Written by Michael Shannon
San Andreas fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
such an awful sound….
Nathaniel Merchant, from “San Andreas Fault, 1995
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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….
23 WEST GUADALUPE RD SANTA MARIA CALIFORNIA= 18 April, 1906
2610 DERBY ST BERKELEY CALIFORNIA=
ANNIE COME HOME= ENCLOSED 50 DOLLARS GOLD=
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.
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