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.


8 thoughts on “The Tea Cup

  1. My great-grandmother & great grandfather were pioneers in Steamboat Springs, CO, when the 1906 S.F. earthquake happened.

    After my great-grandfather left to take a herd of horses to some far-distant place, he never returned. My great-grandmother didn’t know if he’d been killed or if he had deserted her & her two young children, ages 4 and 3months.

    Steamboat Springs was a mining town in those days, so my great-grandmother worked as hard as she could to support her two very young daughters. She cooked & washed clothes for the miners for quite awhile. Later, she tried opening a bakery, but with her very young daughters, rising at 3:00am to begin baking was just too much, so she returned to cooking & washing for the miners.

    To try yo bring in more income, she ordered several copies of the photo book about the 1906 S.F. Earthquake, & she drove around Steamboat Springs & 2 other smaller towns nearby, & even out to the country farms, attempting to sell the 1906 Earthquake Books. That’s how hard-working & resilient she was out of her devotion to her young daughters!


  2. Bernadette Fagan says:

    Really wonderful story. When I was a kid living on Ulloa Street I was playing with a little boy who told me his grandfather was in the quake. He would be about 67 now same as me. For some reason I never forgot it. It made it tangible.


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