The 1906 Earthquake

Part VI: Ralph Rambo’s Account Concludes

“Naturally we were curious about the effect of the quake upon Santa Clara.  For us the little town of 4,000 people served as our ‘shopping center,’ with grocer, doctor, dentist, clothier etc. and later for the writer, ‘Santa Clara High School.’

“But his day as we approached the town we missed a landscape feature, the four tall steel towers supporting the tanks that held the town’s water supply.  With the first shock they had collapsed, flooding the downtown area.  Already, tank-wagons were hauling water from the Bond Estate reservoir to supply the town’s citizens.  Fortunately, we saw no sign of fires.  At least we knew that the town was prepared as well as that era allowed.  The old hose-carts and hook-and-ladder buildings were still standing.  Franklin Street was almost impassable for us.  Every brick building of over one story was in collapse.  This might have applied to many ‘Valley Villages’ that day.  As one writer later expressed it, ‘Nothing was so rare in the Santa Clara Valley as an atheist or a brick building standing firm that morning of April 18, 1906.’

“One of Santa Clara’s catastrophes was the Methodist Episcopal Church on Main Street.  It was a beautiful tall-towered building built entirely of brick.  We saw it in ruins but learned that after the first shock the sharp-spired tower had remained leaning at an ominous angle.  Then, just before we had arrived, there was a terrific aftershock at 2:30 p.m.  This was the coup de grace for the church tower.  In the next 60 years we would see first another church and then a nine story high rise take its place.

“We made our way out of town driving through rubbled streets.  Little damage was evident to the College (now University) or to the Mission.  Many of the students and priests were still engaged in rescue work at Agnews, their efforts long to be remembered.  Eberhard Tannery (since 1847) was little disturbed.  The long rows of tanning hides were hanging in sedate order.  This area is now in University and Library buildings facing the old Alameda.  Then came the Pacific Manufacturing Company, always referred to as the “P M.” It occupied many acres on both sides of the Alameda, one of the largest mills and lumberyards in the west.  Its framed manufacturing buildings were totally destroyed.  We later heard that the employees had gathered that very morning and pledged reconstruction without pay.

“Then we drove down The Alameda, in those days generally confined to large stately residences of prominent citizens.  It would be reported that 12 of these between Lenzen Avenue and Santa Clara were damaged beyond repair.

“With night approaching, Dad whipped up the tired horse and we were back on Stevens Creek Road.  When we reached Doyle School we stopped to allow our canine passenger to dismount.  However, he had no such intention.  Still in the back seat with Mary, his head was in her lap, one eye open.  So we drove on.

“We arrived at home with a feeling of curiosity satisfied and rescue mission accomplished.  As for my mother, she was to enjoy a well-deserved reward.  It’s strange, but there would never be a reoccurrence of Mary’s ‘spell’ of melancholia.  One can only guess at reasons for this instant cure.  Could it have been the shock of the Great Earthquake, plus the scenes of destruction, death and rescues?  In any case Mary became a normal, happy family member for the rest of her life.”

This concludes Leonard McKay’s six-part piece on the 1906 earthquake.


  1. Thanks Leonard,
    Do you know the number of buildings we lost in 06?  I would guess that we lost ten times more historic buildings during the 50’s-80’s as part of urban renewal.  Am I close?


  2. Jim – I’ll let Leonard do the inventory of “lost” bldg. in ‘06, but you are correct about the number of buildings that were destroyed during the horrible redevelopment clearances of the sixties and seventies – it was indeed a crime of great callousness, original adobes and wonderful historic structures, all gone. It is why many of us entered the fray –  to prevent such stupidity ever happening again.  I once said that they created a desert and called it ‘redevelopment.’  It was unfortunately very, very true.          TMcE

  3. Only to be replaced by those beautiful KB HOMES(KrackerBoxes)you know the one’s that creak when you walk in door……

  4. Tom,

    Not to worry.  The recent activity, led by ordinary home and business owners will put a stop to this kind of thing.  In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, we will win out when, state by state, legislation is enacted that will prevent local governments from taking private property only to sell to a private developer.  Decades of abuse of the eminent domain law will soon halt.  Good riddance to it and the grubbing redevelopment agencies.

  5. Tom #4
    I remember those days well.  I hate to imagine what the downtown would look like today if not for the efforts of all of you.  The present administration seems to have lost sight of those lessons learned.  What ever happened to “A Plan For The Past” developed during your administration?  We sure could use it now.