1906 San Francisco earthquake: Rare pictures & first reports made while the fires were still burning the city

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See the first pictures & news reports after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire

It is incredible that with so much chaos and destruction around them, and from within a fire zone in the hours just after the 7.8 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the dedicated reporters and press people of San Francisco’s three major newspapers banded together and produced this short, special edition newspaper the very next morning.

Earthquake and fire: San Francisco in ruins

Death and destruction have been the fate of San Francisco. Shaken by a temblor at 5:13 o’clock yesterday morning, the shock lasting 48 seconds, and scourged by flames that raged diametrically in all directions, the city is a mass of smoldering ruins.

At six o’clock last evening, the flames seemingly playing with increased vigor, threatened to destroy such sections as their fury had spared during the earlier portion of the day.

Building their path in a triangular circuit from the start in the early morning, they jockeyed as the day waned, left the business section, which they had entirely devastated, and skipped in a dozen directions to the residence portions.

As night fell, they had made their way over into the North Beach section and springing anew to the south, they reached out along the shipping section down the bay shore, over the hills and across toward Third and Townsend streets.

Spectators sitting on hillside watching fires consume the city after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Scenes from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Warehouses, wholesale houses and manufacturing concerns fell in their path. This completed the destruction of the entire district known as the “South of Market Street.” How far they are reaching to the south across the channel cannot be told as this part of the city is shut off from San Francisco papers.

After darkness, thousands of the homeless were making their way with their blankets and scant provisions to Golden Gate Park and the beach to find shelter.

Those in the homes on the hills just north of the Hayes Valley wrecked section piled their belongings in the streets and express wagons and automobiles were hauling the things away to the sparsely settled sections. Everybody in San Francisco is prepared to leave the city, for the belief is firm that San Francisco will be totally destroyed.

Downtown everything is ruin. Not a business house stands. Theaters are crumbled into heaps. Factories and commission houses lie smoldering on their former sites.

All of the newspaper plants have been rendered useless, the “Call” and the “Examiner” buildings, excluding the “Call’s” editorial rooms on Stevenson Street, being entirely destroyed.

It is estimated that the loss in San Francisco will reach from $150,000,000 to $200,000,000. These figures are in the rough and nothing can be told until partial accounting is taken.

On every side there was death and suffering yesterday. Hundreds were injured, either burned, crushed or struck by falling pieces from the buildings, and one died while on the operating table at Mechanics’ Pavilion, improvised as a hospital for the comfort and care of 300 of the injured.

The number of dead is not known, but it is estimated that at least 500 met their death in the horror.

At nine o’clock, under a special message from President Roosevelt, the city was placed under martial law. Hundreds of troops patrolled the streets and drove the crowds back, while hundreds more were set at work assisting the fire and police departments. The strictest orders were issued, and in true military spirit, the soldiers obeyed.

During the afternoon, three thieves met their death by rifle bullets while at work in the ruins. The curious were driven back at the breasts of the horses that the cavalrymen rode and all the crowds were forced from the level district to the hilly section beyond to the north.

The water supply was entirely cut off, and may be it was just as well, for the lines of fire department would have been absolutely useless at any stage.

Assistant Chief Dougherty supervised the work of his men and early in the morning it was seen that the only possible chance to save the city lay in effort to check the flames by use of dynamite. During the day, a blast could be heard in any section at intervals of only a few minutes, and buildings not destroyed by fire were blown to atoms.

But through the gaps made the flames jumped and although the failures of the heroic efforts of the police firemen and soldiers were at times sickening, the work was continued with a desperation that will live as one of the features of the terrible disaster. Men worked like fiends to combat the laughing, roaring, onrushing fire demon.

First chaotic news reports from the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (2)

No hope left for safety of any buildings

San Francisco seems doomed to entire destruction. With a lapse in the raging of the flames just before dark, the hope was raised that with the use of the tons of dynamite the course of the fire might be checked and confined to the triangular sections it had cut out for its path.

But on the Barbary Coast, the fire broke out anew and as night closed in, the flames were eating their way into parts untouched in their ravages during the day. To the south and the north they spread; down to the docks and out into the resident section, in and to the north of Hayes Valley. By six o’clock, practically all of St. Ignatius’ great buildings were no more. They had been leveled to the fiery heap that marked what was once the metropolis of the West.

The first of the big structures to go to ruin was the Call Building, the famous skyscraper. At eleven o’clock, the big 18-story building was a furnace. Flames leaped from every window and shot skyward from the circular windows in the dome. In less than two hours, nothing remained but the tall skeleton.

By five o’clock, the Palace Hotel was in ruins. The old hostelry, famous the world over, withstood the seige until the last and although dynamite was used in frequent blasts to drive the fire away from the swept section toward Mission street, they made their way to the point of the hotel until the old place began to crumble away in the blaze.

The City Hall is a complete wreck. The entire part of the building, from Larkin street down City Hall avenue to Leavenworth, down from top of dome to the steps is ruined. The colossal pillars — supporting the arches at the entrance — fell into the avenue far out across the car tracks and the thousands of tons of bricks and debris that followed them piled into a mountainous heap.

The west wing sagged and crumbled, caving into a shapeless mass. At the last every vestige of stone was swept sway by the shock and the building laid bare nearly to its McAllister street side. Only a shell remained to the north, and the huge steel frame stood gaping until the fire that swept from the Hayes Valley set the debris ablaze and hid the structure in a cloud of smoke. Every document of the City government is destroyed.

Nothing remains but a ghastly past of the once beautiful structure. It will be necessary to entirely rebuild the Hall.

Mechanics’ Pavilion, covering an entire block, went before the flames in a quarter of an hour. The big wooden structure burned like tinder and in less time than it takes to write it was flat upon, the ground.

The flames had come from the west, this time fanned by a lively wind. Down from Hayes Valley they swooped, destroying residences in entire rows, sending to cinders the business houses and leaping the gaps caused by the dynamiting of homes.

Fire partially under control - 3rd day. RG 46, Records of the United States Senate, National Archives

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

They had stolen their way out from the Mission while a dense crowd blocked that street. So quickly did they make their way to the north of Market that their approach was not noticed. When it was realized that the danger had come to this particular residence section, the police and the cavalry drove the crowd back in haste to the north and out of harm’s way.

Down Hayes street, playing the cross streets coming on like a demon, the fire swept over St. Ignacious Church, leveled barns and houses, and, as if accomplishing a purpose long desired, blazed down to the front of Mechanics’ Pavilion. Only shortly before the patients in this crude hospital had been removed to other hospitals in outlying districts.

From the big shed the names spread to the north, east, south and west, everywhere. Confusion reigned. Women fainted and men fought their way into the adjoining apartment houses to rescue something from destruction — anything, if only enough to cover their wives and their babies when the cold of the night came on. There was a scene that made big, brave men cry.

There were the weeping tots in their mothers’ arms wailing with fear of the awful calamity; salesmen and soldiers fighting to get the women out of harm’s way through the crowd; heroic dashes in the ambulances and the patrol wagons after the sick and injured and willing men, powerless as the mouse in the clutch of the lion, ready to fight the destroyer, but driven back step by step while their homes went down before them.

It was when the terrible shock of the first big rumbler was passing off, that San Franciscans, sent scurrying into the streets in their nightclothes, turned to the east and south and first saw the pillars of flame that have bred such wicked destruction.

Down in the wholesale district south of the cable and along through the section facing the city’s front, the flames appeared. Fire shot into the air from every corner. Before the first alarm was sent in, the fire was beyond control. The city was beyond saving from the time that the first blaze broke toward the heavens.

Gradually the flames stole along Mission and Howard streets, and then rapidly they made their way from building to building until Seventh street was reached.

Out into the warehouse district, bounded by Sansome on the west and the bay on the north and east, they went, and such structures as the Wellman Peck Building and the Tillman Bendel building were made into whitened wills, left tottering in the breeze that was blowing.

Everywhere were scenes of horror. People rushed frantically through the streets looking for missing relatives, and rescue parties were formed to go into the burning blocks to save life.

Here and there, the grim-faced men dug out the unfortunates who had gone down into the shapeless piles of debris when the big shock came. Man fought to save man, and many times did the sickened crowds turn away as they saw the rescuers driven back by the flames that reached down through the ruins to claim their victims.

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Aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (2)

The business districts after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake & fire

Steadily the fire found its way into the uptown retail districts. From the south and east, the south side of Market was attacked. One by one the familiar buildings went down. Levi Strauss and Company, Zellerbach and Company, Holbrook, Merrill and Stetson, Hicks-Judd Company, D. N. and E. Walters, W. W. Montague the Donohoe estate building, Uhl Brothers, the Bancroft Building — all the places that have made the San Francisco business district.

Every one of them went. They can’t be enumerated. The work of the fire demon was too complete to make that necessary. From Mission to Market and east to Ninth, the many-storied structures were gutted. True, many of these places had crumbled when the earth shook, but evidence of this was removed in the path of the flames.

From Second to Third streets, Market street held its own until late in the afternoon. The Call Building was ablaze, but the Examiner Building, the Palace Hotel, the Grand, and the other structures toward Second street stood. Two attempts were made to dynamite the new Monadnock Building when it was seen that the Hearst structure was doomed.

And slowly came the blaze from Mission street just below Third, sweeping everything before it and igniting the Examiner Annex.

Then the main building took fire, and by two o’clock only the Third street wall was standing. Later the Palace took fire in the rear and the flames made quick progress to Market street. By five o’clock, Colonel Kirkpatrick’s famous hotel was no more.

The Grand went at the same time, and in a few minutes, the flames had Market street again. At Sansome, they combined, with the fire on the north side of the street, but the changeable winds kept the fire back from the buildings extending from this point to Kearney street.

At seven o’clock, the entire region lying just back of the Hall of Justice was on fire. The dynamite did no good. From the Fairmont Hotel now could be seen the gigantic semicircle of flame extending from the Mission at about Thirteenth street down through the entire southern end of the city proper, along the channel, over the hill, along the waterfront, through the wholesale district and over onto Barbary Coast.

At nine o’clock, the Crocker-Woolworth Bank Building was on fire at the gore. Across from it is the railroad building and Masonic Temple. Only a row of small buildings separate it from the Chronicle Building.

Then the firefighters prepared for the thing they hoped would not happen. It was certain that the fire would spread northward and join the inferno near the Hall of Justice. Dynamite was placed in the Hall of Justice to be sent into the air at the signal.

The flames on lower Kearny street had gained the office buildings on the west side of the street. This means the doom of Chinatown. Thousands on thousands of Celestials scurried over Nob Hill to safety.

Fire engine and sailors in front of Harbor Emergency Hospital following San Francisco earthquake

Blow buildings up to check flames

The dynamiting of buildings in the track of the fire, to stay the progress of the flames, was in charge of John Bermingham, Jr., a superintendent of the California Powder Works.

Several experienced men from the powder works, assisted by policemen and members of the fire department, did the hazardous work of blowing up the buildings. They were razed in sets of threes, but the open spaces where the shattered buildings fell were quickly turned into holocausts of flame. The work was most effective in the business blocks east of Kearny street.

Whole city is ablaze

At 10 o’clock last night, the Occidental Hotel, was destroyed by the flames which swept unchecked across Montgomery street and attacked the block bounded by Montgomery, Sutter, Bush and Kearny. Ths new Merchants’ Exchange bidding was a mass of flames from basement to tower.

The Union Trust building and Crocker-Woolworth Bank were both ablaze and the Chronicle building and other buildings in that block were threatened by the flames.

Shortly after 10 o’clock, the fire had eaten its way southward from Portsmouth Square to Kearny and California streets. The entire section fronting on the west side of Kearny street seemed doomed.

All the buildings adjoining the Hall of Justice were ablaze and the firemen were striving to save the structure by using dynamite. It is almost a certainty that every building contained in the section bounded by Clay, Kearny, Market and East streets will be consumed.

The flames had eaten their way westward in the residence section as far as Gough street. There, by dynamiting blocks after blocks, the firemen succeeded in choking this devouring element.

Church of Saint Ignatius is destroyed

The magnificent church and College of St. Ignatius, on the northwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Hayes street, represents in its destruction a material loss of over $1,000,000.

The actual cost of the great building was over $900,000, but during the years which have elapsed since its erection, the church has been enriched by paintings and frescoes, which were priceless. Some of them were works of art which can never be replaced, however willing those interested in the church might be to meet any expense in the effort.

1906 earthquake - people standing on Sacramento Street watching the fire in the distance

Mayor confers with military and citizens

At 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon, 50 representative citizens of San Francisco met the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the United States Military authorities in the police office in the basement of the Hall of Justice.

They had been summoned thither by May or Schmitz early in the forenoon, the fearful possibilities of the situation having forced themselves upon him immediately after the shock of earthquake in the morning, and the news which at once reached him of the completeness of the disaster. He lost no time in making out a list of citizens from whom to seek advice and assistance, and in summoning them, to the conference.

It was called at the Hall of Justice, as virtually the first news which reached the Mayor regarding the extent of the disaster was that of the ruin of the City Hall. He did not realize that even while the conference was to be going on, cornices would be crashing down and windows falling in fragments in the Hall of Justice also; and that before sunset, desperate efforts would be made to blow the structure up in the vain endeavor by this means to check the advance of the flames in the northern section of the downtown district.

All, or nearly all the citizens summoned to the conference responded.

Among those promptly on hand were Hartley and Herbert Law, capitalists, the brothers Magee of Thomas Magee & Sons, real estate men; J. Downey Harvey, of the Ocean Shore Railway Company; ex-Mayor James D. Phelan, Garrett McEnerney, the prominent attorney; ex-Judge C. W. Slack, W. H. Leary, manager of the Tivoli Opera House; J. T. Howell, of Baldwin & Howell, real estate men; former City Attorney Franklin K. Lane, also many others.

Aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (1)

No time was lost at the meeting, and almost the first words spoken by the Mayor breathed strongly of the grimness of the disaster and its accompaniments.

“Let it be given out,” said the Mayor, sternly, “that three men have already been shot down without mercy for looting. Let it be also understood that the order has been given to all soldiers and policemen to do likewise without hesitation in the cases of any and all miscreants who may seek to take advantage of the city’s awful misfortune. I will ask the Chief of Police and the representatives of the Federal military authorities here present if I do not echo their sentiments in this.

The uniformed officials to whom the Mayor turned as he spoke signified their acquiescence, and Chief Dirran stated also he would undertake the distribution throughout the cry of printed proclamations making public the order.

Then the Mayor told those present of what had already been done to lighten the effects of the disaster. For one thing, he had secured 2400 tents which were already in process of erection in Jefferson Square, Golden Gate Park and on the Presidio grounds, for the accommodation of the homeless.

Garrett McEnerney moved, and the large number of other prominent citizens present unanimously voted, that the Mayor be authorized to draw checks for any amount for the relief of the suffering, all of the gentlemen present pledging themselves to make such checks good. Ex-Mayor Phelan was appointed chairman of a Relief Finance Committee with full authority to select his associates.

The Mayor announced that orders had already been given forbidding the burning of either gas or electric currents, even where possible. During the fire, citizens must get along with other light, as no chances could be taken of a renewed outbreak of flames. Police Chief Dinan stated that he had also instructed his men to announce all over the city that no fires were to be lighted in stoves or grates anywhere lest the chimneys should be defective as the result of the earthquake.

Then the statement was made that expressmen were charging $30 a load to haul goods — a rate which was prohibitive to poor people. The announcement provoked great indignation, and an immediate order from Mayor Schmitz, in which Dinan heartily concurred.

“Tell your men,” said the Mayor, “to seize the wagons of all such would-be extortionists, and make use of them for the public good. The question of recompense will be seen to later.”

Then a further notice was ordered distributed as widely as possible throughout the city, instructing all householders to remain at home at night for the protection of their families and property during the continuance of the trouble and excitement.

It was at this point that the explosion of a heavy charge of dynamite used in blowing up a building a block away brought glass and cornice work in the Hall of Justice crashing down. At once, W. H. Leary and J. Downey Harvey urged that the Mayor at least immediately remove from the building. “Your life is too valuable, Mayor,” said Mr. Harvey, “at this dreadful juncture for any unnecessary risk to be taken.”

To this all present conceded, and a few moments later an adjournment was taken to the center of Portsmouth Square, across Kearney street. There, in close and dangerous proximity to a great pile of dynamite, brought thither to be used for the necessary destruction of buildings, the Mayor and his officials continued for some time longer to discuss the situation. When they finally separated, it was with the agreement to meet again this morning at the Fairmont.


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