This is the story of how the United States Mint building at Fifth and Market streets was saved by its employees during the Great Earthquake and Fire.
Frank Aleomon Leach, a former newspaper reporter, was superintendent of the United States Mint in San Francisco at the time, and came to the city from his home in Oakland early on the morning of the 18th. He had the novel experience of walking into the heart of the burning South-of-Market area, remaining there through the fire, and being one of the first persons to walk down Market Street after the fire.
The superintendency of the Mint was a political patronage position, so it is no surprise this chapter from his 1917 book, "Recollections of a Newspaperman," downplays the damage from earthquake, and the ghastly death toll.
Leach was also author of "Fineness of California Gold," published in "California Mines & Minerals," and "Wild Life in California," a series of nature studies first printed in the "Oakland Tribune," and issued in hardback in 1921.
Destruction Wrought in San Francisco and Neighboring PlacesThe Battle to Save the Mint BuildingHow San Francisco's Financial System Was Re-establishedNation-Wide Generosity Shown to Victims.
Perhaps I should class my experience in the great fire and earthquake of April, 1906, as the most exciting feature of my administration as Superintendent of the mint in San Francisco. While I would not seek another such experience, I have often said that I was glad the opportunity fell to me to be present and in the midst of one of the great disasters of history, but I shall always censure myself that I did not make a record of what I saw, as well as the observations of other people and my own thoughts while the circumstances and details of the awful affair were fresh in my mind. I was suddenly awakened soon after 5 o'clock on that memorable morning of April 18, with the hundreds of thousands of others who lived within a radius of a hundred miles of this section, to a realization of being shaken by an earthquake that seemed to threaten to tear our house to pieces.
The building danced a lively jig, jumping up and down a good part of a foot at every jump, at the same time swaying this way and that; the walls and ceilings were twisting and squirming, as if wrestling to tear themselves asunder or one to throw the other down. Then there were the terrifying noises, the cracking and creaking of timber, the smashing and crashing of falling glass, bric-a-brac, and furniture, and the thumping of falling bricks coursing down the roof sides from the chimney tops. Now and then there would be a louder crash and roar, coming from some distance, that told, plainer than words, of the awfulness of the visitation and the greater destruction of property, if not life. The air was filled with dust. It seemed as if the shaking would never cease. Every vibration seemed to be followed by another more fierce, stronger, and more destructive.
I lay in bed and saw the debris of wrecked chimney tops go sailing down past our bedroom windows. I felt that I was in as safe a place there as anywhere else in the house while the shaking lasted, and much safer than to attempt to go out of doors. Then I also felt that if the terrible disturbance was primary to the end of all things we might as well meet our fate right where we were. I confess that for a few seconds I was impressed with the idea that the end of the world had been reached. I did not get out of bed until the shaking ceased. Hastily dressing, I hurried to the street, expecting to find many houses wrecked and churches and other large buildings in ruins. I was greatly surprised to find so little damage done. A church tower had tumbled down on Telegraph Avenue a couple of blocks from our house, and its debris practically blockaded the street. A frame building, an old two-story rickety affair, at the intersection of Hobart Street and Broadway, had fallen flat. A larger, built-over frame apartment house on Eleventh Street was wrecked so it had to be taken down.
Nearly every brick building in town suffered a loss of fire walls, while three or four old buildings were so badly injured that they were subsequently removed and new buildings erected in their place. The modern steel-framed structures went through the test without serious injury. The tall buildings were as immune from injury as the smaller ones. There was not a building in Oakland, Alameda, or Berkeley, that I heard of, that was not shorn of its chimney tops. This contributed no small amount of discomfort in household affairs, especially in culinary operations. People who relied upon gas stoves for their kitchen needs were not discommoded any length of time. On this side of the bay the gas and water mains did not suffer any serious damage. There was not a household that did not suffer some loss from broken crockery, ornaments, furniture, etc. Interiors, in some instances, were flooded by the breaking of water pipes inside of the houses. The addition of soot, broken plaster, and the liquid contents of broken glass containers increased the misery in many homes.
People who were on the street during the earthquake said that the shaking of the houses made a terrific din. The houses, and especially the roofs, emitted clouds of dust. Tree tops and telegraph poles were swaying several feet back and forth, and the surface of the streets running east and west moved in undulations not unlike the waves on the bay. With all of the tumbling of chimneys, crumbling of fire walls, and falling buildings, only two or three people were killed in Oakland, and not more than a score of injuries were reported. People were frightened and many could not be induced to enter their homes for a length of time-- some for hours and some for days.
Fortunately, we were having a spell of about as fine weather as one could wish for. The air was warm and balmy for a couple of days more, so it was no hard-ship to eat and to sleep out of doors, as many people did, until driven in by the cold winds and rain storm a little later on. Our family ate their breakfast inside the house, though it was cooked out in the back yard on a camp fire. People who had gas stoves were soon able to resume their cooking operations in the house, the gas company having quickly repaired damages to its plant and renewed the supply of gas. But people who depended on wood or coal stoves, with chimneys to carry off the smoke, were not allowed to use them until the chimneys were examined by a city inspector, who would then issue a permit. Bricklayers were in great demand for several weeks.
After an early breakfast, and finding that none of our family had been hurt, I walked down town to see what had happened and hear what I might from other places. Upon reaching Fourteenth and Broadway my thoughts for the first time touched upon San Francisco, and I instinctively turned my eyes in its direction. I saw that the heavens above the city were filling with the black smoke of a great fire, which was rapidly finishing the work of destruction begun by the earthquake, and that a disaster more appalling than anything ever dreamed of and more extensive in destruction of property ever before known was now upon the unfortunate city.
Under the circumstances I knew my presence was needed, or at least my place of duty was at the mint, to direct and assist in protecting the government property placed under my care as Superintendent. I had great difficulty in making the trip to the city. The local trains connecting with the ferry-boats were not running on schedule, and when a train did come along the roofs and platforms were covered with people who could not get inside. It seemed as if about all of Oakland's population was bound for San Francisco, but few people, however, were carried over by the ferry-boats. The trains were halted along the line between Broadway and the pier. By riding on one until it stopped, then running ahead and getting aboard of another and walking from the foot of Seventh Street to the end of the pier, I finally reached the ferry slip, to be told that no one was allowed to go on the boats bound for the city and that the boats would only be run to bring refugees from San Francisco. I hunted up Mr. Palmer, the division superintendent, and asked him to make an exception of my case and let me go over. He said he fully appreciated the circumstances of my request and would send me across the bay immediately.
I was directed to go aboard one of the ferry-boats in the slip and was soon on the way to the city that was being ravaged by fire arising in almost every direction. I took a position on the upper deck as far forward as possible and tried to pick out the districts threatened by the flames. At this hour there were several distinct and separate conflagrations, which merged into one great, sweeping fire later in the day. The fire were started, no doubt, by the disturbance of electric wires, upsetting of stoves, etc., in half a dozen or more sections of the city, but more particularly in the wholesale district, the water front section, and the district through to the Mission from the bay. The earthquake had broken the water pipes in the streets in many places, therefore the mains were empty and no water was to be had by the firemen at any of the hydrants. They were helpless away from the water front. By getting water from the bay, the fire department prevented the flames from spreading to the docks and warehouses on the piers, and also saved considerable other property adjacent to the waterfront.
It was a terrible sight. Flames were leaping high in the air from places scattered all the way across the front part of the city. Great clouds of black smoke filled the sky and hid the rays of the sun. Buildings in the track of the rapidly spreading fire went down like houses of cardboard; Little puffs of smoke would issue from every crevice for a brief time, to be suddenly followed by big clouds of black smoke which would hide things for an instant. as if in attempt to shut out the vision of the tragedy being enacted. Great masses of flame would quickly take the place of the smoke and shoot up above everything, announcing the consummation of destruction, and then sweep on to the doomed one next in order. I could see that the devastation was going on in the very midst of the most important and costly part of the citythe wholesale, financial and retail districts. How far the fire had extended I could not make out whether the mint structure had yet been subjected to the fury of the flames I could not determine. The uncertainty increased my anxiety to reach the building.
Landing from the ferry, I found both sides of Market Street for several blocks from the ferry building to be in a mass of flames. Passage up town was also blocked by the flames by the way of Mission, Howard, Folsom and other parallel streets on the south. To the north, along the water front, I made my way on docks, passing in front of the burning buildings facing the bay, amid firemen fighting the flames, and hundreds of refugees racing for the ferry building, having learned that the cities of Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley afforded an asylum for the homeless of San Francisco. These people were of all classes and conditions, young and old, male and female. Many were laden with all they could carry of household things, pet animals, and birds in their cages, but more people passed along in the race for a safer place with no loads or packages to hinder them. By use of the word "race" I do not mean to imply that the movements of the crowds indicated any showing of panic. On the contrary, I did not see a single person in tears or manifesting fear. Every one seemed to realize that all were menaced by the same danger and victims of the same misfortune, and were reduced to a common level for the time, at least- a condition which seemed to arouse the utmost confidence in one another. The sight of so much distress drove into obscurity the baser soul, to give the fullest play to all that was noble and good in man. Never was human life and person, or personal property so safe from injury or loss by depredation in San Francisco as on that terrible day, and for the several days following.
I went as far north as Jackson or Pacific Street, thence west around the fire. I found at Sansome Street the fire fighters concentrating their efforts there to prevent the fire from crossing the thoroughfare and spreading west; and as on Market Street, from the intersection of Sansome Street west as far as the street was built up, the fire had not been able to cross, it was thought and hoped that all that valuable property and business west of Sansome and north of Market were going to be saved from the conflagration. This hope remained strong until late in the afternoon, when the fire, slowly eating its way north on the east side of Sansome Street, reached a tall building between Clay and Washington streets which was filled, from cellar to attic, with inflammable goods. This structure made a terrific blaze, which was communicated to some frame buildings across the street which were very flimsy.
The appellation, "fire fiend," seemed to be the only term appropriate at this point. The flames acted as if they knew that, so far, they had been prevented from crossing to the buildings on the other side all along Sansome Street, but now they had conquered the resistance after an all-day fight and hesitated only long enough to gather strength for a terrific and terrifying demonstration of their destructive powers. The buildings at the point of the crossing were wiped out in a few moments, then from a direction west across the territory thought to have been saved from the fire raced a column of flame about a block wide like a prairie fire, leaving the property bordering its path for more deliberate destruction.
In almost less time than it takes to tell about it the flames jumped from Sansome to Montgomery, then from the latter street to Kearny, seizing upon Chinatown with a fury that terrified the poor Chinamen and prevented them from saving much or anything in the way of goods or personal effects. The fire moved more slowly in spreading in the other directions, but it was this particular part of the conflagration that completed the destruction of the business district and hotel section and burned for more than two days afterward before it was conquered by the firemen, citizens and soldiers who, when routed at Sansome Street, retreated to Van Ness Avenue, and there put up a successful line of defense. The fire burned up to that street, but there it was stayed. The part of the conflagration which swept from the ferry building on through the wholesale district and thence through the Mission finally worked its way across Market Street and joined the Sansome Street branch of the fire. It would take too much space to attempt to relate all the details of the burning of the city. But in those three days of horror every bank, every theater, every newspaper, all the large business houses, and the homes of over one- third of the population of the city had been swept out of existence.
To return to the description of my efforts to reach the mint building: when I reached Kearny Street and found that I was out of the fire zone, I started in the direction of the mint, using Kearny, Sutter, and Post streets until I reached Union Square. In crossing Union Square I saw the dead body of a man wrapped in a quilt lying near the base of the Dewey monument. I was told that the unfortunate was a victim of the earthquake. I had now passed through a good portion of the substantial part of the city not yet attacked by the flames and was able to observe the damage caused by the earthquake. I was surprised to find that all the first-class buildings on good foundations were practically uninjured. There were some poorly constructed buildings erected on made ground which were thrown down, among which the hotel on Valencia Street, where the greatest loss of life took place, was a notable instance. Frame houses on solid ground but a short distance away on either side of the hotel showed little evidence of having passed through an earthquake. After leaving Union Square I walked down Powell toward Market.
Upon reaching the last named street I soldiers along the thorough fare to keep all people from passing into the burning district. Just what advantage to the public, property owners, or any one, for that matter, such use of the soldiers was, or of what value their instructions were, I could never learn or understand. The action of the troops prevented proprietors of stores and office people from visiting their places of business, securing papers, and saving personal belongings. They prevented the looting of the doomed stores, it is true, but probably it would have been better to have thrown the store doors open and let people carry off what they could than stand over the property with loaded rifles, threatening death to any who attempted to enter until the flames came along and devoured the stuff and relieved the soldiers. However, I was displeased with the manner in which the soldiers pushed me back, in my several attempts to cross Market Street at different points. Finally, at the intersection of Mason and Market streets, while trying to convince a guard that I was a government officer and that my duty called me across the street, a policeman who happened to know me came along, and finding out what I wanted ignored the soldier and escorted me to the other side of Market Street, thence down to Fifth Street, where the mint was located. I felt exceedingly grateful for his kindness and could not help admiring this evidence of superior judgment of the police over the military in this particular case.
When I reached the mint building I found that I had also reached the edge of the fire zone. A lot of small buildings directly opposite the mint building on Fifth Street had already been destroyed by the flames, and the fire was slowly eating its way northerly toward the Metropolitan Temple and Lincoln school building, both of which faced on Fifth Street; besides, from the center of the same block it was working its way more rapidly toward the big Emporium Building. Another branch of the flames had swept the buildings on the south side of Mission opposite the mint building, and was crossing Mission, heading for Market Street, clearly pointing Out for destruction all the big buildings west and north of the mint; and it was also evident that before the afternoon was over the two fires would come together on Fifth Street, and thus cut off the mint building from communication with the outside world and surround it with fire, if not destroy it.
Early in the beginning of the conflagration a great many of the poor people living in the vicinity of the mint brought quantities of bedding and other household things such as could be easily handled and piled the stuff on the walks around the building, thinking it would be safe there. One of the initial fires, that finally merged with others in making the general conflagration, started a block below the mint on Fifth Street in a rickety frame building used as a boarding house. It was partially thrown down by the force of the earthquake shocks. A stove in which a fire had been started to cook breakfast was upset and the red- hot coals, when spilled out, set fire to the place. Firemen quickly appeared on the scene while the flames were yet small and could easily have been extinguished if any water could have been obtained from the hydrants. They could only stand by and watch the fire grow into an uncontrollable demon of blaze.
Inside the mint building I was greatly pleased to find fifty of our employees, whose sense of loyalty to duty had not been modified by fear of earthquake or the horror of being penned up in a big building surrounded by fire. They were there to do their best to help save the property of the government, and they went about the work in a simple, everyday manner, but nevertheless with earnest, willing, and active spirit I felt proud to be Superintendent of that band of faithful and brave men. The captain of the watch, T. W. Hawes, had directed the work with excellent judgment until I arrived. They had fought the fire away from getting a foothold in the building from the east and south sides, but we all knew the worst was to come when the flames reached the big buildings to the west and north of us. I made a trip over the inside of the building and had things made snug and had all inflammable material removed from proximity to the openings in the walls on the north and west sides. A survey from the roof about 1 o'clock in the afternoon made our position look rather perilous. It did not seem probable that the structure could withstand that terrific mass of flames that was sweeping down upon us from Market Street.
The fire that had cut across Mission Street to the west of us had swept out northwesterly to Market Street, then east as if to join hands with the other branch of the fire then raging in and on both sides of the big Emporium Building; it had thus marshaled the elements of destruction and was now marching them down on the mint building. The battle would soon be on. Lieutenant Armstrong of the United States army was thoughtful enough to bring a squad of ten soldiers from Fort Miley to help in any way the men could be of service to us. These with our own men made a fighting crew of sixty, which was divided up into squads for work on each floor, from the basement to the roof. Fortunately for us, we had a good supply of water. In fact, it is a matter of interest to know that, some months previous, the suggestion came to me that we should have the building piped and fire hydrants and hose at suitable places installed on each floor to protect the building from any fire originating on the inside. It was only about ten days before the great disaster came upon us that the last hydrants of the system were put in place on the roof.
Our water supply was independent of outside source being derived from an artesian well in the court. With a strong pump in the boiler room we were able to force a good stream to any part of the roof. Then the two large tanks located on the roof, filled with water, gave us a strong head for two hose streams at the basement floor. Without this protection the building would, without question, have been gutted by the flames. But even these alone would not sufficient to keep the fire from gaining a foothold. On the second and third floors the men worked almost wholly with buckets. Every man stuck to the post where he had been placed. There was not a whimper, though some knew their homes were in the path of the fire, and all felt there was possibly something else besides the safety of the building depending upon the issue of the contest with the great mass of fire that was soon to sweep against us.
I know I had decided that, if we should be unable to stand the heat of the flames being against and over the building, or should be driven out by the flames taking possession of the structure, what I should try to do to preserve the lives of the brave men defending the property. I formed a plan of retreat, if the worst came, but said nothing of it to the men. If the mint building had burned it would have been warm work for us, in more than one sense, in getting outside of the fire zone, but I think we would have succeeded, for the buildings to the south of us had been burned away, so we could have gone to the streets, where we would only have had to endure the heat of the ruins until an opening was made in the fire circle surrounding us. We possibly would have had to remain inside the fire zone, like cattle in a huge corral until the fire burned out at some point to enable us to make an exit. However, we did not have much time for speculation, or long to wait for the contest to begin.
We had scarcely finished placing the men, when, inside, the building was made almost dark as night by a mass of black smoke that swept in upon us just ahead of the advancing flames; then, following, came a tremendous shower of red hot cinders, big and small, which fell on our building as thick as hail in a storm, and piled up on the roof in drifts nearly two feet deep at one place against a fire was for a distance of twenty feet. The court in the center of the building was open to the sky, and in it were much wood and timber. Here the sparks and cinders fell as thick as elsewhere, a dozen little fires were starting at various places in the court, and the men with the hose streams at each end of the court had all they could do to keep those fires down and new ones from starting.
In the height of this feature of the fight I went out into the court to show a soldier who was handling one line of hose how to get the most efficiency from the stream of water. Before I could get back my clothes and hat were scorched by the falling cinders. The difficulty of keeping the fire from getting a foothold here greatly increased my fear that the mint was doomed to destruction. Finally the shower of living coals abated somewhat, making the fight in the court easier, so I passed to the upper floor, where I felt that the hardest struggle against the flames would soon take place.
The buildings across the alley from the mint were on fire, and soon great masses of flames shot against the side of our building as if directed against us by a huge blow- pipe. The glass in our windows, exposed to this great heat, did not crack and break, but melted down like butter; the sandstone and granite, of which the building was constructed, began to flake off with explosive noises like the firing of artillery. The heat was now intense. It did not seem possible for the structure to withstand this terrific onslaught. The roar of the conflagration and crashing of falling buildings together with the noise given off from the exploding stones of our building, were enough to strike terror in our hearts, if we had had time to think about it.
At times the concussions from the explosions were heavy enough to make the floor quiver. Once I thought a portion of the northern wall and roof had fallen in, so loud and heavy was the crashing noise. Great tongues of flame flashed into open windows where the glass had been melted out, and threatened to seize upon the woodwork of the interior of the tier of rooms around that side of the building. Now came the climax. Would we succeed in keeping the fire out, or should we have to retreat and leave the fire fiend to finish the destruction of the mint unhindered? Every man was alive to the situation, and with hose and buckets of water they managed to be on hand at every place when most neededfirst in this room and then in that.
The men in relays dashed into the rooms to play water on the flames; they met a fierce heat; though scorched was their flesh, each relay would remain in these places, which were veritable furnaces, as long as they could hold their breaths, then come out to be relieved by another crew of willing fighters. How long this particular feature of the contest went on I have little idea, but just when we thought we were getting the best of the fight another cloud of dense, black, choking smoke suddenly joined the flames and drove us back to the other end of the building, and some of the men, more sensitive to the stifling smoke, were compelled to go to the floors below.
I thought the building was now doomed, beyond question, but to our surprise the smoke soon cleared up and the men, with a cheer, went dashing into the fight again. Every advantage gained by them was told by their yells of exultation. We were gaining in the fight when word came to me that the roof was now on fire and the flames were getting beyond the control of the men there, who only had buckets to fight with. The roof men wanted a hose stream, but I sent word back that the hose was needed on the third floor for a while longer and that as soon as we were out of danger at this point we would attack the roof fire from underneath in the attic. I knew the roof would burn slowly, as it was covered with copper roofing plates.
The explosions of the stones in our walls grew fainter, and finally we heard no more of them. The flames ceased their efforts to find entrance to our stronghold through the windows, but the heat reflected from the mass of red hot ruins to the north of us was almost unbearable: we could not see what the situation was outside, or tell just what other or further experience was in store for us. However, we began to feel that the fight was nearly won and that, after all, we were going to save the building. We were now able to keep the interiors of the rooms which were most threatened wet down by the bucket men, so I sent the men with the hose to extinguish the roof fire, which was quickly done. In a half hour or so our defensive work was over. I now bad time to take some observations, and made a trip over the building for that purpose. I found that the building had not been seriously injured, and that with careful watching and preventing the lodgment of cinders, there would be no further danger of the mint being destroyed. The fight was won. The mint was saved.
We were a happy band, pleased with the result of our efforts in successfully fighting off the fire, but we did not think so much of our victory, until a day or two later when we saw the benefits to follow to the stricken community in a financial way. We opened the only available vaults in the city holding any considerable amount of coin.
It was now near 5 o'clock in the evening. The struggle with the fire demon had lasted from early morning, and all were tired, but there were other duties to be performed by them, as no relief crew was obtainable. The men were divided in watches, which gave some of them opportunity to obtain a little rest. The watch on duty was stationed at the exposed places. The hose lines were stretched, filled buckets were placed in convenient places, and steam pressure in the boiler room was ordered kept up so the pumps could be started at a moment's notice if needed.
When all the preparations and plans for the night had been arranged I determined to make the effort to go to Oakland and send a report to the Director of the mint at Washington, as I knew the authorities there would be pleased to know that our building had been saved. I shall never forget the feeling that came over me as I descended the steps of the mint building into Fifth Street and noted the change that had taken place there within a few short hours. When I passed down that block on Fifth Street from Market in the morning all the large business blocks, from the Metropolitan Temple and the Lincoln school were intact. The soldiers, policemen, firemen, and privileged citizens moving to and fro then gave animation to the scene, but now, turn which way you would, the view presented was one of utter ruin, desolation, and loneliness. The buildings just described were piles of smoking and blazing ruins. The street was encumbered with fallen trolley poles and tangled wires and other indestructible debris from the burned buildings. Not a human being was to be seen. It seemed as if all the people and buildings of the city but the mint and its defenders had been destroyed. It was a most depressing scene of desolation.
The heat was intense, but I picked my way through the obstacles lying in twisted and tangled masses in the street until I got out of the fire zone. I then started for the ferry at the foot of Market Street, taking something of the course on my return as that by which I came in the morning, although I had to make a wider detour to the north, as the flames had worked several blocks farther in that direction. On my way I saw that part of the fire had escaped from the firemen Sansome street, and was racing across Kearny Street to Dupont, threatening, in it course, the destruction of Chinatown. The poor, unfortunate inmates of this section, realizing the fate in store for their homes and property, were in a state of great activity and excitement.
From the speed the fire was making in their direction and the reluctance some of the Chinamen were showing in the way of leaving their homes and property, I felt that there would be a loss of life here to be added to the list of deaths caused by the disaster, but the soldiers and police came along and drove the loiterers out of the zone of danger. It was an appalling scene that I pass through on my way to the ferry. The wild march of the flames up the hill, the fleeing residents, the rushing of the firemen with their engines and trucks, and of other fire fighters to a new line of defense, the exploding charges of dynamite used to blow down buildings in the path of flames, combined in telling, in a manner stronger than words, the terrible character of the disaster the people of San Francisco were facing.
After arriving in Oakland I immediately went to the telegraph office and filed a dispatch to
the Director of the mint at Washington, D. C. The telegraph office was crowded with
people trying to send messages to relatives and friends. To give an idea of the extent of
business suddenly thrust upon telegraph company within the ten days following the fire, it
may be said that it was unable to place all messages filed upon the wires and hundreds
were forwarded by mail. However, all government business had the right of way and was
forwarded at once, so I was soon in touch with the authorities at Washington. The
following is the substance of the report I sent the evening of the first day of the fire:
The sudden doubling of the population of Oakland and other conditions warranted the calling of several companies of the National Guard to assist in policing the city, and before dusk the streets were being patrolled by soldiers. However, there was little need of them for circumstances of the disaster, for the time being, fired the minds of every one with only the best of thoughts and traits of character. The best that is in humanity was on parade. Strange as it may seem, it is no less a truth that life and property were never more respected or more secure than during the trying days following the disaster. All lines of class feeling were obliterated; the rich and the poor were on the one level of life. I do not remember of an instance when any individual failed to respond in the performance of duty to his fellow in distress, when and wherever called upon.
That first night of the disaster, the flames from the burning buildings in San Francisco illuminated the western part of the heavens well nigh to the zenith, and the light reflected made the streets of Oakland like twilight. Thousands of people who had been made nervous by the earthquake in the morning would not go into their homes to sleep, and either made their beds on the ground away from danger of falling walls or walked the streets. Thousands sought places of advantage from whence they could watch the progress of the conflagration on the other side of the bay. So far as weather conditions were concerned, the day and night were beautiful. This fact made it desirable and not unpleasant to be out of doors. I retired early and bed and had a good night's rest, which I felt was necessary, that I might be in the best trim to meet the demands my position would probably call for when I reached the mint the following day.
I reached San Francisco quite early Thursday morning. When I landed there I found the ferry building almost deserted. A policeman and two or three citizens were all the people to he seen around that usually lively place. I asked the policeman how I could best get up town. He said he did not know of any route not accompanied with danger, or without going through the fire zone. There was no way of going around the fire, as he was informed that it was then burning near the water or bay, both north and south, therefore he advised me not to try to make the trip. I asked if Market Street would not admit of a possible passage. He replied in the affirmative, and said that if I was determined to go, that it was undoubtedly the best way to get there. One of the citizens standing near, hearing the conversation, spoke up and volunteered the information that one or two parties of men had succeeded in making the trip through the burned district by following Market Street to the ferry building. although one man had been killed by falling walls and the balance of his party had been nearly suffocated by the smoke and heat from the ruins lining both sides of the street. This information was not very encouraging, but I felt that I must try to reach the mint building, as I had not heard from there since leaving the evening before, so I started out.
The heat was not so great as I expected, but every now and then suffocating clouds of smoke enveloped me so closely I could hardly see or breathe. There were tons and tons of debris from all kinds of building material falling in huge masses in the street. In one or two places the fallen ruins had filled the street from curb to curb, several feet deep; these I had to clamber over, practically on "all fours." Tottering walls still stood in many places on both sides of the street They appeared as if the slightest earthquake shock or puff of wind would send them toppling. As we had been experiencing shocks of earthquake every few hours, following the big shock, I must confess I felt I was in peril and heartily wished I was out of that particular place.
The worst of the trip was between the ferry and Montgomery Street. From Montgomery Street west to Fifth Street I had fair going, as there was but little smoke and less heat, and no debris except on the sidewalks. I was probably one of the first who passed through Market Street from the ferry, after the buildings on both sides of the street had been burned. I saw no evidence of the mishap the citizen had described to me, although I saw the dead body of a man, a victim of the fire, lying in the street near the sidewalk in front of what had been Spreckels Market. The head had nearly all been burned off, though the clothes were scarcely scorched.
While about midway between Montgomery and Kearny streets on Market I noticed a small, one-story brick building still intact, which, for some strange reason, had escaped the flames that had gutted the big Crocker building to the east and the Chronicle building on the west and leveled the buildings between. While I stood there alone, the only person on the street, marveling as to how the building could have escaped destruction, a little jet of flame appeared above the eastern fire wall on the roof. It could have been extinguished with a bucket or two of water. I recall now that, while I saw that the building was doomed to the fate of its neighbors, it did not seem a matter of much importance. The idea probably arose from a sense of relation, wherein this building was so unconsiderable an affair, compared with the large and costly structures by which it had been surrounded, now gutted and in ruins.
I met with no other incident in completing my journey to the mint building than encountering the dead body before mentioned. I will not attempt to describe my feelings or my thoughts while making that trip up Market Street, solitary and alone, between the towering and threatening ruins of the great buildings which had lined San Francisco's main thoroughfare and amid an awful and suggestive silence.
When I turned into Fifth Street quite another scene was pictured. My heart thrilled with emotion at the sight of our national colors floating from an improvised staff thrust out from the front gable peak of the mint building, the staff from which it was usually flown having been burned. The waving flag confirmed our victory over the fire demon in the contest of the day before, and proclaimed a haven of some comfort for all who could gather under its folds, and a nucleus in the restoration of the city. On the sidewalk around the building was an encampment made of all kinds of improvised shelters, occupied by several hundreds of people. In some way, they had found that the fountains in front of the building were a source of fresh water, one of the very few supplies available in the entire burned district.
As the sidewalks and the two lawn spaces in front of the building offered a camping
place, as many as could be accommodated located there. Having an abundant supply of
fresh water in our wells, I had a couple of pipe lines run to convenient places near the
sidewalk, and for two or three days there were lines of people awaiting their turns at the
faucets. Among the campers I found some acquaintances and some guests from the St.
Francis Hotel. The mint people did all within their power to make the refugees
comfortable. One or two sick people were given shelter in the building for the night. The
mint now being out of danger, I sent the following message to the Director of the mint:
A regular watch of two hours on and four off, on duty inside and outside of the building, was established. The officers of the mint passed a good part of the day on the roof, watching the progress of the fire. The next morning I received several telegrams, among which were two from the Secretary of the Treasuryone asking for a statement as to the loss of life and extent of damage and the condition of banks in neighboring towns, and the other thanking us for saving the mint building, and complimenting our actions. He also requested me to recommend some action that would enable the department to relieve the situation.
In response, I replied by wire that the stories of loss of life had been grossly exaggerated, that I had been in position to bear from all parts of the city, and I did not think the list of the dead would reach more than 400; that the fire did not travel fast and the authorities took trouble to keep ahead of the flames, notifying people of the danger, and caring for the helpless. "Every bank in San Francisco buried in ruins. All banks in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda able to resume business. To meet the conditions the suburban banks ought to have free and prompt telegraphic transfer of funds. In view of the ruined condition of sub-treasury. I advise making transfers direct through the mint." I also reported that the fire was practically under control and that it was estimated that about half of the residence section would be saved from the flames.
The suggestion to make free transfer of funds by telegraph was promptly adopted, and the Secretary wisely extended the privilege to individuals in private life. This action proved far-reaching in re-establishing a financial system and restoring confidence in the banking institutions of the city. that had been temporarily Put out of business, to say nothing of the relief afforded people in private life. The procedure in the transfer of money was made very simple. A person or firm in the East desiring to have a given sum of money delivered to a person, firm, or corporation in San Francisco, or any part of the state, would deposit the amount at any of the sub-treasuries of the United States, giving the name and address of the person to whom it was to be delivered. These particulars would be telegraphed to me, and I would send notices to the beneficiaries to call at the mint and receive the money.
Some idea as to the extent people used the privilege accorded by the government can be formed by the statement that over $40,000,000 was transferred in less than a fortnight. The transfers ranged in sums from $50 to over $1,000,000 each. On the first day of the transfers I attended to the business without assistance; however, the next day, I had to have the help of a couple of clerks, and in two or three days after the transfers had so increased in number that the work required the help of all the clerks in the mint force. Not a dollar was lost. Only one payment, a $300 transfer. was delivered to the wrong person. The person who received it bore the same name and initials as the party for whom it was intended. The error was discovered after the payment was made, and the money was returned at once. Not more than two or three transfers were returned to the senders as "not called for."
On the morning of the fourth day, or on April 21, I was able to report to the Washington authorities that all fire had been extinguished or had burned out for the lack of buildings to burn. Referring to the establishment of a bureau of information, requested by the Secretary of the the condition of relatives and friends in the ill-fated city, I reported that I found that the relief committees, both in San Francisco and Oakland, were trying to accomplish the purpose with the aid of the Associated Press, though the manager of the Western Union Telegraph company informed me that he thought the plan impracticable at that time, as it would be impossible to get the desired information over the wires, which were then more than forty-eight hours behind in forwarding the ordinary messages filed. I also suggested "that reassuring telegrams be spread through the country, explaining that stories of loss of lives and condition of people had been grossly exaggerated." I further stated that the list of dead and injured "was exceedingly small, considering character and extent of the disaster. No further danger, unless the conflagration should break out anew. Officials declare they have affairs completely in hand. Relief supplies are coming in rapidly, and everybody is being taken care of. Water mains being repaired."
Up to this time, business of all kinds had been suspended in Oakland and other towns of
the bay section, but now the care of the homeless and helpless had been systematized, and
circumstances required that the banks and business houses be opened again to supply the
needs of the general community of the state. Business through-out the entire state
had been paralyzed. All confidence in the stability of the banks was for the time suspended.