San Francisco Earthquake - A Roaring Furnace
( Originally Published 1906 )
Flames Spread in a Hundred Directions and the Fire Becomes the Greatest Conflagration of Modern Times—Entire Business Section and Fairest Part of Residence District Wiped Off the Map —Palaces of Millionaires Vanish in Flames or are Blown Up by Dynamite—The Worst Day of the Catastrophe.
MARIUS sitting among the ruins of Carthage saw not such a sight as presented itself to the afflicted people of San Francisco in the dim haze of the smoke pall at the end of the second day. Ruins stark naked, yawning at fearful angles and pinnacled into a thousand fearsome shapes, marked the site of what was three-fourths of the total area of the city.
Only the outer fringe of the city was left, and the flames which swept unimpeded in a hundred directions were swiftly obliterating what remained.
Nothing worthy of the name of building in the business district and not more than half of the residence district had escaped. Of its population of 400,000 nearly 300,000 were homeless.
Gutted throughout its entire magnificent financial quarters by the swift work of thirty hours and with a black ruin covering more than seven square miles out into her very heart, the city waited in a stupor the inevitable struggle with privation and hardship.
All the hospitals except the free city hospital had been destroyed, and the authorities were dragging the injured, sick and dying from place to place for safety.
All day the fire, sweeping in a dozen directions, irresistibly completed the desolation of the city. Nob Hill district, in which were situated the home of Mrs. Stanford, the priceless Hopkins Art Institute, the Fairmount hotel, a marble palace that cost millions of dollars and homes of a hundred millionaires, was destroyed.
It was not without a struggle that Mayor Schmitz and his aids let this, the fairest section of the city, suffer obliteration. Before noon when the flames were marching swiftly on Nob Hill, but were still far off, dynamite was dragged up the steep debris laden streets. For a distance of a mile every residence on the east side of Van Ness avenue was swept away in a vain hope to stay the progress of the fire.
After sucking dry even the sewers the fire engines were either abandoned or moved to the outlying districts.
There was no help. Water was gone, powder was gone, hope even was a fiction. The fair city by the Golden Gate was doomed to be blotted from the sight of man.
The stricken people who wandered through the streets in pathetic helplessness and sat upon their scattered belongings in cooling ruins reached the stage of dumb, uncaring despair, the city dissolving before their eyes had no significance longer.
There was no business quarter; it was gone. There was no longer a hotel district, a theater route, a place where Night beckoned to Pleasure. Everything was gone.
But a portion of the residence domain of the city remained, and the jaws of the disaster were closing down on that with relentless determination.
All of the city south of Market street, even down to Islais creek and out as far as Valencia street, was a smouldering ruin. Into the western addition and the Pacific avenue heights three broad fingers of fire were feeling their way with a speed that foretold the destruction of all the palace sites of the city before the night would be over.
There was no longer a downtown district. A blot of black spread from East street to Octavia, bounded on the south and north by Broadway and Washington streets and lslais creek respectively. Not a bank stood. There were no longer any exchanges, insurance offices, brokerages, real estate offices, all that once represented the financial heart of the city and its industrial strength.
Up Market street from the Ferry building to Valfira street nothing but the black fingers of jagged ruins pointed to the smoke blanket that pressed low overhead. What was once California, Sansome, and Montgomery streets was a labyrinth of grim blackened walls.
Chinatown was no more. Union square was a barren waste.
The Call building stood proudly erect, lifting its whited head above the ruin like some leprous thing and with all its windows, dead, staring eyes that looked upon nothing but a wilderness. The proud Flood building was a hollow shell.
The St. Francis Hotel, one time a place of luxury, was naught but a box of stone and steel.
Yet the flames leaped on exultantly. They leapt chasms like a waterfall taking a precipice. Now they are here, now there, always pressing on into the west and through to the end of the city.
It was supposed that the fire had eaten itself out in the whole-sale district below Sansome street, and that the main body of the flames was confined to the district south of Market street, where the oil works, the furniture factories, and the vast lumber yards had given fodder into the mouth of the fire fiend.
Yet, suddenly, as if by perverse devilishness, 'a fierce wind from the west swept over the crest of Nob Hill and was answered by leaping tongues of flames from out of the heart of the ruins.
By 8:30 o'clock Montgomery street had been spanned and the great Merchants' Exchange building on California street flamed out like the beacon torch of a falling star. From the dark fringe of humanity, watching on the crest of the California street hill, there sprang the noise of a sudden catching of the breath—not a sigh, not a groan—just a sharp gasp, betraying a stress of despair near to the insanity point.
Nine o'clock and the great Crocker building shot sparks and added tongues of fire to the high heavens. Immediately the fire jumped to Kearny street, licking at the fat provender that shaped itself for consuming.
Then began the mournful procession of Japanese and poor whites occupying the rookeries about Dupont street and along Pine. Tugging at heavy ropes, they rasped trunks up the steep pavements of California and Pine streets to places of temporary safety.
It was a motley crew. Women laden with bundles and dragging reluctant children by the hands panted up the steep slope with terror stamped on their faces.
Men with household furniture heaped camelwise on their shoulders trudged stoically over the rough cobbles, with the flame of the fire bronzing their faces into the outlines of a gargoyle. One patriotic son of Nippon labored painfully up Dupont street with the crayon portrait of the emperor of Japan on his back.
While this zone of fire was swiftly gnawing its way through Kearny street and up the hill, another and even more terrible segment of the conflagration was being stubbornly fought at the corner of Golden Gate avenue and Polk street. There exhausted firemen directed the feeble streams from two hoses upon a solid block of streaming flame.
The engines pumped the supply from the sewers. Notwithstanding this desperate stand, the flames progressed until they had reached Octavia street.
Like a sickle set to a field of grain the fiery crescent spread around the southerly end of the west addition up to Oak and Fell streets, along Octavia. There one puny engine puffed a single stream of water upon the burning mass, but is efforts were like the stabbing of a pigmy at a giant.
All the district bounded by Octavia, Golden Gate avenue, and Market street was a blackened ruin. One picked his way through the fallen walls on Van Ness avenue as he would cross an Arizona mesa. It was an absolute ruin, gaunt and flame lighted.
From the midst rose the great square wall of St. Ignatius college, standing like another ruined Acropolis in dead Athens.
Behind the gaunt specter of what had once been the city hall a blizzard of flame swept back into the gore between Turk and Market streets. Peeled of its heavy stone facing like a young leek that is stripped of its wrappings, the dome of the city hall rose spectral against the nebulous background of sparks.
From its summit looked down the goddess of justice, who had kept her pedestal even while the ones of masonry below her feet had been toppled to the earth in huge blocks the size of a freight car.
Through the gaunt iron ribs and the dome the red glare suffusing the whole northern sky glinted like the color of blood in a hand held to the sun.
At midnight the Hibernian bank was doomed, for from the frame buildings west of it there was being swept a veritable maelstrom of sheet flame that leaped toward it in giant strides. Not a fireman was in sight.
Across the street amid the smoke stood the new postoffice, one of the few buildings saved. Turk street was the northern boundary of this V shaped zone of the flames, but at 2 o'clock this street also was crossed and the triumphant march onward continued.
At midnight another fire, which had started in front of Fisher's Music Hall, on O'Farrell street, had gouged its terrible way through to Market street, carrying away what the morning's blaze across the street had left miraculously undestroyed.
Into Eddy and Turk streets the flames plunged, and soon the magnificent Flood building was doomed.
The firemen made an ineffectual attempt to check the ravages of the advancing phalanx of flames, but their efforts were absolutely without avail. First from across the street shot tongues of flames which cracked the glass in one of the Flood building's up-per story windows. Then a shower of sparks was sent driving at a lace curtain which fluttered out in the draft. The flimsy whipping rag caught, a tongue of flame crept up its length and into the window casement.
"My God, let me get out of this," said a man below who had watched the massive shape of the huge pile arise defiant before the flames. "I can't stand to see that go, too."
Shortly after midnight the streets about Union Square were barred by the red stripes of the fire. First Cordes Furniture Co pany's store went, then Brennor's. Next a tongue of flames crept' stealthily into the rear of the City of Paris store, on the corner of Geary and Stockton streets.
Eager spectators watched for the first red streamers to appear from the windows of the great dry goods stores. Smoke eddied from under window sills and through cracks made by the earth-quake in the cornices. Then the cloud grew denser. A puff of hot wind came from the west, and as if from the signal there streamed flamboyantly from every window in the top floor of the structure billowing banners, as a poppy colored silk that jumped skyward in curling, snapping breadths, a fearful heraldry of the pomp of destruction.
From the copper minarets on the Hebrew synagogue behind Union square tiny green, copperly flames next began to shoot forth. They grew quickly larger, and as the heat increased in intensity there shone from the two great bulbs of metal sheathing an iridescence that blinded like a sight into a blast furnace.
With a roar the minarets exploded almost simultaneously, and the sparks shot up to mingle with the dulled stars overhead. The Union League and Pacific Union clubs next shone red with the fire that was glutting them.
On three sides ringed with sheets of flame rose the Dewey memorial in the midst of Union square. Victory tiptoeing on the apex of the column glowed red with the flames. It was as if the goddess of battle had suddenly become apostate and a fiend linked in sympathy with the devils of the blaze.
On the first day of the catastrophe the St. Francis escaped. On the second it fell. n the space of two hours-the flames had blotted it out, and by night only the charred skeleton remained.
As a prelude to the destruction of the St. Francis the fire swept the homes of the Bohemian, Pacific, Union, and Family clubs, the best in San Francisco.
With them were obliterated the huge retail stores along Post street; St. Luke's Church, the biggest Episcopal church on the Pacific coast, and the priceless Hopkins Art Institute.
From Union square to Chinatown it is only a pistol shot. By noon all Chinatown was a blazing furnace, the rickety wooden hives, where the largest Chinese colony 1 this country lived, was perfect fuel for the fire.
Then Nob Hill, the charmed circle of the city, the residential district of its millionaires and of those whose names have made it famous, went with the rest of the city into oblivion. The Fairmount Hotel, marble palace built by Mrs. Oelrichs, crowned this district.
Grouped around it were the residences of Mrs. Stanford, and a score of millionaires' homes on Van Ness avenue. One by one they were buried in the onrushing flames, and when the fire was passed they were gone.
Here the most desperate effort of the fight to save the city was made. Nothing was spared. There was no discrimination, no sentiment. Rich men aided willingly in the destruction of their own homes that some of the city might be saved.
But the sacrifice and the labor went for nothing. No human power could stay the flames. As darkness was falling the fire was eating its way through the heart of this residential district.
The mayor was forced to announce that the last hope had seen dashed.
All the district bounded by Union, Van Ness, Golden Gate, to Octavia, Hayes, and Fillmore to Market was doomed. The fire fighters, troops, citizens, and city officials left the scene, powerless to do more.
On the morning of the second day when the fire reached the municipal building on Portsmouth square, the nurses, helped by soldiers, got out fifty bodies in the temporary morgue and a number of patients in the receiving hospital. Just after they reached the street a building was blown up and the flying bricks and splinters hurt a number of the soldiers, who had to be taken to the out of doors Presidio Hospital with the patients.
Mechanics' pavilion, which, after housing prize fights; conventions, and great balls, found its last use as an emergency hospital. When it was seen that it could not last every vehicle in sight was impressed by the troops, and the wounded, some of them frightfully mangled, were taken to the Presidio,' where they were out of danger and found comfort in tents.
The physicians worked without sleep and almost without food. There was food, however, for the injured; the soldiers saw to that. Even the soldiers flagged, and kept guard in relays. while the relieved men slept on the ground where they dropped.
The troops shut down with iron hands on the city, for where one man was homeless the first night five were homeless the second night. With the fire running all along the water front, few managed to make their way over to Oakland. The people for the most part were prisoners on the peninsula.
The soldiers enforced the rule against moving about except to escape the flames, and absolutely no one could enter the city who once had left.
The seat of city government and of military authority shifted with every shift of the flames. Mayor Schmitz and General Funston stuck close together and kept in touch with the firemen and police, the volunteer aids, and the committee of safety through couriers.
There were loud reverberations along the fire line at night. Supplies of gun cotton and cordite from the Presidio were commandeered and the troops and the few remaining firemen made another futile effort to check the fiery advance.
Along the wharves the fire tugs saved most of the docks. But the Pacific mail dock had been reached and was out of control; and finally China basin, which was filled in for a freight yard at the expense of millions of dollars, had sunk into the bay and the water was over the tracks. This was one of the greatest single losses in the whole disaster.
Without sleep and without food, crowds watched all night Wednesday and all day Thursday from the hills, looking off toward that veil of fire and smoke that hid the city which had become a hell.
Back of that sheet of fire, and retreating backward every hour, were most of the people of the city, forced toward the Pacific by the advance of the flames I ne open space of the Presidio and Golden Gate park was their only haven and so the night of the second day found them.