The Tea Cup

Annie Gray

Written by Michael Shannon

San Andreas fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
Earth divided
Plates collided
such an awful sound….
Nathaniel Merchant, from “San Andreas Fault, 1995

Annie “Nita” Gray, 21 yo. Family photo ©

Just across the bay in Berkeley Jack’s sweetheart Annie Gray was a student at the University of California. She was my grandmother to be. Annie lived as a boarder with the dentist, Dr. Arvan Meeks and his wife Minna in their home at 2610 Derby Street just a few blocks off campus. She was a sophomore.

Meeks Home, 1906 Shannon Family photo. ©

Annie, the Meeks family and the other two girls who lived there were awakened by the rumbling and moderate shaking which was quite unlike the feeling in San Francisco. The Meeks lost some china but otherwise the house they lived in was undamaged. Since the family was out of bed, they were quick to see that a broom and dustpan would clean up the mess so everyone went back to their rooms and dressed for the day. The cook made breakfast for the family and afterwards they decided what to do. Doctor Meeks was going to go downtown to check on his office, Minna was to stay home with the children and the girls were going to walk around Berkeley and do a little sightseeing. It seemed safe enough since there was little visible damage to the homes around them. Across the bay from San Francisco Annie and her friends took in the damage in downtown Oakland where, with its unreinforced brick buildings there was some brickwork in the streets and heaps of fallen terra cotta but other than the occasional broken window there wasn’t much to see.

In Berkeley, a 100-foot water tower fell unleashing a small flood, an explosion in a cooking oil factory threatened to spread fire throughout the industrial district and a large, deep crack opened up toward the west end of University Avenue stretching for several blocks. A workman picking up lumber at a West Berkeley wharf said he was nearly swept into the bay by a 4- to 5-foot wall of water that arrived about 10 minutes after the earthquake.

A split on the north end of East Street from the earthquake. East St. is now the Embarcadero. San Francisco, California: 1906. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Around Berkeley, 5,000 chimneys suffered damage or turned to rubble, including that of geology professor Andrew C. Lawson, who had recently named the San Andreas fault. He took the name given to the valley in which it ran by the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola who passed through in 1774. Local wags joked that he had named it after himself though Portola mapped it and gave it it’s name on the feast day of Saint Andrew more than two hundred years before Lawson.

Lawson was to lead the geologic survey studying the earthquake from his office at the University. The results were the first comprehensive look at the fault and the geology associated with the movement of the earth. The quake gave birth to the serious study of why and how faults worked.

As the sun rose they looked across the bay and saw the rising smoke from fires scattered about the city. Smoke began to rise in billows from the parts of the city they knew were residential and small businesses areas. Dense columns rising from the Hayes Valley and the Mission district south of the Slot. Both these areas, they knew, were densely populated. The cheap and flimsy wooden homes and businesses were built of redwood and pine which was bone dry or full of pitch and was as flammable as tissue paper. Building codes were nonexistent in those parts of the city and if they had existed, a simple passing of money from one hand to another would solve any problem.

San Francisco in 1906 was, despite modern day revisionist history, as big and sooty, smoggy, brawling, vulgar and thoroughly corrupt as a city could be. In the south below Market and Mission, “South of the Slot,” as residents wryly called it with no particular charm intended was where the factories, manufacturing plants and Iron foundries belched gouts of reeking smoke into the air fueled by low-grade coal. Ships boilers were coal fired as were the locomotives of the Southern Pacific Railroads locomotive which sat in the marshalling yards twenty four hours a day adding to the yellow gray cloud that daily drifted across the lower part of the city. Built chock a block with each other, stores, houses, hotels and factories were a mishmash of wooden building, many of which had little water service and almost none, sewers. Few had any indoor plumbing.

Just to the south was Butchertown. In 1868 a group of butchers purchased eighty-one acres of submerged and waterlogged tidelands and a “Butchers’ Reservation” for slaughtering animals was built . Filled with marshes, creeks, and bayside mud flats, this area of southeastern San Francisco had remained largely undeveloped despite several attempts at residential housing. The city banished the slaughterhouses and the smells, sounds, and carnage that went with the process from anywhere near the city center. An abundant water supply and the area’s relative isolation must have appealed to the meat men: offal from butchering could be easily disposed of in the ebb and flow of bay tides or Islais’s creeks meandering channel. Related industries quickly followed: tanneries, fertilizer plants, wool pulleries, and tallow works joined the industrial community of the area. Workers came with the industries; the greatest number of neighborhood residents worked in the surrounding industrial plants of the area. Though some residential development had preceded the butchers’ move into the area, sustained development of land was a result of the jobs Butchertown created.

On warm spring days the miasma of odors from “South of the Slot” was enough to knock a man or woman down. On some days, Annie said, the San Francisco perfume could be smelled up on the campus of the University.

From miles away damage to the city it didn’t seem too bad though, they didn’t know yet that the San Francisco Fire Department, long considered one of the nations finest was in ruins.

The city’s fire chief Dennis Sullivan had been raging at the city fathers for years that the city was a tinderbox just waiting for a match to be struck. He had long argued that the city needed a saltwater firefighting system, after all, the seven square miles of the city was surrounded on three sides by the bay. He also wanted the freshwater cisterns which had been built decades before under the streets but had been long neglected, repaired. He was ignored.

Dennis T. Sullivan. SFFD museum

Just the year before, the National Board of Fire Underwriters had declared that, though in theory, the fire department could deliver 36 million of water a day it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop a major fire. Chief Sullivan again went to the city’s fathers but was again completely ignored.

Rich and complacent, the Mayor, and his fixer Abe Ruef, the Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad, Claus Spreckels and the Silver Kings of Nevada were occupied with money making and from their mansions up on Nob Hill didn’t give a sniff.

As the college girls watched the city from across the bay, Chief Sullivan’s worst fears were already beginning to come true, and for the Chief himself, tragically so. The Chief had jumped from his bed a the first sound. His official residence was Engine Company 2 on Bush between Grant and Kearney. The station was snug against the wall of the California Hotel. The Chief and his wife lived on the third floor and when the quake struck he ran for her door. Before he could get to her a bank of huge smokestacks from the hotel came down through the roof. Sullivan and his wife fell along with a mass of heavy brick and lumber all the way to the first floor. Mrs Sullivan suffered only minor injuries but the Chief, his chest crushed and skull fractured would die the next day, April 19th. When his department needed him most he was gone.

Annie and her roommates returned to Doctor Meeks home and were sitting in he parlor trying to figure out what they could do. Arvan Meeks had gone down to his office to check for damage and Minna was left alone with the girls and her eight year old son Charles.

The three young women thought to go up to campus and see if there was any damage to the school. Other than being awakened early there didn’t seem to be a thing unusual about what the day would bring. Annie and her friends assumed they would be attending classes as usual. They gathered their books and got ready to leave.

Bacon Library and South Hall, UC Berkeley. Family Postcard.

The girls, being just 20 were both thrilled and excited and wanted to go up to the campus to look around. They promised Minna they would do nothing remotely dangerous and left by the front door. Doctor Meeks having returned loaded them in his auto and headed down Derby to Shattuck Avenue.

From there they could take the streetcar up to Hearst Ave and then walk into the campus. Coincidentally the car crossed Dwight Way, the street on which my father would be born six years later. The Petrolia hotel on the corner had part of its frieze and all of its awnings littering the street. Entering the campus by crossing Bancroft they were surprised to see that except for a broken window in South Hall, the campus was otherwise untouched. In fact, classes had started as if nothing was amiss. Annie said that when they arrived on campus the only unusual activity was the mustering of the University Cadet Corps. Some were in formation already and others were running half dressed across campus to join their mates. A soldier boy passing by told them they were for the city and would be taking the ferry over to help keep order in San Francisco.

They asked why order was needed and he told them that the city was nearly destroyed. This was the first real news from San Francisco they had had. It immediately occurred to Annie that Jack might be in danger or even killed.

They decided to go to over to Stiles Hall which was the home of the YMCA where a large crowd of students had gathered on the steps to see what news they could get. While in conversation with others the doors opened and the announcement was made that the hall would be the headquarters for the Earthquake Relief Organization. It was said that volunteers would be needed for the anticipated flood of refugees from the City which were already stumbling off the cross bay ferries. They would need to be fed, clothed and given somewhere to stay. Annie and her roommates decided to see if they could be of use and went inside where tables had been set up so volunteers could be signed up for jobs. All three signed up for kitchen duty. They were going to head back to the Meek’s, change clothes and then return ready to go to work.

As they descended the steps they stopped to watch wagon loads of tents headed up campus to the football stadium. The second of Cal’s football stadiums, it was built in 1904 and could hold 20,000 fans. The tents, brought in from Mare Island by the Navy would be set up on the football field for the refugees who had nowhere else to go.

In Berkeley they were not aware of what was happening in the City for several hours. Time was spent looking around at the damage to the university and the city and beginning to make plans as to what to do. We assumed there was not too much damage across the bay as Berkeley was relatively untouched by any kind serious damage. We felt optimistic about our own damage and assumed it must be so in San Francisco until several hours later when we saw the beginning of the dense black cloud that would soon engulf the entire city. By noon we had learned by messenger that a large portion of the city was afire.” 

Washington Irving Stringham, Professor of Mathematics, UC Berkeley

At the Meek’s Annie tried telephoning the Craigs to check on Jack and the family but the operator told her their was no communication with the city by telephone or telegraph. All the lines across the city were dead and the main exchange building on New Montgomery Street, she thought, had been destroyed or heavily damaged. She said there was no connection across the bay at all.

By this time, though it was still mid-morning columns of smoke could be seen rising from the business district and east of Market street. Annie and her friends were all worried but knew there was nothing they could do but help those that would soon be arriving from the city. Jack will be all right she thought and I’ll worry about it when I have to. The three of them headed off to campus to go to work.

“We saw he first refugees arrived by ferry and a sorry looking lot they were. They only brought what they could carry and were dirty and bedraggled. Some were in serious shock, moaning and crying helpless with grief and fear. Their stories made me frightened for Jack. We knew little about what was happening in the city.” Annie Gray in a letter to her friend Hattie Tyler. May 15th, 1906

Annie Gray and Hattie Tyler. Shannon Family Trust (c)

In the early afternoon people began arriving on campus. Most had walked up from the ferry landings. Haggard, worn, most wearing whatever clothes they had had time to throw on they were covered in dust and smelled of destruction. Entire families of all stripes, wealthy and the poor carrying or dragging the little suitcases they had been allowed to carry aboard the ferries the were bewildered and lost. My grandma said it was the saddest thing. Yesterday was fine, today all was lost.

The refugees were given sandwiches and soup and then registered so they could be found somewhere to stay. The people of Berkeley and Oakland generously responded by setting up temporary camps, dispensing food, listing jobs, and even taking in the homeless. City officials had quickly taken measures to ensure public order and health as city and university officials were struggling to deal with thousands of disoriented, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous strangers, many separated from their loved ones. Berkeley with a population of twenty-six thousand was to grow its population by half in the coming weeks.

When Annie arrived home at the end of a very long an exhausting day Minna met her at the door with the familiar buff colored envelope containing a Western Union Telegram. Annie quickly seized it, praying it was from Jack. She torn open the envelope and pulled out the flimsy yellow paper printed with the companys logo and the senders address. She read from the tiny strips of paper printed with the message and then pasted to the form. It read….


The telegram was from her brother Bob Gray. She had been hoping it was from Jack. She wasn’t worried about Bob. He was safe at home with the family in Santa Maria.

She wouldn’t go home but she would keep the money.

To Be Continued….Jack’s story.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.

Contact: or Google


The Tea Cup

It is inevitability dismaying to all those who like to think that the earth and its inhabitants and all the events that occur upon it have any importance at all in the cosmic sense. From a great distance there was essentially nothing to see. But something did happen. The planet shrugged, oh so briefly like a horse rippling its skin to rid itself of a fly.  A blink of the eye and it would have been unnoticed. A brief ripple gone unseen on the blue green and white planet still bathed with lunar light at the tail end of the night. No more for the earth than a momentary shrug.


      Laugh thy golden laughter;

Then, the moment after,

Weep thy golden tears!

                                                                                                                   Sir William Watson, “April” 1903


The Little tea Cup. It sat on the sideboard in my grandparents house for 75 years. To look at it you’d think, Annie, my grandmother, could have found something much grander to display on the cabinet. After all the hand crocheted Irish linen runner was a work of art and ancient. The emerald colored twin vases were embossed with real gold and the Seth Thomas clock was a thing of rare elegance. The little cup was of no special make, just a cheap knock-off you might pick up at a white elephant sale.

Like many things in life it held a personal story shared by my grandparents of an event both shocking and forever memorable as, perhaps the most consequential experience of their long lives.

Perhaps this was a secret thing. They never spoke of the cup and I can say I never gave it any thought until I was a grown man. My father told me the why and wherefore after my grandfather died.

You see, the tea cup was in fact a cheap thing of no particular value if you count its history in monetary terms but it was of immense value if you knew the story of how it came to be there.

Jack Shannon, 24. 1896 Ellis Street, San Francisco


On a Wednesday morning, a work day for most but a school holiday for the kids, the Great San Andreas fault slipped its plates with a small ripple at 5:12 in the morning and then roughly 25 seconds later, shattered the north coast of California with the greatest earthquake in the states recorded history. One of the greatest ever recorded worldwide. In the year 1906 San Francisco became only the latest place on earth to suffer from a series of quakes and volcanos. A massive undersea quake off Ecuador in January; thousands killed. Sixteen days later St. Lucia in the Caribbean rocked violently; then five days later, the Caucasus mountains, the border between eastern Europe and Asia cracked open. Four weeks later Formosa, off the coast of China experienced an extremely destructive temblor. A very large loss of life and property devastated the island. Shortly after the volcano Vesuvius blasted rocks and boulders forty thousand feet into the air completely destroying several towns at its base. Scientists believe the eruption equaled or exceeded the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  After ten days of destruction Vesuvius quieted itself on the 16th of April. After three months of disturbances there was some small reason to believe that the earth had done its worst.

The vibrant and fast growing, young west coast city of San Francisco was waking to a new day, the pinkish eastern horizon behind Mount Diablo cast a faint glow over the sleeping city  The air was moist and chilly in the way that mornings are on the coast of northern part of California. Some early risers hurried off to work and the night dwellers of the Tenderloin and Barbary Coast were headed off to bed.


The earthquakes epicenter was very near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.  One important characteristic of the shaking intensity noted in Lawson’s (1908) report was the clear correlation of intensity with underlying geologic conditions. Areas situated in sediment-filled valleys sustained stronger shaking than nearby bedrock sites, and the strongest shaking occurred in areas where ground reclaimed from San Francisco Bay failed in part due to the filled areas of un-compacted soils liquefying, causing buildings to literally sink like ships in a storm.

Downtown along Market street architectural details on the facades of its great business section rained down on the street below killing workmen just beginning their day. Crushed under heaps of broken terra-cotta stone and brick, dray horses and their drivers were smashed and died instantly, the blood of both men and horses trickling down the gutters. Frame buildings lurched off their foundations breaking water and gas lines beneath them, many flimsy wooden buildings in the poorer residential areas simply collapsed into  heaps of rubble, crushing and trapping the people inside.

The day before there had been a street fair. Jack was enjoying the last moments of sleep on that Wednesday morning. He was tired after being up late, celebrating, being Irish and all. Down on McCallister street they had had an orchestra playing and booths set up on the side of the street where punch and beer were to be had. The fun had gone on until the early hours of the morning. Jack said he had come in about 2am, dumped his suit on the floor and crawled into bed. Gerald woke up, sniffed the air and said, “Uncle Jack, you sure do stink.” Jack laughed and replied, “It’s just a little smoke and beer Jerry, it was a great party, now go back to sleep.”

My grandfather Jack lived on Ellis Street, west of Van Ness with his half brothers family in a two story victorian house at 1896. He had just woken, swung out from under his quilt and sat rubbing his eyes when a sound like a rapidly approaching train began to increase in intensity. The rumble became a roar. He stood when the first shaking occurred. He took a step and put his hand on the wall when suddenly the blast broke over the city like a an avalanche and the ground jerked like a cat shaking a rat. He stumbled and fell to his knees to the sound of Adelaine screaming down the hall. Crockery smashed down on the floor, sash weights were banging inside the walls like a drumroll and the boys, Frank and Geralds beds were sliding across the wooden floor, their metal wheels screeching  as they hit the wall.  The wooden house groaned under the strain, windows rattled in their frames and the doors opened and slammed closed with bangs. The crashing of crockery, screams of the terrified children pierced the clouds of dust rising from every corner of the old house. There was no need to speculate what was happening. Jack, against the violent shaking, tried to stand but could not. The rolling shudder seemed to last forever but in reality no more than sixty seconds before it suddenly stopped. Everyone rushed through the house, gathering in the parlor, shaken, pale and briefly undecided on what to do.                   From down the hall as Adelaine came running into the room holding six year old Mabel.  Everyone in the family quickly came to the conclusion that they needed to get out of the house. Would there be another, bigger than this one? Neighbors came flying from their rooms, out the doors, down the front steps and onto Ellis Street, joining hundreds of terrified other residents, most still in bedclothes; barefoot. Women had their hair down clutching robes against the cold trying to preserve a little modesty. In the cool and still dark morning, the crowds were silent as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t. The great quake had lasted no more than 60 seconds by the clock, a lifetime measured by heartbeat.

  The Craigs house had windows broken, the front porched lurched like a drunken sailor man and hung askew, separated from the house but the house itself stayed on its foundation. Not all houses were so lucky. Houses built in the 18th century were not typically bolted down. A typical home might have baling wire embedded in concrete and then wrapped around the sill to hold the foundations in place but older home might not have concrete foundation at all but were simply built on redwood posts sunk into the soil beneath. In a fortunate co-incidence, the light unbraced walls of houses could flex and absorb some of the quakes energy which meant hundreds of homes in the residential sections.survived with little damage. Photos of the old painted ladies leaning on each other are common but it didn’t them take long afterwards to jack them back up onto their foundation to allow families to come home.

The Craig’s house suffered little damage, most of it cleaned up with a broom and dust pan. The only serious damage was to the gas stove which slid a short way across the floor, breaking the gas line. It seemed a small consequence, but it was repeated thousands of times across the city and along with the shattered water system, was to have a grave effect in the coming days.

Jack worked for the phone company at the time but going to work seemed unnecessary in light of the massive destruction of the poles still swaying from the effects of the shaking. Lines were down everywhere. He helped his brother-in-law Bill Craig move his wife and kids out of the house and down to nearby Jefferson Street Park. The smell of gas filled the house with fumes and no sensible person would have stayed inside. They humped the old wood stove down into the street and away from the house, a sight that would be all too common in the following days as houses were much too dangerous to stay in.

San Francisco Earthquake Split

A split on the north end of East Street from the earthquake: 1906. Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Jack had left his family in the park and headed down Ellis Street headed toward Van Ness. He was a young man who had sought adventure all his lifetime and this seemed an opportunity. Whatever adventure there was, it lurked outside. By the time the family was settled in the park throngs of displaced, confused and frightened people were out on the streets. Jack willingly joined the crowds heading downtown. When he arrived at Van Ness he could look out over the city and see the huge dust cloud raised by the grinding earth and the collapsing buildings. With the Western Addition behind him the view to his right towards Bernal Heights and sweeping around to the South of the Slot, as the area below the Mission District used to be called. The Slot, being the cable car cut down Market Street that ran down towards the ferry building and the turntable where cars were turned around. He could see Union Square and the Tenderloin though the view of Cow Hollow and washerwoman’s cove was blocked by Pacific Heights where damaged building were plainly visible.

The city gave off an odd smell, a combination of escaping gas, unburned coal still smoldering in a thousand iron stoves and every kind of dust. Dust from broken brick and masonry, dust from the streets, dust from stables and thousands of houses shaken like rags. Dust rising into the sky, dislodged from every home and building by the shaking turning the early morning light a vague pinkish and dirty yellow.

Turning onto Van Ness, it was a walk of just four blocks to the intersection of Larkin and McCallister where he got his first clear view of City Hall. There were broken windows aplenty and many front porches leaning like drunks against lamp poles. Near his house three older victorians leaned against each other in a temporary embrace but this, this, was beyond anything Jack could have imagined. The gaudy pile that was the new city hall, hailed as a monument to the glory of San Francisco by its boosters was completely ruined. Eight millions of dollars and twenty-six years of planning and work was completely destroyed in forty seconds. The steel columns holding the cupola which rose high above Market Street were nearly naked, it looked like a massive bird cage, the concrete and cladding stripped away, the steel tinged pale pink in the light of the rising sun.. At the ruined entrance he said he could see the blue clad arm and leg of a policeman, crushed as he made his way into the building in those early morning hours. On the very top of the tower the iron statue of the Goddess of Progress, twenty feet tall with its torch held aloft still wore its garlands of light and pointed toward heaven as if to mock the hand of man. The rest of the enormous building and everything in it was no more than a pile of rubble. When the fire reached it the next day, it would take four days to eat its way through the city’s paper records.

City Hall. Private Collection©

Jack was amazed at the damage. He was also not amazed. He said that the city of San Francisco had taken graft to a near perfect level, a thing that even ordinary citizens knew of and were secretly proud of. He said, having lived in New York, that Tammany Halls best efforts couldn’t match size of the money trough that Mayor Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz and his fixer Abe Rueff’s cronies fed from. A fine city must have the best of all things in order to call itself so. If favoritism and graft existed they needed to be the best. City Hall epitomized this attitude.

My grandfather said that knowing about the robber barons and their minions who ran the city was one thing but seeing it was another. The massive columns that supported the facade had collapsed, one falling across Larkin Street and shearing the entire front off an apartment building. The Argyle Hotel on Larkin had its roof sagging under the weight of broken masonry flung from the Hall in the forty seconds it had taken to destroy over twenty years of construction and millions of dollars of public money. The broken columns lying in the street, he said, were full of sand, some with heavy oaken hogshead barrels inside instead of concrete. Considered by San Franciscans as the showpiece of the city it was a complete ruin, pointing its devastated finger directly at the grafters who built it. Jack said it was the worst damage of any large building in the city.

Ruined City Hall, Shannon Family Collection.

An hour later I was creeping past the shattered dome of the City Hall. Than it there was no better exhibit of the destructive force of the earthquake. Most of the stone had been shaken from the great dome, leaving standing the naked framework of steel. Market Street was piled high with the wreckage, and across the wreckage lay the overthrown pillars of the City Hall shattered into short crosswise sections.” Jack London

Fearing aftershocks, Jack kept to the center of the street. Broken brick, terra cotta decorations, glass, crushed delivery wagons hitched to dead horses were everywhere and getting worse. A milk delivery wagon was abandoned on the street, the horses gone and a steel telegraph pole lying across the crushed seat and broken wheels. Going down McCallister he met a policeman walking up from Market. When he asked about damage down there the man said it was much worse downtown but he thought the ferries were still running. Jack said policeman held a pistol in his hand and when asked why he said, “I’m shooting the poor horses that are hurt, there’s a lot.” My grandfather later told me thats not all they were shooting.

As he walked closer, behind him he heard the agonizing screech of the iron tires on the wheels of Engine 14’s steamer as it slid sideways around the debris littering McCallister, sparks were flying from the sliding rims on the wooden wheels and the three iron shod horses pulling the pumper at full speed. The firemen still only half dressed and hanging on to the grab bars for dear life as the the driver up on the high seat sawed on the reins, the brakeman kicking the brake bar, whipping the rig from side to side to avoid wrecking on the broken street. The big fire horses, knowing their job, loving their job, pulled her at breakneck speed. With flashing eyes and slobber flying from their mouths they headed down toward Hayes Valley where the first tendrils of fire were rising above the rooftops. Jack stood and watched as the steamer slewed around and went up Jones headed for what would be called the Ham and Eggs fire.

Rolling Out. Image: Collection of California Historical Society.

The wagon and engine companies didn’t need the alarm system to make a run for their rigs. In the old horse drawn days the firemen lived in the station houses with their horse. The equipment and horse stable were downstairs and the living quarters upstairs joined by the iconic brass fire pole. The third floor or attic space was used to store feed and grain for the horses.

Tumbling down the pole the men who staffed those companies had run the turn out drill so many times that they could have done their job blindfolded. The horse knew the drill too. By the time the first man hit the floor the horses would be stamping and banging the stalls, hooves clattering making a racket because they knew what their part was and they were ready to go. Over time the sturdy American bred Morgan horse was cross bred with the European Percheron for greater size and strength. Both horses were known for their even temperament. They were trained to remain calm around the rigging excitement and the action on the street while the men worked the fire.

The engines were parked behind and under the harnesses for the teams. The rigs hung from the ceiling on a wooden frame and were designed so the horse could simply stand in its assigned spot and the men could drop the pre-rigged harness over the back and hook up. Bridle and bit, collar and Hames snapped together, belly backer, traces, saddle, spider and hip drop would be quickly buckled, the engine pulled forward and tongue buckled on. The man holding the horse heads was being lifted off his feet and swung about trying to hold the horses so they wouldn’t bolt they were so eager to go. The driver and the brakemen would vault up to the seat, grab the ribbons and once the man at the head scooted aside, the doors opened, the engine would spring from the house with the firemen grabbing the bars and hanging on for dear life. Good crews could be out the door in a minute, sometimes less. That was the standard for companies in San Francisco.

The steam boiler and engine mounted on the wagon frame provided the power to operate the pump, which, when attached to a hydrant or cistern forced the water through the hose with tremendous pressure. The boilers fires were kept banked and tended by the boiler tender 24 hours a day. It took just a few minutes to get the fire going and build steam pressure in order to operate the pumps. In 1906, engine companies were at the peak of perfection and wouldn’t be topped for speed or efficiency until the development of the fire truck. San Francisco would burn but the fire companies did all they could under extreme circumstance to combat the massive fires to come.

All across the city, women who had gone back into their homes were preparing to cook breakfast without realizing that the chimneys and flues of the stoves were damaged. Brick chimneys had fallen, killing many people in their sleep. Falling across people still sleeping, the brick chimney’s weighed thousands of pounds and killed hundreds. The brick flues were the worst. As heat rose up them, dislodged brick and tar quickly caused many to catch fire. Flames probed through the broken brick, kindling the wooden frame buildings just like matches. Hundreds of fires started within minutes of the quake. Many were rapidly extinguished but in the largely wooden sections of the city the fires that would ultimately destroy San Francisco were already on the march.

Fallen Chimney, Image: Bancroft Library.

Dodging debris in the streets, Jack got down to Market and for the first time he could look all the way down to the ferry building faintly visible in the dust and smoke haze fourteen blocks away. He would walk down to the ferry and buy a ticket to Oakland and find Annie. He had no idea how much damage Oakland and Berkeley had suffered or how things were up on the University campus, but was going to find out. He began walking down Market Street. Far head he could see, down at the end of Market, the tower of the ferry building.

To be continued………Annies Story.



Written by Michael Shannon

A historian seeks the truth of it. He is neither blinded by the glare of opinion nor does he ever stop seeking a final answer which he knows in his heart is not or ever will be there. He must always dig deeper. His life is to live in worlds which no longer exist. His life is to parade before mankind the true blocks that built the world we live in.

My friend the historian has pawed through the dustbins of scrap, piecing together the puzzle of lives lived. Letter, journals, documents, film are all grist for the mill. A fabulist he is not.

He understands that there is never a final answer. There is always something to be discovered and his hope is the honour will be his. That is his calling.

Not long ago in a comment string on an article he posted, someone commented that what he said was interesting but not written by a “Real” historian. A “real” historian, which implied he was not.

I’ve been thinking about the comment and the not so subtle dig it implies so I though I’d explain what a real historian is.

You are. Did you keep your grandmothers Christmas cards? How about your mothers letters to her sister. Perhaps the journal your great uncle kept when he was stationed in Vladivostok during WWI. Do you still have the box with some black and white unidentified photos, the ones with the deckled edges and a coffee stain? Does it have an old crinkled embroidered handkerchief and at the bottom and a deed to the ranch made out in 1924. Do you still have your high school yearbook? How about a set of Compton’s Encyclopedia from 1930. All of that, my friend is history. Keepers of history long for those things. Mundane objects are the things history is made of.

True history which is known to all “real” historians is made up of the things that did not get thrown away. We know of the war between the kingdoms of Elam and Assyria because a record of the conflict was kept and survived nearly three thousand years buried in the sand of southwestern Iran. In Great Britain the site of the Roman fort at Vindolanda, a part of Hadrian’s Wall built to keep illegal Picts from what is now Scot Land from entering Roman Britain. These finds record military expenditures; daily bookkeeping which hasn’t changed in nearly 1,900 years which you would recognize if you ever served in the military, have been found. From it we learned that Roman soldiers wore underwear, something completely unknown until today. The documents are personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman. It features her signature, the first known example of a woman signing her name, Claudia Severa. The commander’s wife was writing to Sulpicia Lepidina. How different is that than your grandmothers invitations. You can easily see it’s the same thing. That is its historic significance.

“Please come to my party Sulplicia.” AD 100. Collection of British Museum.

Those of us who watch movies or read novels must learn the difference between story telling and historical fact. Screen writers play fast and loose with history all the time. The old saying that “Facts should not get in the way of a good story” are absolutely true.

Consider some favorites. Old Braveheart, William Wallace never saw a kilt in his life. Thomas Rawlinson, an English ironmonger, who employed Highlanders to work his furnaces in Glengarry near Inverness invented the one you are familiar with in the early eighteenth century, around 1710. Finding the belted plaid wrap cumbersome, he conceived of the “little kilt” on the grounds of efficiency and practicality, as means of bringing the Highlanders “out of the heather and into the factory.” However, as Dorothy K. Burnham writes in Cut My Cote (1997), it is more likely that the transformation came about as the natural result of a change from the warp-weighted loom to the horizontal loom with its tighter weave. After the battle of Culloden (1745) which Jamie Frasier barely survived, wearing the “Wee Kiltee” was outlawed. Luckily moviegoers don’t care that Braveheart died horribly in 1305 over four centuries earlier.

William Wallace didn’t paint his face blue either. Where did the idea that the Picts painted themselves blue originate? Julius Caesar once noted that the Celts got blue pigment from the woad plant and that they used it to decorate their bodies. Pict was a name coined by the Romans to describe the Northern tribes who covered their bodies in blue woad to camouflage and perhaps to intimidate: Picti means painted people in Latin. It is likely that the Picts were the descended from the native peoples of Scotland such as the Caledones or Vacomagi who lived in modern-day northern and eastern Scotland about 1,800 years ago. Picts is merely a descriptive term. William Wallace and the Scots wore blue face paint in Braveheart, not because it was historically accurate, but because the filmmakers liked the idea of it. Braveheart certainly did not have sex with the English Queen out in the woods. Did Queen Eleanor have the habit of wondering around in the darkling woods of a night. Certainly she did not. If she wanted a child by Wallace she would have removed her Wimple which women wore to cover their hair lest the sight of it turn men into savage wanton beasts. She died fifteen years before Wallace’s revolt.

Eleanor, Queen of England. Tomb in Westminster Abbey, London

Henry the VIII’s second wife Ann Boleyn was executed, her head severed with the sword of a French executioner because she was an adultness. At least that is what we learned in “The Tudors.” Think about this, Henry the VIII was 6’2″ and weighted 210 pounds when he was in his twenties. The man who played him in the series is 5’9″ and 155 pounds. Quite a difference, yes? The simple truth is, Henry was a Tomcat, adultery was his hobby. Anne’s sister Mary was one of his mistresses, pimped out by her own father. Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire and the 1st Earl of Ormond. These were nasty ruthless people. What Henry was, was fixated on having a male heir to the throne. The Tudors had overthrown the York family by killing King Richard the third who was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty that had conquered Britain in 1066. Henry felt a little shaky on the throne. English barons were a testy and power hungry lot and they could turn on the king in an instant. With the help of Bishop Cranmer, the head of the church, charges were trumped up and the lovely Anne bared her “Little Neck,” she actually said that to the executioner before the chop. She went to the block, dressed in a white shift, her hair shorn and her feet bare. Henry’s only concession was to allow the sword rather than the axe. Royalty was not to be beheaded by axe or an Englishman, hence the Frenchman. Likely we wouldn’t be at all interested in her story except that her daughter grew up to be the most famous British monarch of all. Elizabeth the first. The virgin Queen, though that too is in serious doubt. The virgin part I mean.

The archives kept in the British museum document Annes trial and her indictment but also contain the personal letters between the principles which show without a doubt that she was completely innocent of anything except, apparently, the capital crime of having a girl.

Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein, from life.

Willian Shakespeare did not write his plays. That idea, which has persisted for decades was good enough to make more than one movie. We can start with the fact that his life in London is very well documented. There are the bills of lading for the material that he used to build the Globe theater. There is the building permit for the same. There are copies of the original documents themselves with his name on them The main argument, in the absence of such “proof” of authorship, skeptics have posed the question: How could a man of such humble origins and education come by such wealth of insight, wide-ranging understanding of complex legal and political matters and intimate knowledge of life in the English court? Shakespeare’s supporters emphasize the fact that the body of evidence that does exist points to Shakespeare, and no one else which are written in his own hand. This includes the printed copies of his plays and sonnets with his name on them, theater company records and comments by contemporaries like Ben Jonson, Samuel Boswell and John Webster, men of letters who actually knew him. Doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship and attempts to identify a more educated, worldly and high-born candidate reveal not only misguided snobbery but a striking disregard for one of the most outstanding qualities of the Bard’s extraordinary work—his imagination.

Who can doubt that an intelligent man, even one with limited education, not use historical works as background for whatever his bountiful imagination seeks to follow? Provable historic fact are the foundation of his plays, the same as it would be if he was writing today. Consider Samuel Clemens, one of Americas greatest writers. Fifth grade education in he backwater town of Hannibal, Missouri. Charles Dickens also left school at age twelve and I’ve seen no movement to discredit either.

In the end, the Puritans, yes those Puritans who figure in our American history tore down the Globe theater and banned all productions of any play including Will’s as being devilish and depraved. Puritans condemned the sexualization of the theatre and its associations with depravity and prostitution. Puritan authorities shut down English theaters in the 1640s and 1650s—Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was demolished and copies of his plays were burned. That is an example of history is not made up.

The Puritans ruled England and early white America for a time. When you read your high school text book, there is no mention of the fact that they banned Christmas. Sometimes historical facts don’t fit the narrative do they? Inconvenient but provable historical fact. No Christmas for you. Maybe they had a point. Americans spent around 178 billion dollars on Christmas this year, nearly a thousand dollars per person.

When I was still teaching high school I heard from my mainly male students about their love of the Kurt Russell version of the Tombstone legend. They were adamant that the Earp legend was hands down true and accurate. They would accept no argument. What they knew was what the Earp and the screenwriters told them. Because Earps history is relatively recent, unfortunately it is also pretty well documented. Over two dozen films have featured Wyatt Earp, actually that would be Wyatt Barry Stapp Earp, a name that doesn’t easily fit on a theater marquee. Writers play fast and loose with “facts” all the time. What documented history knows and can prove is this; He was by turns a lawman, stage robber, horse thief, gambler, pimp, brothel keeper with his brothers, two of his wives were prostitutes and is definitively know to have killed two men, one a town marshal. At the shootout, eye witnesses state that he wore a Mackinaw coat not a long black overcoat ala Kurt Russell. He also didn’t carry a pistol in a gun-belt but in his pocket as was his custom. Perhaps the testimony of men who knew him in Tombstone sheds a light on his personal history. Roy Drachman would later write: “I don’t remember when Wyatt Earp began to be looked upon as some kind of hero. That was not his image around Arizona then, where many people knew and remembered him well. I never heard anything from those folks about any of the good or great deeds that he is supposed to have done. I think he just made them up for his biography which is nearly all lies anyway. He was a simply a survivor at a time when some of his close friends and relatives weren’t so lucky in avoiding a violent death.” Lastly, John Ringo had no education and did not speak Latin.

Consider, before you comment on my friends historical credentials, most people have only a single high school credit in US History, taught from a text compiled by a college professor and likely written by teaching assistants, cobbled together from many pieces and passed of as definitive “Truth.” 50% of U.S. adults are unable to read above an eighth grade level book with complete comprehension. 33% of U.S. high school graduates never read a book after high school. 80% of U.S. families have not purchased a book this year. (2020) Knowing this, it seems to me that folks should be very careful about who and why they offer up any criticism of “Real” historians.

Perhaps the best example there is, is that until recently everything you know about ancient Egypt came from Victorian Era amateur archeologists. All of them educated white men who had no background in the very long arc of Egyptian history. Not one asked an Egyptian. Until recently nearly all you knew about King Tut, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, and the other pharoahs was written by these English gentlemen. Notwithstanding the beauty and the glory of that which was found in their tombs the real treasure were things like your grandmothers post card. Found in digs all over Egypt are payroll records for the pyramid builders, personal letters, diaries and business accounts. Those mundane objects are the real historical record.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Around 1335 BCE

Our friend the local historian knows where knowledge lies. He has written, studied and taught nearly his entire lifetime. He deserves credit for what he says. Do not take him lightly.

The phrase, “I only want to hear what I already know” was never uttered by any Historian.

History is a growing thing, it changes constantly as new things are discovered. As my sainted father was wont to say, “Don’t believe most of what you read and only half of what you see.” Look for it yourself, it’s the only way to know. History is thick, dense and tasty.

This particular historian, with his inquisitiveness and his joy in pure thought shine through, and they have captivated me. In a time when parts of our society, particularly political leaders are trying to freeze false historical narrative in amber, glorifying a time that never was, it’s more important than ever to get down on your knees and dig in the pig pen for that lost diamond.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.