The 1906 SF Earthquake & Fire

In the spring of 1906 I was finishing my junior year at the University of California at Berkeley. I was living on College Avenue about a block from the university. On the morning of April 18, I was awakened by a loud banging and clattering in my room, which came from the windows and the pictures on the wall. I then realized that my bed was swaying to and fro. “This is an earthquake,” I thought, “and the real thing.” In the course of my 21 years I had felt many small earthquakes and enjoyed the sensation. This time I felt thrilled but not the least alarmed. The clattering and banging and the swaying of the bed went on for some 30 seconds and then subsided. I made an attempt to get out of bed. Then in the hall outside my door I heard a woman’s voice saying, “Isn’t this terrible?” That was the first intimation I had that there was any cause for alarm. But since it was only 5am and I did not need to get up until 7:30, I thought I would go back to sleep. However, this intention was frustrated by the continual passing and talking of people on the sidewalk outside my room. I thought to myself, “I wonder why so many people are out so early.”

Then after an hour or so, I got up and walked out on the street. I walked down College Avenue as far as Derby Street on the left-hand side. What attracted my notice was that the chimney of each house on the east side of the street had been deposited as a pile of bricks on the front lawn. This seemed to occur without exception.

I had put on my best clothes, a black suit, because I had a ticket to the opera that afternoon in San Francisco, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” At breakfast that morning, which came about eight o’clock, we talked about rumors of a big fire in San Francisco. There was no radio then. Presently came word over the telephone that college classes were suspended for that day. About nine o’clock, I went down to Berkeley Station on Shattuck Avenue to see if I could get news about what was happening in San Francisco. A Southern Pacific local train came in carrying a crowd of people. One of them was Dave Parry, one of my classmates. I noticed that he was very pale. I said to him, “What about the fire?” and he said, “There is no water, and the city is burning up.” I said, “I had intended to go to the opera this afternoon.” He said, “There won’t be any opera or any opera house.”

After that, news came in rapidly about the appalling situation in San Francisco. All of us young people wanted to go over there but the Southern Pacific would not take anyone over to the city, only from it. After a peaceful lunch, I went back again to Berkeley Station to get the latest report. 

About 4pm a three-car electric Key System train came into the station. This was the first one of the Key Route because the brick chimney near the works of the Key Route had fallen into the main power plant and smashed things up. This three-car train seemed to be receiving passengers, and I got on thinking I might go as far as the Mole. Indeed the train went to the Mole, and there was a boat waiting for it, and presently we were crossing the bay to San Francisco.

The western horizon was a wondrous and awesome sight. Almost up to the meridian the sky was a bank of smoke of various shades of gray, purple, brown and white with jagged edges. At intervals along it was a sort of white cauliflower bloom. These I learned later were caused by the dynamite explosions. As we neared the Ferry Building, we could see the coal bunkers on each side of it flaming up, but the building itself was unharmed.

When we landed and I went through the building and looked up Market Street, there was another remarkable spectacle. The whole scene was draped in a haze of smoke of various densities and, in the distance, flickering flames. Market Street for at least a block was in shallow waves marked by the rails of the cable cars. Along the curb in front of the Ferry Building, I noticed three or four shapes wrapped in cloth. These may have been dead bodies, but I did not investigate. Complete silence came from all around, except now and then a far off boom, which I knew to be that of the dynamiting of buildings.

I walked along the Embarcadero to the north seeking a street by which I could go up into the city. The first one clear of smoke and fire was Broadway, up which I went. At this time I was quite alone. There was nobody in sight anywhere. As I walked up Broadway and looked down on the lower city it reminded me of what might be the visions of Dante in the underworld. There was no sunlight but only smoke, various shades rising straight up into the sky with flames flickering through it, and over toward the California Market were sheets of flame. By that time, the fire had reached almost to Montgomery Street north of Market, and south of Market to about Fourth. As I came abreast of Kearney Street, I looked over and saw the Call Building at the southwest corner of Third and Market, at that time one of the tallest buildings in the city, with flames shooting out of the upper windows.

My first objective was to visit some relations who lived on Jones Street near Clay. I arrived at their house and found the family sitting looking out the windows at the city burning below. They expected their house to burn, which it did, and they were unable to save anything as there was no means of transportation. The daughter of the house, being more enterprising than the others, cut the family portraits out of their frames and carried them off under her arms.

It happened that my father had come down the day before to attend a meeting of the Grand Lodge of the Royal Arch Masons, and I knew he was staying at the Cosmos Club. This was a building facing Union Square in the middle of the block where the St. Francis Hotel now stands. Intending to see him, I walked down Jones and California Streets to Powell. As I walked along, I noticed that groups of people were standing at each intersection looking down at the fire. They just stood there as if spellbound. I passed the California Art Institute with a sentry stationed out in front. I thought to myself, “Isn’t it a pity I can’t go in and help save some of the paintings.” When I arrived at the Cosmos Club I found my father there. He was much concerned for the safety of my mother up at our ranch in St. Helena as there was no means of communication. He was much relieved when I told him that the Napa Valley area had not been hurt. There were a number of club members, mostly elderly gentlemen, sitting in the Club but saying not a word. Sitting with my father was an old friend of ours, Mr. Sampson Tams, who was quite deaf. He questioned me about what had happened across the bay. I had to shout my answers and found my voice echoing through the silent room in a most eerie fashion. Mr. Tams, with great effort, had brought a box of family silver to the club for safety. Of course, it was later burned.

About eight o’clock, I left my father and went out west to visit some other family relations, four maiden ladies who lived on Webster Street near Washington. By that time, it was getting dark and a lurid light from the fires was coming and going from the east and the south. As I remember it, I went out Sacramento Street where I passed Lafayette Square and Alta Plaza. Both of these were a strange sight for they were covered with people, mattresses, blankets, tents, and household articles of every description, with sentries walking around. It was a strange sight, which I will never forget. The people were quiet. I heard no complaints or laments. Even the children were quiet. 

When I arrived at the house of my relatives, the four maiden ladies were overjoyed to see me and to have a man in the house. They asked me to spend the night there, which of course I did. I might add that this part of the city escaped the fire. I remember that later they told my mother how I had gone to bed and slept soundly all night while they remained awake.

Next morning after breakfast, I set forth again to see San Francisco burn up. When I reached Van Ness Avenue, another strange spectacle greeted me. The whole street from curb to curb was filled with household goods of every description. I should say that a good part of them had been abandoned. I suppose later they were burned. Then I heard a peculiar sound. Down such streets as Clay, Washington, Jackson and Pacific came streams of people. Some of them, men of course, had ropes around their shoulders fastened to trunks which they dragged along the sidewalk, making a peculiar shrill scraping sound, almost a shriek, as they were dragged along. In a few cases, the trunks had been placed upon the rollers of roller skates and were trundled easily. I noticed also the great number of pets that were being carried along; parrots, birds of various kinds, cats, dogs and even monkeys. Most of these people, I judge, came from the closely packed region near Chinatown, which was being burned at that hour. I walked down Van Ness Avenue to the City Hall, which was a ghastly sort of wreck from the earthquake. The fire was then approaching Jones and Market, and the boom of dynamite was frequent. In the hub-bub of Van Ness Avenue, I met an old friend of mine who lived in Alameda. He had secured a rowboat and had rowed across to San Francisco that morning. It was odd that of all the thousands of people, we should meet. He seemed very much surprised that I had been able to get across.

The question of food seemed to be prominent in people’s minds, and an order had been issued that no stores, such as were left, could put up their prices. I remember buying a couple of chocolate bars and thinking, “Maybe this is all I will get to eat all day.” That afternoon, I went back to my relatives’ house again, passing the parks, which were completely covered by human beings and their goods. The news had come that people in the east bay would take in refugees and that the ferryboats would carry them free. The four maiden ladies had a number of close friends in Berkeley, and decided to go there, abandoning their house, which they expected to be burned. They decided to take nothing but food with them. Naturally, courtesy demanded that I act as escort, something I very much regretted later as I was not able to return. So about five o’clock on Thursday, April 19, I left the burning city, which continued to burn for a day and a half longer.

After a couple of weeks, when travel to San Francisco was again freely permitted, I often visited the ruins, taking pictures. One site I observed made a particular impression on me. On Hyde Street above O’Farrell, five or six cable cars had either been taken there or abandoned, and all that remained of them were the wheels and the steel trucks still on the tracks. When I visited my relations’ home on Jones Street I found a number of pieces of their chinaware, which had melted together. I gave these to them as souvenirs, and I assume the family still possesses them. I also obtained from vendors on the streets some pieces of china from Chinatown, some with sand melted into them, and some with their colors changed by heat.

W.W. Lyman

Lyman Ranch, St. Helena, California

March 21, 1964


ED NOTE: According to his obituary: William Whittingham "Jack" Lyman died of advanced pneumonia at St. Helena Hospital at 1:30 p.m. on November 8, 1983. He was 98, possibly the oldest living native of the Napa Valley. Lyman was a noted academician, educator and poet. Mr. Lyman taught high school and community college English for most of his academic career, retiring to St. Helena in 1950.

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