Eyewitness Accounts of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire (1906) was known in the publishing industry as an “instant disaster book”. This genre coalesced partly because there were so many disasters at the turn of the last century: the 1889 Johnstown Flood; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane; the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée; the 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire; the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904; the 1904 burning of the steamboat General Slocum; and finally, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and destroyed 80% of the city. All of these became topics of books that followed a certain pattern. A journalist was hastily dispatched to the scene, he furiously filed copy, the page count was fattened up with previously published odds and ends, and images were cut in, the more the better. Get the book to market before interest flits away.

The author of The San Francisco Calamity was Charles Morris, though he’s actually credited as editor, an elision that allowed publishers a freer rein on the book’s final components. Morris was a professional writer who published a great number of popular histories, as well as pseudonymous dime store novels. It’s not clear when he arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia, nor when he finished his manuscript, but his publisher claimed it was a matter of weeks. If the book wasn’t the first account of the earthquake, it was certainly among the first.

The San Francisco Calamity justifies its length with a comparative survey of many other earthquakes, as well as a history of San Francisco, but the heart of the book is a small section that begins about fifty pages in, when Morris directly quotes his stunned interviewees. Their eyewitness accounts are sharp and disjointed, their experience not yet shorn of its surprise. Nothing has been smoothed or strategically forgotten. They describe a pageant of wretchedness, still unfolding.

The billboard advertising beer that was converted into a public message board, and crowded with death notices. Thieves cutting off fingers and biting off earlobes to seize the jewelry of the dead. Shelters made of fine lace curtains and table cloths. Injuries seeping blood, and thousands of people with nothing to wear aside from their pajamas. Some survivors never stopped shrieking and others went comatose. Some refused to be parted with their piano, or their sewing machine, or their canary, or their lover’s body. Garbage wagons toted corpses. The air was thick with the smell of gas and smoke, and dangling electrical wires shot off blue sparks.

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“The Burning City of San Francisco. Photographed from a boat on San Francisco Bay on Thursday, April 19th, the day after the earthquake, showing the conflagration at its height. The two pillars of smoke stood over the doomed city for two days. The ferryboat in the right foreground is loaded with refugees rushing to Oakland.”

Rich and poor, Chinese and white, were suddenly sleeping and eating side by side, to mutual bewilderment. (Between half and three-quarters of the population were made homeless.) There were shoot-to-kill orders for anyone caught looting, sometimes staged as public executions, and when a herd of cattle stampeded down a central street, passersby were gored and crushed. Water was so scarce that people lay on the ground to lap muddy puddles. As one man told Morris, “We are so drunken and dulled by horror that we take such stories calmly now. We are saturated.”

The backdrop to all of this were interminable percussive blasts of dynamite. As is well known, spontaneous fires began almost immediately following the earthquake. As is less known, authorities used dynamite as a fire-fighting technique. There was no water, and they thought fire would spread less readily across rubble. It wasn’t very effective, and the collateral consequences were tremendous, but no other solution was at hand, so authorities kept at it, blowing up larger and larger patches of the city: first, select buildings, then half a block, then an entire block, and eventually, twenty-two blocks of Van Ness Avenue — a mile and a half of “handsome and costly” Victorian homes that were mostly untouched by the quake. For the better part of ten days, explosions happened every few minutes, day and night, each one ratcheting the panic and exacerbating the unease.

Morris justifies his ambulance-chasing journalism in the preface. Time, he argues, will render everything into “one undecipherable mass of misery”. Getting the details while they’re fresh is important. Details make the historical record accurate, and they also solicit an appropriate measure of public sympathy. Morris’ intentions were probably not as lofty as he claims, but he’s right in the main: there is a colossal difference between knowing that there was a terrible earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, and knowing, say, that a woman gave birth in some scratchy shrubs, with no clothes or food or money or water, her house destroyed, blasts of dynamite sounding in the background.

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