Businessman Charles Kendrick returned to San Francisco hours after the earthquake, and his dramatic eyewitness account details the force and fury of the Great Fire as it burned through the Financial District of the City as well as the attempt to save priceless art objects from the Mark Hopkins Institute.
On the morning of April 18, 1906 the Old San Francisco the City by the Golden Gate; the City made famous by the Gold Rush, the Vigilance Committees, and a host of writers that included Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Gelett Burgess and George Sterling who limned its praises that City died; changing the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands of men and women.
The earthquake, together with the fire which raged for three days, was the greatest catastrophe to strike a large city in modern times. Estimates of the toll of lives lost run all the way from 500 to 5,000; and with 497 blocks 3,000 acres, over four and a half square miles burned out of the heart of the city, property losses are known to have exceeded $350,000,000 and may have reached half a billion! During the years since then, thousands of articles and books millions of words altogether have been published to describe the Great Disaster, and the Phenix-like rise of the New San Francisco from the ashes of the old city; so it might be considered presumptuous for me to add any more. However, in view of the fact that I was caught in the very vortex of it, and with my own eyes saw many of the scenes of destruction, horror and tragedy as they were occurring, perhaps the eye-witness account which follows may not be deemed redundant.
At the time, May and I were living in an apartment on Pine Street near Leavenworth; but as fate would have it, we had left there the afternoon of April 17th for Petaluma, to spend a few days with Mother Canepa.
A few minutes after five the next morning we were wakened by such a violent shaking that when I opened my eyes it was to see the walls of the room waving crazily as much as 25 degrees from the perpendicular. The first violent shake was followed by a number of others; and Mother Canepa, May and I, after hastily donning some clothing, rushed out into the street, where we were joined, it seemed, by everyone else in all of Petaluma. Uninjured, but dazed and awed by the violence of the tremors, we stood around in shocked silence, wondering what would happen next.
Actually, Petaluma got off lightly. A number of houses were shifted off their foundations, and some old brick buildings partially collapsed. Mother Canepas home was intact, and we were pleased to find that her two brick buildings were undamaged. Naturally we were concerned about San Francisco, so I tried to phone there but found that all wires were down. However, I managed to phone San Rafael, and got the grim news that San Francisco was aflame, with all the water mains broken, so that there was no way of stopping the fires progress.
Fearing for the safety of my mother and father, who were living in San Francisco, I decided to make an attempt to get over there, somehow, and left Petaluma by automobile soon after 6 a.m. In places the road to San Rafael paralleled the railroad, and I observed that its tracks were warped badly out of line. But not until I reached San Rafael did I become really aware of the violence and scope of the quake. Many of that towns buildings were in ruins, and the main street was impassable because of fallen brick walls. At the San Rafael railroad station I learned that the tracks to Sausalito were passable for a slow-moving train, and that a party of railroad officials was making ready to board it. As I knew some of these men, I did some fast talking and succeeded in being included in the official party. When we reached Sausalito all we could see was a great pall of smoke overhanging San Francisco.
The Sausalito ferry was ready to pull out, but as I attempted to board it I was told that none but the railroad officials could go. However, I had made up my mind to get to San Francisco; so as the ferry started to pull away, I ran up the gangplank from which a flying leap landed me on board; and once on board there was nothing that could be done about it. When the ferry reached San Francisco it was met by soldiers who stated that while anyone wanting to leave the stricken city could do so, no one except the railroad officials would he permitted to enter. Somehow, I managed to pass as one of these officials. When well past the soldiers, I left this group and started walking up Market Street. The sight I looked upon was appalling! Everywhere my eyes could reach were collapsed buildings, and the whole street was piled high with fallen bricks and masonry. And the South of Market area was ablaze on a wide front. North Beach was also in flames, and there was nothing to stop the two fires from commingling consuming all of the buildings between. The effect on me was indescribably shocking and deeply saddening; it seemed that I was witnessing the death throes of a great city; the city of my birth and the scene of my early struggles. And the farther I walked the more I felt that the fallen city could never rise again people would be too fearful of living in a place which had been wracked by earthquake and consumed by fire.
As I walked up Market Street, I saw little of the living a soldier on horseback and two or three men scurrying in and out of still-standing buildings. But I saw more of the dead half a dozen or more men who had been killed, evidently by collapsing walls, lying where they had been struck; and as there was no one to remove the bodies, they were undoubtedly cremated in the advancing flames.
At last I reached my office at 211 Montgomery Street; and, looking across the street, saw a horse and wagon in front of the Title Insurance Guaranty Company. A moment later the president of the company, Oliver A. Rouleau, whom I knew, came out carrying an armload of books and records and piled them into the wagon. Going over, I lent him a hand until, with the wagon piled high with books, maps and records, he drove Off, I never knew what happened to him and his records. It was impossible for him to drive North because from North Beach to the Bay was nothing but a sea of flames. If he and his precious cargo escaped, he must have driven South along the Waterfront.
Entering my office, I opened the safe and stuffed it with the most valuable documents; then carted some things, including my typewriter, down into the basement and piled them in a corner. After I had done all I could at my office, I walked over Montgomery to Market Street, to see the Palace Hotel aflame. There I met Walter Hobart and I.W. Hellman, Jr., and the three of us took off our coats and held them before our faces as a shield against the heat. As we stood there the Grand Hotel, [at Market and New Montgomery] across from the Palace, burst into flames from the intense heat; and lower Market Street, which I had traversed two hours earlier, was now a veritable inferno. We were so intent in watching this terrible yet fascinating spectacle that not until he had gone by us and was turning into Market Street did we notice a drunken man leading a white fox terrier by a rope. We all shouted to him to turn back, but apparently the noise prevented his hearing, and he moved on. As he did so, the North side of Market Street exploded into flame, engulfing the poor fellow and his dog, and we three ran for our lives down Montgomery Street. As we did so, clouds of black smoke billowed down upon us until it was dark as midnight and we lost contact with one another. By now the fire had reached the tall buildings in the Financial District and the intense heat, creating a cyclone-like vacuum, tore the chimneys and sheet iron from the rooftops and sent them crashing down to the street. Heavy pieces fell all around me, but miraculously missed me. Feeling the upward thrust of the vacuum, I dropped to my knees and made my way up Bush Street on all fours as far as Kearny, where, emerging from the vacuum, I was able to stand up. It is a great understatement to say that this was a terrifying experience that I have never forgotten.
As I reached Bush and Kearny streets two young men were peering into the windows of Robinsons Pet Shop, and one of them called to me to suggest that we free the birds and animals. We broke in the door and turned loose these creatures, among which were several small monkeys. It was a gesture of kindness, but a foolish one; I am certain they all perished in the raging inferno.
I next made my way to our apartment at Pine near Leavenworth, as when I was leaving Petaluma, May had asked me to go there and pick up some of her things. I went in, found the things she wanted, wrapped them into a tight bundle, and left. When I next saw the site of our apartment it was just a spot in a sea of ashes.
On the way to our apartment I saw thousands of men, women and children headed westward. All were pulling sleds, baby carriages, childrens wagons anything on which they could load some of their belongings, or dragging trunks and suitcases along the streets and sidewalks block by block; all seeking safety somewhere. Many women were carrying babies in their arms, while over their shoulders were slung big bundles wrapped in bed sheets. All were fleeing the holocaust and trying to take as much as possible with them to the Presidio or Golden Gate Park, which appeared to be islands of safety.
On the way to my mothers home at Guerrero and 27th Streets a similar sight met my eyes. The whole South of Market population was pouring through the Mission District on its way to Bernal Heights or the Peninsula; carrying as many household possessions as possible. And from early morning other tens of thousands were fleeing to Oakland and other East Bay points.
On leaving our apartment I had walked down Leavenworth, intending to go out Market to Valencia; thence to my parents home. It was slow going, as the streets were filled with rubble, around which I had to thread my way. When I reached McAllister I saw the most graphic evidence of the intensity of the earthquake. What had been the most monumental edifice in the city the Classic City Hall was a shambles. Parts of its great cupola were still clinging to its steel framework, but the great Grecian columns that had surrounded it had crashed to the ground.
On the corner of Eighth and Market had been a wood-frame, four-story lodging house. It had sunk and collapsed like a house of cards; the roof timbers were now not over eight feet above the sidewalk level. From the moans and cries coming from below it was evident that a considerable number of people were trapped there; and I joined with a dozen or more other men in trying to tear apart the heavy timbers on top of the heap of lumber covering the people underneath. But all our efforts were in vain, and the conflagration meanwhile was rapidly coming near. About a week later I passed this spot again, and all that was visible was the deep basement; the wooden ruins of the building had been entirely consumed. The poor souls who were caught in them must have died agonizing deaths. At last it must have been three oclock I reached the home of my parents and found them safe and unharmed; but needing provisions, as all the stores had been either looted or had sold out their stock. Mother said she needed flour, sugar and a ham; and as I was going back to Petaluma that night, I promised to get them to her the next day, if possible. I left my parents about four oclock and again started for the center of the city; and it must have been between five and six when I reached the vicinity of the City Hall. By then the fire was raging on the south side of the city from the Ferry Building to about Eighth street, and on the north side from Columbus Avenue to the Waterfront. Because of the pall of smoke blanketing the city, nightfall came quickly; by six oclock it was dark. I knew I must try to get back to Petaluma, but could not tear myself away from the tragic but fascinating spectacle of the whole city aflame, and decided to go up to Nob Hill to survey the awful and awesome scene from there.
When I reached the top of the Hill I found about fifteen people sitting on the sidewalk, silently watching the great and ghastly spectacle unfolding all around them. By then the entire city from Kearny Street to the Bay, and North and South as far as the eye could see was one solid mass of fire, with the big buildings of the Financial District shooting flames high into the heavens. The whole scene was terrifying, yet majestic and awesome beyond the power of words a great city vanishing in flame.
Hardly anyone in the group uttered a word; we just sat there spellbound to the point of speechlessness. Finally, a young man I later came to know as Charles Dickman broke the silence by saying: The Fairmont Hotel has been advertised as the first fireproof building in the West; and right across the street from it in the Mark Hopkins Art Institute is some of the finest art in the world. Lets save as much as possible of it by moving it over to the Fairmont. Half a dozen or so of the group, myself included, took him at his word. Hurling our combined weight against the Art Institute door we burst it open and spent the next couple of hours carrying paintings, statuary, bronzes, bric-a-brac and ceramics across the street to the Fairmont, whose doors we also forced, and piled them on the floor of the lobby. Unfortunately, this was loves labor lost. The insatiably gluttonous fire ate its way up Nob Hill, and when I saw the Fairmont a week later it had been gutted to its bare bones, and all those priceless art treasures were ashes. The heat had been so intense that even the granite on parts of the exterior had been melted. Even now, a close look reveals spots where this was cleverly repaired by pulverizing pieces of granite, mixing this with cement, and applying it to the damaged spots.
When I had finished helping to carry the art treasures to the Fairmont, I picked up my bundle and walked to the foot of Hyde Street, where a fleet of ferryboats, which had been forced by the fire to operate from there, was continuously evacuating people to Sausalito and Oakland. I reached Sausalito about 11 p.m., took the train to San Rafael, and drove from there to Petaluma, arriving about 1 a.m.
Needless to say there was little sleep for Mother Canepa, May and myself that night; there was too much to tell and hear. All of us were deeply saddened by the catastrophe; believing that San Francisco would never be again. Nevertheless, I was up early the next morning, and as soon as I had eaten breakfast went to a grocery store where I bought a 25-pound sack of flour, 20 pounds of sugar, and a 12-pound ham. I had the grocer put these into a 50-pound flour sack securely tied; and about 9:30 set out again for San Francisco.
By now I knew the City was observing martial law and that the Military would not let anyone enter. Therefore, I went to the Sausalito water-front; found a fisherman with a four-oared boat, and by giving him $20 and promising to man one set of oars myself, persuaded him to take me across the Bay to the Presidio. Luckily the waters were as calm as a mill- pond; but our landing-place was rocky, and I had to step off the boat into knee-deep water, and climb over the rocks to the shore. Fortunately, no one saw me land; so, putting my precious sack over my shoulder, I started the walk from the Presidio to 27th and Guerrero. It was quite a hike with that load, but I got there about noon, and Mother was overjoyed to see me and to receive my precious burden.
Meanwhile, because of quake damage to chimneys many of them were badly cracked soldiers on horseback had traversed the whole city, house to house, ordering householders not to use their chimneys lest they start new fires. Consequently, by the time I arrived Father had disconnected the cook stove, moved it out of the house, and set it up on the sidewalk; as had everyone else in the area. It was quite a sight, for weeks after the quake, to see all those whose homes had escaped the fire, cooking their meals on the street and bringing them into the house to be eaten. Water was a problem, too; as all the mains had been broken. However, there were still quite a number of wells in the Mission District; and at all times of the day one could see lines of people carrying pitchers and buckets of water from these wells to their homes. As an example of how scarce water was, I saw an old man washing his feet in a trickling stream coming down the gutter from a broken main; and a few hundred feet below him, on the same street, people were dipping this water up and taking it into their houses to drink and cook with!
With no water to fight it, the great fire raged for three days and three nights in the area East of Van Ness Avenue and South of Market. Finally, General Frederick Funston, in command at the Presidio, concluded that to save the remainder of the city a desperate effort must be made to prevent the flames crossing Van Ness Avenue. To this end, he resorted to dynamiting. All structures more than one story high, in a swath one hundred feet wide on the East side of Van Ness Avenue were blown up. This, plus the 125-foot width of Van Ness, made a swath 225 feet wide, and it was believed that would be too far for the flames to leap; and this proved to be right. The fire never crossed Van Ness. This was, of course, a drastic measure; and some of the owners of the many magnificent homes doomed to be dynamited, refused to evacuate. In these cases, soldiers with fixed bayonets drove the occupants into the street.
When the sea of flames finally died down, some of the
areas smoldered for weeks, and the wilderness of ruins was beyond words
thousands of blocks of complete desolation. Little wonder that
many of those beset by ruin could see no hope, and left the city vowing
never to return.