University of California at Berkeley Professor H. Morse Stephens wrote this article for the April 18, 1908, San Francisco Examiner to celebrate the rebirth and "upbuilding" of San Francisco following the Great Earthquake and Fire.
IS BEING MADE
BY HENRY MORSE STEPHENS
Those who dwell in the city of San Francisco and in whole area affected by the great earthquake felt from the first that they were living through an historic epoch and that the eyes of the world were fixed upon them. As the great fire spread, even those who lost their homes and saw the city of their love being consumed by the flames, realized that they were in the presence of one of the most tremendous conflagrations ever known and felt in the very magnitude of the disaster the realization of the fact that its magnitude gave it a permanent place in history.
As the days went by, after the fire ceased, the people of San Francisco had full evidence in the columns of the newspapers of the wide extent of interest taken in all parts of the world in the way in which they faced their crisis, And that universal interest was not simply curiosity. The sympathy of the world was speedily shown in the measures taken for the relief of the sufferers and the refugees. Never perhaps since international charity began with the help sent to the people of Lisbon after the great earthquake of 1755 was there such a generous outpouring of relief and such a widespread expression of active sympathy.
The catastrophe was historic. The universal interest and sympathy was historic. The problem of meeting the task of existence when suddenly deprived or the ordinary machinery of civilization was historic. It was universally felt in San Francisco that both contemporaries and posterity had a right to expect an authentic record of so historic a crisis and this feeling culminated in the resolution proposed by Judge W. W. Morrow, United States Circuit Judge, at the Fort Mason conference on April 25th, exactly one week after the earthquake, that a committee on history should be appointed. In pursuance of this resolution John S. Drum was appointed chairman of the committee on history and given power to select his associates.
In the meantime, on the other side of the bay, Professor H. Morse Stephens of the University of California had already conceived the idea of collecting all Possible historical material regarding the great crisis and had suggested to Governor Pardee in Oakland that steps should be taken at once in that direction.
President Benjamin Ide Wheeler knew of this ambition and suggested the name of Professor Stephens to Mr. Drum. Mr. Drum had already selected his associates; Edward F. Moran of the city Civil Service Commission, Richard C. Harrison and Clement Bennett, United States Court reporter.
With this committee Professor Stephens now associated himself, and within ten days of the earthquake, a plan of work was laid out and the collection of material began.
memory is treacherous the first resolution of the committee was to gather
together as soon as possible a record of the personal experiences of as
many people as possible during the past ten days with a full realization
of the fact that although the memories of individuals might lapse here
and there into inaccuracy and might swell here and there into exaggerations,
yet out of the collation of hundreds of personal experiences the truth
might be reached, as it can be reached through the cross-
The next step was to secure the personal statements of individuals and groups of individuals who had taken an active part in the proceedings of the critical period. Then came the securing of the documents which recorded the various steps taken for the government and relief of the citizens of San Francisco. But this was not enough. Behind statements of fact and recollections recorded while memory was still comparatively fresh, was the vast mass of impressions of proceedings and doings day by day, which under our modern civilization finds expression in the daily press.
The committee therefore resolved to purchase files of about eight hundred leading newspapers of the United States, not only for the information printed in them by correspondents, but still more for a sense of the atmosphere of the time, which it is the pride of the modern newspaper man to reproduce with skill and accuracy.
Never before has such an attempt been made at the collection of historical material on a large scale for a full record of a contemporary historic event. The resources of civilization made possible such an attempt. In earlier days men, conscious of the significance of the period in which they lived, have sometimes attempted to collect every scrap of printed news and related argument. Notably was this the case with Mr. Thommason, who made the great collection for the history of London during the Civil War in England, which rests under his name in the British Museum.
More than one contemporary of the French revolution tried to make a similar collection of printed material. H. H. Bancroft got much of his data for the pioneer period of the History of California by securing personal accounts of their experiences from thousands of the pioneers, and he made a particular attempt to cover the history of the vigilance committees in San Francisco by obtaining personal narratives from participants in their work. Since newspapers have become the reflectors of public opinion many collections of newspapers bearing upon a particular epoch or a particular subject have been made.
Collections of documents have always formed the basis of recorded history and have been made in all periods and in all countries. But the Earthquake History Committee of San Francisco have tried to combine all these things.
Its members realized from the beginning that it was their duty not only to relate facts, but also to render faithfully the atmosphere of the time. They desired further not only to record events and to reflect the pressing flavor of a critical time, but to bring out the human interest of their story. For while the events of April and May, 1906, in San Francisco are of surpassing interest from the way in which the community as a whole met its problems, the part of the individual in seeing and feeling what was going on around him was not to be neglected.
With a clear vision of the difficulties of their task yet at the same time with a feeling of the advantage that their early appointment gave them for the collection of historical material, they set about their work. Their main difficulty lay in the magnitude of the field and the complications it presented and the main advantage in the fact that they were appointed early enough to catch much material which would otherwise have disappeared.
While the replies from those who had stayed in San Francisco came in response to the committee's requests, from the columns of its eight hundred files of newspapers came the tales of refugees from the city as well as many letters to friends printed in newspapers all over the United States.
In all about thirty thousand narratives of personal experiences were collected, all of them written before the story had become entirely untrustworthy, and all but three full of actuality. Particularly interesting were the personal experiences of the actual shock of earthquake, which, as collated, show not only the various ways in which the shock affected different buildings and different parts of the city, but also the psychological effect upon individuals of varying age and temperament.
While by means of circulars an organized attempt as being made to collect the personal experiences of individuals, a special effort was also made to obtain as quickly as possible personal statements from conspicuous actors in the handling of the crisis. In collecting these statements the services of Clement Bennett were invaluable. Most of the leading men in the city were interviewed by him, and sometimes more than once, and it is not necessary to point out the immense importance of these personal narratives in interpreting and explaining many circumstances that were but briefly covered in the documents or in the newspapers,
Mr. Bennett's knowledge of the public officials of the city made him at this moment a most valuable collaborator. Through the Police Commission, he obtained statements from members of the police force of their experience during the critical days; through the Fire Commissioners he obtained the statements from the members of the fire department, without which the history of the progress of the fire could never have been written; and through the City Superintendent of Schools he obtained statements from the city teachers of unique interest and value.
It can safely be said that no such attempt to obtain prompt personal narratives from participants and observers in a great historical crisis has ever been made before and that the work of the Earthquake History Committee is unique in its thoroughness and promptitude in this direction.
While the efforts of the committee were unique in the search after personal experiences, the members will recognized that such narratives could only give atmosphere, interpretation and human interest and that the basis of their work must be found in official and unofficial documents.
In collecting these they had one supreme advantage. Rufus P. Jennings, the secretary of the Committee of Fifty, and afterwards of the Committee of Forty, organized his office most methodically from the very commencement. Every scrap of paper that came into that office was preserved and classified; every notice that went out was preserved in duplicate and nothing was permitted to interfere with the keeping of an accurate collection of documentary material.
This great collection of material was handed over to the Earthquake History Committee, and it is not too much to say that the accurate and careful work of Mr. Jennings is the chief factor in making possible an accurate account of the government of San Francisco during the days of crisis.
Outside the sphere of the committee, however, lay much documentary material which was diligently sought for by the committee and generously contributed by its possessors. Mayor Schmitz was always ready to respond to all demands for documents. Governor Pardee at Sacramento permitted a thorough examination of the documentary material bearing on the crisis, which came to him as Governor of the State of California, and allowed copies to be made of the documents of most essential importance.
James D. Phelan, as chairman of the Finance Committee, was always ready to give information and assistance. General A. W. Greely encouraged the committee and sent copies of his printed report. Colonel Torney did even more than this and at great personal labor collected and arranged all the documentary material dealing with the sanitary condition of the city. Dr. [Edward T.] Devine and others engaged in the work of relief aided in the work.
The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce turned over all its papers, and a most curious and valuable collection of assorted documents was entrusted to the committee by Ross Morgan, who in the days of the emergency relief had charge or the depot of supplies at the Ferry building. Here and there a document may be missing, but upon the whole the collection of documents was brought together in a thorough manner, and the thanks of the committee are due to all those who so generously met its requests.
One of the problems of the modern historian is the use of newspapers as historical material. Ancient and Medieval writers of history were not troubled with this problem. They used documents when they could find them and spiced their information with imagination.
Students of ancient and Medieval history therefore and even of modern history down to the nineteenth century took but little account of the newspaper as a source of historical information. The problem was first developed on a large scale with regard to the history of the French revolution, and the absurdities or many of the accounts of that striking period are due to the naive fashion in which many eloquent historians accepted newspaper reports as authentic historical material.
Now that the documents of the French revolution have been published, it is easy to see that the newspapers of that time are invaluable for giving atmosphere and the state of public opinion, but are most untrustworthy in their record of facts. One of the greatest of living American historians, James Ford Rhodes, has had to meet the problem on a large scale in his "History of the United States from 1850 to 1877," and despite his sagacity and skill, he has sometimes been misled even in the estimation of public opinion by too great a reliance upon newspapers.
Yet the modern newspaper obviously has an most important function in preserving historical material and it can no longer be relegated to the position of a mere indicator of public opinion, as must be done with the newspapers of the French revolution and even if an historian can dare to use them, yet its importance as a repository of historical information cannot be ignored.
The Earthquake History Committee deliberately went into the business of collecting files of eight hundred newspapers, covering from April 18th to May 31, 1906, and accumulated more than a ton of them,. Never was time, money or labor better expended, Without these files of newspapers the collection of documents would have been incomplete, their interpretation would have been erroneous, and the personal narratives would have been insufficient.
Mention has already been made of the personal narratives of refugees contained in the files of the newspapers and of the numerous private letters also printed there, But now mention must be made of other sides of the importance of newspapers in collecting material. Newspaper enterprise shone pre-eminent during the critical days. The San Francisco "Daily News" got out the last extras printed in the city while the fire was raging and got out the first number published in the city after the fire.
The newspaper men of San Francisco did honor to their profession both as collectors of news to be sent out of the city and to be published in the city itself. If nothing else has been proved by the collection of historical material for a piece of contemporaneous history, one thing at least is certain, that no historian of the twentieth century can afford to neglect the columns of newspapers in the pursuit of his task.
From the newspapers collected by the Earthquake History Committee can be gathered the only authentic story of the collection of relief funds throughout the United States; from them alone can be learned the American Civil War. The modern newspaper has developed the collection of news into a science and no longer looks upon its news columns as of trifling importance when compared with its editorial opinions.
The Associated Press is the most tremendous engine in the world for the collection and dissemination of information, and its trained observers and writers are the contemporary historians of to-day. Probably the most complete and accurate history of the earthquake and fire in San Francisco and the events that followed is now to be found in the story sent out day by day by the Associated Press.
Documents further of the very greatest importance are given out to the press and the originals are frequently lost, which makes these columns of the newspapers the sole record that these documents existed, Public men explain their views in the newspapers and the newspaper reporter is always on the hunt for the local stories, So that the newspaper of to-day is not only an indicator public opinion, but is also a collection of information.
The Modern historian must continue to use newspapers for atmosphere and public opinion, but he can no longer disregard them as sources for facts. It is quite true that newspaper reports cannot be invariably regarded as facts and that the equation of the newspaper itself must be known in estimating the statements of facts, but all the same many facts and many documents cannot be obtained elsewhere, and must therefore be sought in its pages,
It is puerile to make fun of newspaper inaccuracies; of course the condition of having to appear at a fixed time every day allows false reports and false statements to slip in occasionally; but the aim of the newspaper is to tell the truth, and though the statement can never stand against an authentic document and often needs ratification before the thoroughness of the sympathy expressed for San Francisco, and from them must come the solid basis of general information. Of course they have to be carefully scanned for the inevitable errors of hurried transmission and publication.
The story of the fighting between the Italians and Chinese in Portsmouth Square was a brilliant piece of imagination in the editorial rooms of a distant city; the Cliff House did not slide into the Pacific ocean; and weird tales of rapine and slaughter were served up for the satisfaction of an excited public, that relished a tale of horror. But if cautiously handled by the historian, and every historical writer who deals with the events of the twentieth century should be a trained newspaper man, the columns of the daily press must for all time to come be regarded as the main source of authentic information.
This account of the inception of the work of the Earthquake History Committee and of the methods it pursued in collecting historical material must be supplemented, though very briefly, by a word upon a means of obtaining information, which was surely never attempted by a body of historians before. The committee resolved to meet at regular intervals and to have as its guests those who could throw light from personal knowledge and experience upon its work.
Over the luncheon table and the dinner table many a difficult matter was cleared up. Busy men who could find no time for a written statement would meet the committee and answer questions. In this fashion hardly a prominent man or woman went uninterrogated.
That desperate matter of catching the correct personal equation was riot left to any one individual, but was attempted by the committee as a whole. This is perhaps not the right place to speak of the luncheons and dinners of the committee. and it is certainly not the right place in which to mention the names of its guests, but so essential a part of the committee's work must not go unmentioned, since the idea of entertaining and interrogating historical material was perhaps never tried on so general and so social a scale before.
When at last the vast mass of a ton and three-quarters of material had been assembled and concentrated at Berkeley, the task of segregating and classifying it had to be undertaken. Filing cases and card catalogue drawers were purchased and a staff of University of California undergraduates was organized.
At one time or another eleven men were employed at this work. Slowly the material was sifted and began to disappear into the filing cases. An elaborate index was compiled and a definite system of cross referencing established. The work was slow but thorough.
Every now and then new pieces of historical material would appear and gradually dissolve into their proper places. The cutting up, classifying and indexing about thirty-six thousand newspapers was a gigantic task. Again and again the same material had to be worked over as new uses for it appeared. The extending of the work outside of San Francisco had to be taken up. Agents had to be sent to Fort Bragg, Santa Rosa and San Jose.
Attempts had to be made to fill up gaps, particularly in the history of the relief work undertaken outside of San Francisco. Fraternal organizations had to be approached again and again, but generally in vain, Both organizations and individuals grew weary of being reminded of April, 1906, and a reaction showed itself from the glad readiness with which the first advances of the committee had been met. The general public got interested in other things and wished to forget the earthquake and the fire.
New alignments took place; the heroes of April and May, 1906, ceased to be heroes; new officials came into office and a new spirit began to show itself. Here and there, indeed, light came from unexpected quarters. As, for instance, in the testimony given in some of the great insurance cases upon the actual outbreak and upon the progress of the fire. But the committee at last resolved that it could wait no longer for further material.
Nothing can be perfect in this world, and the history of the earthquake and fire in San Francisco could certainly not be perfect, and so it was required to go almost without waiting for further information and upon the basis of what had already been acquired. All that was possible had been done; the relief corporation had supported the history committee, which had been founded by its predecessor, the Committee of Fifty; the Red Cross had likewise accepted the committee as its history committee; and the time had come to write and to close the work of collecting material.
At an early date the committee had perceived that the work fell into four general divisions, the earthquake of April 18th, the fire of April 18th to 21st, the emergency government of the city under the advice of the Committee of Fifty and the Committee of Forty; and the emergency relief work until the army gave up charge upon July 2, 1906.
All the historical material collected has been segregated under these four heads. The geological features of the earthquake itself had been examined by experts of the Carnegie institution and it was resolved only to enumerate its conclusions and to supplement the work of the field of science by printing some of the personal impressions that had been received and by attempting to deal with the "human interest" of the earthquake.
The arrangement of the second part, upon the fire, was far more difficult. It was only after long and arduous work that L. J. Kennedy, who has been for more than eighteen months working exclusively on the fire material, was able faithfully to mark its stages and perceive a rational method of treating it. It was resolved to handle it like an account of a modern battle with charts and plans showing its progress.
The problems of fire fighting by water and by dynamite had to be taken tip one by one in the different parts of the city; the firemen's reports had to be collated; the number of primary fires and their location had to be established; the merging of the sporadic fires into the general fires had to be methodically worked out, the various technical questions had to be solved.
Admirable special reports, for instance, upon the saving of the Appraisers' building, were found to be of the greatest value, and by degrees order came out of the chaos shown by a first inspection of the material upon the fire. The study of the emergency government of the city was made comparatively easy by the admirable work of Rufus P. Jennings, which has been already mentioned, and the handling of the emergency relief work becomes comparatively simple after the Army took hold, from the clear reports published by Major-General A. W. Greely.
The emergency relief in the city during the first few days is not so easy to describe, but its general lines appear clearly from the material already analyzed. The relief work done outside the city, however, and done by many of the fraternal organizations, cannot possibly receive adequate treatment through the lack of necessary material.
Certain things emerge very clearly after two years spent in the midst of historical material accumulated for a definite historical purpose. The lapse of time brings a certain perspective and matters which did not seem at the time very wonderful appear very wonderful now. There is an advantage, therefore, in this lapse of time, which has made it more possible not only to appreciate the historical material itself, but its general bearing.
Observe for instance this conclusion arrived at after prolonged study and meditation. Every great disaster that has overwhelmed or nearly overwhelmed a great city has been accompanied by or immediately followed by at least one and generally by all three of the following afflictions, a great outbreak of disease, a great outbreak of crime and a great financial and commercial crisis. None of these things occurred in San Francisco. There was no epidemic, and the members of the sanitary commission and the men who worked with them, perhaps from their untheatrical way of doing that work, never received the mead of credit due to them. Fortunately the papers classified and submitted to the Earthquake History Committee by Colonel Torney, supplemented by personal contributions of information from Dr. Foster and Dr. Ward, will make it possible for the history committee to present an authentic and, to use a French phrase, "well-documented" account of the successful battle against disease. The climate of San Francisco deserves its share of credit also, for where else in the whole world would it have been possible for so large a part of the population to retain their health under such open air conditions?
The remarkable freedom of the city. from crime. is the next noteworthy feature of those days of crisis, The idea has been spread abroad of a carnival of crime in San Francisco following upon the great fire, as in truth an outbreak of desperate crime has been observed in all other cities after such a tremendous catastrophe, from the days of the earthquakes of Constantinople and Antioch, as recorded by Gibbon, to the days of the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755.
The documents in the possession of the history committee show clearly the absence of crime in the months of April and May, 1906, and the character of the people of San Francisco was a contributing force towards this absence of crime as was the climate of San Francisco towards the absence of disease. The skillful handling of the business situation must likewise have its share of praise and it can fortunately be amply described from the documents in the possession of the history committee.
A special heading in the forthcoming book of the Earthquake History Committee will be given to the legends that have arisen and clustered about the story of the great catastrophe, Some of those legends are old friends which always crop up when any disaster befalls a city from sack or pillage, from fire or flood, such as the tale of the capture of ghouls with their pockets full of human fingers and human ears, which had been cut off by brutal ruffians in search of rings and earrings.
Of course nothing of the kind occurred in San Francisco, but the old Medieval story was certain to get into circulation and on this occasion it seems to have started from a refugee tale told in Salt Lake City. Why any person, ghoul or ruffian or what-such, should be such an idiot as to carry ears and fingers about with him on purpose that he might be convicted, when he could so easily take the rings or earrings off, after he had mutilated his victims, is one of those things that no man can ever understand.
The various stories of shooting by the soldiers and by civilians have grown in the imaginations of some legend makers out of a scant five or six into hundreds and thousands. The death list from the earthquake itself has likewise been exaggerated into absurd proportions. But the most beautiful and most specious legend of all is that which has already been cited of the fierce fight which took place between the Chinese and the Italians in Portsmouth Square, a fight which certainly ought to have come off, and which was most brilliantly described, but which of course never happened at all.
This number of the San Francisco "Examiner" celebrates the second anniversary of the great earthquake and the great fire that followed it, and is devoted to showing the way in which the people of San Francisco have rebuilt their city and recovered from their overthrow. The historian, whose eyes are fixed upon the past and whose business it is to record as truly as may be the events, the spirit, the atmosphere of the past, may surely be allowed to conclude this account of labors undertaken to record what is past by bearing his testimony to what has been accomplished since the period of which he writes.
San Francisco is imperishable; she is not made of bricks and mortar or reinforced concrete; she is a temperament, a sunny, vivacious temperament, which with gay courage faces great disaster and overcomes it and which rebuilds with courage of heart what she saw burn up with gayety of heart.
Her temperament cannot be analyzed, it can only be felt; we can admire her for what she is doing in the present to build up again her homes, her hotels, her office buildings and her stores, but we love her for the way in which she met with undaunted courage and with a bright smile the disaster of two years ago, which would have crushed into eternal depression any other city upon the face of the globe.