The Fall of San Francisco
SOME PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS.
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 streetand 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 historyreading had led me to expectfor
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 engagedthey and
their automobilein 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
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
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
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, antsour 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 appearancefor
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 dayand, indeed,
throughout that trying periodand truly humanity reigned. It was
beautiful to behold, and gave one a glimpse of human kind in a new and a
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 awaythe palatial
dwellings of the rich in the Van Ness district, and the humbler domiciles of
the masses in the Missionmiles 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 burnedsome ten or twelve square
milesand $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 goodsbread, 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 kindsand 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 cameif 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 interredpoor victims of the
holocaust, burned black and dwarfed like mummies.
I say, it took a brave soul to calmly determineamid 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 ownstanding there on the old sitethe reflected beauty
of an invincible courage; the one great quality (worthy of being Divine)
which is poor Humanity's own.
American Builders' Review
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