“The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, and billowing as they came.”
That was how San Francisco Police Sergeant Jesse Cook described the opening moments of the great San Francisco earthquake which took place on today’s date, April 18, in 1906. The earthquake, which came from the infamous 600 mile-long San Andreas Fault registered 8.3 on the Richter scale, and lasted about seventy-five seconds in two separate jolts. Thousands of cheaply made buildings on landfill areas of the city were wrecked, and as huge fissures opened and closed, most of the city’s gas and water mains ruptured. The fires which broke out after the quake burned for three days.
Chief Sullivan Might Have Saved the Day…
The death and destruction are all the more horrendous when considered in light of the fact that the bulk of it might have been avoided. Chief Dennis T. Sullivan (pictured, below)
of the San Francisco Fire Department had worked hard for years on an elaborate plan to fight the huge blaze which he feared would one day strike the city. His plan included a system of fire-breaks and the reactivation of old cisterns for emergency use. Funding his plan brought the Chief into combat with corrupt politicians. But he courageously persisted. Tragically for the city, Chief Sullivan’s plan would never go into effect. After a social gathering on the night of the 17’th followed by a call to two fire scenes, Chief and Mrs. Sullivan elected to spend the night at the fire station on Bush St. rather than make the long drive home. They retired to separate rooms on the third floor at 3:00 a.m. When the quake struck just after 5:00 a.m., Chief Sullivan awakened to masonry crashing all around him. He ran to the jammed door of his wife’s room. Forcing it open, he fell three stories through a huge hole in the floor caused by the quake. He sustained multiple fractures, and was in a coma. He died several hours later. The city’s magnificent City hall was ruined. Luxurious Hotels crashed to the street. Sam Wolfe, a guest of the Grand Hotel, ran for his life as the building disintegrated with the quakes arrival. He found the street to be equally dangerous:
“The street seemed to move like waves of water. On my way down Market Street the whole side of a building fell out and came so near me that I was covered and blinded by the dust. Then I saw the first dead come by. They were piled up in an automobile like carcasses in a butcher’s wagon, all over blood, with crushed skulls, and broken limbs, and bloody faces. A man cried out to me, “Look out for that live wire!” I had just time to sidestep certain death.”
“The Great Caruso” Is Caught in the Quake
Rich and poor, famous and obscure alike were thrown into chaos. The great operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso (pictured, below)
who the night before had performed in a production of Bizet’s Opera “Carmen”, was driven from his hotel into the street where he sat atop a wagon clutching an autographed picture of Theodore Roosevelt, and guarding his belongings with a pistol. A young actor named John Barrymore, (below) then unknown, had finished a performance of a play he hated, and afterward he
dressed in his tuxedo to go spend his night drinking. By the time the quake hit he was wondering the streets fully inebriated, secure in the belief that the chaos would lead his troupe to assume he was a victim of the quake and leave without him, thus getting him out of his contract. He stayed loaded for two days, and the troupe did indeed leave without him. Millionaire C.C. Kendallof Omaha, was driven from his room at the Palace Hotel and sought like almost everyone, to escape the city. He headed for the ferry and found himself part of a desperate crowd:
“It (was) only a few blocks from the Palace…to the ferry, but it took me from 6:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. to cover the space…. Men and women fought about the entrance to the ferry like a band of infuriated animals. I made my escape — I do not know how, for I was as desperate as any of them. As the boat pulled over the bay, the smoke and flame rose sky high, and the roar of falling buildings and cries of the people rent the air.”
Italian Wine, Fixed Bayonets, and General Funston.
The 585 man fire department, minus the leadership of it’s dead chief, found it’s efforts frustrated because water mains were smashed throughout the city. The Italian community around Telegraph Hill turned to using over 1,000 gallons of wine from their cellars to hold back the flames. Upon hearing reports of widespread looting, Brigadier General Fredrick Funston (below)
took the liberty of declaring martial law and called out troops from the Presidio Army base, ordering them into the streets with bayonets fixed. Funston had not consulted any civil authority, but the city’s corrupt mayor, Eugene E. Schmitz, pretended that he had given his consent. As the city whose treasury he had so happily looted went up in flames, Schmitz gave his full approval to the wholesale execution of looters and mere suspected looters that was being conducted by Funston’s troops and vigilante groups as well. The efforts of the troops to use explosives to stop the flames proved ineffective, and thousands of refuges were driven by the second day to take refuge in Golden Gate Park, and the Presidio. The troops took axes and broke open warehouses of food in order to feed them. The exodus continued into the third day with more than 75,000 making it across the bay to Oakland, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Many more moved into the hills just outside the city limits. The fire was finally stopped on the broad expanse of Van Ness Avenue where squads using dynamite at last created several successful backfires. But by that time the flames had consumed 520 city blocks, and over 28,000 buildings. Damages totaled over five hundred million dollars. Of the buildings destroyed, half were homes. More than 700 people were killed.
And Enrico Caruso never returned to San Francisco again.
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“Darkest Hours : A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times” by Jay Robert Nash, Nelson-Hall Publ.,
Chicago, 1976. pp. 490 – 507.
“Disaster!: The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fire of 1906“by Dan Kurzman, Harper Collins Publ., New York, 2001