The day the ground shook — first-hand accounts from Manitobans who survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

by Bruce Cherney
It is said in ancient mythology that when the Greek sea god Poseidon was in a bad mood, he caused the earth to shake. On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., the people of San Francisco felt the anger of Poseidon first-hand when the ground beneath their feet began to tremble. 
There was a very brief interlude and then 20 seconds later, the ground shook violently for nearly a minute with disastrous consequences. The earthquake and following firestorm claimed an estimated 3,000 lives and left 225,000 homeless, out of an overall population of 400,000.
The intensity of the earthquake is now believed to have been a magnitude of 8.25 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre just over three kilometres from the city. By comparison, the quake that struck the same city on October 17, 1989, registered 6.7. 
Shaking in 1906 was felt in Los Angeles, Oregon and Nevada. Outside of San Francisco, the communities of San Jose and Santa Rosa were also severely damaged.
The next-day banner headline in the Winnipeg Morning Telegram declared, Is Greatest Calamity of Century. American newspapers proclaimed, San Francisco in Ruins. A Manitoba Free Press front page headline a day later announced to Winnipeggers, San Francisco an Ash Heap. 
Among those awakened by the trembling were visitors from Manitoba as well as ex-Manitobans living in San Francisco; survivors who related their experiences to local newspapers.
The Free Press on April 21 said many Manitobans were in San Francisco because California was popular “as a winter and health resort,” which contributed to local interest about the calamity and instilled anxiety about the fate of friends and relatives. “Indeed, until the disaster occurred few even imagined how many connected with Winnipeg by ties of kinship or acquaintance were within the stricken city.” 
The same newspaper said on April 19, the close local connection to the California city made the disaster “a personal matter.” This was evident when people began to congregate at the Free Press building after the first reports were heard about the earthquake. As the news arrived, it was posted on bulletin boards. “The bulletin service was kept up to the minute, and its messages were read with ever-increasing interest. 
The newspaper gave a list of the people in Winnipeg and other Manitoba communities anxiously awaiting news from friends and relatives staying in the city ravaged by earthquake and fire.
The survivors believed that they had witnessed the Biblical armageddon. Winnipegger Mrs. A.B. Ellis told the Telegram that rumours spread among those finding their way through rubble-strewn streets that “all the big cities in America had suffered from the same earthquake. Montreal was said to have slid into the St. Lawrence, Quebec had tumbled off the bluffs; Chicago and New York were ruined. Imagine how we felt, we knew not where to go.”
The newspaper said Ellis lived at 247 Spence St., and was in the company of a Mrs. M.A. Frank, also of Winnipeg, while in San Francisco. The two women were staying at the Grand Hotel when the earthquake struck.
Another Winnipegger staying at the Grand when the earthquake struck was Thomas Cotter. He also gave an eyewitness account of the tragedy.
While the earthquake and its aftershocks were responsible for widespread damage, the resulting fires were more devastating. Initially, fires were small and  spread throughout the city, the result of broken natural gas mains — acts of arson and campfires getting out of hand were another cause — but they would later merge to create a firestorm. Ultimately, fires would destroy 500 blocks from the centre of the city to its docks and would last four days before eventually succumbing to a lack of fuel to sustain them.
World-renowned author Jack London, noted for fiction based on Canada’s Klondike Gold Rush such as The Call of the Wild, was an eye-witness to the firestorm and wrote in a Collier’s magazine article, “now from three sides conflagrations were sweeping down. The fourth side had been burned earlier in the day. In  that direction stood the tottering walls of the Examiner Building, the burned out Call building, the smouldering ruins of the Grand Hotel, and the gutted, devastated, dynamited Palace Hotel.”
Working late in the San Francisco Examiner building was former Winnipegger Fred J. Hewitt, a copy editor and brother to James T. Hewitt, the sports editor for the Telegram. The newspaper said Fred was “well known in newspaper circles in Winnipeg.” 
Initial reports said that Fred had been severely injured, but was expected to recover.
“Fire and shock have deprived us (he and his wife) of everything,” he wired his brother James in Winnipeg to confirm his recovery. “Lucky we escaped with our lives.”
In the Palace Hotel was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso. Newspapers reported in less than glowing terms that Caruso escaped the hotel, fell to the ground outside and promptly began to weep in uncontrollable fear. In a later article, he wrote about his experiences, Caruso refuted this claim. 
Caruso vowed at the time that if he escaped the inferno, he would never again return to San Francisco. He did escape and never returned to the city.
“John Thomson, the well-known Winnipeg undertaker, who has recently returned from California ... said: ‘I am not at all surprised to hear of the calamity,” the Telegram reported. “‘One thing struck me while I was in the city was that the buildings were mostly wooden ones. The most conspicuous in the building district, and while I was there I spoke to some residents about the danger. They seemed to think that the wooden buildings were all right, and said their fire department was a good one, and that with their excellent water pressure there was no danger at all.”
Although speaking in hindsight, Thomson’s words reflected what did occur — pressure failed because watermains ruptured and demand for water to fight the raging fires was beyond the system’s capacity.
London wrote that, because of the failure of the water system, firemen were forced to surrender to the conflagration. “There was no water. The sewers had long since been pumped dry. There was no dynamite (to bring down buildings and create firebreaks).”
In the wake of the earthquake, San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz would issue an edict that allowed police, vigilante patrols and the military to shoot looters on sight — police were said to have shot and killed 15 people, while other accounts say 500 people were shot and killed by police, the military and vigilantes.
“Many people passed our house with bundles and ropes around their necks, dragging heavy trunks. From the moment they heard that fatal, heart-rending sound of the trumpet announcing their house would be burned or dynamited, they had to move on or be shot, ” wrote Rosa Barreda, a San Francisco resident, in a 1906 letter to a friend (California Historical Society). 
An article in the Telegram the day after the earthquake said: “Humanity stands aghast at the terrible visitation which has blotted out perhaps thousands of lives, and carried with it untold suffering and dismay ... A great city, becoming in  the twinkling of an eye the scene of tottering structures, crashing walls and devastating flames is a picture which sends a shudder through the whole civilized world ... Early morning ushered in a scene of chaos, towering buildings surging for a moment in mid air and crashing into the streets below, tenements rending themselves asunder and carrying down slumbering or half awake people to agony and death.”
Among those abruptly awakened was Winnipegger Thomas Cotter, who recounted instances of madness occurring around him after returning to Winnipeg on April 27.
“One man ran down the street carrying a stuffed green parrot, yelling at the top of his voice: “I have it! I have it!”
Cotter said the hysterical man firmly believed he had saved his most precious possession.
“A woman ran screaming into the street, clasping to her breast a picture, utterly forgetting in the excitement more valuable possessions.”
The Winnipeg man told the Telegram on April 28 he had been thrown violently out of his bed in the Grand Hotel when the earthquake struck. “The building was rocking and swaying, and I could hear screams of panic filling the place with tumult. I ran out into the hall, and found the guests rushing about clad only in their night robes. When I learned there was an earthquake I returned to my room and put on what clothes I could don in a hurry.
“To show you what a man will do in a time of intense excitement, I stopped while the hotel was rocking and toppling on its foundations and calmly locked my door. Another man across the hall had tried to lock the door to his room. The building was so out of plum from the severe twist, that he could not get the door closed. ‘I am going to shut the door if I stay here all day!’ shouted he. He then began to curse at the hotel management. He was told that an earthquake was occurring, but, despite this, tugged and pulled on the refractory door until he succeeded in closing it.”
News that his brother Thomas had survived the disaster reached Richard Cotter in Winnipeg on April 18 by wire. A day later, he received a letter which gave a first-hand account of the calamity that was reprinted in the April 25 Free Press. Cotter explained to his brother Richard that the Grand was an annex of the Palace Hotel with the two buildings containing a combined 1,000 rooms.
Cotter said he “escaped to the street without a scratch. I cannot remember how I did it, the whole incident being a blank to me.”
While in the street, he witnessed the collapse of buildings all around him, including the 22-storey Call building, which he described as “split from top to bottom.” 
After making his way to Oakland, Cotter said he was afraid to stay in the park where temporary accommodations were situated as it was overcrowded. “I walked the streets last night. Scarcely anybody went to bed; they slept in the parks or walked the streets, being afraid of another shock.”
In the letter to his brother, Cotter vowed never to sleep in another brick hotel in San Francisco “for all the money there is in California.”
Two weeks later on May 1, the Free Press published a letter to Mrs. A. Gilroy, 53 Harriet St., from her son John, describing his experiences in San Francisco. He warned his mother she may not be able to make much sense out of his letter, “but I am not crazy, but, like thousands of others, I am dazed.”
Gilroy said he awakened when the quake caused a dresser to roll towards him and the ceiling to fall down. He woke his room-mate who immediately ran into the street in his pajamas. Gilroy stayed behind to peer out the window. Despite the disaster he observed, he took the time to wash and dress.
Gilroy said “hell started” as he and his room-mate walked down Market Street and looked back at the devastated city from a location near the ferry station belonging to the Southern Pacific Railway. It was there that he saw the first fires break out.
“By 11 o’clock at night all of downtown ’Frisco was a mass of smouldering ruins, and by 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, one could stand at the ferry and gaze upon miles and miles of smoking ruins ...
“I saw rescuers pulling mothers with babes at their breast out of the ruins, and all at once the walls toppled over, blotting out the rescuers as well as the people they were attempting to save.”
He wrote that the scene about him became one of “survival of the fittest,” as people abandoned their families to their own fate in order to escape the disaster.
Ellis eventually made it to safety in Portland where she was interviewed by reporters. At first, she sobbed in their presence, expressing concern that her husband and children were still unaware that she had survived.
“I telegraphed them but we have received no answer,” she told an interviewer. 
Once Ellis became more composed, she began to relate in great detail her harrowing experience. “When the earthquake came, Mrs. Frank and I were asleep in the Grand Hotel ... The room shook and rocked and swayed: great bricks plunged to the floor, plaster fell from the walls and ceilings. It nearly choked us. There was a terrible sound like nails pulling from wood. We jumped out of bed and ran out into the halls three times in only our night dresses, but they were crowded with terrified people rushing for the stairs.
“Almost mechanically, we dressed and ran out to the street. Right behind us we heard that a brick apartment house had buried seventy-five people. Everywhere was ruin, desolation. We didn’t know what to do.”
Ellis said that a saviour stepped forward to help them, a man named Charles Hoppe of Foster, Warren County, Ohio. She said the Ohio man had a crippled wife, but still took the time to help the two Winnipeg women as well as three other people. She particularly stressed that Hoppe was a “hero” as well as a Mason like her husband.
“I never knew what brotherhood meant till that day,” she said. “He hired a common express wagon and (we) went to Golden Gate Park.”
The park was one of the locations where the army had set up tents to house displaced people. Other locations were the Presidio, the Panhandle and the beaches between Ingleside and North Beach. 
Once safely in the park, Hoppe further proved his worth to the survivors by managing to find bread to feed them.
“In the middle of the night we thought rain was falling (on their tent), but it was the showers of red hot burning cinders ...,” said Ellis. “All of San Francisco was ablaze.”
On the Friday after the earthquake, the Ohio man found another express wagon for transportation out of the tent city at a cost of $2 apiece for the three women and himself and another $2.50 for the others in the party. From the park, they were taken by wagon to a ferry in order to cross San Francisco Bay to Oakland.
Along the way to the ferry, Ellis said what they saw was desolation and “flames were going out because there was no more to burn. Soldiers were everywhere. Several times we had to turn back to keep from getting into a fire district. At last we reached the ferry. Mr. Hoppe got us tickets and we reached Oakland.”
In Oakland, people rushed out onto the street to greet the survivors. Ellis said many offered them accommodations. Because of the local generosity, Ellis and Frank spent the evening in a comfortable home. The next morning they were on a train  to Portland, Oregon.
Cotter seems to have had a far more difficult time than Frank and Ellis in arranging for transportation out of San Francisco. Cotter said ferry owners were charging exorbitant prices to carry people across to Oakland and that food prices were prohibitive. Food prices only dropped when Mayor Schmidt threatened to confiscate all available supplies.
A San Francisco Chronicle April 22, 1906, editorial told officials to follow the example of communities across the Bay and commandeer all wagons for public use to prevent extortion.
“The transportation facilities of Wells, Fargo and the Morton Express companies are overtaxed (in San Francisco), and the owners of private express wagons are heartlessly taking advantage of the situation to reap a financial harvest out of the calamity which has overtaken the community by extorting outrageous prices for the transportation to the water front ...,” the Chronicle reported.
Cotter said once he did make it to  Oakland, he witnessed a line of 5,000 people in the telegraph office patiently waiting to send messages to relatives and friends. 
One man who did get a message out was Fred Nation of Brandon, Manitoba. On April 20, he wired A. Shewan in Brandon that he and his wife and family had gotten safely out of San Francisco. “Pulled through the earthquake all right, leaving tonight for Vancouver,” read the telegram.
Mr. and Mrs. Nation and their children were staying at the Pacific Hotel at the corner of Bush and Jones streets when the earthquake hit. Fortunately, the hotel was not toppled by the quake, although the building cracked  and plaster walls and windows were smashed.
Nation managed to arrange their departure from the city that afternoon prior to fires sweeping the district where the hotel was located. He counted himself lucky to having left “the city when we did or we would have been forced to remain for a few days and would undoubtedly have lost all our baggage, and (suffered) sufficient other hardships.”
Meanwhile in Winnipeg’s CPR telegraph office, J. Dawson, a local advertising agent, was anxiously awaiting news of his wife and two children who were in San Francisco during the earthquake. “Mr. Dawson says he will go to San Francisco if he fails (to receive word),” reported the Telegram. 
Cotter discovered that all banks were closed on both sides of San Francisco Bay, but he succeeded in getting a money draft with the help of the secretary of the relief committee who had introduced him to a bank manager. The draft allowed him to purchase a rail ticket out of Oakland.
Aid poured into San Francisco from across the world. The Canadian House of Commons voted $100,000 in relief, but this was refused by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who said that the American government could take care of its own.
Organizations and people from across Manitoba sent in donations. A special meeting of the Portage la Prairie council on April 24 approved a grant of $500 “towards the relief of San Francisco sufferers.” In Dauphin, the Odd Fellows on April 23 voted in favour of a $100 grant for the stricken city. Winnipeg city council approved a $10,000 grant with $5,000 immediately sent to Vancouver to purchase supplies for shipment to San Francisco. The remainder was to be sent at a later date.
Officially, only 498 deaths were reported, but this figure was concocted by local officials who feared the true death toll would hurt real estate values and efforts to rebuild the city. In keeping with the prejudices of the time, hundreds of casualties in the city’s Chinatown also went unreported.
What officials couldn’t hide was the devastation: 24,671 wooden buildings and 3,168 brick buildings were lost. The property damage was estimated at $400 million in 1906 US dollars. 
It was later estimated that the real figure of dead directly or indirectly resulting from the catastrophe was about 3,000; some have even placed the final death toll at nearly 10,000.
Fortunately, the available evidence from local sources seems to 
indicate that all Winnipeg and Manitoba visitors to the city at 
the time of the earthquake safely 
The April 23 Free Press published a report from Oakland dated a day earlier in which the newspaper said the only Canadian confirmed to have been killed in the quake was Mrs. H. Drumm, the wife of a French-language newspaperman from Alberta. The same article contained a list of Manitobans and their relatives who emerged from the disaster safely, including Winnipeggers Ogden Hinch and wife, Mrs. O.H. Clark, and  H.F. Anderson and wife.
On May 31, an advertisement appeared in the Free Press announcing the Winnipeg Theatre would be showing moving pictures of San Francisco earthquake and the resulting fires. The promotion for the June 4 and 5 afternoon and evening showings promised 6,000 feet of film of the “most awe-inspiring scenes since the fall of Pompeii.”
An article in the newspaper beside the ad added: “Life’s mightiest tragedy, the drama of the ages, the most thrilling of stories, all these features assembled in colossal spectacular, when the motion pictures of the San Francisco earthquake are placed on exhibition.”
Just weeks after the earthquake, it appeared as if the tragic event that had earlier seized the world’s and Manitoba’s “up-to-the-minute” attention had in effect passed into the annals of history. Chronicling it on film made images of the disaster accessible to the masses at their local theatre, but by doing so, the initial reaction of fear and anxiety for the fate of friends, relatives and a city reduced to smoking rumble was at the same time being relegated to the simplified category of “thrilling” entertainment.