid. Stone was hauled from the fallen chimneys of the Park Lodge, and the caldron. soon set, and a fire roaring under it to boil water for tea or coffee. Do you imagine the post of water-distributor to be an easy one?

'The day came on dusty and hot. The wind had changed, showering us with ashes and stinging our eyes with smoke from the ever-increasing fire. The line formed for cold water. Each had his turn. A man would argue for a drink for his wife, and look down the long line of Americans, Japanese, Negroes, Chinese, and all sorts and degrees of men, women, and children.

"Just one cupful. It only takes a moment, and she's almost famished." "Yes, but that moment belongs to some one else," replied my husband, with that fierce look from his old military days that I knew covered the softest heart in the world. And the man went to the foot of the line, and it was just an hour and a half before he came to the faucet for his pitcherfull.

All day long the procession rolled past. Everything that could be used as a conveyance was pressed into service, young men acting as motor power to buggies and carriages. Trunks were hauled along the smooth park walks on their casters. Delivery wagons crammed with everything but what they advertised, wheelbarrows piled mountain high, people with packs on their backs, carrying parrots and banjos and a thousand and one treasures, and all so good-natured and ready for a smile! I never saw one person crying.

Two young men went by, carrying a roll of bedding suspended from a pole. One end had sagged and a fine blanket was dragging on the earth. I said, "Look! Your bedding is getting dirty." "What's the difference?" responded one of them, with a quizzical look. "No difference at all!" cried I, and we all laughed heartily.

Men, met, were introduced, exchanged business cards of places consumed by the flames, appreciated the joke, and went their way,

As night drew on, the fire was only a half-mile away, and coming toward us. My son and I went to our flat and took the most useful and valuable things we had and tied them up in sheets and strapped them in baskets to take to the Park.

We removed part of them; the rest were deposited on the landing of the stairs. The flames now lit the whole country round, and he who had directed our fire department for so many years with such bravery and skill was crushed to death under the fallen bastions of the California Hotel.

Dynamite was being used liberally, and the deep resounding booms of its explosions came at frequent intervals. It was our only resource to stay the fire.

We had gathered some unfortunates about us who had lost everything, and I still had the house to draw upon as a base of supply, A wheelbarrow was our table, and about it gathered our family, a fat old lady who had owned a lodging-house, her daughter, a parlor-maid at the St. Francis Hotel, an old Hebrew tailor, penniless and forlorn, a medical fakir with long hair; and - I am afraid, one of the genus Tramp! However, he was hungry as the rest, This list I kept for four days, until my own resources were gone and the generous distribution of supplies was well inaugurated.

The third day of the fire I turned away from the weary throngs and climbed an eminence to see where the flames were spreading. They were racing up Nob Hill, the old habitation of California's first millionaires, There stood the palaces of Flood, Hopkins, Stanford, Huntington, and the Crockers, While we gazed roofs began to smoke, long tongues of flame shot up into the murky rolling clouds above, and all those colossal mansions were enveloped in a fire so mighty that they seemed but a sediment at its base.

To-day Nob Hill stands almost as bare as when it was primitive, rolling sand. The walls of the Flood Building, a chimney of the Crocker home, alone remain to tell of the old landmarks,

As we returned to camp, we encountered one of the long lines waiting for their turns to draw rations. A young mother turned away with her well-filled basket, wheeling her baby before her.

"I want to go home, mamma, I want to go home," pleaded the little one, as she passed into the darkening aisles of the Park.

"We haven't any home, dear; lie down and let mamma cover you up," she replied, in the softest and most comforting of voices.

As showing how lightly we slept, and what apprehension from the fire stayed with us in our dreams, in the small hours of that night a horseman dashed about the Park shouting, "The fire is under control," and handclaps and hurrahs came from out the dark copses and lawns, and joy flowed like a wave over the great concourse hidden in the shrubbery.

It rained a little the fourth night, and as the weather continued threatening and we had no tent, we returned to our desolated flat. In the night it poured.

The fallen chimneys had torn through the ceilings into two of our rooms; the flat tin roof had thus been bent down, and now acted as a funnel. We heard an ominous drip, drip, and then a steady splash.

We dared not light a candle - it was against military orders. So we groped along, hand in hand, through the fallen furniture, pictures, and bundles, and found the water beating a merry tattoo on my sewing-machine, velvet carpet, and some overturned books.

We scrambled them out of the way and hurried to the kitchen. Streams were falling on my gas and coal stoves. We placed pans, but they filled faster than we could empty them.

In the darkness we were getting drenched ourselves, so in despair we shut the door and went to bed. On account of our inability to cope with the flood that poured in on us, the three flats below us were very much damaged by water, as they were locked up and their owners away.

The next day we learned that my husband's law library was burned. Did we feel regret? No! We simply did not have time.

We were now drawing rations, and suffering for nothing but bread. I had a gift of twenty loaves from out of town. I went through the Park giving it away. I found a very genteel Spanish woman, a former music-teacher, who had only one blanket for cover, one sheet for a screen against the weather, one utensil for cooking, an iron pot, and very few clothes.

Her long black hair had not been combed since the earthquake, but she had a smile, and insisted on dividing with me the meat she had just cooked, I took her to our flat, and fitted her out with the most primitive accessories.

Would you know what they were! First, comforters and a warm dress, then followed underwear, stockings, dishes, cooking utensils, knives, forks, scissors, needle and thread, a comb, baking powder, fruit jars for milk, and piles of clean old clothes to use for towels, dishcloths, and a thousand and one purposes for the camp.

The bugle-calls in the morning, the pacing sentries and galloping officers, told of our military occupation. Two shots which I heard ended human lives. Both were cases of looting. Men who met that fate were frequently left to lie where they fell, and a sign of "Looter" put over them.

One pertinent feature of this awful experience of earthquake and fire is the entire change of opinion in regard to the automobile. Its most virulent critics now sound its praise. The railroad and street-car service was destroyed at one blow, and we suddenly appreciated that San Francisco was truly a city of magnificent distances. The autos alone remained to conquer space.

They sped the wounded to the hospitals, carried the dead to the morgues, flashed past with doctors and nurses, city officials, and army officers. One chauffeur I knew ran his auto for forty-eight hours without rest, resuming after a brief nap to carry dynamite to blow down threatening walls.

Yesterday we rode in an old vegetable wagon, down through the devastated city, to the Ferry Building. Familiar places could be located only by the few towering steel structures, rising gaunt and bare over heaps of brick and stone, tangled wires, warped metal girders, and remnants of tottering walls. Verily the abomination of desolation, and four square miles of it - the great, pulsing commercial heart of the town in ashes,

Everywhere one sees rows of houses strangely out of plumb, and we saw one two-story dwelling standing at an angle of 60 degrees, steps and brick facings , for the lower stories, suffered particularly.

[St. Boniface Roman] Catholic church on Golden Gate Avenue is nothing more than a picturesque ruin. The seamed and cracked walls and sunken streets held silent testimony of the earthquake's shock.

Across the street from us a chimney ran from the ground through a three-flat structure. The base of that chimney was snatched aside and the rest of it came rattling down into the basement, the flooring of the bottom flat giving way at the same time.

Golden Gate Park has suffered particularly in its public buildings. The art museum is a shattered wreck. The music stand, built of stone, with its high, pillared wings and long tiers of steps, has sunk in the middle, the gigantic cornices lying in heaps at its front and sutures running through all its massive stone-work. It was the gift of Claus Spreckels, and cost $60,000.

At the children's play-house the roof has fallen into the restaurant, the stone walls are shattered, and piles of brick, glass, and stone litter the ground. Strangely enough, the large conservatory, with its glass dome and far-stretching wings has hardly a broken pane, although the road not fifty feet back of it has gaping cracks in it eight or ten inches wide.

In conclusion, let me say that this stupendous disaster leads a thoughtful person to two conclusions: viz., faith in humanity; and the progress of the human race. All artificial restraints of our civilization fell away with the earthquake's shocks, Every man was his brother's keeper. Everyone spoke to everyone else with a smile. The all-prevailing cheerfulness and helpfulness were encouraging signs of our progress in practicing the golden rule, and humanity's struggle upward toward the example of our Savior.

Source: Emma Burke, Overlook Magazine, June 2, 1906.

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