San Francisco History

Earthquake Story

A   S A N   F R A N C I S C O   S T O R Y

From Notes and Stories
Frances Livengood Imler

Compiled and Edited by Her Daughter

Louise I. Danzer

Chapter I.  Introduction

It was early autumn in 1905 and my 16th birthday was approaching.  In Los Angeles where we lived, the sun is bright and warm even as days are waning at that time of year.  My Dad had just told us that we would be moving, at least temporarily, up the coast to San Francisco while he conducted a circulation contest at the San Francisco Chronicle.  For years Dad had been a reporter for the Times here in Los Angeles, but had just recently formed his own business, conducting circulation contests to build readership in newspapers that would contract him to do so.

Even though I was born in Pasadena, the house on Winfield Street was the only home I knew, as we came to Los Angeles before I was two.  The palm tree that I planted in front of the bay window of the house years ago was almost as tall as the house now, and its fronds spread over the front porch to cool us as the gentle breezes moved them up and down.  I wondered what life would be like in the big city.  At that time San Francisco was much larger in population than Los Angeles.  We were going to be living in a small apartment while in San Francisco, and I knew I would miss the palm tree that I had watched grow from a tiny plant.  As it grew in size, it was my special place.  When I was younger, I would have tea parties under those sprawling fronds and when I became too “old” for such as that, it was where I loved to spend the afternoon reading my favorite books or writing plays for me and the neighborhood youngsters to perform.

Things were already changing.  Aunt May who usually spends about six months with us from July through the Christmas holidays was already making plans for an early return to her home in Chicago.  How I would miss her. During her visits, she and my mother would take me to the beach, have picnics in one of the city parks, or best of all attend performances of the latest plays at the local theaters.  Aunt May was also a wonderful seamstress, and she would make me the most beautiful dresses.  I always said that the reason I never learned to sew was because whenever I would painstakingly try to make something, Aunt May would say, “Frances, give that to me, I’ll finish it for you.”

My thoughts were interrupted by Mabel Henry’s cries as she ran from her house next door to where I sat on the front porch. “Oh, Frances,” she sobbed as she flung her arms around me. “I just heard that you are moving away. Whatever will I do?”  Mabel was several years younger than I; and for years I thought of her as a little sister; but lately as she was entering her teens, we were becoming best friends.  A relationship that blossomed and lasted a lifetime as she later followed me to Stanford and became one of my Tri Delta sorority sisters.  I comforted her and told her that I would write to her often and always stay in touch with her.  I confided that I was going to entrust to her the care of the family cat that I knew had to be left behind when we moved.

We had had two cats, Hobo and Fraidcat.  I don’t know whether we adopted the cats or they adopted us.  Hobo apparently appeared not long after we arrived in Los Angeles.  He was black with white markings and a full grown cat, I don’t know how old, when he moved in with us.  Some years later the little shivering gray kitten which I named Fraidcat was left, it seemed, on our doorstep.  The amazing thing about the cats was that when we went out for an evening to attend a play or concert or visit friends, we had to walk a few blocks up to Olivero Street to catch the streetcar.  The cats would often follow us to the corner and dutifully watch us get on board.  When we returned home, maybe as late as 11 o’clock at night, the two cats would be sitting at the corner waiting for us.  I can’t imagine that they stayed there all that time, but they always seemed to know when we would return.  Animals are very intuitive.

By the time we were planning to move, Hobo had passed on and Fraidcat, true to his name, no longer ventured out very much.  I was glad that I could leave him in the capable hands of Mabel who would give him tender loving care for the rest of his days.

Before I go on with my story, let me tell you a little bit about my Dad.  He was born in the Allegheny mountain area of Pennsylvania, Somerset County, just two or three miles north of the Mason Dixon line.  A few weeks after his birth, the family moved just over the state line into Garret County Maryland, the highest and most western county in Maryland.  He was pretty much self-educated having completed what was the public school system by the time he was 15 and passed the test to become a teacher by the age of 16.  He did attend Juniata College in central Pennsylvania for a few months, but had to drop out for financial reasons.  An avid reader with a desire to learn more about history, geography, and language, he continued to educate himself.  Pennsylvania Dutch, a hybrid of English and German, was spoken in his home, so to have mastered the English language spoken with perfect diction and flawless grammar was no small accomplishment.

In his early twenties, Dad taught school in Somerset County and worked as a typographer for the railroad, but a life and career-changing event came when while on a youth outing he met the lovely Louise Eisfeller.  She lived in Chicago, but was visiting friends in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania (Somerset County) where she had lived at one time.  They were on a hayride and because it was dark and he could not see her face clearly, he said he fell in love with her at the first sound of her voice.  She came from a little more cultured background than Dad.  Her father was a Latin and Greek scholar having been trained for the Lutheran ministry—a calling which he did not pursue for very long.  In fact he owned and operated a distillery at one point in his life; an occupation that I imagine did not go down very well with the Eisfeller women.  The Eisfeller children were well versed in the classics, art, and music.  It was during their courtship that my Dad first got the “smell of printers’ ink”, and once it was in his being, it was there to stay.

Less than a year later, my parents William Livengood and Louise Eisfeller were married.  The newlyweds began married life in Carlton, Nebraska where Dad worked for one of Mother’s brothers who owned the local newspaper.  Dad got his first job as a reporter with that publication.  He had a natural gift for writing and honed his skills there as an on-the-spot reporter covering the news events of the day.  In due time, he decided, in the spirit of Horace Greeley, to move on west and seek to further his career in the golden state of California.  They moved on to Pasadena, where Dad worked for a paper there; and as I said before, I was born.  I was a healthy baby, so they tell me, but Mother had some problems, from which she recovered; but, as a result, I was destined to be an only child.

Several years later we moved to Los Angeles and Dad began his long and happy association with the Times.  As a reporter he had many exciting and unusual experiences.  One such event was the time he rode in the carriage with the “Great Houdini” as he drove through the streets of Los Angeles while blindfolded in the performance of one of his mystifying feats.

Dad’s leaving the Times was with the blessings of Harry Chandler, the paper’s renowned owner and publisher.  Mr. Chandler had taken a liking to Dad and considered him a friend as well as a valued employee.  Many years later, when Dad moved back to Pennsylvania and was owner/publisher of the small-town Meyersdale Republican and Harry Chandler was an advisor to then President Hoover, he would have his train enroute to Washington stop in Meyersdale and pick up Dad to travel to the capital with him just to hear what he had to say about the topics of the day.

By the end of the year, all was set for the move to San Francisco.  The house on Winfield Street was sold and most of our belongings were stored.  Dad had rented a furnished apartment for us on one of his business trips to San Francisco.  We packed our clothes and some selected household items including dishes, kitchen utensils, and linens in suitcases and several large steamer trunks and we were ready to go.  It was difficult to say goodbye to friends and the town in which I had spent practically my entire life, but I looked forward with excitement to life in the city by the Bay.  Little did I know just what a frightening experience was in store.

Chapter II.  A Day of Terror

The move to San Francisco went smoothly; and by the end of January, we were pretty well settled in our new living quarters. Our apartment though small, was on the fourth floor of a fairly new building.  This would prove to be crucial because newer buildings were built with strong steel girders better to withstand the force of a major earthquake.  We had some friends and relatives in the area who had made us feel welcome, and I was enrolled in Girls’ High School and making new friends.

When spring arrived in the Bay area, it was a pleasant time with beautiful weather; the hills were green; the Bay sparkled, and the air was tangy.  Mother and I had made several trips across the Bay in early April to visit our long-time friends Eleanor Thompson and her husband in Oakland and for fittings for my new Easter outfit being made by a dressmaker recommended by Eleanor.  I would have to consult an almanac to confirm whether Easter was late in April in the year, 1906, or whether the seamstress was late in completing my dress; for we were ready to leave the area for Portland when I finally got it, which perhaps saved it from being lost in San Francisco.

The evening of April 17 we visited Eleanor’s sister Laura and her husband, T. Percy Clark who lived in San Francisco, a considerable cable car ride from the apartment house on O'Farrell Street where we were living that spring while Dad was conducting his circulation promotion contest for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Whether Dad was with us for dinner at the Clarks’ home and left early to return to work at the Chronicle, I do not recall, but I do remember that Mother and I sat at the dining room table playing Hearts or Whist with Laura and Percy until about 9:30.  Going home, we sat on the outside seats of the cable car and gazed at the stars. I recall that we talked about how brilliant and near the stars seemed.

I was sleeping on a daybed in our living room in our fourth floor apartment when Dad returned some time after midnight.  He had stopped on the way home at an establishment where, as was the custom in those days, he had for the taking with one five-cent  glass of beer practically a full meal from the buffet of delicatessen viands set forth to the patrons.  I heard him tell Mother he didn’t want another midnight snack and then I fell into a sound sleep.

hand-painted berry dishesWas someone shaking my bed to wake me?  I sat up with a start.  Everything in the room was shaking—the building was swaying back and forth!  Things were falling off the mantle piece!  Our beautiful hand-painted berry dishes were crashing to the floor one by one!  I put one foot out of bed.  I wanted to cross the room and save those dishes; but the building was swaying, and I knew I’d be thrown to the floor and the dishes would fall on top of me.  So I sat there with one foot out on the floor and watched the havoc taking place in the room and wondered what in the world was happening.

The first hard quake lasted just 40 seconds, according to later official announcements.  Our first estimate was that it lasted at least five minutes.  Many times thereafter when telling about this experience, I’d stretch out my arm and wave it back and forth while my listeners timed 40 seconds or counted to 40.  If you do this, you will be surprised how long 40 seconds can be.

The quake struck a little after 5 a.m.  It was during the quietest hour of the entire day in San Francisco, which had the reputation of being an “all-night” city.  Even the nightclubs were closed at that hour, and the heavy city day traffic had not yet started.  The loss of life would have been greater at any other hour of the day.

When the first stroke was over, Mother and Dad called to me from the bedroom and I answered, “I’m all right.”  Then I went over and crawled in bed with them as another short quake shook the building.  Of course, it was impossible to go back to sleep.

Soon we began to hear people out in the street.  We went to the front windows, and looking down, we saw people wandering around among bricks and broken glass.  Chimneys everywhere had tumbled down.

Dad’s “newsman’s instincts” aroused, he began to dress to go out and look around.  In the bathroom, he found water on the floor.  Every bit of water had been shaken out of the high-up water tank of the toilet.  The elevator wasn’t running and Dad walked down the four flights of stairs.  He returned in a few minutes to tell us that billows of smoke were rolling over the city and perhaps the fire would reach the Chronicle Building, and he had better report down there and get his contest records.

Mother, in her calm, practical way, set about getting breakfast.  She said, “If the Chicago fire started from one little lantern in a stable, there is no saving this city, and we better get ready to leave here.”  Without realizing the danger of escaping gas, she lit the gas stove and fried some eggs and made coffee.  We found the water pressure was reduced to a trickle, and by the time the eggs were fried, the gas had petered out.

We then packed some personal belongings in three suitcases.  Mother chose with care, because she knew we could not take everything.  Since we had sold our home in Los Angeles and stored most of our belongings, we had with us only our most precious personal possessions.

We quickly left the apartment and descended the four flights of stairs.  This was a very frightening escape.  There were no lights, the halls and stairways were very dark and creepy.  The quakes continued and the building shook and swayed as we groped our way downward.  My heart was in my throat as I had visions of being crushed between the narrow walls of the stairwells.  After what seemed to be forever, we finally reached the relative safety of the outside.

On the street at last, we headed up O’Farrell Street.  Our destination, we hoped, was the home of our cousins, the Grants.  Under normal circumstances, it would never have occurred to us to walk this distance, but that morning we trudged with the masses up and down those hills that make San Francisco a unique city.

People were so kind.  Standing at the entrances of their shattered homes, they would ask us to stop and rest or offer us a glass of wine.  These people, before the next day was over, would have to leave their homes forever and join the refugees.

Gussie Grant and her family lived on Steiner Street.  About a block from the Grants’ home was a small park.  There, some of the family were waiting for us and greeted us with open arms.  They knew that, if we were alive, we would make a beeline to them.

The Grants lived in a second-floor residence.  (Most of the homes in San Francisco were two-family houses.)  Mrs. Grant was my mother’s first cousin.  She was a Leffler, my grandmother Eisfeller’s maiden name.  Mr. Grant was somewhat older than his wife, a very fine gentleman, and at that time rather well to do.  He owned a hotel downtown.  With them lived Tina, cousin Gusssie’s sister, a widow, and her little daughter, Helen.

After mother and I were settled in the Grant ménage, Dad trekked downtown again and was gone until after dark.

In the meantime, martial law had been clamped on the houses.  Gas and water mains were broken and there was fear of more fires.

And there was fire—more and more and more.  I will never forget the evening of that first night.  By walking to the corner, we could look down the hill into what was called Hayes Valley where a secondary fire was out of control.  As the night came on, we were looking into an inferno.  I remember seeing flames envelop the steeple of a Catholic Church.

People were streaming up the hill on their way to Golden Gate Park.  It was terrifying to see these ribbons of humanity sketched against the glowing sky toting what they could salvage of their belongings.  Some were pulling little wagons, pushing loaded baby carriages, or any other type of conveyance they could put into service.  I saw one man pushing a pack mounted on a narrow board fastened to a pair of roller skates.

Many folks were carrying odd things, either for sentimental reasons or because they were just confused.  I saw one man hurrying along carrying a flat iron in a birdcage.  Well, I can almost understand that; we were all in a state of mass confusion and shock.  After observing this scene for a while, I returned to the house.  The cousins had prepared sandwiches or spread crackers and made coffee on an alcohol stove (someone did strike a match, which was a no no!).  I found that Dad had not returned, and was very worried that something may have happened to him.  I took a cup of coffee, which was offered to me, and went outdoors again and walked all the way around the block.  When I returned to the house, I was still carrying the cup of coffee of which I hadn’t even taken one sip.

Night made the fire seem very close and it was decided we all better get to the Schlueter cousins on Masonic Avenue for fear the fire might ultimately reach and entrap us.  Mr. Grant stayed behind to wait for Dad, who still hadn’t returned.  I continued to worry for Dad’s safety, but mother tried to console me by saying, “Frances, you know your father is a newsman, and he has to be down where the action is.  He’ll be all right.”  I’m sure she was just as concerned as I, and was just trying to calm my fears.

Gussie and Tina, not knowing whether their home was doomed or not, but hoping for the best, and not knowing anyway what to take with them, went without any baggage of their own, but helped mother and me carry our suitcases.  And so we entered the streams of refugees heading toward Golden Gate Park.

I have no idea how many blocks we walked, but eventually we reached the Schlueter home, where we were all joyfully received.  All day that family had been concerned about the rest of us and was relieved and happy to see us.  Mary Schlueter was another Leffler cousin.  Her husband, Cass, was a big-hearted jovial gentleman whom everybody loved.  The couple was very happy to take all of us in for this night of terror.

Masonic Avenue was a mess.  The middle of the street was torn up to take out or repair a streetcar track.  Bricks and dirt were piled along side of the excavation.  Added to this debris were the bricks of chimneys all along the block that been shaken from the housetops.  There was a vacant lot sloping up the hill across the street from the Schlueters’ residence, and it was decided we would sleep over there along with the other neighbors.  So blankets and mattresses were carried across the excavations and dirt heaps to the vacant lot that was to be our temporary “bedroom.”

Thus, for two nights, we slept out of doors.  Slept?  Well, not that first night.  All night long cinders and ashes rained down upon us.  All night “watchmen” would come by shouting, “The fire is getting nearer and nearer.  The Mission District is entirely burned out, and the fire is coming up the other side of this hill!!  Everyone must move from here in the morning.”

Other more fantastic rumors reached us.  Where they came from, I wouldn’t venture to guess.  “The Cliff House had fallen into the sea.”  “Los Angeles was totally destroyed.”  “This was the end of the world.”  “New York had been struck by a tidal wave.”  “An earthquake had demolished Chicago.”

Most of these stories we had sense enough not to believe, but we did wonder about the famous Cliff House; and as ashes descended upon us, about that fire on the other side of the hill.  We could see the eerie glow of the fire in the sky.  Actually, it turned out that the fire “over the hill” was really miles away—thank goodness.

Morning brought new worries.  How about water and food?  The Schlueters had conserved all the water they could draw before their line was shut off, and always having a well-stocked pantry, they managed very well for the time being.  As it was very dangerous to cook in the houses, people began building little fireplaces with the bricks that were lying around.  Masonic Avenue residents had to contend with the condition of their street in making their outdoor kitchens, but somehow they managed.

My father joined us the next morning.  If my mother worried about him, she never let on, but I know we were both very relieved and happy to see him.  The afternoon before, he had tramped all the way back to Market Street and the Chronicle Building, reaching there ahead of the fire, and retrieved a few of his papers.  He decided to telegraph a first-hand report to the Los Angeles Times, where he had worked as a reporter for a number of years.  Somehow he managed to find a way to send his story, which appeared in the following edition of the paper with his byline.

Then he trudged through the downtown debris back to our apartment on O’Farrell Street.  While he was in our living quarters, there was another quake; and he decided to get out quickly.  He grabbed a pillowcase and filled it with a few more of our things—some keepsakes, some family pictures, some clothing, and what remained of the hand-painted berry dishes about which I had been so concerned the night before.  This bag of possessions he carried back to the Grants’ home.  After that day of tramping he was pretty exhausted; so he and Mr. Grant, after determining that the fire would not reach them, remained there overnight, joining us the next morning.

That was just the beginning of his wanderings.  He was on the go for the next four or five days gathering information for more articles that he sent to the Los Angeles Times.  He managed to circle around the fire to the waterfront and found a way to send his writings across to Oakland, from where they were dispatched to Los Angeles.

Chapter III. The Aftermath

The fire in Hayes Valley did not reach the Grants’ home that first night.  It was contained in the valley.  When Dad finally joined us the following day, he had much to tell us about the sights he observed and we listened eagerly to all he had to say.  He saw the Chronicle Building and the Call Building afire.  He described the latter so well that I seem to have a recollection of seeing it myself.  One of the tallest buildings of the city, the Call Building, was so well constructed that the framework remained intact, though the flames swept through to the top floor.  At least that’s the mind’s eye picture I have of it—the interior lit up with the flames while the structure remained.  It was one of the few buildings in the downtown section so well constructed that it withstood the earthquake and the fire and was useable afterwards—after much repair, of course.

Dad had wandered through Golden Gate Park where the Army set up tents for the homeless people.  It was a regular tent city.  I saw some of this myself a few days later as we passed through the “pan-handle” area of the park on our way back to Steiner Street with the Grants.

I think I got some sleep the second night in the open on Masonic Avenue.  I don’t remember much about it.  I guess I was too tired to care at that point.  The third night it seemed safe to return to sleep in houses and most of the people on Masonic Avenue did so.  However, people along that street and everywhere else in San Francisco continued to do their cooking out on the streets for many weeks.

Although the fire was still raging and more and more people were made homeless, the city authorities, with the aid of the United States Army troops stationed at the Presidia, soon had civilian life under control.  Looting was checked.  All grocery stores in the unburned areas were confiscated so that goods could not be sold at black market prices.  Instead, food was handed out to people a little at a time.

I remember standing in line at a store in the neighborhood to receive a few potatoes, a small packet of sugar and a box of prunes.  Others of our family group stood in line, too, and received small quantities of this and that.

After a few days, meat was again made available, but a family only got so much and for one day at a time.  It was quite a sight to see the brick fireplaces on the curbs in front of every residence with a pot on each bubbling away.  I can’t remember what we ate, but I know we didn’t go hungry.

Sunday morning, after returning to the Grants’ home, Mother and I went up to the little park nearby where a worship service was being held.  The area was packed.  There was hymn singing, thanks to God for surviving such a great disaster, and prayers for those less fortunate.  As always in times of strife and misfortune people seek the solace of their faith.  After the service, food was distributed.  We were surprised to see that large boxes of sandwiches were being opened.  These had come from somewhere in the Midwest.  The quake happened Thursday morning.  This was Sunday morning.  Mother, in her expressive way remarked afterward, “It was just as if all the housewives in that state were standing with bread loaves and knives ready to begin cutting when the quake occurred.”  It was remarkable.  This was before the days of rapid transit by air.  Those sandwiches were made immediately after people hundreds of miles away heard the news of the San Francisco catastrophe and it was known there were many homeless people.

These first boxes of food were shipped by train to Oakland; from there they were transported across the Bay by ferry.  How they got from the waterfront to points of distribution in the parks I couldn’t tell you.  I’m not sure there were motorized trucks then.  Perhaps the Army had such vehicles.  In some neighborhoods, water mains were still intact and at certain times fireplugs would be turned on so the people could fill their buckets.  Also, good spring water was brought into our neighborhood by wagon and sold for a price per bucket.

One humorous water story I remember hearing occurred at the home of friends of the Grants.  The bathtub was carefully scrubbed and made sanitary.  The man of the family and his son carried buckets of water from quite a distance to the tub so they would have plenty of water for general purposes for several days.  It happened that a friend from out of town showed up at their door, having had to leave the downtown hotel where he was staying.  He was made welcome, of course, and put up for the night.  The next morning at breakfast he thanked his host for the nice bath prepared for him.  He knew it couldn’t be heated on account of there being no gas in the house, but he enjoyed the cold bath.

The ruling about fire and lights in the houses was very strict.  Until inspection could be made of the broken gas lines, there was to be no cooking inside, no lamps or candles lit.  The electric lines were out of commission, too.

The neighborhoods were policed at night.  Sort of a civil defense organization was set up, including volunteer civilians under the direction of the Army.  These men patrolled the blocks.  After the three days and nights of fire, the city was enveloped in a nightly blackout.

One evening, we were sitting with the family downstairs in their living room.  There was nothing to do at night but gather in groups like that to talk or sing.  The little girl, Helen, was sitting on her mother’s lap and somehow she pushed a comb out of her mother’s hair, and it fell to the floor.  The child got down on the floor to pick it up but couldn’t find it.  Without thinking what they were doing someone in the party lit a match and by its light the comb was found.  Just then there was a loud knock on the door and a night guardsman stuck his head in the door and bellowed, “I saw a light in there.  Don’t you know you can’t do that?  Don’t let it happen again.”  Soon the Grant household went upstairs to bed in the dark.

Weeks later, after we had left the city, inspection was made in that neighborhood.  It was determined that it was once again safe to light lamps or candles and eventually the electricity was restored; but, it was months before gas lines were repaired and people could once again cook in their homes.  In the meantime, they had made do with substantial brick stoves, with grates, ovens, and even chimneys on the curbs.  When my parents and I visited San Francisco again in September, these curb kitchens were still in use in many neighborhoods.

I distinctly remember some of my father’s experiences.  I don’t know how he ever stood all the walking he did.  He watched and noted the progress of the fire for three days.  He saw the ruins of the City Hall, that monument to political fraud.  That beautiful new building fell to pieces in the quake revealing inferior concrete and lack of sufficient steel.  Dad wore out his shoes and when he could no longer put cardboard in the soles, Mr. Grant gave him a pair of his shoes.  These shoes had been handmade for Mr. Grant—the finest pair of shoes Dad had ever had.  He still had them when he came to Meyersdale to live in 1910. They certainly served him well in those last few days in the “earthquake city.”

I don’t know how he got word to our friends, the Clarks, but he did, letting them know that we were safe; and he also got word across the Bay to our friends in Berkeley and Oakland.  Through them and through Dad’s stories in the Los Angeles Times our friends in Los Angeles learned of our having come through the earthquake and fire safely.  We eventually learned that the chimney at the Clark home had fallen right into the dining room and had smashed the table around which were sitting and playing cards only a few hours before the earthquake struck.  The Clarks, in their bedroom, were unhurt.

Dad wandered through the parks looking for people he knew.  I think it was in one of these that he found the parents of his friend, Mr. Austin Martin, who had worked at the Times with Dad and had moved to San Francisco the previous year.  Austin had met with some kind of accident and was hospitalized at the time of the quake.  The hospital where he was confined was out of the fire district, but his parents were lodged in a downtown hotel and had to flee the flames.  Eventually they got to the hospital and after the fire managed to get an ambulance to take their son out of the city.

Dad met a fireman who had battled the flames for three days.  He was staggering along the street, exhausted and soot covered.  His eyebrows were singed and he was so tired he could barely walk.  Dad spoke to him, “Friend, you look tired to death.”  “Yes,” replied the fireman, “I have fought the fire for three days and nights.  It was a real hell!!!  Now I am going to the park to see if I can find my family.”

One of the tragedies of the holocaust was that the city fire chief and his wife were killed in their bed the morning of the earthquake.  The chimney of the house toppled in on them.  Without a chief, the fires starting in many parts of the city, and with water mains broken, you can imagine what chaos there was and what difficulties had to be surmounted.

The overwhelming fire seemed to start in the Mission District south of Market Street, which included factories and slum areas.  I don’t know if it was ever determined actually how many people perished in the fire in that area.  Another bad area wiped out was Chinatown, where supposedly there were many underground opium dens.

Some people said the city was destroyed because it was so wicked.  Some said the wiping out of Chinatown was worth all the rest of the loss.  I don’t believe either to be true, but none the less, the Chinatown of today is a far better, more open place, with many beautiful stores and restaurants and fine residences of wealthy Chinese and an asset to the city.

To stop the spread of the fire, which consumed the heart of the city and was racing up the hills to residential areas, dynamiting was begun.  Block after block of buildings, among them our apartment house on O’Farrell Street, was leveled.  The fire finally burned itself out at Van Ness Avenue.  This was a wide residential street.  The houses on the upper side were saved, but everything on the lower side of Van Ness—and as far as the eye could see—clear down to Market Street, was blasted and burned to the ground.

After three days of fire, life in San Francisco was just a matter of getting something to eat and finding a supply of water.  At the end of the second week, Mother and Dad felt it was time for us to leave San Francisco.  Dad’s contest with the Chronicle was abrogated to the satisfaction of both parties and the contest was called off.  I suppose the contestants were satisfied with some cash prizes.  Dad succeeded in getting a contract with The Oregonian in Portland for six weeks beginning May 1st.  So we prepared to leave for Portland.

It seems strange to me that I can’t remember what means of transportation we used to get from the Grants’ home to the Ferry Building.  I am sure we did not walk this time, and the streetcars were not yet back in commission.  Perhaps Mr. Grant and Dad managed to hire an automobile, a horse-drawn buggy, or wagon.  Nevertheless, I do remember very vividly what we saw on the way.

We passed through the Hayes Valley area and saw the many houses ruined by the fire.  On the other side of Van Ness we saw the area that had been dynamited.  We followed the street we walked up that morning after the earthquake struck, where people had been so kind to us.  Now there was nothing there, and we wondered what had become of those kind and generous people.

On the block of O’Farrell Street where had stood the four or five-story apartment building where we had lived, there was nothing but a few pieces of twisted steel.  We gazed upon this scene with awe and curiosity, but not with actual sadness for the loss of a home, for this had been only a very temporary home for us; but our hearts were sad for the people whose permanent homes had been sacrificed to the demon fire.

Finally, we turned onto Market Street.  If we thought Masonic Avenue was a mess, it was nothing compared to Market Street.  Part of the roadway had sunk; one streetcar track was high and the other track was several feet lower.  Much of San Francisco toward the waterfront was built on land fill and much of this was torn apart and thrown up as though a giant plow had gone through.  Most of the buildings along the way were burned to the ground, and only the skeletons were all that was left of the tall, better constructed buildings.  The Call Building loomed tall but bleak.  The Chronicle Building was badly damaged, but I believe that it was rebuilt at the same location.

At last we saw a familiar sight.  The Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street was intact.  We were soon on our way by ferryboat crossing the Bay to Oakland.  Streetcars were running over there, and we soon reached the Thompson home where we were again taken in and given a joyous welcome.

How good it was to get to a home where there was water for baths and shampoos!  There we washed our clothes—that is mother did.  We bought a few necessary things and made ready to go by train to Portland.  But even before we got off, the first of the boxes arrived from friends in Los Angeles who, knowing we had lost most of our personal possessions, wanted to help us.  While we were in Portland, two more boxes arrived from two groups of my friends back in Los Angeles.  The members of the girls’ basketball club to which I belonged sent me personal things and toilet articles.  My Sunday school class also sent more such things.

It was nice to know that my friends thought of me and wanted to help.  They, like people all over the United States, were happy and willing to help friends and strangers alike in times of disaster.

This is my San Francisco earthquake and fire story as I have remembered it.

EPILOGUE:  (For my family)

While we were in Portland, Mother and I read Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii.  I don’t know how we happened to choose that book from the library.  It was the last thing you’d think we would want to read at that time, for the description of the eruption of Vesuvius with its earthquake and rolling lava (instead of fire) made us dream at night of our experiences in San Francisco.

After Portland we went to Seattle, Washington, where Dad had another scholarship contest for the Post Intelligence.  In September we returned to Berkeley where we lived while Dad conducted a contest, this time for the Call.  While there we witnessed the progress that had been made to put San Francisco back together again.  It was amazing to find that the cable cars were running and building was going on everywhere.  Many of the big department stores had built temporary stores on Van Ness while their downtown new buildings were being constructed.

I had lost so much schooling the year before, having left Los Angeles High School and attending Girls’ High School for only a few months, that it was decided I would go to a private school.  We chose Snell Seminary in Berkeley.  I went as a day pupil that year, and the next year, after another summer in Seattle, as a boarding pupil, while Dad and Mother started on a round of contests at Fort Worth, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; South Bend, Indiana; Duluth, Minnesota; Atlanta Georgia; and Roanoke, Virginia.

The year I was in boarding school I spent some pleasant weekends with the cousins at the Grant household.  In the meantime, the Schlueter cousins had moved to Los Angeles.  I went shopping on Van Ness Avenue and even visited a new Chinatown store.  At school we were going to put on a Chinese play, (most of which I wrote).  Some of the cast and I went over to Chinatown to see if we could rent some costumes.  However, the play was never given.  That spring, about the time the play would have been given and graduation, one of the Miss Snells died suddenly.  The play was called off, but our commencement took place as planned.  Miss Snell was a dear person.  She taught me Latin and tried to teach me to spell.  I didn’t inherit my Dad’s propensity for spelling.  He used to boast that he could correctly spell almost any word in the English language dictionary. (However, I don’t believe that anyone ever challenged him to do so.)

This was also the year that the U.S. Fleet visited San Francisco.  It was a great sight to see the ships at anchor in the Bay.  At night we walked up the hill to the “Big C” of the University of California, just back of our school.  From there we could see the ships outlined with lights.  It was a magnificent and inspiring sight.

Just about a week before the earthquake, Dad, Mother and I had made a trip to Palo Alto as guests of a real estate agent.  He tried to sell us a lot along the edge of the Stanford campus.  Mother was not impressed and Dad did not buy.  It was just as well.  However, if we had that lot 50 years later, we could have made a fortune.

I suppose we went to Palo Alto by train, but surely we must have been taken to the proposed home site and to the campus by auto.  Anyway, we were given a glimpse of the Quad and the beautiful chapel with the famous Italian mosaic façade picturing the “sermon on the mount.”  Just a week or so later, the earthquake hard hit Stanford.  The chapel and the beautiful mosaic were left in ruins.

Three years later, September 1909, when I entered Stanford University as a freshman, there was scaffolding all around the chapel as it was being rebuilt.  The pieces of mosaic were still on the ground in the inner quad awaiting workmen from Italy to repair the damage.  (Mrs. Stanford had employed Italian artisans to come over to do the mosaic work in the first place.)

By the time I graduated, the work was completed inside and out.  The beautiful scene in mosaic on the front of the church restored as well.  In my opinion, there is nothing like that chapel in the United States.

During the two years I was in Berkeley, I had many ferry trips across the Bay and learned to love it and the city of San Francisco.  The years I was at Stanford, I spent some weekends in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland.

In 1915 Mother and I again visited San Francisco and the Bay area. (The family had taken up permanent residence in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania in 1910 when Dad purchased the Meyersdale Republican and became its editor/publisher and remained so for the rest of his 93 years.  I joined them there after my first year at Stanford, but returned to Stanford in 1912 and stayed until I earned my credits for graduation in January 1914, after which I returned to Pennsylvania.)

My next visit was in 1920, and then again in January 1926 when my husband, Jim, and I were there for a business convention.  We stayed at the Palace Hotel, which was reconstructed after the fire.  It was foggy at the time of our visit and Jim was not greatly impressed, but I relished again the sea smell of the San Francisco Bay.

Through the following years, living in Meyersdale, my periods of nostalgia or homesickness have not been for my birthplace—the Los Angeles area, my beloved Stanford, or Seattle, which I also love--remembering three wonderful summers spent there, but just longing for the aroma of the San Francisco Bay.

When I visited San Francisco again in 1956--50 years after the earthquake and fire--most of the ferry boats were gone and there were two great bridges crossing the bay.  I crossed by bus, along the lower level of the Bay Bridge.  What did I smell?  Gasoline exhaust--never a whiff of the tangy salt air of the good old San Francisco Bay!

Editor’s Note:

My mother, Frances Livengood Imler, dreamed of returning to California to live after she married.  However when her husband died in the mid 1930’s leaving her with a son age 8 and a daughter age 4 to raise, that dream was never realized.  She joined her father in publishing the weekly Meyersdale Republican and became active in the community.  She founded the local Women’s Club through which she was the driving force to create the Meyersdale Free Library.  She was the second recipient of the local annual Citizen of the Year award for her service to the community.  The transplanted Westerner led a full and rewarding life in the East—but I believe it’s fair to say she truly “left her heart in San Francisco.”

(As a personal note, I have the hand-painted berry dishes that my grandfather retrieved from the O’Farrell Street apartment after the earthquake.  These are very prized possessions of mine as mementos of my family’s experience in San Francisco in 1906.)

Louise I. Danzer


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copyright © 2005 Louise I. Danzer.  All rights reserved.
Published by with permission from Louise I. Danzer.