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Memories of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
by
DeWitt C. Baldwin

as related to
Ana Maria P. de Jesus
September 19, 1988

Shortly after five the morning of April 18, 1906, I woke up to dress quickly and have an hour’s practice on the piano. (I was eight years old then and Mother insisted that I practice everyday after school. I did not want to give up my hours in the afternoon for that, so we agreed that instead of practicing the piano after school I would practice in the morning before breakfast. That way I could spend the afternoon playing ball with the boys.) At about five fifteen, I had gotten as far as sitting up with my feet over the side of the bed when totally unexpectedly the house began to shake violently. I heard dishes break from different parts of the house; furnitures moved at the violence of the shock.

I ran across the hall to our parlor from which I had heard crockery and glassware falling off a shelf or a glass cabinet. There I saw the upright piano where I was about to practice on. It shifted about a foot and a half away from the wall. (The shake of the earthquake seemed to be from side to side of our house.)

Then I quickly dashed down the hall to see the effects of the earthquake. I especially wanted to talk to my parents. My elder sister Helen was awakened by the earthquake, but she was still in her room. When I saw her I asked her where our parents and my baby sister were. She hurriedly informed me that “Mother grabbed Virginia and they ran downstairs for safety under the front door.” (Virginia was only six-months old then and the Baldwins lived on the third floor of a flat or what is now referred to as an apartment. Two other families lived downstairs with the Baldwins in the same building.)

I was quite excited so I raced to the front windows to look out. There I noticed some people running up and down our street while others were curiously peering out their windows. We all hurried back to our rooms to get dressed. (That must have been a school day or I would not have taken time to wake up early to practice my piano lessons.)

Mother and Father hastily got breakfast ready. Around quarter of eight we were at our table eating and talking over immediate plans when suddenly a second fairly strong earthquake shook the house again. Very soon after the second tremors sirens began to wail at different directions of the city. This indicated to us that local fires had started. After breakfast Father left for work. He realized that he was needed downtown in his office, which was very near the U.S. Mint building. (At that time my father, Clinton D. Baldwin, was the purchasing agent for the United Railroads of San Francisco. There seemed to be a strike in the company and he was then responsible for the food, lodging and other needs of over 100 strike breakers.) Mother and Helen opted to remain at home. They spent the morning listening to the verbal reports of neighbors and other people on the streets sharing their information about on-going fires which were practically every part of the city. (Reportedly there had been fifty-three different fires in progress simultaneously.)

As soon as breakfast was over I requested Mother’s permission to go outside our back wooden stairs. (School had already been called off that time.) I was curious to see the nearest fire at the corner of 22nd and Mission St. Our house was located at 931 Dolores Street in the block between the 22nd and 23rd Streets. Valencia St. Hotel collapsed during the earthquakeAs I ran across Valencia St. going to the Mission St. fire, I noticed on my left down Valencia St. a small old three-story hotel. (Evidently it had been built over a subterranean faultline.) The first story had partly sank in the earth while the second and third had fallen out into the street. That was the first structural destruction I had witnessed.

I had hardly gone on to Mission St. when I came across a large crowd watching a huge department store ablaze. I observed how the firemen desperately attempted to bring the fire under control. After surveilling some time and listening to tales from different folks who were there to see the fire, I turned back home and on the way collected information about other fires from distant places in the city.

(These eighty-two years later I find it difficult to describe my own personal feelings about the earthquake that day. As an eight-year old boy I was not frightened then by the actual earthquake. The tremor and the noise of the breakage did not disturb me. That for me was just a more destructive one than I had known. The rest of the family were quite excited and nervous, but I was not afraid. I guess I felt secure in the knowledge that the house and the family would be all right. Even so, I sensed the seriousness of the situation and I saw the severity of it for many people. My attitude was one of excitement, curiosity and a great desire to see and hear all I could.)

Not until mid-afternoon did the first grim experience of the earthquake and the subsequent fires struck me. As I went out on our street, Dolores St., the sidewalk began to fill up with people from all parts of the city. They were carrying a load of possessions they considered important to them. There were sights that were a bit laughable to me as a boy. It seemed that some had left their homes quite hurriedly that they had not selected carefully the things to carry with them or that some had not expected to return that they were carrying their whole possessions with them. Folks were carrying bundles, boxes, trunks and even a bird cage. I saw mothers carrying their babies and little children hanging on to their parents hands. Once in a while a boy’s playwagon, on which were clothes and food supplies which would help temporarily would pass by. These lines of people overflowed the sidewalks and were going toward the mountains beyond the Mission area of the city. As the day went on I saw many things that entertained me.

(My sister, Helen, and I got along all right, but during that time I was at the point in my life when I wouldn’t have anything to do with girls. I was always with boys my age, so, I often left Helen behind. I might have brought her along once or twice, perhaps, during the second day, but most of the time I was out an my own seeking useful information and boyish adventure.)

My parents forbade me to go down near the Ferry building or any distant part of the city. They thought it far too dangerous for any boy to be wandering about, but still I was out on the street most of the time. Father was too busy downtown and Mother’s hands were to full with the baby to take care of, so I managed to be where the action was.

With boys my own age, I wandered as far as I dared to explore some destruction sites and get a view of local fires. In some places there were gaps on the ground. Some were about one foot to five feet wide narrowing toward the inner earth. They seemed anywhere from two feet to over twenty-five feet deep just like a crevice. Sometimes when I dared to peer down the fissure I would see fallen things inside. At times I couldn’t see anything because the crack was frightfully deep and dark.

All through the night of the first day great numbers of people were constantly passing by our house evacuating toward the Mission Area. On the second day U.S. soldiers were dispatched to every part of the city to keep peace and order, to prevent looting, and to implement emergency regulations set by the Mayor and the City Council [Board of Supervisors]. On our street alone two soldiers were assigned and they had our orders drawn up. Among them were: Stop looting. Fire at robbers or looters. By the second night another order was added. No lighted candles or matches in a building. (If one wanted a light one had to go out on the streets.)

These rules were difficult to follow especially for families with babies or little children. Sometime during that evening Mother felt that she just had to have some warm milk for my baby sister, Virginia, who was just six months old. Cautiously Mother struck a match to light a Sterno. Soon enough an officer knocked at our door and ordered her to “"Madam, put out the light and if you do that again I have to shoot you.” She protested only to be told that such was the order.

The morning of the third day came and many fires were still in progress. Many structures in our neighborhood were destroyed and leveled to the ground such that one could stand at the foot of Market St. and look as far as the eye could see to the east and to the west. By this time fires were still raging to the east of Market St. and toward the Mission area, likewise in several areas reaching toward the Golden Gate Park.

Later that day as the fires continued, we were ordered to evacuate our homes and find shelter on the hills. At this point the gravity of the situation began to dawn an me. “This is getting serious,” I said to myself. The fire had threatened the very place we live. The whole situation set me to thinking of the frailty or the incompleteness of the power of man relative to the power of nature.

Our family was very fortunate to be provided with a small market wagon. My father being an officer of the United Railroads of San Francisco, was able to get us what we called a spring wagon to take us and all important possessions on our journey. Hastily Mother packed a small trunk with all the baby’s needs that we could brings, a few blankets and some provisions. Soon all of us were on the wagon. Going by Valencia St. looking as far as I could see down the road, I watched the flames bursting on both sides meeting each other on the street.

That sight and the knowledge that soon the flames would reach our home before morning really gave me serious thoughts about the uncertainty of life. My heart developed sober seriousness as to what the situation would mean to us and what it had meant to others. As a boy of eight I had been around the city many times. I was acquainted with the city and I loved it. San Francisco was really a part of me and to say good-bye to it like that surprised me and made me think of what was ahead of us. I doubt if Mother herself slept a wink that night. She held my baby sister close to her and found comfort in prayers.

One of the other sad thoughts I had as we evacuated the city riding an the wagon where Mother had most of the baby’s needs and our things was this. I began to feel sorry that others did not have the same transportation. I said to myself how did it happened that others did not have the same resource to carry all that they desperately need to take with them. For me as a boy, the seriousness of the fire and all that it meant was gradually flooding my mind. My mind was then filled with genuine concern for others. I felt so desirous to help in whatever way I can.

Two lasting impressions were imbedded in my mind the third day. As I look beyond Mission St. from the back stairs of our three-story building, I saw a powerful blaze consuming everything before it. I begun to think of the destructive power of fire and realized that fire was more destructive of man and his environment than any cause I had known then. Later that day when we were ordered to leave our houses to find places of refuge somewhere on the hills so the authorities could better handle the spreading menace, I began to realize as never before the importance of food, shelter and protection. Sobering thoughts!

By daybreak of the fourth day folks stirred and started the day with the problem of finding the water for their needs.

In the middle of the day a man arrived on horseback to communicate to us the good news from one of the centers of command in the city. We learned that the night before, a decision was reached to dynamite every house on the block ahead of the fire to make it difficult for the flames to spread across the street. Consequently the fire was controlled at the block of the 20th St. and those who lived beyond that block were allowed to go back to their homes.

Even so, no match or fire could be lighted in the house until full inspection of its gas pipes and electrical wiring was completed. This meant that those who wanted to cook had to take their cooking equipment out on the streets. What a sight on Dolores St.! All the way down the middle of the street cooking stoves and supplies were lined one after the other.

For the thousands of people who had escaped the fire and gone on foot to our part of the city, the military made available provisions, tents, blankets, medicines and food. Father was asked to immediately serve as a member of the city committees and he requisitioned the materials and supplies to provide for the people. Part of his other responsibilities was to order and secure materials for the reconstruction of the cable cars, the electric trolleys and other means of transportation for the city. As a member of the First Methodist Church of San Francisco which was completely burned down, Father became one of the trustees who began to plan for the relocation and rebuilding of the new church.

My parents, especially Father, were so busy immediately after the earthquake that I hardly had time with them. A few weeks later Mother suggested that Father ask the owner if he could rent early the summer cottage in Larkspur since nobody was occupying it. The owner agreed and we decided to move. That kept me out of the city weeks after the earthquake. So I was not in the city during the reconstruction period.


DeWitt C. Baldwin
Rockville, Maryland
September 19, 1988
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