Arnold Genthe / Ap File  /  AP
People on Sacramento street watch smoke rise from fires after a severe earthquake in San Francisco, on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. The quake measured 8.3 on the Richter scale igniting fires that proved far more disastrous.
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updated 4/14/2006 7:54:30 PM ET 2006-04-14T23:54:30

A Sunset writer gives a first-person account of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Plus: Sunset's 1906 emergency edition

April 18 — Evening
In sand lot near foot of Van Ness avenue.

I’m writing by the light of the burning city. The fire is still twenty blocks from my house, but we came out here to spend the night because we have been afraid since the first earthquake shock. Then, the house swayed and creaked and trembled; rose and fell like a ship in a tempest. I couldn’t walk on the floor at all — had to crawl to the door on my hands and knees. Just as I opened the door my big plaster cast of “The Winged Victory” fell from her pedestal and smashed on the floor. She made a big heap of rubbish. I was too terrified to think. I tried to call to the Dixons, but couldn’t articulate. They didn’t hear a sound from me throughout those terrible forty seconds. I thought it was the end — but neither the beautiful dreams nor the horrors that are supposed to panorama instant death came to me.

My heart beat double quick somewhere up in my throat. I felt nauseated. But I managed to save my toppling mirror; saved it while all other breakable objects in my room went smash. I held on to it with one hand and braced myself against the door frame with the other and watched the crystal scent bottles slide off and spill their precious fragrance on the drunken floor; my statuette of Psyche fell from her shelf and broke her head off. But my little Aztec idol Huitzpochitle took his tumble like a valiant god-of-war without a scratch. He rolled about on the floor in an undignified way but her never changed expression.

The final jerk almost upset the bureau on top of me, but after that my house rocked regularly for awhile like a swing when you “let the old cat die.” I felt the ease which followed the cessation of great pain. When I felt quite sure that the floor was firm under my feet again I went out on the balcony. A cloud of dust rose from the city as though a race of giants were shaking their great carpet. Almost all the chimneys were down. Almost instantly columns of smoke began to rise from the other side of town.

We dressed. When we wanted to wash we found there was no water. Next, we hurried down town to see if Maynard Dixon’s studio was all right. On Union street the cable slot looked as if it had been run through a Chinese wash house fluting machine.

We had to walk, there being no cars.

In the Latin Quarter the streets were full of terrified people all crowding to keep in the middle of the street. It was the quietest crowd I was ever in. Scarcely any one spoke. The children didn’t cry. The fear of God was upon us all. Everyone was afraid of another shock.

Maynard’s studio was in chaos. The canvases were uninjured but his Navajo pottery was sadly smashed and mingled on the floor with the rest of his studio litter. A box of matches had been ignited by the shock and extinguished again by a vase of water spilling over it.

From the studio we went down Montgomery street to the Palace hotel. It was uninjured. Things inside seemed quiet and in order. There was no broken glass, no plaster — everything was quiet and in place. A Chinese servant in a white linen blouse was calmly dusting the furniture in the Palm Garden. Men were passing to and fro in the corridor, others were reading the newspapers in the office; the clerks were at the desk. The proud boast that the Palace was earthquake proof had been vindicated.

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From there we went along Market street to Lotta’s fountain. The old buildings east of Sansome street were blazing. We saw the cupola on the roof of the “Fly in the Pudding” restaurant turn into a beautiful “set piece” and other old wood buildings of early days catch fire. People in the street were kept busy dodging the speeding automobiles. Suddenly there was another earthquake shock. The crowds scurried panic-stricken to the middle of the street. There they waited breathless for another disaster. But it never came.

By nine the fire had come up to the Grand Opera House. Third street was a mass of people from south of Market street trying to escape with their household goods. There were women pushing sewing machines in front of them, children carrying phonographs, men dragging trunks. The screeching sound of the trunks dragging on the cable slots went to my marrow. At the corner a fireman stood beside a hydrant from which trailed a string of empty hose. A woman darted out of the crowd and ran up to him.

“What’s the matter, Tom?”

“There’s no water.”

Up to now we had only felt fear, now we knew fear. No water, and fires on every side! The fireman kissed the woman and told her to go back to the folks, assuring her that he was all right. The woman did not cry but her lips trembled. She realized better than we could the terrible import of these words.

We then started for the editorial rooms of Sunset Magazine in the Sunset Press building at the other end of Market street. At every cross street streams of people from south of Market came, staggering under the weight of the burden of their loads. “San Francisco will burn,” said somebody. Dixon thought he ought to try and save something from his studio — he and his wife turned back — I obstinately insisted upon going to Sunset offices — insisted that I wasn’t afraid to proceed alone. So soon as they left me I was sorry and tried to catch them, but there were lost in the confusion. There was much to see. Earthquakes uncover strange secrets. The ruins of our monster seven million dollar City Hall cried to heaven the shame of the men who built it. At Sunset Press the printers were gathered in the street. The front wall of the top story had fallen, revealing the machinery of the engraving plant.

While I waited there feeling like a shipwrecked sailor on a drifting sea one of my fellow editors, Allan Dunn, hove in sight. I hailed him. He threw me a line, as it were, and towed me up to his house on the top of Hyde street hill. Mrs. Dunn was walking up and down in front of the house clad in her best tailor suit, her pretty new opera cloak on her arm. We went inside and burned up all the gas left in the pipes making coffee.

A slight temblor sent us helter-skelter into the street where the crowd going toward the fire caught us up and whirled us along to the top of the hill on Sacramento street. The fire was roaring over an immense territory. We wanted to get into the thick of things and went on down to Union Square. It was full of refugees sitting on their household goods. There were gathered Chinamen, Italians, “muckers” from the south of Market street, Grand Opera singers; painted women who blinked as though they had not seen daylight for months; and fashionable people in evening dress donned hurriedly where they were awakened by the earthquake — a succotash of civilizations — I didn’t see any policemen. There was no need of any — the crowd was perfectly quiet — it was this unearthly, unnatural calm which made me afraid to speak. I saw only one talkative person. She was a beautiful creature of stunning style who walked between two men, her hands in her muff. I believe she was the only woman in all San Francisco that day who acted unconcerned. As the trio sailed past me I heard her say “O, we’ll have a good time as long as our money lasts.”

As we stopped on Stockton street to watch a toppling wall I found myself next to an old colored man. As he spoke I recognized in him the negro exhorter. I had sometimes listened when he was holding forth from his open-air platforms. Now he was exclaiming:

“Haven’t I prophesied all this? Haven’t I told you this wicked town would be consumed with fire and brimstone?” But now I’m sorry I spoke.”

At the Sequoia Club we rescued Mrs. Solly Walter. Later she and I detached ourselves from the Dunns and walked back to my house. The residence streets looked like circus day in a country village. The women were all sitting on chairs in their front yards, secure in the feeling that Van Ness avenue was too wide for fire to cross it. By noon today both sides of the wide boulevard were lined with people and furniture. Sometimes a woman would have saved only one easy chair and was comfortably rocking in it. Again it was a bedroom set that had been snatched from the burning — but always there were phonographs and parrots and dogs and canary birds. Here, as everywhere, the crowd showed no emotion, except when the earth trembled, as it did now and then, slightly. Then everyone would rush for the middle of the street.

This afternoon my old friend Mr. Whitney called for me with a buggy. We made a complete circuit of the fire zone. The people seem to feel that a power too stupendous to combat had taken charge of their destiny, and that the fury of the forces of nature cannot be met by the puny hands of man. We are all learning the lesson of the inevitable.

The open lot near my house is full of people and new comers are constantly arriving. The pillar of fire mounts higher and higher. The heavens south are burning red, while north over Fort Mason smoke hangs low. It frightens me, the smoke, even more than the fire. It is an unreasonable fear I know, and I'm ashamed to tell anyone of it — the fear that the heavens will fall — the sky looks so near. What if we should get caught up in a maelstrom of smoke and only four blocks off unstable earth between us and the bay!

Thursday, April 19
At Fort Mason

Yesterday’s sights and sounds and experiences are forgotten in today’s. We rose when the sun looked up over Union street hill — red as wine through the smoke — and dragged our mattresses back to my house with the fire still many blocks away. While we were eating cold food on the balcony, Xavier Martinez, the artist, came up with some friends to see if there was a way of making coffee. There was not, but I offered an acceptable substitute and threw in the house. They accepted. This was certainly lucky because Maynard and Lillian wanted to go home to Sausalito. They urged me to come along, but I refused. I know now why the people who live at the foot of Vesuvius all stay till it is too late to escape the lava.

The Dixons departed taking with them a few cherished things on a two-wheeled push-cart.

Vail Bakewell, the lawyer, came over from Oakland on a tug to rescue us and take us over to his home in Oakland. We all refused to go. I, for one, must see the closing act of this monster tragedy, a whole city for a stage, 500,000 actors and everyone playing his part. We were joined by Porter Gardnett, he critic, but soon he left us to save his mother from danger.

At four this afternoon a big cloud of smoke came over us — cinders as big as dollars began to fall and a shower of plaster dust. This frightened us. I packed three trunks and the boys carried them into the neighbor’s garden. I wrapped a wet blanket around the band-box containing my new spring hat and hid it in a rose bush. We bought a four-wheeled cart from a small boy, made two two-wheeled carts out of it by using the pantry shelves for the body, loaded up one with food and the other with clothes and started out for my friends’, the Towarts’, sand lots on the other side of the Presidio. Van Ness avenue was full of people and movings — so full it spilled out into every vacant lot and side street. Going was difficult. Our cart broke down. I experienced the most terrible and senseless fear that this great mass of people, animals and things would stampede. After a council we decided to stop here in Fort Mason for the night.

We are in the middle of an immense field — there must be thousands camping here — people of all nations thrown together higglety-pigglety. Our nearest neighbor is an Italian vegetable peddler and he has brought his entire family and household effects. When they went for the second load they left the baby here wailing an obligato to the accompaniment of a German fellow with a fiddle. Behind us sit a newly wed couple beside their trunk. The little bride is quietly weeping while her inexperienced spouse shows plainly that this is too much for one day. In the camps of the Latin races the men are doing all the talking, while among us English speaking people only the women can be heard. On the top of the hill stood a bearded Italian waving a large chromo of St. Francis at the ever approaching fire, while he called upon the patron saint to save his city.

11 p.m. — Vail Bakewell and Rob Towart have just returned from an adventure. They went over to see if the Towarts’ house had burned. It is still standing but it is only a question of a few hours. Fire is coming up all sides of Russian Hill. I started out with Vail on an exploring expedition. The first startling sight was a rose garden, with hundreds of huge roses glowing red in the light of the flames. We had the luck to get inside the fire lines. It was a thrilling experience while it lasted, until we were peremptorily ordered out by the Colonel in command of the troops. We went so close to the fire that I felt my hair curl. We saw some people loot a grocery and bar — the proprietor inviting everyone to help themselves. We went inside. There were no lights, only that ghastly light coming in the windows of the fire across the street. It made me sick.

Outside a puppy sat whining. I took it up in my arms and it was trembling. There were many dogs and cats that had been forgotten or abandoned by their masters. Some we saw ran away from us, back into the burning houses. A cry was raised that we were surrounded by fire, but there was an avenue of escape down the north side where the hill makes a sheer drop of 50 feet. My nerves still tingle with the excitement of this. Everything has been on such a big scale today! Has Fate thus set a measure while will make all other experiences which are to come to me seem puny?

Still later a span of horses broke their tethering straps and came charging into our camp. We scared them away with umbrellas, which we are using for tents. This so upset the tranquility of our crowd that Vail and I volunteered to go back to my house to fetch some restoratives. We went by way of Van Ness avenue. Everything has burned from there to the ferry up to Vallejo street. It was the most wonderful sight! Many miles — a limitless space of blue flames with the last red glow of big timbers between — of dancing, palpitating, living light.

The great dwelling houses on the west side of Van Ness avenue were ablaze. Soldiers were dynamiting them. It was like the booming of artillery fire.

On our way back we saw two men sitting on the front steps of a big house. They asked us in to see how their home had been wrecked by the earthquake, as well as by the fire across the street and the dynamite. We groped around inside, by the fire light. Vail Bakewell tried to play on the pipe organ — but where was no sound. In the street a man came running up to us and presented me with a box of face powder — said he had no use for it and it might come handy!

Friday, April 20
Fort Mason

6 a.m. An army surgeon made an inspection of the camp this morning and found a sick child next to us, which he diagnosed as suffering from small-pox. Even this announcement did not create a panic. It seemed all in the day’s doings.

1 p.m. We are at the little dock below the Fort waiting for a navy cutter to take us around to the Oakland ferry.

The fire is within two blocks of my house — everyone in my block had been told to leave. Our house has been ordered dynamited. The apathy of the last two days has given way. The firemen are frantic. If they don’t stop the fire now a whole Western Addition will go — a policeman with a red face is running up and down in front of the house. A dead Italian lies in the middle of the street opposite my house. Members of his family sit around his body in a circle. I got so scared I couldn’t swallow a glass of water. The heat on the balcony was intense — too hot to stay out there. The paint on the woodwork was blistering. Everyone was fire mad. My home will surely go.

Sunset's 1906 Emergency Edition

Unable to print a full magazine after the fire, Sunset editors and publishers published a special 8-page message. Download a reprint here.

In a greeting from the publishers, the magazine wrote:

"To all Sunset's Friends, Patrons, and Subscribers, -- Greeting: This is to announce that by reason of the recent destruction by fire of the Sunset Magazine offices on April 18th, this Emergency Edition will be the only issue of the magazine for the month of May.

... At the time of the fire the May issue was on the presses. Everything was destroyed except the mailing list, a few manuscripts and contract records. The priceless stock of drawing, photographs and engravings was burned ...

"In this one day the accumulation and accomplishment of years were swept away. The fire spread over only about one-sixth of San Francisco's total area, but destroyed all the central business portion of the city and a large residence district. Business blocks, factories, palatial homes, modern hotels, apartment and lodging houses disappeared.

"In this one day all class distinctions were leveled. And then here the great Lesson of Love was taught, and the best that is in Humankind rose above all pride of place and possessions. That was the flower that blossomed amid the city's ruins, and for it Glory be. The men and the women and the children forgot all personal loss, forgot their own sorrow in giving joy and comfort, coffee and buns and blankets, smiles and sturdy words of brave sympathy and of glad promise..."

For a reprint of the complete booklet, click here.

Note: You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader software installed on your computer to access this file. If you don't already have Acrobat Reader, you may click here to download it for free.

Sunset Magazine is your indispensable guide to living in the West, full of fresh ideas in travel, garden, home design, food, and wine. Try 2 issues of Sunset RISK FREE.

© Copyright 2012 The Sunset Publishing Corporation

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