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Dr. George Blumer’s Eyewitness Account of the Disaster

In the fall of 1903, my father who lived in California being in poor health, I resigned as Director of the Bender Hygienic Laboratory, Albany, N.Y., and entered practice in San Francisco. I was living in that city until 1905, and I mention this because in the fall months of that year there were 25 or 30 minor earthquake shocks, momentary tremors that did no damage, However, they most likely were forerunners of the more destructive temblor of 1906.

On the evening of April 17th 1906 I received in the last mail a letter from Doctor Herbert E. Smith, Dean of the Yale Medical School, asking me if I would consider accepting the professorship of medicine in that institution. This was the last mail delivery for more than a week.

That evening I acted as best man at the wedding of my old friend Doctor August Jerome Lartigan to Doctor Kate Brady. It was a church wedding and was followed by a beautiful supper at the home of the bride’s parents out in the Mission. I did not get to bed until about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of April 18th.

About 5:15 a.m. I was suddenly awakened by a small picture, which usually hung on the wall above my bed, falling on my head. I realized at once that an earthquake was occurring and made for the doorway of my bedroom in which I stood so as to have the protection of the lintel if the chimney fell through the roof.

I noticed that my friends, the Thompsons, with whom I boarded, were standing in the doorway of their bedroom with their baby. The chimney held, and after between one and two minutes the quake subsided.

The house was on Green Street and I walked to the window on the Lombard Street side and saw several women, more or less en dishabille, run out into the street from the houses opposite. Looking down toward the Bay where there were several large metal illuminating-gas tanks, I saw one of these slowly collapse.

I dressed and I think shaved, though the water was not perfectly clear, and after breakfast walked downtown to my office in a professional building, 369 Sutter Street.

I had left in my desk thirty or forty dollars in cash and stuck it into my pocket. The office, a substantial stone building, was not damaged except that a bottle of nitric acid, used for urine tests, had been shaken off a shelf onto the floor, had broken, and the acid had eaten a hole in the carpet.

I then started to walk to the Central Emergency Hospital in the City Hall for I felt that I might be of some assistance to the head physician, Doctor Hassler, whom I knew.

On my way to City Hall I met a friend Arthur Smith, who suggested that we go for a few minutes to the office building where he worked, a skyscraper on the south side of Market Street, so we could take the elevator to the roof and look around.

As the building was on the way to Central Emergency Hospital I agreed, and from the roof we counted no less than seven small fires, most of them South of Market street in the poorer section of the city.

After a few minutes I left for the City Hall, a politically-built structure, and found that it had been so badly damaged by the quake that the Emergency Hospital had been moved to the Mechanics’ Pavilion, a large wooden structure ordinarily used for exhibitions and prize fights.

On my way from the skyscraper to the Pavilion, a matter of a few blocks, I noticed that the streets were policed by soldiers, sailors and marines armed with rifles in addition to the regular patrolmen.

One officer of the Marines was on horseback, the first time I had seen a horse marine, but whether he was the notorious Captain Jinks I did not stop to inquire. General Frederick Funston was in command at the Presidio and he acted promptly, doubtless realizing that there would be opportunities for looting and that the regular police force would be entirely inadequate to cope with this.

In the Mechanics’ Pavilion, lying on long rows of mattresses on the floor, were perhaps about 200 patients, most of whom had head injuries or broken bones probably due to bricks from falling chimneys. I learned that most of them came from South of Market, which in addition to being a poor part of town with inferior buildings was, in its lower part, on made ground of which there was an area extending from the Bay at the Ferry Building up Market Street about to Montgomery Street and spreading to some extent laterally.

The combination of made ground and poor construction was undoubtedly the cause of so many collapsed chimneys in this section.

Presidio Hospital [was] then in charge of Doctor George H. Torney, father of an old friend Dr. George Torney whom I had known in Utica, New York, where he was an assistant to my cousin Doctor G. Alden Blumer, Superintendent of the Utica State Hospital for the Insane.

I had been at work only about ten minutes when I heard someone yell “the roof is on fire.” Somehow a policeman got up on the cross-beams below the rafters from the inside of the building and managed to put the fire out.It was only ten or fifteen minutes before a new fire started in another part of the roof. Dr. Hassler wisely decided that the patients must be evacuated promptly and this was done by calling in volunteers from the street and commandeering passing automobiles.

Three men would get on each side of a patient, two at each end and two at the middle, push their arms under the mattress, clasp hands, and carry out the patient who was deposited in an automobile.

We managed to get all the living patients safely out before the fire got too hot, but about twenty dead in one corner of the building could not be removed and were cremated.

Dr. Hassler then asked me to go in an ambulance to one of the wharves on the waterfront near the Ferry Building where there was another group of injured.

We looked these people over, but very soon a naval boat came over from Goat Island, where there was a naval hospital, and removed the whole group.

On the way down to the wharf we went through Mission Street and noted that in front of many of the houses the occupant’s most valuable furniture, usually a piano and a sewing machine on a partly metal stand, had been put out on the sidewalk in front of the house. The next day, after that area had been burnt over, another ambulance trip through Mission Street disclosed many iron frameworks of sewing machines and piles of piano wires.

The third day I volunteered for work at the Harbor Emergency Hospital, the only undamaged one, This was because the Embarcadero between the city and the waterfront was so wide that the fire did not reach structures on the bay.

During the 48 hours after the quake this hospital had a patient every two minutes. I recall seeing one patient with smallpox who was temporarily isolated out on a wharf, one sailor with a gunshot wound received while preventing looting, and a good many drug habitués, mostly courtesans from the Barbary Coast district, who could not get their morphine from the usual sources and would come to the hospital and beg for it.

Between the times when we were attending to patients We gave out milk from large milk cans to those who brought their own containers. The milk was furnished from across the Bay in Alameda County.

One day the head doctor sent me aboard a British ship moored not far from the hospital, as they had reported sickness in their Chinese crew. The mate met us as I went aboard and I discovered from his accent that he came from Cumberland, a city where some of my cousins were shipbuilders. The crew had beri-beri for they had been living almost entirely on hulled rice and had not been able to get other food containing the vitamins needed to prevent the disease.

For the next week I worked every day at the Harbor Emergency Hospital. I had to walk down every morning from Green Street, perhaps two miles or so, after eating a simple breakfast of coffee and boiled eggs, cooked in a bucket in the gutter in front of the house, plus some bread.

Householders were not allowed to use inside cooking apparatus until their chimney had been inspected for cracks for fear of starting new fires.

My friends the Thompsons had gone across the Bay with their baby and I was alone in the house. There no grocery stores open in the neighborhood and I had to go to a Red Cross distributing station, luckily not more than a block away. There I could get bread, coffee and other food at certain hours, I do not recall that I had to pay for it, indeed it would have been hard to get money for most of the banks were In the fire zone. I cannot recall where I got my other meals though we probably had some food at Harbor Emergency Hospital.

In order to get safely to the hospital I had a written pass signed by the chief doctor stating that I was on the staff, I also acquired a cap with a visor, above which I sewed a cardboard red cross which I cut off a package at the hospital. I was often stopped as I passed men working at removing rubble, for those in charge of such jobs had the right to commandeer any passing citizen. However my pass always got me through.

After the fire really got going I saw some strange sights on my dally walks downtown. Many people who had sofas with casters piled their most desirable belongings on these and pushed them along the sidewalks on their way to a district beyond the fire zone. Others put boards across the top of two bicycle frames and used these for the same purpose.

One day I met a man carrying a parrot in a cage in one hand and a large demijohn in the other. One day I met two Japanese who were pushing a third on a lounge with casters. I examined him hastily and discovered that he had typhoid fever. As they were not very far from the Presidio Hospital I directed them to it.

Meanwhile the work at the Emergency Hospital was gradually slackening and I wrote Dean Smith, who of course knew what had happened, that I would come to New Haven as soon as the critical period was over.

Many homeless people were taken care of by friends outside the fire zone. Many crossed the Bay to Alameda or Marin Counties and many camped in the public parks in tents. Some, especially old folks, would not go back into houses for a long time for they were afraid of more earthquakes.

The fire which, as noted previously started on the 18th spread rapidly especially through the sections of the city where wooden buildings predominated. I recall going out onto Green Street the night of the 18th and noting that it was light enough to read a book, The firemen were at it day and night but, as many know, San Francisco is on a peninsula and the fault along which the earthquake occurred ran through the neck of the peninsula so that the water mains were broken.

The firemen had therefore to depend on the water stored In the city reservoirs though no doubt some was pumped from the Bay in areas adjacent to it.

What saved a large part of the City was the unusual width of Van Ness Avenue and when water gave out it was decided to check the spread of the fire in certain districts by blowing up houses on the east side of Van Ness Avenue.

One classmate of mine who lived on that side had an unfortunate experience. He had many valuable books at his house and also costly Oriental rugs. He dug a hole in his yard in which he deposited the books surrounded and protected by the rugs. A day or two later a wrecking crew blew up his house which collapsed in flames on his treasures.

In the business district many substantial structures were gutted and their contents burned. The building in which I had my office while standing was entirely burned out. I lost all my medical books and instruments and my case records.

The heat must have been intense for on Market Street opposite the Baldwin Hotel I saw street-car tracks twisted out of shape so that the ends of rails curled up and large chunks of stone had been split off the Market Street face of the hotel building.

After about a week the work at Harbor Emergency Hospital slacked up so that I was no longer needed. The Director of the Red Cross asked me to work for them and I spent a day or two with another volunteer worker supervising the sorting of supplies of canned food which were stored in school houses outside the fire zone.

Meanwhile I had written Dean Smith of the Yale Medical School that the crisis was about over and that I would take a train for New Haven in a few days. I was encouraged by receiving a note from an old friend In Albany who probably wouldn’t want his name mentioned because the letter enclosed a cheque for $300.00 with a statement that I was to use it and repay it without interest when convenient.

In a few days I took a train to New Haven and, after a conference with Dean Smith and members of the medical faculty, decided to accept the New Haven offer as my father had been back in his usual condition for over two years.

Thus ended my three years in San Francisco which I did not see again until after the stricken city had been rebuilt.

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