The 1906 Earthquake

Part II

Last week I told of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in San Jose. San Francisco was another story—one of the greatest tragedies of California history.  Estimates of the dead numbered more than 700, but the true count will never be known. 

The fire spread rapidly as the water mains broke and the cisterns ruptured.  A.P. Gianini (a San Jose native) opened his San Francisco Bank of Italy on October 17, 1904.  Gianini had earlier been in the produce business with his stepfather, Lawrence Scatena, while a teenager attending Heald’s Business College in San Francisco.  When the fire threatened his new bank, Gianini commandeered two horse wagons from the Scatena Company and pulled up in front of the bank.  He opened the safe containing all of the bank’s gold bars and had them loaded onto the wagons.  They were covered with blankets, the bank’s records and a layer of produce, and then driven 17 miles to his home in San Mateo.  Five hours later he pulled up in front of his house and hid the gold and the records in his fireplace.

The fire engulfed San Francisco’s business district, and the Bank of Italy building, in the Italian section of North Beach, was soon consumed.  The vaults of all of the other banks were still smoldering and too hot to enter, but the Bank of Italy was back in business.  Gianini stretched a plank across two barrels near the San Francisco waterfront and loaned money.  He had two questions for borrowers: “are you going to stay in San Francisco,” and “are you going to rebuild?”  If the answer was yes to both, they got the money.

A letter from a San Francisco woman named Mrs. Gregg to her friend Laura, written four days after the start of the fire, gives a vivid and accurate description of what happened:

“…Our house is the only one standing clean from the Ferry Street.

“The scene before me some way brings to mind scenes in Roman history after the burning of Rome.  Looking one way I see the frame of the Emporium.  The once beautiful St. Francis Hotel a little to the far left—in ruins, and a brick chimney standing here and there.  Ruin, Ruin, Ruin is all I can see for miles around yet not a stick of ours was touched.  Talk about luck or Providence.  I am a lucky mortal sure enough.  The fire did scorch our house and break windows but we have moved back to stay.  If General Funston had not been here our house would be gone also.  A house caught fire next door and he ordered every man to leave the buildings across the street and go and fight our house and so it was check at our very door.  They dynamited the whole block across from us as soon as it took fire.

“We took a few things and went out on a hill and slept on the ground all night with no shelter…

“…we cooked on bricks across the street.  No fires or lights allowed in any house.  I had coffee and mush, bacon and eggs and some bread a man gave me for breakfast and I guess that will keep us till tomorrow.  You see there are a few eatables in the house and they give us food in the streets so we won’t starve but water is so scarce.  Everything is free.  It is a good thing too, for we have only a few cents to our name as I just paid $60 to the grocer and paid all my other bills expecting money on Wed. but everybody left and all we have is in the bank (not much I can tell you) and we can’t get at it for a while, but we don’t need it as long as we are fed by the Gov’t.

“Everybody is leaving SF but as soon as I get my house straightened out again I will be OK as I can rent my rooms easily since they are so scarce. 

“You should see the men passing here now, a regular army with shovels and picks to clear away the debris.  Another crowd is coming from the opposite direction with loaves of bread under their arms, hugging them ever so dearly.

“On the streets you see men, business men with old broke shoddy baby carriages loaded with clothing, canned good, etc.  You can see finely dressed people, who would not soil their hand before, tugging at any old thing, digging in the rubbish or building fires in the street and stopping anywhere to ask for coffee or bread.  People are using every wagon available, even hearses, to sleep in SF is entirely governed by soldiers, etc., now.  If men won’t work to clear away rubbish, rich or poor they are shot down.

“I just saw a poor horse pass with his tongue hanging out and actual blood streaming from his nose.  They are all overworked and can hardly get anything to eat or drink.  The worst of all—16 babies were born in Golden Gate Park Wed. night and many others out in the lots around town.

“Golden Gate Park is quarantined, for smallpox and scarlet fever have broken out and one reason why we left the camp where we were was because children had the measles and cholera had broken out there from bad water etc….”

Next week in Part III: a personal account of events around Santa Clara County.


  1. What this accounting of the San Francisco earthquake should tell us, as did Hurricane Katrina most recently, is that we as a community need to be prepared for the worst disaster concievable because it ultimately will happen.  Having volunteered in the Gulf Coast following Katrina I can only imagine the devastation that might come to our own community.  To that end there is an Emergency Preparedness Conference planned for April 12 from 9-4PM at the Agnews Developmental Center in North San Jose.  For more details on how to attend call the Volunteer Center at 247-1126 x304.

  2. My grandfather, George Robert Johnson ,moved to San Francisco from San Jose to work for The Southern Pacific Co.. He took with him his wife ,Sara Adelia and sons Albert Johnson and my father George Johnson.  They settled on Vermount Street at the top of Protero Hill. On the morning of April 18th my dad tells me he saw fires breaking out all over San Francisco which continued for several days.  Being 13 years old he was all over downtown San Francisco and saw many many bodies, many more than reported.  Our family lost uncles, aunts, cousins and worst of all my great grandmother, Virginia Johnson, whose body was never found.  My grandmother was not told but they buried another body to relieve her sorrow. They did take in another family and fortunately got a ham which they hid under the front porch since there was food rationing All the records were lost in the City Hall Fire.  My Grandmother had to vouch for her two sons that they were born in order to make government records.  My family soon moved back to San Jose !!