Thrilling Escapes and Deeds of Daring — Sublime Bravery and Self-Sacrifice by Men and Women — How the United States Mint and the Treasuries Were Saved and Protected by Devoted Employes and Soldiers — Pathetic Street Incidents — Soldiers and Police Compel Fashionably Attired to Assist in Cleaning Streets — Italians Drench Homes with Wine.
The week succeeding the quake was a remarkable one in the history of the country. For a day or two the people had been horror-stricken by the tales of suffering and desolation on the Pacific coast, but as the truth became known they arose equal to the occasion.
And not all the large amounts contributed were confined to those ranked as the great and strong of the nation. The laborers, too, banded together and sent large contributions. The members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of Indianapolis realized their brethren would be in dire need and they sent $10,000. The United Mineworkers sent $1,000, and several other labor organizations were equally generous.
During even the most awful moments of the catastrophe men and women with sublimest heroism faced the most threatening terrors and dangers to assist, to rescue and to save. Everywhere throughout the city scenes of daring, self-sacrifice and bravery were witnessed and thrilling escapes from imminent death aroused enthusiasm as well as horror.
A landmark of San Francisco which escaped destruction, though every building around it was destroyed, is the United States Mint at the corner of Fifth and Mission streets. Harold p104 French, an employe of the mint, gave a graphic account of how the flames were successfully fought.
"Nearly $200,000,000 in coin and bullion," said Mr. French, "is stored in the vaults of the mint and for the preservation of this prize a devoted band of employes, re-enforced by regular soldiers, fought until the baffled flames fled to the conquest of stately blocks of so‑called fireproof buildings.
"For seven hours a sea of fire surged around this grand old federal edifice, attacking it on all sides with waves of fierce heat. Its little garrison was cut off from retreat for hours at a time, had such a course been thought of by those on guard.
"Iron shutters shielded the lower floors, but the windows of the upper story, on which are located the refinery and assay office, were exposed.
"When the fire leaped Mint avenue in solid masses of flames the refinery men stuck to their windows as long as the glass remained in the frames. •Seventy-five feet of an inch hose played a slender stream upon the blazing window sill, while the floor was awash with diluted sulphuric acid. Ankle deep in this soldiers and employes stuck to the floor until the widows shattered. With a roar, the tongues of fire licked greedily the inner walls. Blinding and suffocating smoke necessitated the abandonment of the hose and the fighters retreated to the floor below.
"Then came a lull. There was yet a fighting chance, so back to the upper story the fire-fighters returned, led by Superintendent Leach. At length the mint was pronounced out of danger and a handful of exhausted but exultant employes stumbled out on the hot cobblestone to learn the fate of some of their homes."
A number of men were killed while attempting to loot the United States Mint, where $39,000,000 was kept, while thirty-four white men were shot and killed by troops in a raid on the ruins of the burned United States Treasury. Several millions of dollars are in the treasury ruins.
p105 Among the many pathetic incidents of the fire was that of a woman who sat at the foot of Van Ness avenue on the hot sands on the hillside overlooking the bay east of Fort Mason with four little children, the youngest a girl of 3, the eldest a boy of 10.
They were destitute of water, food and money. The woman had fled with her children from a home in flames in the Mission street district and tramped to the bay in the hope of sighting the ship, which she said was about due, of which her husband was the captain.
The most welcome visitor to the Mission district.
Handing out clothes to all who need them.
"He would know me anywhere," she said. And she would not move, although a young fellow gallantly offered his tent back on a vacant lot in which to shelter her children.
In a corner of the plaza a band of men and women were praying, and one fanatic, driven crazy by horror, was crying out at the top of his voice:
"The Lord sent it — the Lord!"
His hysterical crying got on the nerves of the soldiers and bade fair to start a panic among the women and children. A sergeant went over and stopped it by force. All night they huddled together in this hell, with the fire making it bright as day on all sides, and in the morning, the soldiers using their sense again, commandeered a supply of bread from a bakery, sent out another water squad, and fed the refugees with a semblance of breakfast.
A few Chinese made their way into the crowd. They were trembling, pitifully scared, and willing to stop wherever the soldiers placed them.
The soldiers and the police forced every available man in the downtown district to work, no matter where they were found or under what conditions. One party of finely dressed men that came downtown in an automobile were stopped by the soldiers and were ordered out of the machine and compelled to assist p106 in clearing the debris from Market street. Then the automobile was loaded with provisions and sent out to relieve the hungry people in the parks.
One young man who was pressed into service by the soldiers, came clad in a fashionable summer suit, straw hat and kid gloves.
An incident of the fire in the Latin quarter on the slope of Telegraph Hill is worthy of note. The only available water supply was found in a well dug in early days. At a critical moment the pump suddenly sucked dry and the water in the well was exhausted.
"There is a last chance, boys!" was shouted and Italian residents crashed in their cellar doors with axes and, calling for assistance, began rolling out barrels of red wine.
The cellars gave forth barrel after barrel until there was fully 500 gallons ready for use. Then barrel heads were smashed in and the bucket brigade turned from water to wine. Sacks were dipped in the wine and used for beating out the fire. Beds were stripped of their blankets and these were soaked in the wine and hung over the exposed portions of the cottages and men on the roofs drenched the shingles and sides of the house with wine.
Past huddled groups of sleepers an unending stream of refugees was seen wending their way to the ferry, dragging trunks over the uneven pavement by ropes tethered to wheelbarrows laden with the household •lares and penates. The bowed figures crept about the water and ruins and looked like the ghosts about the ruins of Troy, and unheeding save where instinct prompted them to make a detour about some still burning heap of ruins.
At the ferry the sleepers lay in windrows, each man resting his head upon some previous treasures that he had brought from his home. No one was able to fear thieves or to escape pillage, because of absolute physical inertia forced upon him.
Mad, wholly stark mad, were some of the unfortunates who had not fled from the ruins. In many instances the soldiers were forced to tear men and women away from the bodies of their dead. p107 Two women were stopped within a distance of a few blocks and forced to give up the dead bodies of their babes, which they were nursing to their bosoms.
A newsgatherer passing through Portsmouth square noticed a mother cowering under a bush. She was singing in a quavering voice a lullaby to her baby. The reporter parted the bushes and looked in. Then he saw what she held in her arms was only a mangled and reddened bit of flesh. The baby had been crushed when the shock of earthquake came and its mother did not know that its life had left it thirty hours before.
When law and order were strained a crew of hell rats crept out of their holes and in the flamelight plundered and reveled in bacchanalian orgies like the infamous inmates of Javert in "Les Miserables." These denizens of the sewer traps and purlieus of "The Barbary Coast" exulted in unhindered joy of doing evil.
Sitting crouched among the ruins or sprawling on the still warm pavement they could be seen brutally drunk. A demijohn of wine placed on a convenient corner of some ruin was a shrine at which they worshiped. They toasted chunks of sausage over the dying coals of the cooling ruin even as they drank, and their songs of revelry were echoed from wall to wall down in the burnt Mission district.
Some of the bedizened women of the half world erected tents and champagne could be had for the asking, although water had its price. One of these women, dressed in pink silk with high heeled satin slippers on her feet, walked down the length of what had been Natoma street with a bucket of water and a dipper, and she gave the previous fluid freely to those stricken ones huddled there by their household goods and who had not tasted water in twenty-four hours.
"Let them drink and be happy," she said, "water tastes better than beer to them now."
p108 Soon after the earthquake San Francisco was practicallya placed under martial law with Gen. Fred Funston commanding and later Gen. Greely. The regiment has proven effective in subduing anarchy and preventing the depredations of looters. A detail of troops helped the police to guard the streets and remove people to places of safety.
The martial law dispensed was of the sternest. They have no records existing of the number of executions which had been meted out to offenders. It is known that more than one sneaking vandal suffered for disobedience of the injunction given against entering deserted houses.
There was a sharp, businesslike precision about the American soldier that stood San Francisco in good stead. The San Francisco water rat thug and "Barbary Coast" pirate might flout a policeman, but he discovered that he could not disobey a man who wears Uncle Sam's uniform without imminent risk of being counted in that abstract mortuary list usually designated as "unknown dead."
For instance: When Nob Hill was the crest of a huge wave of flame, soldiers were directing the work of saving the priceless art treasures from the Mark Hopkins institute.
Lieut. C. C. McMillan of the revenue cutter Bear impressed volunteers at the point of a pistol to assist in saving the priceless art treasures which the building housed.
"Here you," barked Lieutenant McMillan to the great crowd of dazed men, "get in there and carry out those paintings."
"What business have you got to order us about?" said a burly citizen with the jowl of a Bill Sykes.
The lieutenant gave a significant hitch to his arm and the burly man saw a revolver was hanging from the forefinger of the lieutenant's right hand.
"Look here," said the lieutenant. "You see this gun? Well, I think it is aimed at your right eye. Now, come here. I want to have a little talk with you."
p109 The tough stared for a moment and then the shade of fear crept over his face, and with an "All right, boss," he started in upon the labor of recovering the art treasures from the institute.
"This is martial law," said the determined lieutenant. "I don't like it, you may not like it, but it goes. I think that is understood."
John H. Ryan and wife of Chicago after spending their honeymoon in Honolulu and Jamaica reached San Francisco just before the earthquake. They were stopping at the St. Francis Hotel, which was destroyed partially by the earthquake and totally by the fire following the shock. They lost many of their personal effects, but are thankful that they escaped with their lives.
"When the first shock came," said Mr. Ryan, "I was out of bed in an instant. I immediately was thrown to the floor. Arising, I held on by a chair and by the door knob until I could get around the room to the window to see if I could find out what was the matter. I saw people running and heard them in the corridors of the hotel. I also heard women screaming. I hastily called one of my friends and he and myself threw on our overcoats, stuck our feet into our shoes and ran downstairs. I ran back to tell my wife, when I found her coming down the stairs.
"The first shock lasted, according to a professor in the university, sixty seconds. I thought it lasted about as many days.
At the second shock all the guests piled into the streets. We stood in the bitter cold street for fully a quarter of an hour with nothing about us but our spring overcoats. I said 'bitter cold.' So it was. People there said it was the coldest spell that has struck Frisco in years.
"After standing in the streets for a while my friend and myself, with my wife, started back into the hotel to get our clothes. The guard was at the foot of the stairs and he told us that we would not be allowed to go to our rooms. I told him we merely wanted to get some clothes on so we would not freeze to death p110 and he told us to go up, but to come right down as soon as possible, for there was no telling what would happen. We rushed into our rooms and hurriedly threw on our clothes, and started out to reconnoiter. We stopped near a small building. Just then a policeman on guard came up and ordered everybody to assist in rescuing the persons within. We did not hesitate, but rushed into the building heedless of the impending falling of the walls. We found there a man lying unconscious on the floor. He revived sufficiently to make us understand that his wife and child were in the building and that he thought they were dead. We looked and finally found them, dead.
"We saw ambulances and undertakers' wagons by the score racing down Market street. They were filled with the bodies of the injured and in many cases with dead. The injured were piled into the wagons indiscriminately without respect for any consequences in the future of the patients."
R. F. Lund of Canal Dover, O., was asleep in apartments when the shock rent the city. "I awoke to find myself on the floor," said Mr. Lund. "The building to me seemed to pitch to the right, then to the left, and finally to straighten itself and sink. I had the sensation of pitching down in an elevator shaft — that sudden, sickening wave that sweeps over you and leaves you breathless.
"I got into my clothes and with some difficulty wrenched open the door of my room. Screams of women were piercing the air. Together with a dozen other men, inmates of the apartments, I assembled the women guests and we finally got them into the streets. Few of them tarried long enough to dress. We went back again and then returned with more women.
"In one room particularly there was great commotion. It was occupied by two women and they were in a state of hysterical terror because they could not open their door and get out. The sudden settling of the building had twisted the jambs.
"While passing through a narrow street in the rear of the Emporium I came upon a tragedy. A rough fellow, evidently a south of Market street thug, was bending over the unconscious form of a woman. She was clothed in a kimono and lay upon the sidewalk near the curb. His back was toward me. He was trying to wrench a ring from her finger and he held her right wrist in his left hand. A soldier suddenly approached. He held a rifle thrust forward and his eyes were on the wretch.
"Involuntarily I stopped and involuntarily my hand went to my hip pocket. I remember only this, that it seemed in that moment a good thing to me to take a life. The soldier's rifle came to his shoulder. There was a sharp report and I saw the smoke spurt from the muzzle. The thug straightened up with a wrench, he shot his right arm above his head and pitched forward across the body of the woman. He died with her wrist in his grasp. It may sound murderous, but the feeling I experienced was one of disappointment. I wanted to kill him myself.
"Along in the afternoon in my walking I came upon a great hulking fellow in the act of wresting food from an old woman and a young girl who evidently had joined their fortunes. No soldiers were about and I had the satisfaction of laying him out with the butt of my pistol. He went down in a heap. I did not stay to see whether or not he came to."
"Strange is the scene where San Francisco's Chinatown stood," said W. W. Overton, after reaching Los Angeles among the refugees. "No heap of smoking ruins marks the site of the wooden warrens where the slant-eyed men of the orient dwelt in thousands. The place is pitted with deep holes and seared with dark passageways, from whose depths come smoke wreaths. All the wood has gone and the winds are streaking the ashes.
"Men, white men, never knew the depth of Chinatown's underground p112 city. "They often talked of these subterranean runways. And many of them had gone beneath the street levels, two and three stories. But now that Chinatown has been unmasked, for the destroyed buildings were only a mask, men from the hillside have looked on where its inner secrets lay. In places they can see passages •100 feet deep.
"The fire swept this Mongolian section clean. It left no shred of the painted wooden fabric. It ate down to the bare ground and this lies stark, for the breezes have taken away the light ashes. Joss houses and mission schools, grocery stores and opium dens, gambling hells and theaters — all of them went. The buildings blazed up like tissue paper lanterns used when the guttering candles touched their sides."
"From this place I, following the fire, saw hundreds of crazed yellow men flee. In their arms they bore their opium pipes, their money bags, their silks, and their children. Beside them ran the baggy trousered women, and some of them hobbled painfully.
"These were the men and women of the surface. Far beneath the street levels in those cellars and passageways were many others. Women who never saw the day from their darkened prisons and their blinking jailors were caught like rats in a huge trap. Their bones were eaten by the flames.
"And now there remain only the holes. They pit the hillside like a multitude of ground swallow nests. They go to depths which the police never penetrated. The secrets of those burrows will never be known, for into them the hungry fire first sifted its red coals and then licked eagerly in tongues of creeping flames, finally obliterating everything except the earth itself."
"The scenes to be witnessed in San Francisco were beyond description," said Mr. Oliver Posey, Jr.
"Not alone did the soldiers execute the law. One afternoon, in front of the Palace Hotel, a crowd of workers in the ruins discovered a miscreant in the act of robbing a corpse of its jewels. Without delay he was seized, a rope was procured, and he was p113 immediately strung up to a beam which was left standing in the ruined entrance of the Palace Hotel.
"No sooner had he been hoisted up and a hitch taken in the rope than one of his fellow criminals was captured. Stopping only to secure a few yards of hemp, a knot was quickly tied and the wretch was soon adorning the hotel entrance by the side of the other dastard."
Jack Spencer, well known here, also returned home yesterday, and had much to say of the treatment of those caught in the act of rifling the dead of their jewels.
"At the corner of Market and Third streets on Wednesday," said Mr. Spencer of Los Angeles, "I saw a man attempting to cut the fingers from the hand of a dead woman in order to secure the rings. Three soldiers witnessed the deed at the same time and ordered the man to throw up his hands. Instead of obeying he drew a revolver from his pocket and began to fire without warning.
"The three soldiers, reinforced by half a dozen uniformed patrolmen, raised their rifles to their shoulders and fired. With the first shots the man fell, and when the soldiers went to the body to dump it into an alley eleven bullets were found to have entered it."
Here is an experience typical of hundreds told by Sam Wolf, a guest at the Grand Hotel:
"When I awakened the house was shaken as a terrier would shake a rat. I dressed and made for the street which 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 just had time to sidestep certain death. On each side of me the fires p114 were burning fiercely. I finally got into the open space before the ferry. The ground was still shaking and gaping open in places. Women and children knelt on the cold asphalt and prayed God would be merciful to them. At last we got on the boat. Not a woman in that crowd had enough clothing to keep her warm, let alone the money for fare. I took off my hat, put a little money in it, and we got enough money right there to pay all their fares."
The earthquake shook down wires and poles.
View in Golden Gate Park. Too much praise cannot be given our soldiers.
W. H. Sanders, consulting engineer of the United States geological survey, insisted on paying his hotel bill before he left the St. Francis. He says:
"Before leaving my room I made my toilet and packed my grip. The other guests had left the house. As I hurried down the lobby I met the clerk who had rushed in to get something. I told him I wanted to pay my bill. 'I guess not,' he said, 'this is no time for settlement.'
"As he ran into the office I cornered him, paid him the money, and got his receipt hurriedly stamped."
Dr. Taggart of Los Angeles, a leader of the Los Angeles relief bureau, accidentally shot himself while entering a hospital at the corner of Page and Baker streets, Saturday, April 21. He was mounting the stairs, stumbled and fell. A pistol which he carried in his inside coat pocket was discharged, the bullet entering near the heart. He rose to his feet and cried, "I am dying," and fell into the arms of a physician on the step below. Death was almost instantaneous.
Mrs. Lucien Shaw, of Los Angeles, wife of Judge Shaw of the State Supreme Court, disappeared in the war of the elements that raged in San Francisco.
At day dawn Thursday morning, April 19, the Shaw apartments, on Pope street, San Francisco, were burned. Mrs. Shaw fled with the refugees to the hills.
Judge Lucien Shaw went north on that first special on Wednesday that cleared for the Oakland mole.
Thursday morning at daybreak he reached his apartments on p117 Pope street. Flames were burning fiercely. A friend told him that his wife had fled less than fifteen minutes before. She carried only a few articles in a hand satchel.
For two days and nights Judge Shaw wandered over hills and through the parks about San Francisco seeking among the 200,000 refugees for his wife.
During that heart-breaking quest, according to his own words, he had "no sleep, little food and less water." At noon Saturday he gave up the search and hurried back to Los Angeles, hoping to find that she had arrived before him. He hastened to his home on West Fourth street.
"Where's mother?" was the first greeting from his son, Hartley Shaw.
Judge Shaw sank fainting on his own doorstep. The search for the missing woman was continued but proved fruitless.
One of the beautiful little features on the human side of the disaster was the devotion of the Chinese servants to the children of the families which they served. And this was not the only thing, for often a Chinaman acted as the only man in families of homeless women and children. Except for the inevitable panic of the first morning, when the Chinese tore into Portsmouth square and fought with the Italians for a place of safety, the Chinese were orderly, easy to manage, and philosophical. They staggered around under loads of household goods which would have broken the back of a horse, and they took hard the order of the troops which commanded all passengers to leave their bundles at the ferry.
A letter to a friend in Fond du Lac, Wis., from Mrs. Bragg, wife of General E. S. Bragg, late consul general at Hong Kong, and one-time commander of the Iron Brigade, gave the following account of the escape of the Braggs in the Frisco quake. Mrs. Bragg says under date of April 20:
"We reached San Francisco a week ago today, but it seems a month, so much have we been through. We were going over to p118 Oakland the very morning of the earthquake, so, of course, we never went, as it is as bad there as here.
"General Bragg had to wait to collect some money on a draft, but the banks were all destroyed. The chimneys fell in and all hotels were burned as well as public buildings. There was no water to put out the fires which raged for blocks in every square and provisions were running low everywhere. Eggs were $5 a dozen,b etc.; no telegraph, no nothing.
"We went from the Occidental to the Plymouth and from there to the Park Nob hill, where we lay, not slept, all Wednesday night, the day of the earthquake. From there we took refuge on the Pacific with friends who were obliged to get out also and we all came over together to Fort Mason, leaving there last night. We came from there to the flagship Chicago, the admiral having sent a boat for us.
General Bragg is very well and we have both stood it wonderfully. The Chicago fire was bad enough, but this is worse in our old age. May we live till we reach home. So many here have lost everything, homes as well, we consider ourselves quite fortunate. May I never live to see another earthquake.
"The General had a very narrow escape from falling plaster; never thought to leave the first hotel alive. Many were killed or burned. God is good to us. Our baggage was rescued by our nephews alone. No one else's was to be got out for love or money. The baggage was sent to the Presidio, •not four miles from us."
a The authors do well to write "virtually" under martial law. A knowledgeable high-ranking naval officer who worked in the relief of the city makes a point of stating that no martial law was actually declared: (H. A. Evans, One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, p191).
b In 2015 money, that's roughly $100 a dozen.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
The San Francisco Horror
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 5 Feb 15