The New York Sun on the San Francisco Earthquake

The New York Sun

April 19, 1906


The San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906 was followed by a fire lasting four days and destroying 497 city blocks covering five square miles. 28,188 buildings were demolished, causing approximately a billion dollars in damage and costing 500 lives. Just three years later, 20,000 new fireproof buildings had been erected.

 


 

 

The greatest earthquake disaster in the history of the United States visited San Francisco early yesterday morning. A great part of the business and tenement district was shaken down, and this was followed by a fire which is still burning and which has covered most of the affected area...

...Happening at 5 o'clock in the morning, the earthquake caused practically no loss of life among the business houses, but the tenement houses, especially the cheap lodging houses, suffered severely in this respect. Directly afterward a fire started in seven or eight places, helped out by broken gas mains. The water system failed, and all through the morning the fire was fought with dynamite...

. . . . Almost all the greater buildings of San Francisco are lost. These include the City Hall, the new Post Office, the "Call" Building, twenty stories high; the Parrott Building, housing the largest department store in the West; the "Chronicle" and "Examiner buildings, Stanford University at Palo Alto, the Grand Opera House and St. Ignatius's Church.

Oakland, Cal., April 18. -- The great shock which did the damage happened at 5:15 o'clock this morning, just about daybreak. Beginning with a slight tremor, it increased in violence every moment. Before it was over, the smaller and older buildings in the business districts had fallen like houses of cards, the great steel buildings were mainly skinned of walls, and the tenement district, south of Market, was in ruins...

Hardly were the people of the hill district out of their houses when the dawn of the east was lit up in a dozen places by fires which had started in the business district below. The first of these came with a sheet of flame which burst out somewhere in the warehouse district near the waterfront. Men from all over the upper part of town streamed down the hills to help. No cars could run, for the cable car slots and the very tracks were bent and tossed with the upheavals of the ground.

The fire department responded... The firemen, making for the nearest points, got their hose out. There was one rush of water; then the flow stopped. The great water main, which carries the chief water supply of San Francisco, ran through the ruined district. It had been broken and the useless water was spurting up through the ruins in scores of places.

The firemen stood helpless, while fire after fire started in the ruined houses. Most of these seem to have been caused by the ignition of gas from the gas mains, which were also broken. The fires would rush up with astonishing suddenness, and then smoulder in the slowly burning redwood, of which three-quarters of San Francisco is built. When day came the smoke hung over all the business part of the city. Farther out fires were going in the Hayes Valley, a middle class residence district, and in the old Mission part of the city. Dynamite was the only thing...

...Chief of Police Dinan got out the whole police force, and General Funston, acting on his own initiative, ordered out all the available troops in the Presidio military reservation. After a short conference the town was placed under martial law, a guard was thrown about the fire, and all the dynamite in the city was commandeered.

The day broke beautifully clear. The wind, which usually blows steadily from the west at this time of year, took a sudden veer and came steadily from the east, sending the fire, which lay in the wholesale district along the waterfront, toward the heart of the city, where stood the modern steel structure buildings, mainly stripped of their cement shells....

Meantime there had been a second and lighter shock at 8 o'clock which had shaken down some walls already tottering and taken the heart out of many of the people who had hoped that the one shock would end it...

There was an overpowering smell of gas everywhere from the broken mains. Now and again these would catch fire, making a great spurt of fire, which would catch in the debris. The first concern of the firemen was to stop these leakages. They piled on them bags of sand, dirt clods, even bales of cloth torn from the wreckage of burning stores. In the middle of the morning, however, there came a report from the south louder and duller than the reports of the dynamite explosions. There followed a burst of flame against the dull smoke. The gas works had blown up and the tanks were burning. After that the gas leaks stopped...

It seemed to be two or three minutes after the great shock was over before people found their voices. There followed the screaming of women, beside themselves with terror, and the cries of men. With one impulse people made for the parks, as far as possible from the falling walls. These speedily became packed with people in their nightclothes, who screamed and moaned at the little shocks which followed every few minutes. The dawn was just breaking. The gas and electric mains were gone and the street lamps were all out. But before the dawn was white there came a light from the east -- the burning warehouse district...

On Portsmouth Square the panic was beyond description. This, the old Plaza about which the early city was built, is bordered now by Chinatown, by the Italian district, and by the "Barbary Coast," a lower tenderloin. A spur of the quake ran up the hill upon which Chinatown is situated and shook down part of the crazy little buildings on the southern edge... The rush to Portsmouth Square went on almost unchecked by the police, who were more in demand elsewhere.

The denizens came out of their underground burrows like rats and tumbled into the square, beating such gongs and playing such noise instruments as they had snatched up... They were met on the other side by the refugees of the Italian quarter. The panic became a madness. At least two Chinamen were taken to the morgue dead of knife wounds, given for no other reason, it seems, than the madness of panic. There are 10,000 Chinese in the quarter and there are thousands of Italians, Spaniards and Mexicans on the other side. It seemed as though every one of these, with the riffraff of "Barbary Coast," made for that one block of open land. The two uncontrolled streams met in the center of the square and piled up on the edges. There they fought all the morning, until the Regulars restored order with their bayonets...




 

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