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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
" 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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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.