search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

By Ernest S. Simpson

Mr. Simpson was Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the Great Earthquake.

BRUTE four-footed instinct triumphed over objective two-footed reason in that first moment of the Time of Terror.

It was the dogs, wild with fear, that gave me first the measure of our calamity. Sleep-dazed, with the “anguish of the beams’ complaining,” still in my ears, the air still quivering with the echoes of that stupendous noise, I looked out into as fair a morning as ever shone upon the world, calm fresh and smiling. Of the terrestrial tragedy there was no evidence because nightgowned, barefooted men and women [were] upon the curbs. They ran about aimlessly. Some knelt on the sidewalks as if praying; some rushed back into their houses and out again; some looked mutely at the serene sky. They wanted to know what had happened — what was to happen. Down across the dewy green of Duboce Park, a cloud hung housetop-high in the stirless air. It was not smoke but dust — the heavy dust of brick and mortar and concrete ground in the mills of the angry gods. That meant riven walls and crumbled chimneys. The houses, I could see, stood upright, after a fashion. Here was no sign of dire disaster. Walls could be made whole, chimneys and hearth could be piled brick on brick again.

But then came the dogs, couriers of the cataclysm — they had come far, for they ran slowly. Their jaws were dripping. They moaned and whined. All of them panted steadily up the steep hill. Then and thus I knew that, bad as it had been with us, on the hills, the darker chapters of the story of woe were to be read on the lowlands and in the valleys. We were shaken but safe; below us were nameless horrors, the dogs knew, and knowing, ran to the high places.

Soon, looming sinister and huge above the broken city, against the background of shining bay and Alameda’s hazy purple hills, toward the pillars of smoke that heralded the coming of Catastrophe’s twin sister, Calamity. I counted them — one far down toward the water end of Mission street; one in the heart of the teeming southside; one across a spur of our hill in Hayes Valley. These pillars, lifting skyward, were solemnly significant. Destruction was upon us, desolation was to come.

When I had noted water flung from a bath tub to the ceiling; glassware and china tossed across rooms; double hung pictures neatly reversed; plaster of cross-walls scribbled upon fantastically with seams and cracks by the hand that had, for a moment, gripped us — when I rejoiced again for a house built upon the rock — I went down into the hall from which the dogs had so early fled. Ruin by ruin, disaster by disaster, I saw how truly they had told the story.

Spent with running, paralyzed by the terror, a little yellow fice, [mongrel] cowering on my lawn against a stout, unbroken wall. She snarled when I chirruped to her that it was all right now.

On an afternight a sleek cocker, very weary, called upon us in the hurly-burly of a great newspaper’s army, called suddenly to fight the greatest of its battles. He was not hungry. What he wanted was human kindness. In his mouth he carried a big beef bone. When he lay down in utter weariness, he put his paw on it just as men with guns and clubs — on nearby streets — were standing guard over their little heaps of burnt and blistered, battered cans. I saw the Managing Editor reach down a grimy hand to pat the wanderer and was glad.

My friend’s wise terrier, remote and safe from the shock or fire, began at once on the first day of the tragedy to forage and to conceal. She is still burying supplies in a back yard planted thick with her instinctive provision against the famine, that mankind, proceeding objectively, has averted.

Among the miles of smoking ruins dogs wander seeking masters, some of whom are here and some in the hereafter. They have come back from the hills.

Oh, yes — the dumb brutes knew first and knew best. I shall never forget how, in the fair, sweet morning, I saw them as they ran, moaning and whining, with dripping jaws, panting steadily up the steep hill.

San Francisco Chronicle
May 6, 1906
Return to the 1906 earthquake eyewitness accounts.

Return to top of page