Written By: Michael Shannon
You could not tell but it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by a cliff,
The cliff being backed by continent:
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming and not only a night, an age.
Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific,” 1928
Jack paused at the entrance to Jones and looked right to see the Post Office building at Seventh and Mission. He told me that it was to be the site of one of the most courageous attempts to save a building during the fire. At that time of the morning though it didn’t seem damaged at all.
On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds’ twitching of the earth-crust. Jack London
He turned and looked down Market. In the distant he could just make out the tower of the Ferry building.
The mornings mist, the shaken dust and the first tendrils of smoke drifted in his vision. People were beginning to come up from the Mission and over from the residential areas of the Hayes Valley. Clouds of smoke were rising from somewhere down around Davis and Front streets and to his right flames were visible on Fremont. Already there were fires along Howard and what looked to be several down Sixth Street in the heart of the Slot.
At first it was mostly men walking up and down Market, staring at the destruction, brick and broken pediments, shattered glass, dead horses smashed and their wagons destroyed by falling Terra Cotta decorations fallen from the friezes of the big commercial building along both sides of the street. As he began walking down towards the bay he saw another dead man. On the corner of Market and Powell, a delivery driver and his horse were both half concealed under debris fallen from the facade of the largest office building in the west. Built by James Flood, one of theVirginia City Nevada’s Silver Kings. Primarily a stock manipulator who invested in Banks and real estate, much of his San Francisco holdings disappeared in the fire. A poor saloonkeeper who along with his business partner William O’Brian managed what was thought to be a hair brained scheme to corner stock in the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, which became the richest silver mine in Nevada history, churning out, in it’s heyday, $1,500.000 every day seven days a week. His former mansion was the only one of the Nobs homes not to be completely destroyed. Gutted by the fire, it was sold and refurbished. Today it is the Pacific Union Club, a well known landmark in the city and on the register of the National Historic Trust.
Soon, as the murky sunlight revealed the heaps of broken brick people began arriving on the streets, throngs of the curious were coming downtown to see the spectacle. Jack said it looked like every man woman and child in the city was out in the streets. Survivors were transfixed by the destruction. They stood and watched, speechless. Jack said when they did talked it was in quiet, hushed tones as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was communal shock.
There was no real organization early on Wednesday just an occasional policeman seeming as bewildered as the rest of the crowd. Coming up market was a single horse drawn wagon with a cord of dead for a load. People moved aside but paid little attention to the macabre scene. They would get used to it in the coming days. No one had hired the wagon, the driver had just taken it upon himself to do something. Jack said the destruction, though mainly superficial, the crumbled state of Markets business district was simply overwhelming and hard to take in.
My grandfather began pushing through the crowds headed down toward the waterfront. He said most people at this stage just stood in small groups talking and wondering what was going to happen next. No one seemed to be planning anything, overcome with the enormity of what they saw. The destruction had barely begun.
He spoke with a policeman who had witnessed the quake standing by his call box and talking to a grocer at the eastern end of Washington Street. Washington is one of the longest streets in the city. It butts up to the Presidio in the west and then by fits and starts makes it’s way past parks, rises and falls over Nob, Russian and Pacific Heights where the rich swells live, passes through Chinatown and ends at the Embarcadero amongst the warehouses of the produce markets. The officer said, “The earth rose under me and I fell to my knees. It came down Washington in huge undulating waves. The entire street and all the great buildings on it rose and fell, rose and fell, an unstoppable wave of brick, stone, wood and cement. Both Washington and Davis streets split, the cobblestones dancing and water spurted out of everywhere. The buildings around me began to tumble and some fell, collapsing in heaps of brick and wood. I had to dodge flying bricks which shot from the surfaces of building nearby. It was pretty hot. The top of the building at Washington and Davis fell and killed a man.”
Jack said that as the police came up Market they herded the crowd along and away from the fires. He walked for a bit with another officer who had witnessed the earthquake from the middle of the street in front of his station near Chinatown. He told Jack that he though he was gone when the Phelan building lurched out over the street, every windows shattering spraying across the width of O’Farrell and Market. It hung for a long moment then creaked back onto its foundations with a horrifying screech of steel and concrete. The tallest building in the city, just across the street, built with Claus Spreckels sugar fortune and home to one of San Francisco newspapers, The Morning Call, which had once employed a writer by the name of Samuel Clemens, the Call had lurched first south then north with a massive groan and cracking. The Oberon building shuddered then its entire front gave way crashing into O’Farrell in a choking cloud of dust.
Claus Spreckels Morning Call building on Market taken from Sutter St, 1903. Photo SFPL history Center.
The next was almost on top of them . The fires in the Mission district and South of the Slot were beginning to merge as one. He said that just on the edge of awareness he could hear the crackling and snapping as the flames licked away at the wooden buildings that made up the combined residential and wholesale district just a block or two below Market Street. He turned down Fourth just past the huge Emporium building with its big display windows blown out and scattered nearly all the way across the street. He wanted to get a closer look, worried that the way to the ferries could be blocked by the crowds on Market.
The fire department was woefully underprepared for what was coming. With eighty stations scattered around the city, none in Chinatown though, it could only field thirty-eight steam pumpers. The Insurance underwriters had noted the steamers, at best, could only muster 70% of their rated capacity. The seven hundred fire fighters were woefully undertrained and the ladder trucks didn’t have the capacity to go above the second story of any building. The chief was well aware that the city had burned to the ground six time in its fifty-eight year history and according to the insurance companies report San Francisco had violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up.
As he turned down Mission Street, he saw that at the corner of Third and Mission a four story wooden rooming house had completely collapsed. It was no more than a splintered heap of shattered wood and even from a block away he could hear the screams and cries of the people trapped inside. There was a crowd of men and women scrambling over the wreckage clawing at the debris with bare hands trying to pull out the trapped and injured. He said he ran down and joined them. They could hear the cries for help deep in the pile as they frantically pushed and pulled at the broken building dragging the injured and the dead out and carrying them out to the street. A man pulled from the wreckage told them there were many dozens of people underneath. He said the quake caught most of them still asleep with no chance to get out.
Jack looked down Mission towards the waterfront and said he could see the fire streaming up from Fremont and First. The Steamer Engine from Company 38 was making a hasty retreat in his direction, dragging their hose and looking for the next hydrant. The fire was moving fast as they hooked up at the corner, dragging the hose over to defend the wreckage. A hose man took his wrench and turned the valve on the hydrant. Nothing happened, he didn’t look surprised but quickly turned it off then on again. Nothing.
All over the city Firemen were finding that the water system was shattered. Forty-four inch cast iron mains had been snapped like straws. In places water was pouring from the streets as the cisterns emptied. Nearly all the high pressure mains were out of service. Desperate crews took to opening manhole covers and pumping raw sewage to try and stop the fires. At the waterfront hoses were coupled in long strings and the pumpers used salt water from the bay. My grandfather said he saw other more lighthearted outcomes. In some residential areas children were playing in the pools of water draining from the fire department’s system.
Still early in the morning and thousands of people milling about the streets, some watchers on rooftops and still other crowds visible up on the sides of Nob Hill. Jack began to worry that the ferries might stop so he turned and began to hurry down Market. Not far ahead he saw the fires had joined and the area of lower Market Street were a wall of flame. To his right the fire was greedily consuming all the area south of the slot. The ramshackle hotels and apartments buildings which hadn’t collapsed were going up like tissue paper. At the southern corner of Third and Market a Fire department steam pumper appears, the exhausted horses stained with soot and lathered being led by a fireman and the pumper itself being pulled along by a half-dozen volunteers. The fire so vast and dangerous that the only possible thing to do was to save the machine. Jack grabbed on with the rest pulling the rig around the corner and a ways up Market until the found a hydrant. While a man turned the valve and they hooked up hose a fireman told him that down on Steuart Street a pumper had been hooked to a fireboat and hose run along the street toward the fire and they thought they might be able to save the ferry landings. He also said that Jack couldn’t get down there because the fire was a hurricane and there was no way around it. The police and the army were pushing people up from the waterfront and away from the advancing inferno.
Jack didn’t have to be told to get moving, streams of people who had gone down Market to see the destruction were now hurrying back up away from what had become one enormous inferno, consuming everything in its path.
It was barely eight o’clock in the morning…..
To be continued:
Next, Annies 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.