It happened at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, in San Francisco. To this day, it remains one of the worst natural disasters in American history—and this definitive book brings the full story to vivid life.
Using previously unpublished documents from insurance companies, the military, and the Red Cross, as well as the stories of those who were there, The San Francisco Earthquake exposes villains and heroes; shows how the political powers tried to conceal the amount of damage caused by the earthquake; reveals how efforts to contain the fire actually spread it instead; and tells how the military executed people without trial. It also features personal stories of people who experienced it firsthand, including the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, the banker Amadeo Giannini, the writer-adventurer Jack London, the temperamental star John Barrymore, and the thousands of less famous in their struggle for survival.
From the authors of The Day the Bubble Burst, The San Francisco Earthquake is an important look at how the city has handled catastrophe in the past—and how it may handle it in the future.
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About the Author
Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts are authors of four previous books, all highly successful in bookstores and book clubs, all acclaimed in the United States and abroad. The Day the World Ended and Voyage of the Damned were made into major motion pictures; Shipwreck won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973; and The San Francisco Earthquake has been hailed as a major achievement of reporting and writing.
Read an Excerpt
The San Francisco Earthquake
By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts
All rights reserved.
Enrico Caruso was angry, but not because of the heat. The anger had been there since the previous night, when he stalked out of the Grand Opera House before the final curtain rang down on The Queen of Sheba.
Caruso's anger had in fact been rising and falling for many months, almost as if orchestrated. It rose when he found he was to lead the Metropolitan Opera of New York on tour across America. It fell when the Metropolitan's management agreed to pay him a record $1350 for each performance. But at the end of the winter season, his anger returned. He was exhausted; the manners of his audience infuriated him. "They are bored with everything except themselves, and they talk animatedly to each other right to the final curtain," he confided to fellow singer Antonio Scotti.
He feared that on tour the audiences would be even more callow, even more unappreciative of the subtleties of "Questa o quella" and "La donna è mobile." To Caruso, anything west of New York was "wild"—a gun was still more than a stage prop. When he asked the Metropolitan management to release him from the tour, or at least to shorten it, they firmly refused. Feeling himself trapped, Caruso decided he would need more protection than the insurance policy the opera company had taken out on his life. He bought himself a revolver and fifty rounds of ammunition shortly before the Pullman train carrying the company had rumbled out of New York.
Only as the train sped westward did the tenor realize that he did not even know how to load the weapon. He showed the gun to Scotti, who for three years had been the Jester to Caruso's Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto. Scotti recalled that the two men spent their first night on the Pullman together, practicing loading and drawing. By the time the train reached San Francisco, Caruso had become a passable gun handler.
Caruso's relationship with many of his colleagues, never warm, grew positively icy as the train carried them across the prairies of the Middle West, and down through central Nevada, Reno, and Sacramento, and finally to Oakland Pier. There, the inevitable group of reporters waited to accompany Caruso on the last stage of his journey, the short ferry trip across the Bay of San Francisco to the city itself. They seemed to have only one question for the singer: what could he tell them about Vesuvius, in whose shadow he had been born.
The volcano had just erupted. Reports said that the death toll was already over two thousand; thousands more were homeless. In San Francisco itself, the powerful Italian community had organized a relief committee. Caruso, "emotional and patriotic," according to one reporter, offered his services for a charity concert. Turning to the waiting newspapermen Caruso said, "I cannot tell you what Vesuvius is really like. No man can. It is the most frightening experience of all."
Even worse, asked a reporter, than an earthquake? Caruso shrugged. He had never experienced an earthquake, but he doubted that it held more terror than an erupting volcano.
On the ferry trip across the Bay, the tenor confided a somber thought to his conductor, Alfred Hertz. If he had not made the tour, he would be in Naples now, and Naples, according to the afternoon edition of the San Francisco Examiner, was threatened with extinction from lava flow. "Maybe it was God's will after all that I should come this far," he said to Hertz.
As the ferry boat docked, Caruso asked the reporters if they knew any place in town that served roast beef and macaroni as an entrée. The newspapermen smiled happily. The thirty-four-year-old Italian looked as if he would provide colorful copy in the days to come.
They had in fact not long to wait. At the Palace Hotel, Caruso was shown to Suite 622. He took one look at the redwood-paneled walls and heavy tan drapes and dismissed it as resembling a funeral parlor. An assistant manager pointed out that General William T. Sherman had once occupied the rooms. Caruso retorted that after marching through Georgia, Sherman would no doubt have been well satisfied with this sort of accommodation.
Caruso was finally installed in Suite 580, once occupied by another American folk hero, General Ulysses S. Grant. The suite consisted of two parlors, furnished in California laurel overlaid with maroon satin. With its French chandeliers, English marble fireplace surrounds, Persian bedspread, and Turkish carpets, the overall effect was something approaching a set for The Queen of Sheba.
The hotel staff watched in awe as the seemingly endless shuttle of trunks went up to the Caruso suite. Martino, his valet, spent Monday evening unpacking them. One contained forty pairs of boots; another held fifty self-portraits of Caruso; a third, nothing but dressing gowns; a fourth, silk shirts.
When everything was in place, Caruso, fortified by a bottle of Californian red wine, sang the tenor role of Carmen.
In the early hours of the morning, he retired beneath his Persian bedspread, with instructions for Martino to awaken him with the morning papers.
Nine hours later, shortly after midday on Tuesday, those newspapers rekindled Caruso's anger. All three of the city's major newspapers had panned The Queen of Sheba. Caruso had not performed on opening night; what hurt him most was that he agreed with the critics—he knew the responsibility would fall on him to redress the balance tonight, when he took the stage in Bizet's Carmen.
The thought provoked him to order yet another bottle of wine to be brought up from the hotel's cellar.
From its very conception, the Palace Hotel had been designed to meet the two great natural hazards native to San Francisco: earthquake and fire. To guard against the former, the hotel had been built on massive pillar foundations twelve feet deep. Its outer walls of brick were two feet thick. To give them even greater solidity, they had been reinforced every four feet by double strips of iron bolted together, forming continuous bands. In the end three thousand tons of this reinforcing iron had been woven into the walls. Fire precautions were equally thorough. In addition to the basement tank, seven more, with a firefighting capacity of another 130,000 gallons, had been placed on the roof. Even if the city's reservoirs ran dry, the Palace would be able to protect itself. To distribute this volume of water, five miles of piping had been built into the hotel, quite independent of the normal domestic plumbing system. The piping was connected to three hundred and fifty outlets, to which in turn twenty thousand feet of fire hose were attached.
In the basement were three high-pressure pumps capable of maintaining water pressure at one hundred pounds per square inch. Each of the hotel's eight hundred rooms was fitted with a sensitive automatic fire detector which triggered an alarm in the duty manager's office at the first sign of excessive heat. Finally, a team of watchmen patrolled every floor at thirty-minute intervals. On their rounds they had to touch an electrical impulse button sited at any of the seventy-nine points. If they forgot one, their omission automatically registered in the office.
In its thirty-one years, the hotel had successfully and quickly stifled a number of fires as a result of these precautions.
It was said in San Francisco that if the Palace ever burned down, the city itself would also be gutted.
Police Officer Leonard Ingham had dreamed yet again that the Palace, along with much of the city, had been destroyed by such a fire.
Officer Ingham was a solid and unimaginative man of forty, the sort of policeman who would end his career where it had started—pounding a beat. He and his wife Bess lived on Dolores Street, six blocks from the Mission Police Station, to which he was attached.
For two months, since the nightmares had begun, he had dreaded going on patrol in the Mission district, a cramped cluster of wooden frame houses, factories, and railroad yards. In his dreams they were the first to be gutted. His imaginary fire swept up Market Street, the city's main thoroughfare, and then across it, taking with it not only the Palace Hotel but also most of San Francisco's principal buildings. Finally, totally out of control, it engulfed the city, driving its inhabitants into the sea.
At this point Patrolman Ingham always awakened. Each time he told Bess of his dreams; each time she tried to soothe him. And as the nightmares became increasingly vivid, it took longer for him to fall asleep again.
So real had the dream been on Monday night that he had finally decided to act upon it. He would report his fears to Chief of Police Jeremiah Dinan. Earlier on Tuesday he had been given an appointment to see Chief Dinan at 9:00 Wednesday morning.
He also decided to obtain personal protection for his home, destroyed though it would be according to his dream. He went to the Hartford Fire Insurance Company's office on California Street. There the company's Pacific agent, Adam Gilliland, drew up a twothous-and-dollar fire insurance policy on the Ingham home.
With the policy safely signed and tucked away in his uniform pocket, Patrolman Ingham returned to duty with a new purpose. He viewed buildings not just for their crime potential, but as fire risks. In the interview with Chief Dinan the following morning he planned to reveal his findings.
He did not have to look far. Every district in the city contained a high percentage of wooden buildings. Russian, Nob, and Telegraph Hills, and the predominantly Italian area of North Beach, were built almost entirely of wood. So was the expensive residential quarter between Powell and Van Ness Avenue. The alleys of Chinatown, where forty thousand people lived in appalling squalor, and the streets above—Pacific, Vallejo, Jackson, and Washington—were lined with wooden buildings.
Downtown—south of the Slot—the situation was even more critical for anyone concerned about fire hazard. The Slot was exactly that—a slot in the street between the cablecar tracks which ran along Market Street. The area beyond was a conglomeration of warehouses, factories, small hotels, rooming houses, all crammed together—a pyromaniac's dream. Six times in three years—between December 1849 and June 1851—fire had raged through the district. And each time it had been rebuilt, largely from clapboard. Now one sixth of the city's population lived in the area. Few had insured themselves against the risk of another conflagration.
Ingham found some comfort as he patrolled. The era of the brick-built high-rise building had arrived, crowding the skyline, offering visible proof of San Francisco's claim to be the metropolis of the West.
Yet this afternoon as he patrolled, Leonard Ingham again had the feeling that he was walking through a giant tinderbox—that the flames, when they came, would engulf these splendid structures as well.
Though Ingham did not know it, his fears were shared by the man primarily responsible for defending the city against such a holocaust: Dennis Sullivan, Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department.
In his quarters on the third floor of the Bush Street fire station, Dennis Sullivan waited, brooding on the progress of a meeting being held a few blocks away.
The meeting was taking place in the courtroom of Judge W. W. Morrow in the Hall of Justice—the building where tomorrow morning Patrolman Ingham planned to relate his nightmare to the Chief of Police.
Judge Morrow had convened the meeting to prepare for any future emergency which might arise in San Francisco. At the suggestion of the Mayor, Eugene Schmitz, the Judge had gathered together a cross section of civic-minded citizens specifically to discuss a report which had haunted Sullivan since he had first seen a copy of it seven months before.
He had received the report in October 1905, the month it had been made public by the National Board of Fire Underwriters. It contained this startling statement: "San Francisco has violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up. That it has not already done so is largely due to the vigilance of the Fire Department, which cannot be relied upon indefinitely to stave off the inevitable."
It was the inevitable—the destruction of a city he would be helpless to save—that Sullivan had fought so bitterly to avoid in the thirteen years and thirteen days he had been Fire Chief.
This battle had brought him into headlong conflict with Mayor Schmitz and the city's supervisors. The battle revolved around one commodity which was plentiful in San Francisco—money.
As soon as he assumed office, twelve years of hard-won firefighting experience behind him, Sullivan began the struggle to wrest money out of City Hall to provide the firefighting facilities he deemed essential. He wanted money to build a supplementary saltwater system; money to reactivate scores of long-neglected cisterns which had been laid beneath the downtown streets a generation before; money to buy high explosives and train his men how to use them to check a major fire.
The War Department in Washington "consented to furnish a competent corps of engineers and sappers, with the necessary explosives, to be always in readiness at the Presidio," the Army's Pacific garrison on the outskirts of the city. But once more the Mayor and his supervisors thwarted Sullivan. The War Department asked the city to provide one thousand dollars to build a brick vault in the Presidio grounds to house the explosives. City Hall refused to provide the money. Sullivan's plan to have a dynamite squad trained and on hand to meet any emergency was squelched.
The Fire Underwriters report underscored the risk. After a careful and exhaustive survey, the board's engineers found a vital flaw in the firefighting water supply for the city: "Its distributing pipe system is inadequate to meet the demands for water flow necessary to fight a conflagration." But the board could not enforce changes, only inform of the danger.
Armed with the report, Sullivan resumed his assault on City Hall. Seven months later, Mayor Schmitz ordered Judge Morrow to convene his citizens' committee. Sullivan was not scheduled to testify before them until the following day.
Sullivan was not the only man City Hall angered. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, acting commander at the Presidio garrison, was equally furious at the behavior of the civil administration. For he had put pressure on the War Department to accept the Fire Chief's scheme for a dynamite squad, only to have it rejected by Mayor Eugene Schmitz.
That rejection virtually severed further contact between soldier and politician.
Funston had come to San Francisco in 1901, shortly after Schmitz was installed in City Hall. From their first meeting, Funston distrusted the Mayor. "He's too sure, he smiles too quickly and turns away." All his life Funston had judged men by a simple set of rules: they had to be quietly confident and level-headed, and have a firm handshake. Eugene Schmitz failed on all counts.
On the other hand, Fire Chief Sullivan passed muster. Over the years a bond had grown between the two men, based on their desire to further improve the city's fire defenses. Funston admired the qualities of leadership Sullivan brought to the Fire Department; he respected, too, the efficiency of the firemen. Like Sullivan, he was aware of the implications of the Fire Underwriters report. Funston brought his brilliant tactical mind to bear on the problems of defending a city against a future conflagration. But his strategy was voided by the refusal of City Hall to approve Sullivan's dynamite squad. The Fire Chief urged Funston to bring personal pressure on the Mayor. Funston refused; he wanted no contact with Schmitz.
"Yet I love the city and will do anything for it," he confided to Sullivan. "I would take any action if San Francisco was in danger."
He said that in January 1906, when he had last called on the Fire Chief. Since then the Brigadier General had not gone downtown. To his staff officers at the Presidio he stated bluntly that he could not trust himself "not to march into City Hall and throw all those boodlers out!"
It was a reaction typical of Frederick Funston. National hero, Medal of Honor winner, a living legend who had proved himself under fire, he saw things with simple directness. "A problem is black or white," he was fond of saying. The problem at City Hall was black in his eyes.
Having failed the entrance examination to West Point in 1890, Frederick Funston had temporarily abandoned what he believed to be his destiny—becoming an Army officer—to seek adventure as a newspaperman.
The trouble with that job, he told a friend, was "all the reading and listening you have to do." It was adventure he wanted, the more full-blooded and outlandish the better. He joined an expedition to Death Valley. He tramped Alaska five years before the great Gold Rush, and sailed down the Yukon River single-handed.
In between he was building a reputation as somebody not to trifle with. It was not entirely undeserved.
In Kansas he frog-marched the town bully through the streets at gunpoint when the man threatened him with a razor. In front of a crowd outside the sheriff's office. Funston, a mere 120 pounds, thrashed the man in a fistfight. While working as a passenger-train conductor on the Santa Fe Line, he bodily threw off a cowboy he thought was too drunk to travel. When the ranchhand retaliated by hurling a rock through a coach window, Funston chased him on foot across country while the train waited.
Excerpted from The San Francisco Earthquake by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts. Copyright © 1971 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
TUESDAY, APRIL 17, 1906,
Noon to 6 P.M.,
1. Tension Backstage,
6 P.M. to Midnight,
2. Personal Grounds,
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 18, 1906,
Midnight to 5 A.M.,
3. An Excited Horse,
5 A.M. to 5:12:59,
4. Time Hung Poised,
5:13 to 5:30 A.M.,
5. The Big Rip,
6. A Fatal Fall,
5:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.,
7. Polishing Coffin Handles,
8. A Tumult of Noise,
9. Appeal for Dynamite,
10. A Shared Drink,
12:30 P.M. to 6:30 P.M.,
11. Last Evidence of Life,
12. Explosives in Inexperienced Hands,
6:30 P.M. to Midnight,
13. Hemmed in by Flames,
14. Eager Hands,
THURSDAY, APRIL 19, 1906,
Midnight to 6 A.M.,
15. Foreign Affairs,
16. A Row of Guns,
6 A.M. to Noon,
17. Harsher Tones,
18. Magical Powers,
Noon to 6 P.M.,
19. Exodus on Market,
20. A Passport Portrait,
6 P.M. to Midnight,
21. The Last Defense Breached,
FRIDAY, APRIL 20, 1906,
Midnight to 6 A.M.,
22. Rising Wind,
6 A.M. to Noon,
23. Fulfilling a Vow,
Noon to 6 P.M.,
24. The Blind Gunner,
6 P.M. to Midnight,
SATURDAY, APRIL 21, 1906,
26. Flickering Flames,
27. An Inconvenient Interruption,
28. Trials and Tribulations,