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David B. Hill of Vacaville, California, transcribed, for the Museum, this letter written by his uncle from Oakland shortly after the earthquake.

The author, Frederick H. Collins (1869-1922), co-owned a San Francisco ladies fashion and millenary shop, Koenig and Collins Cloaks and Suits at 259 O’Farrell St., that was later lost to the fire. “Max,” referred to in the letter, was his partner Max Koenig.

The letter, written to Collins’ family in Placerville, is a wonderful mix of first-hand observations, and garbled reports passed from refugee to refugee.

“Mamma” was Eliza Jane Knox Collins (1846-1919), and “Rob,” Robert Knox Collins (1877-1922), was owner of a cigar store at 401 California St. “Nell” was Nellie Alice Collins (1872-1948), who was in Oregon at the time of the earthquake. Floyd McKenny was a reporter for the San Francisco “Bulletin.”

April 24th ’06

My Dears —

I don’t know when I will get to write again so send this for me to Nell and then you (Nell) send it to mamma — The pouring rain compels us to stay in at Sadies, and our two trips to what was S.F. made us Thank God! to get back.

From the ferry to Van Ness it looks like a gray and black graveyard, as far as you can see, there isn’t a house visible until you get within a few blocks of Van Ness. The fire passed way beyond Van Ness on both sides of the City. Rob was wiped out same as Max and I. We haven’t heard from nor seen him yet but Floyd McKenny saw him with some of his household goods being driven toward the [Golden Gate] Park.

Max and I stayed out on Buchanan and Sutter with a friend of ours. But what a night. We felt that if we got home here alive again we would stay here, for no lights of any kind are the houses and they take a shot at you if you are out after 8.30 p.m. So you sit in pitch darkness with a gloomy pall of smoke over your heads and a graveyard silence and an occasional earthquake tremor.

We never closed our eyes that night and it began to rain and a cold mournful wind began to howl around open chimney holes and busted roofs. At 5 o’clock a rifle shot was heard on the block and some young fellow fell dead who was misprudent enough to venture out to borrow some whiskey for his sick mother. A soldier ordered him to throw it away and shot him for refusing. This is only one of many cases. When daylight came we helped cook our breakfast in the street where rich and poor alike squat side by side cooking on brick stoves, and then all go stand in line to get their share of provisions. No one is allowed to sell a thing there but every thing left in stores has been distributed, and loads are coming in every day.

We tried to find some of our friends but it’s almost impossible. We found Mrs. Young. She has joined the red cross forces and is begging clothes to put on the new born babies in the parks. She had 18 to clothe in one day. Soon as they are born they just have to roll them in some old coat or rags until they find clothes. One woman had triplets.

Then on top of all yesterday, the rain just poured in torrents soaking bedding, grass and ground and peoples’ clothes. With it a cold wind. People are draggled with mud, and there is hardly a house left that isn’t twisted or unsafe. Some are toppled into the streets. Some are leaning over on their next door neighbors, and stone stairs fallen away from front doors. Church towers of stone have crashed and crushed into homes besides them. Many places crushing the occupants. No one will ever know the hundreds that were killed under fallen buildings and then buried.

Valencia St. has slid 40 feet out of its course and a hotel on that street and Market collapsed, killing 103 out of 106 that were in it. The earth split open there wide enough for a man to fall in and you can hear a running river or creek under it. Another street a little mound raised up and burst open and a little fountain of regular clear mountain spring water is shooting up out of it.

We walked down the north side of Van Ness when we were helping Max’s sister in law and baby out of the city and found the earth split and uneven in places and raised in one place enough to tip a big stone mansion over backwards down the hill. Two big houses have fallen together near it and are ready to crash in the street. In places the earthquake has humped iron (or steel) up like arches in places so most of the third of the City left (out in the part beyond Van Ness) is pretty well battered up.

So in a deluge of water Max and I walked to the ferry soaked to the skin making our escape from ruin and (water this time) and dodging quickly along under towering scraps of high stone walls swaying over head in places. Our shoes were full of water and we were happy to get back to Sadies again.

They are dynamiting dangerous walls today over there and an earthquake last night at 11:30 shook down a few more besides scaring the balance of courage out of the people there. We felt it here also. Ann got up and got dressed ready to run last night.

Today it rains in showers at intervals. You know what we have lost of course. Our beautiful store, a fifty thousand dollar stock. Everything at our apartments, my library, your paintings and mine — Bronzes, silver vase. Expensive pictures, our embroidered robes, linens, steins. All good clothes such as black suits, overcoats, hats, shoes, underclothes, shirts. All souvenirs and pictures from Germany, cut glass, all photographs, piano, hand painted china — and so on down to just what useful thing we could rush into a valise and to bundles (enough to cover us in case we had to sleep on the hills) Everything else went. Still we are like all other big losers. We meet it cheerfully and will have to make a new start when all confusion is over and we see if S.F. is doomed to be left or the rest of it demolished.

They have dug “Privy” holes in the middle of streets out in the part that’s saved for women to use.

In all the misery there are the usual tearfully funny things — people cross ferry boats that dreadful morning in nightgowns and barefoot and many ran with the crazies and things they had saved. One woman saved a bird and one shoe. Another a few flat irons. One poor Chinaman crossed the bay with a stick of firewood wrapped up, and some ran with an “enlarged picture” of someone of the family as a child. Old women and men were seen dragging chairs loaded with things in the way of clothing and blankets, pulled by a little rope over their backs.

Just had a little shock while writing this — Just got a letter from mamma wanting to know why she can’t hear from us. We sent telegram to her the day after the City started to burn. Then Sadie wrote to some of you. We think Woody must have been killed as he was in the part that collapsed so terribly when the Earthquake came and was soon a raging furnace.

The morning we first went back and wended our way around the flaming City, our store was then the center of the red hot furnace of flames, and our home “The Iroquois” [595 Geary St.] was a pile of hot ashes and stone. One corner of the wall stuck up in the air with one of our window openings left to look through. The rest was in the hot pit below. Sidewalk was even gone and a big deep hole with the contents of ten furnished floors. Ashes was all that remained. No chance of even finding a small piece of a glass bottle.

Everything was a complete “wipe out,” wholesale and retail both. Never missed one thing on the way, and what ever saved the small part that’s left, I can’t see — for it was sweeping out all over the Mission and back down through the residence portion on our side of Market, the entire wholesale district, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill mansions, down around Hyde and Lombard, where Rob lived, on out toward the Presidio and at the same time the whole middle of the City in one flaming furnace rushing out at the same time.

They dynamited the side of Van Ness nearest to the oncoming fire Saturday. Whole rows of gun powder along the rows of cannons and shot them all at the buildings then set fire to the ones further down so as to make fire meet fire leaving the space on one side clear that had been blown down. That is the only thing that saved the little they did — Talk about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii, this surely beats it all.

The losses go into the Billions — but what hundreds and thousands would have been killed if it had come at about 9 in the evening when theaters were packed and streets were crowded, for nearly every theatre collapsed from the earthquake and the tops of most of the stone and brick buildings fell into the streets and onto sidewalks on both sides. Some buildings fell to the sidewalk right where they stood and some seemed to fall right down into the middle.

Max and I were almost thrown from our beds when the shock came at about 5.15. I rushed to the door casing between bedroom and Turkish room, Max at my heels. We hung onto the sides of the wall while the building seemed to split, groan and crack and rock, expecting each second for the whole big structure of stone and its main floor to crush us at each roll. Stones from the top were falling at our window sills outside and the screams of hundreds of women rushing into the streets half naked.

When the stillness came, I climbed into bed to stop the chatter of my teeth, which seemed to be loose in stiffened jaws. Then we dressed hurriedly and ran to the store over the debris of fallen chimneys and top stories of buildings in the street. Found our store stood it fine. Our wax figures never tipped over but stood unscratched even though the big plate glass windows lay on the sidewalk and glass surrounded them. They stood in a half inch of water with their expensive opera gowns, as the big high jar had tipped over and it was full of water and Easter Lilies.

Inside the store our dressing room was full of fallen plaster but that was all. We even began to clean up and arrange things for business when another shock came and we saw that the City was on fire, so we locked the doors and left the swell store to its fate and went to our home. A little later, when the fire had reached within three blocks. So, expecting the building on our heads any minute, we hurriedly packed some useful clothing, took a farewell look at all our belongings and “hiked” out over the high steep hills and made a circuit to the waters edge and followed that around to the Ferry.

Everything was smoking ruins then right up to the Ferry Building. It seemed the only thing left and they saved that by pumping water on it from the bay.

We can’t tell what we are going to do yet as we don’t know yet what is going to happen ’ here so will let you know later on. But have hardly recovered from it all yet. All are well here but no fires are allowed here either in stoves as everybody’s chimney is in the yards, so it will be a long time before everything is entirely safe. This is to all of you so please forward it as I can’t write it all to each of you.

Love from Fred

Haven’t found yet where Dr. [Edwin] Fraser is but heard he was safe someplace near French Hospital.

Return to the earthquake eyewitness accounts.

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