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The Fall of San Francisco

By Charles B. Sedgwick

[We have read many accounts of the earthquake and fire but not one of them, in our opinion, gives as vivid and as accurate an account as that written by Chas. B. Sedgwick, editor of "The British-Californian."]

My point of view is the matter-of-fact, and if in the following lines I at times seem at variance with the gifted gentlemen who paint lurid pictures and recount harrowing experiences in the daily press. I must plead that I am not to blame, but the facts.
I hurried to Market street–and what a sight!

It was a strange San Francisco that I gazed upon. I had seen this stately thoroughfare only the evening before, with the peaceful sunset glow on its tall, imposing buildings; its broad roadway crowded with vehicles; its sidewalks thronged with happy, prosperous people. Now the grand old street was scarcely recognizable– a sad scene of destruction. Buildings by the dozen were half down; great pillars, copings, cornices and ornamentations had been wrenched from the mightiest structures and dashed to the ground in fragments; the huge store-windows had been shattered and costly displays of goods were w much litter on the floors. The sidewalks and roadway were covered with fallen stones, wooden signs and the wreckage of brick walls, the car tracks were twisted, the roadbed here fallen, there lifted, and everything on every hand was either broken, twisted, bent or hideously out of place. As I walked along, there was not a relieving break in the picture of ruin. The massive Emporium frontage was scarred in a dozen places; the upper stories of the old Odd Fellows' Building were entirely gone, while the colossal City Hall, the principal edifice of the town, was a hopeless, pitiful wreck; its mighty walls rent; its once beautiful rotunda a great gaping wound; its huge dome supported by nothing but a gaunt skeleton of empty framework.

And all the work of less than a minute!

In the side streets the havoc was as bad; in places vastly worse. On O'Farrell many structures had fallen; the entire front wall of Delmonico's had dropped away, leaving the upper rooms exposed to view. Whole floors had been broken up, stairways had collapsed, marble facings torn away.

And in the rear of this, south of Market street, a great sea of flame was steadily rolling forward with a dull hungry roar, relieved only by the still louder roar of failing buildings at frequent intervals, and thunderous earsplitting explosions when dynamite was used in the vain effort to check the fiery advance.

A changed San Francisco, indeed, from the secure, care-free, luxurious place of the day before!

People said, "We are a doomed city," but nobody seemed to mind-- and for that reason, with all the grim evidences about, it did not seem that it could be so. There was no excitement, no confusion, no panic. Neither was there any fear, any terror, any grief.

I had read of the destruction of Babylon, of Nineveh, and many other soul-stirring and awful human experiences recorded in history, and when I at length realized that San Francisco was about to suffer an effacement as complete as any that had ever taken place, I looked about me for the wild scenes that this history–reading had led me to expect–for men maddened by horror and despair or made desperate by their losses; for hysterical women wailing and frantically tearing their hair; for old people in a state of collapse, and children falling from weakness and fright, and being trampled to death. But none of these scenes figured in San Francisco's fall. People were much about the same as usual. Men and women came down town to me what was going on, gazed about in blank astonishment for a few moments, then stood idly by, or went their way as though nothing extraordinary was transpiring. It was this indifference, or philosophical resignation to the inevitable, that struck me as the most marvelous thing in connection with the great tragedy. This, and the ease and quickness with which people grew accustomed to the changed conditions. Market street on that fateful morning was as quiet and orderly as an ordinary Sunday. Not was it a case of dumb despair with the people. Faces scarcely less cheerful than usual testified to the contrary of that.

Troops from the Presidio came dashing down McAllister street at an early hour, but there was no need of them, and for a long time they "stood at ease" opposite the Hibernia Bank. In front of this bank, the Western National at Powell street and other financial institutions in the neighborhood, lines of depositors gathered and patiently waited, bank books in hand, for doors to open that did not open that day nor for a month afterward. At the usual opening hour "Legal Holiday" notices were posted up, and the crowds then dispersed quietly.

The big business men were game losers from what I saw of them. They would come tearing down Market street in their automobiles, in instances only half dressed, but the sight of the shattered buildings and glimpses of the on-rushing flames, obtained from the side streets, with firemen doing anything but contesting their progress with water, for of water there was none, were generally sufficient to deaden their haste. Few proceeded. Most of them seemed to realize that it was all up with poor San Francisco, and while, no doubt, they had heavy heart they showed no emotion, but quietly turned back. Hundreds of those men were engaged–they and their automobile–in relief work soon after, their own losses and cares for the nonce forgotten.

The saloons were doing a rushing business in those last hours, steady streams of men passing in and out of their doors until the flames arrived and put an end to the business. Old topers took what was destined to be their last drink for many a long day to come, for the law soon prohibited the sale of all intoxicants. Two months without liquor has cured many an unfortunate victim of the habit, so that the catastrophe, while it destroyed many lives, was the means of saving others.
Later, passing along Second street, I observed at the corner of Stevenson another fallen building. Two firemen were wearily pitching bricks from the heap, and a woman standing near called out to me: "Go over and help them, mister; there are people buried there." "They must be dead," I said. "No," she replied, "they are not all dead, for we hear them groan. There must be twenty there; it was a rooming house upstairs."

I willingly climbed the pile and went to work throwing bricks. Soon a half-dozen others came to help. We could hear groans, occasionally, but oh! so faint and seemingly distant. We all worked in silence, nobody speaking a word. Soon the firemen were called away, and the rest of us involuntarily stopped work and looked at each other. It must be that each of us read in the others' faces the same thought, "a hopeless task," for we all climbed down and went our way. There was a day's work for a hundred men there, and we could have remained but a few minutes longer at the best, for the fire was close behind us, eating up the great Crossley, Rialto and other blocks on New Montgomery and Mission streets. And the heat was fast becoming intolerable.

My heart was heavy as I walked away, leaving those poor mortals to their doom, but, strangely, I experienced none of that deep horror that I felt I ought to feel in the situation. The mere thought of ever seeing death in such awful form had always, when thinking about or reading about such calamities, filled me with frightful abhorrence, but now that I was face to face with the reality it did not seem so terrible. I felt used to such things, as I imagine an undertaker feels in practicing his business, or a surgeon. I could not keep wondering, though, if after all I was callous at heart, and to make sure, I looked closely, on this occasion and other occasions, into the countenances of fellow beings, to see how they were affected, and in no instance did I discover any signs of dread, of horror. The firemen and police, carrying gruesome burdens, were unmoved, and most people gazed without emotion upon scenes which, pictured in their imagination at some other time, they would doubtless have considered frightful in the extreme–unbearable.

Which has convinced me that it is more in the thought of things, in apprehension, that we suffer, than in their actual occurrence. Few of the people who went through the San Francisco experience will ever again know fear, I think.

I went back to Market street, and just in time to see the beginning of the end of it. The fire had broken in near Fourth, through the open space where the new Humboldt Bank was being erected. It was coming rapidly, and at a glance it was seen to be that the Emporium and other big buildings on that side were fated. Oh, that there had been water at this crisis! All north of Market street might have been saved from the flames. But the firemen stood idly by, mere spectators. There was no excitement, even now. Soldiers were stationed in front of the banks, and the police leisurely warned "campers" on the sidewalk and in doorways to "pick up their duds and git." They were not vehement in their orders, as of wont, evidently realizing, for once, that the public had some little discretion. Quiet- spoken "guardians of the peace" were among the curiosities of the great event.
That night I climbed to the summit of Russian Hill to view the conflagration, and never shall I forget the sight. It was weirdly beautiful. A thousand banners of flame were streaming in the cloudless sky from spires and domes and lofty roofs, the under-scene being a sea of glowing gold, angry and tumultuous, but brilliant beyond anything I had ever seen or conceived of; and magnificent in irresistible power, its great flaming waves leaping upon or dashing against the strongest creations of man and obliterating them. Noise as of a hundred battles in progress, with myriad giant guns in play, told of the fierce, relentless destruction as towering buildings, eaten loose, toppled and fell, or were lifted skyward by thundering dynamite, to then scatter and drop, throwing up huge fiery splashes from the burning sea. Soul-stirring, sublime, the spectacle was, notwithstanding its seeming Devilishness, and it would have been worth all that it cost could we only have afforded it. It fascinated, thrilled, took one out of oneself and made him part of another life: another life in which might is mightier, time quicker and things altogether on a more stupendous and potent scale than here on this little, slow, imperfect earth. In face of that tremendous force, pulling down in an hour that which it had taken communities of men years to rear, we seemed puny and futile indeed; laughably, if not so pitiably, weak. Mere worms, or, having the patience and industry, ants–our habitations, cities and great life-works subject to as easy destruction as are the wonderful creations of ants at the hands of humans when in the mood. That man cannot we himself, in relation to the great scheme of things, as a mere ant is the sadness of the thought, for could he so see, he would cease this toilsome building for a day and add his effort, little though it be, to that which is omnipotent and everlasting.

The bay, as I passed down the hill, appealed to me as having never looked more serene and peaceful, lit up as it was by a bright moon and with reflected lights from the shipping gleaming prettily on its calm waters. A strong contrast, indeed, to the turbulent scenes being enacted on the other side of the eminence!

The streets were full of people, recumbent, and some in sound sleep. They seemed to find a greater sense of security close to mother earth, In my wanderings I passed through Washington Square, and there I witnessed a strange sight, the living and the dead lying peacefully side by side on the green sward. All through the night the police wagons brought their dead to the public squares, and the down-town undertakers did the same thing, not knowing where else to take them, I suppose. The living would roll over closer, to make room for their silent brothers. I could not help thinking how wonderfully adaptable is human nature. Had anybody told these living refugees, the day before, that their bed-fellows of the morrow night would be corpses, they would doubtless have had their shivers. As it was, they did not mind in the least.

When the sun rose once again all was bustle and animation, for it was felt that the homes would surely go that day. The exodus began in earnest, the farsighted ones making for the big Golden Gate Park and distant open spaces, others moving on but a few blocks at a time. Every street leading away from the doomed city was thronged with people, who, while not perhaps gay, could not be said to be sad or despondent. Folks were dressed in their best, presenting an uncommonly smart appearance–for refugees. Each carried that which he or she most prized: mothers, their babies: old maids, their dogs and parrots: young ladies, their "other hat" and a bountiful supply of candy: children, their toys and bags of peanuts and popcorn; and the men, sensible fellows, bundles of bedding and grub.

A spirit of good nature and helpfulness prevailed, and cheerfulness was common. The gentler sex was radiant; women love moving. The children thought they were on a picnic. The men did a little quiet groaning under their loads, and were seen to be talking energetically to themselves at times but I am sure they were not swearing.

There was much kindliness. The old and feeble, the blind, the lame, were tenderly aided. The strong helped the weak with their burdens, and when pause was made for refreshment, food was voluntarily divided; the milk was given to the children, and any little delicacies that could be found were pressed upon the aged and the ailing.

This goodness and self-sacrifice came natural to some, but even the selfish, the sordid and the greedy became transformed that day–and, indeed, throughout that trying period–and truly humanity reigned. It was beautiful to behold, and gave one a glimpse of human kind in a new and a glorious light.

Would that it could always be so! No one richer, none poorer, than his fellow; no coveting the other's goods; no envy; no greedy grasping for more than one's fair share of that given for all. True it is. I reflected, that money is the root of all evil, the curse of our civilization, seeing that it is the instrument which frail mortals use to take unjust advantages. What a difference those few days when there was no money, or when money had no value! Christ walked the ruined city and reigned over a willing people.

The fire advanced rapidly when it once reached the wooden structures, and by night thousands of homes had been swept away–the palatial dwellings of the rich in the Van Ness district, and the humbler domiciles of the masses in the Mission–miles away. All that night the conflagration raged,and on the morning of the third day North Beach was seen to be a blazing furnace.

Then it died down, leaving the far suburbs unharmed. Three-fourths of the city had been burned–some ten or twelve square miles–and $500,000,000 worth of property destroyed.

There was some privation, it is true, but little, or no distress and suffering. Thousands of people found shelter with friends, and kind strangers, in the unburned districts. Others who slept in the open for a few nights rather enjoyed the change than otherwise. I had a taste of it and I say honestly that I have suffered more when out camping on a pleasure trip. The experience of others, as they told it to me, was the same. People had to rough it, but what Westerner minds that) And their losses were taken philosophically.

There was no hunger. Most everybody had food with them at the start. Then, as the flames advanced, rather than see stuff wasted, the storekeepers gave away to passers-by, without any asking, all their goods–bread, flour, hams, cheese, tea, coffee and canned goods of every description. Nothing was held back. And as soon as the second day came the military authorities took possession of the remaining shops throughout the suburbs and distributed the goods to the populace. Nothing was for sale. No eatables were allowed to be sold. The town was under martial law, and the government found supplies to feed everybody bountifully.

Then, ere the pavements were cool, good people, from Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley and other nearby towns came flocking into the stricken city, like ministering angels, bearing supplies of all kinds–and stopped not at that, but brought carriages, automobiles and wagons, and urged the homeless to "jump in" and go back with them as guests and "rest up" amid happier surroundings. And thousands gratefully went.

The Southern Pacific Railway Company, too, rose magnificently to the occasion, giving free transportation to refugees to any place in the State; and the country towns and villages said, "Come, and partake of our hospitality"; and never did any of them, at any time, say "We are full up." Many of these good Christians gave up their own beds, themselves sleeping out of doors, and in other ways surrendered to the homeless stranger all of comfort that they possessed. Indeed, most of the hardship occasioned by the calamity was borne, not by the refugees, but by those who succored them.

When it was all over, the fire out, the novelty of the new situation worn off, the real time of depression came–if there was such a period at all. Men who had spent the best years of their life building up businesses went down town to see if anything was left, and to look over the field for future action. Sad desolation greeted them on every hand, and it was a stout heart that could summon resolution, in face of that awful wilderness of ruins, to again take up the old task in the old place. The fire had done its work thoroughly, leaving nothing even half-burned. Everything had succumbed; even massive blocks of granite had been burned almost through, as though chiseled. A bare half-dozen buildings yet stood in all those miles, and they [were] badly defaced externally; within, completely gutted. These, and a lone pillar here and there, the leaning fragments of a wall, mounds of melted iron, networks of twisted steel and a chaos of brick and stone were all that was left of the innumerable imposing structures which once made up our magnificent city. Streets were no longer defined, no longer recognizable, and were as still as a desert. The whole scene resembled more some ancient ruins in Egypt or Greece, from which the dust of ages had recently been removed, than a modern American metropolis, yesterday the seat of great industries and a world commerce.

The only signs of activity were in the public squares, where human bodies were being brought and roughly interred–poor victims of the holocaust, burned black and dwarfed like mummies.

I say, it took a brave soul to calmly determine–amid such scenes, to call the past dead, and commence to laboriously build anew. But I heard such heroic resolve expressed, and I saw it magnificently displayed in faces. And action quickly followed decision, for San Francisco today has some three hundred new structures in the burned area.

They are cheap, unpretentious, frame affairs, but they have a beauty of their own–standing there on the old site–the reflected beauty of an invincible courage; the one great quality (worthy of being Divine) which is poor Humanity's own.

American Builders' Review
July 1906
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