The girls were exhausted after a long and stressful day. They didn’t take time for dinner but changed into their nightdresses, leaving their clothes scattered about their rooms, something my grandmother never did on a normal day.
Annie took the telegram and put in the top tray of her trunk. She was too tired to think. She said her last thought was of Jack, wondering where he was and when he might knock on the Meeks door. Her last sight of the city across the bay was the massive clouds of smoke, the fires making a dull reddish gold beneath the columns which seemed to reach the sky.
On Thursday morning everyone was up early Myrtle, Blanche and Annie were to return to Stiles Hall and serve breakfast for the thousands of refugees who were everywhere in Berkeley and Oakland.
Still in their nightdresses, they helped each other put their hair up. No woman in 1906 who was respectable would be caught dead with her hair down. Girls wore their down until they left girlhood behind when they were about fifteen or sixteen. Part of growing up. Girls to women, as a sign of the coming more serious time of life, put their hair up.
The Gibson Girl pompadour was still the style. Every woman let their hair grow a long as possible, Annie’s reached her waist. The combing, ratting and rolling up of the hair into a bun at the top of the head then surrounding it with the rolls, all pinned up with hair pins. (The bobby pin was not invented until women started bobbing their hair after WWI). Sometimes for a more casual look a chignon was turned in the back and just the front was ratted and rolled.
Each girl dressed for work and an anticipated long day. First the chemise. The first of the undergarments made of soft cotton because it was next to the skin. Next Annie would slide into her corset or stays as they were beginning to be called. More flexible for the type of day ahead than the older whalebone corset, it was then fastened to the stocking tops with the three hanging garters for each leg. For this day her stockings were cotton instead of the usual silk. Around her waist she pulled up a petticoat which she tied at the rear. Over that the silk camisole* and finally a checked pattern housedress, likely with two pockets in the front. The dress was in two pieces, a bodice, fastened with both snaps and more hooks and eyes. Then a skirt buttoned at the waist and closed by snaps down the side. Topped off with a matching belt, tied in the back with a bow she was almost ready to go. Slipping into her low heeled button shoes she quickly pulled each button through an eye with her button hook.
Things moved more slowly in 1906 but to the people who lived then it was completely normal.
After breakfast the three young women walked down to Shattuck and took the streetcar up to Bancroft Way and then walked to campus, crossed the street and walked up to Stiles Hall where they would work, feeding the refugees and offering what comfort they could. The refugees were fed bean sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and whatever cheese and meats could be scrounged from neighborhood stores and gardens. Annie said that horse drawn wagons rolled up to Stiles Hall during the day loaded with what spring vegetables farmers were able to pick and not one ever asked for a dime in payment. Local people walked or rode to campus carrying blankets, quilts, pillows and clothes.
She didn’t know yet that cities and towns all over the country were loading trains with food, clothing and other essentials which, in some cases like Los Angeles, trains would arrive at the depots before the morning of the 19th.
Annie said the most important thing they had to deal with was the influx of refugees that flooded across the Bay. “Most of the people were in terrible condition,” she said, “They were in shock. it was the biggest peacetime evacuation in United States history at the time.” “There were lines of terrified people shuffling up towards the campus. Even at night you could hear them walking by the house.”
Doctor Meeks was using his automobile to pick people up at the wharf and drive them up to campus. There they were checked in, fed, given bedclothes and assigned somewhere to sleep. The tents from Mare Island had been erected at the stadium and were already filling.
In the days following the quake and fire, about 123,000 San Franciscans came to Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda County. They arrived by train, having traveled down the peninsula to San Jose where they were turned away by city government and police. Most returned to the trains and traveled up to the Oakland area.
Any kind of boat that would float transported those fleeing the destruction. The cross bay ferries and anything else that floated, including Chinese junks and Italian fishing boats were crossing back and forth.
As a load of people came down the gangplanks of the terribly overloaded ferries and then fire equipment and men from Oakland and Berkeley were loaded for San Francisco. Hundreds of men from Oakland boarded the return ferries to try and help the city.
She was told that some boatmen were charging fifty dollars or more to make the trip. Desperate people paid. She learned that one mans disaster is another mans opportunity. She was a kind woman and she said stories like that broke her heart. “It was a terrible cruelty,” she said.
She said that in Berkeley “People came together” Everyone who could help did. Nearly every resident opened their door to friends or strangers, and at the University of California, Berkeley, students gave up their sorority and fraternity houses to shelter the refugees. With twenty-one Fraternities and seven Sororities, they housed and fed hundreds of people.
Badly shaken by the quake and the flames that followed, exhausted San Franciscans straggled to safety after hours without food and water. My grandmother said it went on for days. Families with a child carrying nothing but a Teddy bear, still in their pajamas, some walking on bare feet. Dirty faces streaked with tears. Some still wore their nightclothes and clutched an odd assortment of personal belongings.
She saw a man walking in his long johns wearing a silk topper. She said grown women were in all kinds of undress but not one had neglected to put their hair up and pin on a hat.
At the time a town of 26,000, Berkeley took in 8,000 displaced San Franciscans in the first two days following the earthquake. At its peak, the city housed 15,000 refugees. Here it was that Oakland outdid herself. During the afternoon and night of the 18th thousands of refugees from San Francisco came to Oakland and the people of city fed them and found places for them to sleep. On the next day the plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the San Francisco was hungry or without a place to sleep. Hospital supplies, boiled potatoes, oranges, oats and clothing eventually began rolling into town from around the state and across the nation. All night long we could hear people shuffling on the sidewalk with packs on their backs, family treasures including clothing rescued from their homes, hopefully seeking shelter here. Tens of thousands of people had been shaken out of bed and now possessed nothing but what they could snatch before the fire reached them. Desperation cannot describe what we saw in their faces. Most lost everything.
Annie told me that, “There was no thought of looking to the government for anything, They did what needed to be done, and they did not hesitate.”
The churches had people sleeping in pews, the Odd Fellows and Masons took in as many as they could. No one seemed to be concerned about who these people might be. Pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes, the poor and the rich were treated equally. Evil was temporarily suspended.
Annie said they fed Isaias W. Hellman, purported to be the richest man in the west and owner of the Wells Fargo Bank who stopped at Stiles for a bite to eat. His bank was to burn to the ground on the 18th. The Hellman family bought the old Dunsmuir estate that same year. Perhaps he didn’t want to return to the city very badly. He ate the bean sandwich though. It made her laugh. She said the high were brought low like everyone else.
There was something she wasn’t laughing about though. Where was Jack? She half expected him turn up at any moment. By this time she knew that the phone and telegraph lines were down indefinitely and there was no way to get a message across.
The Oakland tribune had loaned its presses to the three biggest papers in San Francisco, The Morning Call, The Examiner and the Chronicle. They published on Thursday the 19th scarcely 24 hours after the quake. With no distribution possible, the bundles were simply put out on the sidewalks for anyone to take. They carried the first written eyewitness accounts of the disaster.
When they could take a break from kitchen duty, Annie, Blanche and Myrtle along with the twins, Edith and Ethel who were volunteering at the lying-in hospital that had been set up in Hearst Hall sat together on the steps of Stiles Hall and scanned every word written. Heads together they read. Not a single word of good news was printed there.
All these girls were women of privilege. None were farm girls or daughters of laborers. They all came from wealthy or prominent families. Annie was raised by her very wealthy aunt and uncle and never lacked for anything. Her father was a farmer/rancher and owned oil wells in the Orcutt area of Santa Barbara county. Blanche’s father owned a Dry Goods and General Merchandise store in Santa Maria California. The two young women had known each other nearly all of their lives. The graduated in the same class of 1904 from Santa Maria High school.
Myrtle’s father owned a large dairy farm in Mission Valley, San Diego. The Hovey twins lived with their widowed mother in Berkeley and though not wealthy their mother worked as a senior bookkeeper for the Southern Pacific Railroad. They managed.
All this experience was new to them. Working in Hearst Hall, particularly the first few days when many refugees were coming in with burns, broken bones caused by fire and falling bricks or glass and expectant mothers giving birth was something entirely new. They were called earthquake babies and there were many.
At the end of the long day they looked across the bay and stood for a while watching the city burn. I was agonizing, they all knew people that lived there and had no idea how any of them had fared. The chances of seeing someone who knew the person you were worried about were slim. Thought the exodus from the city would amount to half its population of four hundred thousand there was little chance you might see someone who carried a note or had any information.
Blanche and Annie decided to walk up Strawberry Creek to get a better look at the city. They climbed the hillside, found a level area and sat down on the blanket they carried. In the early evening they could see dozens of others intently watching as San Francisco went up in flames. The black , sulphur colored yellow and gray clouds shot through with the deep red and orange from the fire were lit from within, boiling twisting and flickering like the gates of Hades. Annie said she could close her eyes and still see them seventy years later. It was terrifying but they couldn’t look away, spellbound by the sheer horror of it. They could hear frequent booms which she said sounded like artillery. They didn’t know it was the sound of buildings across the city being dynamited for firebreaks. The Hearst Examiner which she had just read that morning was one of the big Market Street buildings brought down by the explosions. All on San Francisco’s newspaper row was lost.
The two friends leaned against each other, then embraced and began to cry. Where was Jack, where were the Craigs? Where was anyone they knew. Would they ever know?
*The family still has one of her pink silk camisoles, embroidered at the neck with handmade lace. We also have a the white pleated skirt from the same period and the ubiquitous button hook for her shoes. Most amazing of all, we still have the telegram which was framed and hung on the wall for decades.
To Be Continued….
Next 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.
2 thoughts on “The Tea Cup”
Such great storytelling. Thank you.
They are fun to write too. Thanks Gwyn.