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William Ford Nichols was the Episcopal Bishop of California at the time of the earthquake. His eyewitness account was written for his children, and was first published shortly after the disaster to raise funds for the Church’s Chinese Mission. It was privately published again in 1923.

Bishop Nichols gives a graphic description of the Great Fire as well as conditions at Mechanics’ Pavilion, the large auditorium turned into an emergency hospital immediately after the earthquake. Bill Graham Civic Auditorium now occupies the Mechanics’ Pavilion site.

A Father’s Story of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco,
April 18, 19, 1906



JOLT-jolt-jolt, sway-sway-sway, rattle-rattle-rattle over big, age-like tens of seconds with a deep diapason of rumbling, and then a great ugly, last BANG — to something like that, was the rousing from sleep at thirteen minutes past five in the morning of Wednesday, April 18th, 1906. We had been in the new Bishop’s House, 2515 Webster St., San Francisco, about three weeks, having celebrated your Mother’s birthday, the 29th of March, by our going into residence and having the first dinner in the house. At the time of the earthquake, Clare and Peggy had gone to San Mateo to visit Mary and Philip, and they all, as well as the others in the house at the time, each have their own memories to tell, as the experience was one of the sort in which Mother Earth in these parts left no one out. Remaining in bed —it can hardly be said “quietly,” with all the throbbing of the house — until the shock had passed, wondering and commenting on what was happening outside and how it was affecting the tall buildings down town, and whether it might bind our doors so that we could not get out of our room, all the time with a calming subconsciousness of the good Providence of Almighty God as our “Refuge, though the earth be moved,” I arose and made a hasty inspection, calling to Billy, inquiring of Mr. Ancell, Missionary from China, who was stopping with us, and finding all was well with all the inmates. The house had stood solidly, though as developed later, one chimney had tossed out so that the top went through our roof, and the center through the Beaver’s roof next door; the other two chimney tops were moved from the base, and several courses of bricks were thrown out of the front gable, caroming on the stone parapet in front of Clare’s room and going through the open window into her room, fortunately all choosing that open entrance than the two closed windows beside it, and so breaking no glass. Billy’s books were all thrown out of their shelves, pictures in several places tumbled off mantel pieces, some vases, etc., fell over in the dining room, and small cracks appeared in many places in the plastering, though none of them were serious, and later, one man in half a day repaired all those that were the more marked. Mr. Faville, the architect, examined the house a few days after the earthquake and said it had stood remarkably well, there being no structural damage, owing to its good foundation, and strong and honest construction.

A look out of the windows brought evidence of the disasters abroad, in streets littered with fallen bricks, tall chimney stacks toppled over, the streets ominously astir with refugees from houses, and a general sort of anxiety in the air. And when I went to take my bath and no water ran, another phase of what had happened dawned on me. But all in due time sat down to breakfast, taking it all in a strangely matter-of-fact way, with probably something of exhilaration of excitement, and something of a profound sense of gratitude for preservation to account for it. After prayers, which seemed at best but feebly to express the latter, each member of the household went his own way. Your Mother and I joined some of our neighbors in the street somewhere about eight o’clock, and while recounting experiences, our neighbor, Mrs. Beaver, saying “We have part of your chimney on our roof,” another shock came, very marked, but not as severe as the first. About that time one of our friends from another part of the city drove up in her carriage, showing decided nervousness and telling of havoc done with dwellings she had already visited, and saying, “The worst of it is, there is to be a severer shock at eleven o’clock, and probably the most serious of all at four o’clock this afternoon.” We assured her that no one knew anything about it, and that California precedents showed that the worst tremors generally were the first, but her credulity is mentioned as significant of a not uncommon frame of mind at the moment, worked upon by such wild, if not positively heartless prognostications. It may be mentioned that after-shocks, as was to be expected, were experienced during the day, and at longer or shorter intervals through succeeding months; indeed still continuing at this writing, fourteen months after, but none of them so serious as to justify the foreboding caused by those senseless predictions.

Rumors of the destruction done soon began to fly thick and fast, and with no telephone and no street cars running, I had a desire to know as soon as possible how our stone and brick churches had stood the shock, and started to walk around the city to view them. First at St. Paul’s, on California St., I found the Rector, the Rev. Mr. Reilly, standing near the building, the stone front of which had suffered much, many stones being loosened and threatening to fall, and others lay on the ground. The interior, which had been recently redecorated, was also badly damaged, the eagle lectern thrown over, with the eagle’s beak penetrating the floor, the new font with its pieces displaced — curiously enough, an after-shock in great measure threw them into place again — the plastering everywhere cracked and covered with hieroglyphic-like characters, as if to register the groaning of the building in its spasms. Next going down by Trinity Church, on Gough and Bush Sts., that massive building showed little evidence of harm except a pinnacle missing and a small crack in the central tower. Fortunately, the steel flame held that tower, as the steel frame held the new Jewish Synagogue on California St., which I noticed in passing had sustained but little injury. Then I went on to St. Luke’s on Van Ness Ave., where the Rector, the Rev. Mr. Weeden, and some of the congregation were sadly contemplating the ruined front, the greater part of the wall facing the Avenue having toppled over. Grace Church, on California and Stockton, on the contrary I found firm and almost scathless, justifying the earthquake proof expenditure put upon it in earlier days in the heavy brick buttressing and iron coring of its inner columns. There were only some slight marks of disturbance on the finials and gables. My way to the Church of the Advent took me past the St. Francis Hotel, which had well survived the shock, and to Market St., which at that time was more like Pandemonium than anything I witnessed during the dire days. Sidewalks were thronged with people treading over the shattered glass from show windows — the wares of which were in many places all open to the public — the debris from fallen walls, cornices, etc., vehicles of all sorts were puttering up the streets, soldiers, policemen, rushing ambulances, all mingling in the mass and making the semblance of greater confusion from the very shoutings and gallopings to try to evolve order. Then ominous smoke clouds, of which more later, seemed to create a horizon of new horror, as fire engines and wagons hurrying with odd lots of belongings snatched from burning and threatening buildings added to the general melee.

On Market St., I met the Rev. Mr. Venables, and soon learned that the great Mechanics' Pavilion, owing to the destruction of the Emergency Hospital, had been taken for the temporary hospital, and after going for a hasty look at the Church of the Advent on Eleventh St., and noting the havoc wrought there by a falling wall, and feeling I ought not to take further time to go on to St. John’s on Fifteenth St., which was not so badly damaged, I joined the others, who were caring for the wounded and dying at the Mechanics' Pavilion. There were there perhaps between two and three hundred lying on cots, mattresses, and even on the floor, with a number of clergymen, including our own Messrs. Lathrop — he being the first clergyman on the ground — and Kelley, nurses, physicians and attendants, the operating tables and medicines, all out in the great open space, and everything conducted with calmness and order, and gentle devotion to the alleviation of suffering and nervous shock. Most pathetic cases came under my own observation as I passed from cot to cot and from one to another, lying everywhere on the floor of the great Pavilion; one man suffering more from anxiety as to what had become of his wife than from his own injuries; another who told me his son had been stricken dead by his side in the early morning; another to whose side I was hurriedly called by a nurse as just passing away from the promise of robust manhood; others groaning from the pain and heartache of permanent maiming; others dazed and oblivious of their peril or predicament. And yet, with it all, the effect seemed to be more of suppression than of expression of the sense of crowding calamity, as those who had come through mercifully preserved tried to show quietly and tenderly their gratitude by ministering to those who had suffered. But when around and over the afflicted, to the number of which ambulances constantly arriving were adding, there was to be something like soothing and well-ordered “first-aid,” a subdued but startling whisper goes from one ministrant to another, “Every patient here must instantly be removed to some place of safety, as the fire is only a short distance off and sweeping this way. ” It was a time for dread panic and dismay, but never in my experience have I witnessed coolness and intelligence, and readiness of expedient equal to that which met the almost thrilling emergency. Here were hundreds of helpless patients in that mammoth, open, wooden structure, that would be kindling wood the moment the full surge of the flame tide struck it. So awful were the possibilities that rumors actually went abroad and were wildly credited, that in mercy many of the patients were chloroformed in order to save them from the worse death of a hopeless holocaust. But there was nothing of the sort. All kinds of vehicles were quickly grouped around every exit. All the ministrants within instantly resolved themselves into an ambulance corps to rapidly collect the patients around the doorways, and put them into the waiting automobiles, wagons, etc., as rapidly as possible. The patients themselves were wonderfully calm. While one of them was waiting his turn, and a cinder lodging in some of the light work of the great roof caused a flame to break out, which some heroic firemen were trying to reach, he said to me very composedly, “Do you think you will get us all out?” I could assure him most confidently that we would. Some hobbled with help, some had to be carried, cots were pushed, mattress with their unconscious burdens lifted, but all were safely and gently transferred to other hospitals removed from the fire, and not only was every patient taken away, but operating tables, medicines, and a good deal of emergency equipment were in the short time saved, and the ashes a few hours later of the huge hall of so many associations — and the last the saddest — had nothing human in them except the blood stains they obliterated.

Returning to the house in the early afternoon I found we had been able to welcome some of our Eastern friends as refugees from the St. Francis and other points and after a short rest I started out again to note the progress of the new peril threatening the city. Since the early morning the smoke had been spreading and thickening, indicating the starting points of many fires, and the headway gained by the flames. The able Chief of the Fire Department had been fatally injured in the earthquake. The water-mains were broken, and the hopelessness of checking the conflagration by the ordinary measures had but become only too menacingly apparent. I found I could get as far as Sansome and Bush to find a fire line there, by the middle of the afternoon, then to Montgomery and almost to Market St., then to California and Kearny, the flames nearing California from Kearny, and having reached a point near the Hall of Justice. The First National Bank Building, corner Bush and Sansome, though scorched, was still practically intact, and in passing the barber shop under the Occidental Hotel, the porter enabled me to look in to see how the earthquake had shattered the ceiling, and there were many marks of the earthquake thereabouts, especially fallen debris from the Lick House. By this time the streets were well patrolled by soldiers, General Funston having promptly co-operated with the city authorities in placing them around the city. I saw Tom Selfridge, Billy’s classmate at West Point, at the head of his mounted artillerymen, marching down town. Though the city was never under martial law, this reinforcement of the police force was most timely to protect the city from disorderly and looting element, and the first few nights double guards paced the street around our residence portion — many of the houses being practically deserted for the time from the fear of further shocks, and other causes. The citizens in some sections freely furnished the soldiers with stimulants in their extra duty and fatigue, and at first there were a few instances of unfortunate results. While at the fire-line on Montgomery Street this first afternoon, where there was more or less excitement, two young women, who had studios in that neighborhood, from which the fire had driven them, came to me, calling me by name, and complaining that a drunken soldier had insulted them. But such incidents were rare and to be expected under all the circumstances; and, taken all in all, the conduct of the soldiers was worthy of the highest commendation, and their agency assuring and calming. Out by the Palace Hotel, at the time I was in that neighborhood, all that was aflame. Mr. Ancell and I after a little went to the California St. hill, and stayed for some time on California St., between Kearny St. and Grant Ave., watching the advance of the fire. The burning of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. Building was most spectacular. Unlike the steel frame, fire-proof buildings in which the fire burned by rooms, as it were in compartments, this building, though tall and of brick, was of wood in the interior, and so made practically a big chimney, with one solid mass of flame working up through it. Dynamiting had already then begun, but seemed to be ineffective. Though from the buildings immediately fringing the fire, they were busily removing such furniture as they could, it did not then occur to me that the old Diocesan House and Grace Church were in jeopardy, especially as the fire seemed to be working toward Montgomery St., from Kearny rather than in our direction. But somewhere about two o’clock the next (Thursday) morning, both the Diocesan House and Grace Church were burned, very little being saved from either, except that as I have since been very glad to learn, the exquisite and very costly Communion Service of Grace Church, dating back to the Rectorship of Bishop Kip in 1856, together with the priceless records of the parish, were removed from the church late on Wednesday afternoon, and carried to a place of safety by the Rector, Mr. Evans; the principal loss from the Diocesan House being that of the Archives and of various photographs, etc., in my rooms, which had especial associations.


THE night was a-light with the spreading conflagration, but, all things considered, we had a good rest, and Thursday morning, Billy, Dr. Brooks and I walked down California Street to the Fairmont Hotel, around which on all sides the flames were leaping. Going along Mason Street, between the Fairmont and the Flood home, with the heat uncomfortable, we found the spacious lawn of the Flood home covered with paintings and other art treasures from the Hopkins Art Gallery across California Street. Some marines from the war ships were thickly posted in that neighborhood, and we saw here and there men throwing stones at the front windows of the large residences on the south side of California Street to break them, and so prevent the flames from bursting them out. All immediately south of that, on Pine, Bush and Sutter Streets, seemed etched in fire. The large frame house on the northeast corner of Mason and Sacramento Streets was burning and the fire tongues were forking out across the street to the Fairmont and just igniting the outer scaffolding and light wooden work there. Retracing our steps out Sacramento Street, we saw isolated buildings on fire, caught from the flying cinders, and soon reached a zone of stirring exodus, as the population to the westward along Taylor, Jones, and the slope towards Polk Street realized that they were to be soon “burned out of house and home.” All sorts of excited groups were in front of the houses pitching together what they hoped to save, tossing odds and ends of their house belongings on the sidewalk, here and there fortunate enough to have a wagon, but improvising all kinds of transportation on baby carriages, step-ladder sled-like arrangements, dragging trunks on their castors, burdening backs with far more than they could hope to carry, and generally trying to communicate hopeless motion to inert furniture. I saw one man with some bulky thing under each arm, another bundle hanging from his neck, and a sort of harness around his shoulders, with which he was pulling a big trunk along the sidewalk. Another poor, elderly colored woman was clutching a small picture with both hands, over which was carefully spread a napkin, and she was hastening eagerly along with it as the only apparent salvage she had. It suggested a portrait of priceless associations.

Going further along in the Western Addition, this nondescript phase of an exodus took other forms — fine carriages fined with stuff snatched from the burning, handsomely dressed ladies mounted on ramshackle express wagons of goods, etc. Indeed, the question of transportation was beginning to be acute in the matter of carrying the members as well as the material things of the menaced houses to places of refuge.

Mrs. Brooks, from Greenwich, Conn., and Dr. Brooks, whom we were glad to welcome from the St. Francis Hotel, Mrs. Lawver and Mr. Ancell were all fortunate in securing conveyance to the ferry to take trains to their respective destinations. Miss Noah, from the Japan Mission, brought to us by Deaconess Drant, also found some way of communicating with the steamer on which she afterward sailed. And here I may mention that by this time there had come such a vast congestion of telegrams that they could neither be delivered nor sent except in comparatively inconsiderable numbers. We accordingly gave a number, including several to family and friends in the East and to Jack, in Mr. Ancell’s care, to send at the first available point on his journey to Oregon. This proved to be Red Bluff, about two hundred miles from San Francisco, causing Jack to wonder if we had been obliged to refugee there.

It was no small comfort during the day to hear through Mr. Chandler, one of the Divinity Students, who rode up on his wheel, that, while the shock was severe in San Mateo, doing much damage to the new buildings, all were safe at the cottage there.

As the day wore on, it became evident that we ourselves might have to be thinking of some way of leaving Webster Street, and I hailed, only to find them pre-empted, a good many carriages, after having gone to the livery stable and having been told that they had everything out and were themselves ordered out, as the stable was to be dynamited in an hour! Billy went out to the Presidio, hoping to secure from some of his officer friends there a Government wagon, but there were none available. Toward the middle of the afternoon, when cinders, some of them two inches long, were dropping thickly around us, the word came that we must prepare to leave the house, as the fire was becoming more and more threatening in our direction, having defied the desperate efforts to stay it at Van Ness Avenue. We adjusted ourselves to what seemed the inevitable — and one of the many “whirligigs” of those days that we can — now look back upon with some wonderment was the fitting ourselves to the necessities as if it were an everyday matter — and soon busied ourselves with the concerns of our domestic exodus. Billy and Nelson, our man, proceeded to dig a place in the yard — and somewhat adamantine they found it — where they buried our silver and a few other things. Then they found easier “sapping and mining” in a neighboring yard — Mr. Otis’ — where in some recent terracing another trench was dug and more committed to it, typewriter, glass, etc., etc.

In the mean time, your mother and I were going over the house, taking something of a last survey, as we then felt it to be, of possessions having the sentiment of our thirty years of married life, including my library, which, with other things, seemed to have just moved up from San Mateo to be burned. But we acted as if there were no time to linger over such musings or over regrets at the probabiety of the new Bishop’s House soon becoming a ruin, and the new furnishings, so associated with the generous thought of the House of Churchwomen and the Diocese, doomed to ashes. We went from room to room to condense what should have down to the fitting of three suitcases. I went to Clare’s and Peggy’s rooms, bulging my pockets with rings and bits of jewelry I thought they might wish to save, and when the suit cases were closed, they contained about the selection and condensation of “worldly goods” that I think we would choose again. It is interesting now to look back to it and review what it was like to feel on the verge of “starting anew” with household effects. We had planned to cut out of its frame the fine old painting of your mother as a child with her mother. As it happened, the only article we really lost was our old “claw-foot” mahogany sofa, which was burnt at the upholsterer’s where it had been sent for a new covering.

Late in the afternoon, meeting with Mr. Mintzer and Mr. Beaver, our neighbors on either side, we agreed that we would not actually withdraw from our houses until the menace of the fire made it peremptory, as there was no immediate danger except from cinders, and a way of escape would always be open to us down Webster Street to Fort Mason, where there were already so many houseless folk gathered. Then I happened to meet Mr. Monteagle, who had just come from Van Ness Avenue, and he brought more hopeful tidings of the possibility of the turning of the course of the fire from our direction after all. At one time we had some thought of trying to walk to the Valencia Street station [near Army St.], as we heard occasional trains were running to San Mateo; but that soon appeared impracticable. However, we had put everything in readiness for prompt retreat, and the outlook growing somewhat more favorable from hour to hour, along in the evening, your mother, Billy, and I, leaving Nelson and Mary, the cook, in the house, walked as we could toward the fire line, going down Pacific Avenue nearly to Polk Street which was then ablaze and further south the fire had already crossed Van Ness Avenue.

After strolling through several streets in the neighborhood, we climbed to an elevation in Lafayette Square, where we found the hill almost black with people, some coming to it as a place of refuge, others, like ourselves, to take in the full spectacular effect of the fire. And here I reach an experience which is simply indescribable. We sat there hour after hour, saying little, but awed by the almost incredible panorama before our eyes. There was nearly a semi-circle of furious flame, and a sky of smoke receding from the immediate foreground as far as the eye could reach.

Over there on the hill, a cloud of flame would swoop down with cyclonic force upon a whole block of frame buildings and engulf them as in a furnace. On the far horizon, darting masses of fire would throw radiance against the sky with startling searchlight effect. just below us there would be periodical detonations of dynamite, followed by upshoots of burning timbers and sparks, as the fierce battle to keep back the fire went on. Figures of firefighters could now and then be discerned, and as it all suggested the holocaust of homes and business blocks, and humanity beaten about all around us, and beyond the fires and desperately disputing for the preservation of the whole Western Addition, inferno—like as to one with troubled dreams it all seemed to be. In that immediate foreground, as I afterwards learned, one of our Rectors, the Rev. Dr. Clampett, was then vainly struggling to save his sermons from his burning home, and one of those explosions of dynamite, as it collapsed a building near Trinity Church, shattered everywhere the windows of the Church.

As long as the present San Francisco generation lives, there will be those to tell thrilling tales of their personal experience under that lurid sky of Thursday night. But by a merciful Providence the battle was won through heroic deeds and brave skills — some priests went up into the tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral, and at the risk of their lives, extinguished the fires that had caught there, when even the firemen thought it hopeless. One gentleman paid a man to ascend to a cupola and check the flame as it was just catching at a central point. The wind veered around it so that it changed from our Webster Street direction.

Your mother, Billy, and I some time after midnight wended our way around the square towards home, picking our pathway among the worn and sleeping refugees, who were, some under tents or other hastily constructed covering and some out in the open, overspreading the hilltop and sides. It was still almost light enough for reading print from the glare of the fires, and we went to our rest, lying down in our day clothes and with our suit cases within ready reach, as the time of danger had not entirely passed, for a refreshing sleep. And so passed Thursday, the 19th.

From Chimney Corner Chats for the Home Circle
San Francisco : 1923
Return to the earthquake eyewitness accounts.

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