The 1906 Earthquake

Part I

April 18 will be the 100th anniversary of California’s worst earthquake in recorded history. More than 700 people died in that giant temblor when the Pacific and North American tectonic plates slipped past each other, leaving northern California in ruins.  Most hard hit was the city of San Francisco, but right here in Santa Clara County, more than 130 met their maker.

The quake was not a continuous shaking but came in two waves—the first jolt lasted 30 seconds, it paused for a few seconds, and then resumed for another 25 seconds. Anyone who was here vividly remembered exactly where they were when the 5:12 a.m. quake hit. Clyde Arbuckle recalled that he was asleep in his crib when it rolled from one side of his Santa Clara home to the wall and back again. Ralph Rambo remembered the crashing of the family’s newly-installed water tank high above their Cupertino house. 

Farm and domestic animals were terrified.  In downtown San Jose, three firehouses collapsed over their fire equipment and the horses inside the stations ran terrified out into the street.  Foreman Paul Furrier dashed from his firehouse on N. San Pedro St. and was killed by falling bricks.  On N. First St., the new three-story annex of the Vendome Hotel pancaked to the ground. Resident State Senator Cornelius Pendleton remembered: “My room was on the second floor, but when I picked myself up I was in the basement of the building.  I crawled up and out over the debris and escaped through a window level with the ground.  After getting out I found that this was one of the third-story windows.”

Whole blocks of buildings were on fire in downtown San Jose, particularly in the area of S. Second St. and San Fernando St.  Fortunately, the fire department quickly recovered. After digging out their hose carts and steam pumpers from the debris, the firemen rounded up the terrified horses, hooked them to the wagons and engines, and the department was mobilized.  They raced from one fire to the next, working continuously for 72 hours.  San Jose was fortunate that there was a cistern near every downtown crossroad.  While the three little steam pumpers shot the water from one cistern onto the
fire, the hose wagons would go to the next threatened site and have everything ready for the arrival of the pumpers. 

The damage to San Jose was not insignificant.  400 homes were destroyed, the three-story Martin Building burned down, and the Phelan, Dougherty and Leiber Buildings all collapsed. Churches suffered greatly—St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Methodist Church were both demolished. The newly completed Post Office lost its clock tower and San Jose High School was a disaster.  It was fortunate that the quake hit early in the morning or the student deaths would have been catastrophic. 

North of San Jose and Santa Clara, the Agnew State Hospital for the Insane crashed to the ground, killing 119 inmates and staff.  A horseback rider at Agnew raced to the Santa Clara College campus and told the students of the disaster and the need for help.  The all-male college students ran or rode their bikes to the stricken area and assisted in the rescue of the survivors, taking some inmates from their padded cells and restraining them in the only way possible: tying the survivors to trees with bed sheets. 

The heroism of the fire teams of men and horses, the presence of the steam pumpers and the water from the cisterns saved San Jose. But the populace could see an apricot glow to the northwest and hear an ominous, thunderous rumble coming from the same direction. It was San Francisco burning; and the Army, attempting to stop the rapidly spreading fire, was destroying whole city blocks with dynamite.

Next week: a personal account of the earthquake and its aftermath in San Francisco. 


  1. While the collapse of the fire houses should serve as a reminder of the need to be prepared to help ourselves and our neighbors, the collapse of the asylum, and the subsequent, make-do efforts of the SC students, should convince us all to add bed sheets to our emergency kits so that, should the next big one collapse the council chambers, we too could rush to the aid of the idiots.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson Leonard.  It’s a refreshing change of pace away from Mayoral and Newspaper horrors which have been in the forefront recently.  I was concerned about what finfan wanted to do with bedsheets in case of a catastrophy with the City Council.  Someone suggested to me that given his recent postings he would be wearing one when he goes riding in on his white horse.

  3. I hope those hundreds of millions of dollars at least bought us a building that won’t come crashing down, finfan.

    Besides, I’d rather not tie those CH jokers down, let them run for the hills, and stay there!

    Leonard, I know someone who used to work at Agnews.  There is (was?) a cemetery out there at the north end of the West complex where the ‘06 victims were buried.  Do you know if it still exists or if the Sun/Rivermark development obliterated it?  Wondering if Sun or anyone is going to do anything out at that spot on 4/18 this year, if the cemetery still exists.

  4. Mark when I was a kid a bunch of us would ride out there on our bikes.  There was a old cemetary on the north side of the complex.  We thought it was patients who had passed on.  I don’t know if I can find it today with all the changes.  There are laws in California about cemetarys.  I will stop by there on Saturday when I go to the Clampers plaque dedication in the seaport of Alviso.