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East Bay Aftershocks | BY Mike Rosen-Molina

By train and by boat, thousands of earthquake refugees descended upon Oakland and Berkeley in 1906. They came for food and shelter, but many found a new life.

One of this country’s worst urban disasters nearly toppled one city but was the building block for another.
The 1906 earthquake, a century later, is still remembered with fear and awe. It sparked a three-day firestorm that engulfed the city, killing at least 3,000 people and leaving another 225,000 homeless. The destruction has become the stuff of legend. In the end, however, San Francisco’s misfortune proved to be the East Bay’s windfall.

" Back then, Berkeley was just solidifying from the [days of the] Wild West and the Gold Rush," says Richard Schwartz, a Berkeley contractor and author of Earthquake Exodus, 1906 (RSB Books, 2005). "It was a small town changing into a big city, and the earthquake was a huge part of why that change happened."

An amateur historian who often runs across artifacts from Berkeley’s past while he’s inspecting construction projects, Schwartz’s passion for preservation led him to research an area of history often overlooked: the quake’s aftermath.

In the days that followed, some 215,000 San Franciscans fled the ravaged city, looking for shelter wherever they could. East Bay cities like Oakland and Berkeley were the nearest refuge and they responded immediately. Residents welcomed the bedraggled survivors into their churches, their schools, and their homes until most buildings were filled. Then tent camps were built to house the overflow. Local businesses donated warm clothes and blankets, volunteers cooked meals and distributed food, and utility companies equipped the camps with plumbing and electricity, an extraordinary undertaking in a time when most of the country was still living without those conveniences. Some refugees had family or friends in the East Bay, but most San Franciscans who came here for help were strangers to their hosts.
" What’s extraordinary is that the comforts that people were giving the refugees weren’t just the bare minimum; it was what you would give to your friends and neighbors," says Schwartz. "It was the generosity of the East Bay that saved so many people’s lives after the quake."

Although the relief effort lasted only about ten weeks, it had a profound impact on the region. Touched by the warm welcome they received, many refugees stayed, becoming permanent East Bay residents. As San Francisco smoldered, a sudden real estate boom flourished in Berkeley. The city issued 1,283 building permits in 1906, nearly twice as many as the year before. At the same time, San Francisco businesses, wary of returning to the unstable grounds of the city, turned east. In the four months following the earthquake, 37 new factories sprang up in Berkeley.

The quake itself was a short affair. In the early dawn of April 18, 1906 a few short minutes of rumbling were enough to leave San Francisco in ruins. Measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, the shocks were so violent that they were felt from Oregon to Los Angeles and as far inland as central Nevada. They shook San Francisco’s foundations and burst her water mains, leaving the city, largely made of wood, vulnerable to the fires started by open fireplaces and kerosene lamps.

In contrast to the small towns to the east, San Francisco was a densely packed labyrinth of rickety wooden skyscrapers. Fires tore rapidly through the city, destroying 500 blocks from Van Ness Avenue down to the city’s docks. Without water, desperate firemen took to dynamiting buildings in the northern residential sections of the city, hoping that the fires would die out when there wasn’t anything left to consume. Bodies lay among the wreckage in the street while survivors threw what possessions they could into trunks and fled. Dogs, abandoned in the panic, wandered the clogged streets howling miserably.

Compared to the fires ravishing San Francisco, the East Bay emerged relatively unscathed. Startled out of sleep, downtown Berkeley variety store owner Obe Decker ran from his bedroom, and tumbled down the stairs, spraining his right leg. The city was hit by an epidemic of falling chimneys: Five thousand toppled over in Berkeley alone, including, ironically, that of U.C. Professor Andrew C. Lawson, the man who had identified and named the earthquake’s source–the San Andreas Fault–in 1895.

Professor Andrew Lawson and over 20 other scientists contributed to the report, investigating what causes earthquakes, mapping the movement of the San Andreas fault, and recording the quake’s reverberations around the world (see page 9 for an article about Lawson’s Maybeck-designed home).
In another part of town, architect George Ploughman’s house shook so violently that his family couldn’t hear the bricks falling from their chimney and hitting the roof.

In Oakland, four actors sleeping next door to the Empire Theatre on Broadway were killed when a theater wall collapsed on them. By mid-morning, East Bay residents were assembling in the streets to discuss the damage, comparing stories, joking about their collapsed chimneys, and gazing–with a growing mixture of curiosity and dread–at the thick columns of black smoke rising from San Francisco. Radios wouldn’t appear in homes for another two decades and telephones were still a novelty, so news of the damage traveled by word of mouth. Berkeleyans only realized the extent of the disaster when San Francisco refugees began pouring into town.

Twenty-three years before the Bay Bridge was built, the only way across the Bay was by ferry. San Franciscans, dragging trunks loaded with whatever they could salvage, rushed to the docks and train stations, hoping to catch transport across the water.

Schwartz writes about the stories of several individual refugees. Among them is a Chinatown merchant named Jew Sing, who had been scheduled to marry his fiancée Ng Quei Sem the very day of the quake. Instead of exchanging vows, the couple was struggling through the desperate throng: Jew booked Ng passage to safety on an Oakland-bound boat and watched from the pier as the ferry puttered off across the waters. He strained to catch one last glimpse of Ng as she left–but her face was lost in the huddle of passengers. The couple was later reunited in a Berkeley refugee camp and married that night.

Others made their way to train stations, to catch trains heading south down the peninsula. The Southern Pacific Railroad provided free train transport to refugees, first heading south down the peninsula toward San Jose, then north to Oakland. Ferries, too, suspended their fees, and hundreds scrabbled for space on the overloaded boats leaving for the Port of Oakland.
These small East Bay towns, still sleepy farming and ranching communities at the turn of the century, were suddenly faced with a very big problem: how to deal with thousands of desperate refugees looking for food and shelter.

In 1906, the federal government was still relatively small and not set up to take on many of the services and responsibilities that we today associate with government. The burden fell on town councils, churches, and fraternal organizations to handle the logistics.
" Today we’ve come to take it for granted that, when disaster strikes, the government will be there to help us," says Gray Brechin, a historical geographer and author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (University of California Press, 2001). "That’s why it was such a huge shock after Hurricane Katrina when people realized that the government wasn’t going to help. People in 1906 didn’t expect as much."

In writing Earthquake Exodus, Schwartz spent hours pouring over old records and newspapers at the U.C. Berkeley libraries and Oakland Public Library, finding that, in stark contrast to more recent disasters, reaction in 1906 was swift and decisive.

The same morning as the earthquake, F.W. Foss, president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, called for a town meeting to decide what should be done about the arriving refugees. The meeting was packed with worried Berkeleyans who quickly formed citizen subcommittees to help– little time was lost in dithering before getting to work. The "Office Department" organized a clearing center for receiving refugees and getting them to designated housing. The "Employment Department" tried to find work for the destitute arrivals, and in one of the city’s few official acts, the mayor set up the "Committee of Safety," to keep the peace.

" One of the most important things about the Berkeley relief effort was that it was almost entirely a citizen effort," says Schwartz. "The government was functioning but it took as loose and low-key a role as possible. The existence of the university meant the town had some very competent people to jump in and give relief–professors with engineering knowledge who could help set up sanitation for the camps, medical professors who could help tend the sick. It really was an amazing group of very active, involved townsfolk."

With all the altruism came less noble behavior. Reflecting the racism of the time, an "Oriental Department" was formed specifically to care for San Francisco’s Chinese and Japanese refugees, who were confined to segregated camps scattered throughout town.
" This was an era when anti-Asian sentiments ran high, fueled by fear that white citizens would lose their jobs or that Asians would spread contagious diseases," writes Schwartz. Violence against Asian people–some refugees and some here to help–was common in the post-earthquake confusion. When the Japanese government tried to help the relief effort by sending scientists bringing modern seismographic instruments, the scientists received a terrifying and violent welcome: They were stoned in the streets of San Francisco upon their arrival and later beaten by a mob when studying the earthquake’s destruction in Eureka.

San Francisco’s cramped Chinatown neighborhood had burned to the ground almost without warning, but Chinese refugees were generally unwelcome in the city’s predominantly white refugee camps. Most fled to the East Bay, where Chinese immigrants had been settling in the Oakland neighborhood around Eighth and Webster streets since the 1870s.

" Oakland welcomed thousands of fleeing San Franciscans into its spare rooms," says Stacey Zwald, curator of the 1906 earthquake exhibit now showing at the Oakland Museum of California. Eventually, she says, more than 200,000 San Franciscans were provided shelter in Oakland, then a town of just over 66,000 residents. More than 4,000 of those who found a home in Oakland were Chinese.
To make sure that Chinese refugees weren’t mistreated and still received the same clothing and meals as whites, community leaders established the Chinese Empire Relief Association, with U.C. Berkeley sophomore O.S. Lee acting as the association’s interpreter. Lee understood that white leaders tended to dismiss the concerns of Asians, but he still argued passionately that Chinese refugees should be provided with adequate supplies of rice. Chinese immigrants weren’t used to accepting charity, and many were eager to get out of the camps as quickly as possible.
Like Berkeley, Oakland formed a relief committee immediately after the quake. Camps were set up around the city: near City Hall, in the Adams Point neighborhood, and in the city’s old roller coaster amusement park, Idora Park.

Taking up three square blocks between 56th and 58th streets along Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, Idora Park was a massive outdoor amusement center. Real estate tycoon Frank Smith, owner of the San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose Railway, had built the park in 1903, hoping it would entice people to use his electric trains for weekend excursions to the park. The plan worked, and the park quickly became one of the East Bay’s most popular attractions. Every weekend, revelers flocked to the carnival to ride the merry-go-round and the roller coaster, stroll through the gardens and zoo, or eat lunch on the picnic grounds.

" The owners of Idora Park bought out Capwell’s Department Store’s entire supply of blankets, and brought in cots, a cooking range, and clothing at its own expense," says Stacey Zwald. Some 245 refugees bunkered in the park’s indoor theater, with another 2,000 camping in tents on the open grounds.

Elsewhere, other businesses also offered helping hands. Austin Brothers Furniture Dealer at 23rd Street and San Pablo Avenue offered all the bedding and household furniture from its warehouse free to the refugees, while the First Congregation Church worked in shifts to cook and serve food from 6 a.m. until midnight, feeding up to 2,000 people daily.

For the most part, refugees lived in two camps, at Lake Merritt and at U.C. Berkeley. On campus, women and children were housed in rows of small tarp tents on a field where Hearst Gymnasium is today. Unmarried men stayed in tents on the university baseball diamond. Underfoot, a thick layer of straw–which was itchy but at least soft–provided bedding. The Contra Costa Water Company installed water pipes for cooking, drinking, bathing, and sewage. Volunteers, mostly female U.C. students, staffed makeshift outdoor kitchens that served soup, bread, and coffee.

Berkeleyans kept unmarried men separate from the families; after dark armed guards were posted to keep them on their part of the campus, away from the women. Some young men bristled at this treatment–perhaps unhappy living and working under curfew–and left to found their own camps beyond the city limits. The open ranchland that would one day become Solano Avenue turned into a shanty town dubbed "Tin Can Town," with hovels made from scraps of tarp and leftover sheet metal.

Not everyone stayed in camps; many homeless San Franciscans were taken into private residences. Hundreds of Berkeleyans opened their doors to strangers, and by April 19, Schwartz reports, almost every house in Berkeley was filled with visitors. Even a gambling house on the corner of Shattuck and Blake, Ge Tang’s, became a nursery for over 40 refugee children under the age of six.

Maria Lenskin, a popular San Francisco socialite often seen in the company of famous writers and artists, arrived in Berkeley with her young daughter Vera, her two dogs, and anything she could salvage from her home–including the urn holding her husband’s ashes–loaded into Vera’s doll carriage. Dazed, she arrived still wearing the clothes she’d worn to the opera the night before. She and Vera spent their first nights in Berkeley sleeping on cots in a church lobby, before finding transportation to Maria’s brother’s house on Oxford Street.
A reporter overheard this conversation, which summed up the feelings of most refugees: A young San Franciscan noticed a neighbor in the crowd and greeted him, "Hello, Billy. What have you got left?"
" My health," Billy replied.

As with any calamity, the disaster brought out the good in some and the greed in others. The chaos was fertile ground for con men and pickpockets. Some tried to take advantage of people’s charity; a wealthy Berkeley socialite, who had taken clothing intended for refugees, was spotted in a soup line and was promptly arrested. Some East Bay residents crossed over to visit the ruined San Francisco, gaze in morbid fascination at its fire-gutted buildings, and purchase earthquake souvenirs from the street vendors already setting up shop.

Years before writing Earthquake Exodus, Schwartz interviewed one woman who lived through the quake as an eight-year-old girl. Identified only as Carrie, she and her sister were cared for by an elderly blind woman. Their father lived in a different building because, as Carrie explained, their mother had died and a man living alone with his daughters was considered improper at the time.
" After the earthquake, her father picked them up and they all went down to the ferry with the ubiquitous trunk," Schwartz says. "Carrie said that a lot of Berkeley homes wouldn’t take strange men into the house. So the girls lived with a family in Oakland, and their father had to live in a shed out back. One of her strongest memories of the time was of the neighbors making underwear out of used burlap sacks for them."

Even as the stunned victims were recovering from the shock of the quake and the fires, their Berkeley hosts encouraged them to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. Formed within two days after the earthquake, the employment department placed 10,000 men and women in jobs around Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda over the ten-week relief period. In the refugee camps, rations were gradually scaled back to encourage people to find employment.
Carrie’s father was among the many competing for jobs in the East Bay. After many failed attempts, the woman recalled, he tried in despair to burn down the shed with the little family in it. But in time, Schwartz says, he did find work, at a local lightbulb assembly plant, eventually earning enough to buy a house in East Oakland, where the family settled.

Like Carrie’s family, many of the refugees opted to stay, becoming permanent residents in Oakland, Berkeley, and other East Bay towns. The once-quiet East Bay towns grew furiously after the quake and fire, eventually blending into one another and creating the continuous urban tract that we know today.

Oakland more than doubled its population between 1900 and 1910 and Berkeley’s population more than tripled in those years, says Charles Wollenberg, professor of history at Vista College and author of Berkeley: A City in History (Berkeley Public Library, 2002). Lots of San Francisco businesses also relocated to the East Bay.

" One long-term effect of the quake was the substantial decentralization of the Bay Area population and economy," Wollenberg says. "San Francisco never again dominated the region to the extent that it had before ’06."
 
Naturally, the quake also sparked the modern scientific study of earthquakes. Three days after the earthquake struck, Governor George Pardee appointed a State Earthquake Investigation Commission to study the temblor. Seismologists, says Aimee Klask, Associate Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, consider the commission’s final report–the 1908 Lawson Report–seminal in the understanding of earthquakes. The first ever in-depth study of temblors, the report set the standard for future studies and is still referred to today.

Despite all that we learned, there’s some truth to the old cliché that those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Many historians see uncomfortable parallels between the 1906 earthquake and other, more recent, disasters like the Oakland Hills fire and Hurricane Katrina.
The similarities are numerous and striking, says Philip L. Fradkin, an environmental historian who has written ten books on the American West and its relationship with natural disasters, including The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself (University of California Press, 2005). "In both [San Francisco and New Orleans] huge discrepancies in wealth and political power existed between races and ethnic groupings," he writes. "Both cities had been forewarned of disaster: San Francisco by previous earthquakes and fires, and New Orleans by earlier floods and hurricanes. Both cities and their populations ignored the warnings and were, as a result, woefully unprepared. They were, in other words, ripe for major catastrophes."

The catastrophes weren’t completely analogous: The earthquake struck California without warning, while the hurricane was ignored for days as it swirled over the gulf before hitting the coast. During the quake, both rich and poor refugees could board free ferries for Oakland or walk ahead of the flames to the west or south. In New Orleans, however, most poor residents were trapped by the floodwaters.
What history tells us, says Fradkin, is that natural disasters are part of the human condition. "It is a characteristic of our species," he says, "to believe we can deflect or escape them entirely. But we can’t. Such disasters are caused not by nature but by building flimsy structures and living in dangerous places."
After the 1906 fires in San Francisco, famous Chicago-based architect Daniel Burnham suggested that the city be rebuilt incorporating wide boulevards, which would act as fire breaks. The plan was never implemented; when the city’s wealthy landowners realized that the proposed boulevards would require them to give up strips of their property they put up a fight. An important lesson in urban planning went unheeded, although the need for fire breaks has been demonstrated time and again in other cities since. During the Oakland Hills fire, it was only by coincidence that the Mountain View cemetery acted as a firebreak, allowing firefighters to stop the fire from moving south.
The world in 1906 was a much different place. Disaster victims in those days held little hope that outside help could do much for them.

" We’ve come to take for granted in the years since the New Deal that the government will be there with emergency response," says Gray Brechin. "You expect to see the National Guard arriving, but [during Hurricane Katrina] they were otherwise occupied in Iraq. One of the lessons to take away from these disasters is that it can be dangerous to rely on the government to fix the situation."
" Modern life is really a double-edged sword," says Schwartz. "We’ve forgotten the massive power of people ready to help. This citizen action of Berkeley was a magnificent thing that everyone could be proud of, while Katrina will be a shame for years to come."

The 1906 citizen-led relief effort, he says, was good for the refugees and for those extending a helping hand. "In accounts left by relief workers, many commented on how they felt like their lives had been changed forever by this experience," he says. "Life back then was much more about survival. Working hours were long and hard, and people usually worked at least six days a week. Giving up the drudgery of everyday life to help people was really almost like euphoria."
So widespread was the feeling of kinship with the victims, says Gray Brechin, that there was even a name coined for it: "Earthquake love."
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Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer whose work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, the Sacramento News and Review, and the Davis Enterprise. Originally from Los Angeles, he fears the mud slide above all other forces of nature.

 

In the wake of the quake: Hundreds line up at a relief center in Oakland, which ultimately provided shelter for some 200,000 refugees in the days following the quake. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

 

 

All shook up: The Empire Theater in Oakland, where a wall fell on four actors and killed them. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

 

Earthquake refugees encamped on California Field at U.C. Berkeley, where Hearst Gymnasium is located today. Some 225,000 San Franciscans were left homeless by the disaster. Most of them fled the city-and the East Bay was the nearest refuge. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

What’s Shaking
 
Many Bay Area museums are exploring the 1906 earthquake and fire centennial with exhibits of art and artifacts. Following are a few of those events:
 
Bancroft Library: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection. A collaboration by a number of institutions to make thousands of images and documents available digitally, including an on-line exhibit with an interactive map of San Francisco and a 360-degree panoramic view of the ruined city. See http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/earthquakeandfire/.
 
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association: an illustrated lecture by Richard Schwartz, author of Earthquake Exodus, 1906; April 18, 7:30 p.m. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, (510) 841-2242; http://1906centennial.org.
 
Exploratorium: Magnitude X: Quake Science and Survival. Science exhibits about earthquakes throughout the month. On view April 1 only, San Francisco in Jell-O is a large-scale gelatin model of the city made by Oakland artist Liz Hickok. Also, through June, is "Turing Tables," a video installation based on the theories of mathematician Alan Turing, that plays back seismic waves as sound and pictures. 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco, (415) 561-0399; www.exploratorium.edu.
 
Oakland Museum of California: Aftershock! Voices from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. More than 250 artifacts and photographs–the largest collection in California dedicated to the 1906 earthquake; now through August 13, Tenth and Oak streets, Oakland, (510) 238-2200; www.museumca.org.
 
San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society: 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Exposition. Fire apparatus, artifacts, memorabilia, and rare photographs of the city after the earthquake and fire along with fireboat tours; April 15-17.

1906 Expo Firefighter Ball, benefiting the Historical Society; April 15. Both events at Pier 48, Shed C, San Francisco, (800) 310-6563; www.1906expo.com.

SFMOMA: 1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures. More than 100 photographs taken in the streets of San Francisco documenting damage to the city and its architecture; now through May 30, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, (415) 357-4000; www.sfmoma.org.