San Francisco Earthquake - Through Lanes Of Misery
( Originally Published 1906 )
A Graphic Pen Picture of San Francisco in Flames and in Ruins—Scenes and Stories of Human Interest where Millionaires and Paupers Mingled in a Common Brotherhood—A Harrowing Trip in an Automobile.
AMONG the most graphic and interesting pen pictures of scenes within and without the stricken city were those of Harry C. Carr, a newspaper photographer and correspondent of Los Angeles. This is his personal narrative :
I started from Los Angeles for the stricken city on that pitiful first train whose passengers were nearly all San Francisco men trying frantically to get back to their wives and children, whose fate they could only imagine.
All one terrible day I walked about through the lanes of the charred ruins that had once been San Francisco. I was one of the hungry who robbed grocery stores for their food; one of the parched thousands who eagerly drank water out of the gutter leakage of the fire engines.
After hours of discouraging failure, of being turned back by the sentries, with the sound of dynamited houses ringing in my ears, I managed at last to join the long caravan of homeless families carrying all the property left to them in the world in sheets.
Sometimes I walked with the daughter of a Van Ness avenue millionaire lugging a bundle over her shoulder, and again with a Chinaman moaning piteously over the loss of his laundry.
I came out of San Francisco on that broken-hearted first train carrying refugees, whose faces streamed with tears as they took the last look from the Pullman windows at the weirdly beautiful red fringe of fire creeping along the ridges of the distant hills, burning the remnants of San Francisco.
An hour after the first word reached Los Angeles on that fateful Wednesday morning our train pulled out of the depot. There was an ominous number of reservations for Santa Barbara on the chair car. Most of the San Francisco men came on board there.
Beyond San Luis Obispo, two big freight trains were stalled by a cave-in caused by the earthquake. They crawled out just in time—before every one went mad.
At Salinas, about dark, the conductor came back, shaking his head; a freight train ahead at Pajaro had been completely buried by a mountain of earth hurled in the quake.
The men said it was likely to be a week before any train went through.
Three or four of us hurried into the town looking for an automobile. One of the passengers on the train was Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, and the news had been kept from her until this delay.
Strange to say, there were a number of automobiles in town, but none were to be had. One man was hurrying through from Los Angeles in his own touring car with his three boys to find his wife, their mother, who was somewhere in the burning city.
We were getting ready to hire saddle horses when the twin lights of an automobile came glaring down the street. There were two New England spinsters aboard. They had been in the Palace Hotel when the clerk telephoned to their rooms to tell them the city was burning and that the hotel was about to be blown up by dynamite by the soldiers of the Engineer Corps.
They hired an auto to San Jose at an outrageous price and paid $75 to be taken from there to Salinas. Had it not been for a bridge which kind heaven smashed, I guess they would have been going yet. As it was, we persuaded them that the train was the place for them and managed to hire the automobile back to San Jose. The cost was $20 a seat.
Men came to us and begged like frightened children to be taken; but we dared not risk a breakdown and had to refuse. But never shall I forget the look that was in their eyes.
We started at 10:30 and rode all night. It was bitterly cold and we suffered terribly, not having overcoats. The chauffeur had been using his auto all that morning taking medicines to the demolished insane asylum at Agnews.
His story of the scenes there was horrible. Scores of dead were lying stretched on the lawns and others were walking about hideously wounded. Amid this scene an insane woman was wandering, blithely singing little songs of her own improvision about the earthquake and the killing.
One giant maniac had broken his shackles and rescued one of the guards from the building. He had just one sane moment; long enough to be a hero. Then he fled howling into the hills.
It was just dawn when we got to San Jose. Sentries from the militia and special officers were patrolling the streets. A dead line had been established to keep persons away from wrecked buildings. There were jewelry stores whose fronts had been entirely torn off; these would have been plundered.
All through the city we saw people seated on beds on their front lawns, their houses having tumbled. On the front lawn of the Hotel Vendome was a bonfire about which were gathered twenty or thirty people. Every guest of the house had spent the night there with a blanket apiece.
We were just in time to catch the first train to go through to San Francisco. All along the route through such towns as Palo Alto and Belmont, we saw shattered buildings, warehouses with whole sides neatly cut off as though with a knife. One big ware-house of brick had completely buried a freight train standing on a siding.
During the night we could see the dull red glow that came from the burning city. Now we could see the huge copper-colored clouds that almost hid the sun. As we came nearer the city we could hear the distant explosions of the dynamite with which the soldiers were wrecking the buildings. They came to us in dull but quick thumps.
The train got no further than Valencia street. As soon as we got off we saw the first stragglers of the great army of the homeless and ruined.
Sentries stopped us before we had gone a block, so a cheerful good-looking young fellow, who had seen first his home and his tailor shop utterly destroyed that morning, offered to be our guide.
He took us past the Hotel Valencia, which was the worst sufferer from the earthquake. The big building had been liter-ally poured out into the street in a stream of splintered wood. No one knows how many people perished in it.
On the corner next the Valencia was a new set of three-story flats, just completed, and most of the flats not yet occupied. As though some one had struck it on top with a giant hammer, the entire building had sunk one story into the ground; you could walk right in at the second story.
Turning down into Steiner street, we were caught in the flood of the strangest tide the world ever saw. There never was any-thing like this before.
These were people warned to leave their homes from some district newly doomed to the Fire God.
They were treking, in a long, motley procession, to find some park not already crowded to overflowing.
One of the first that I met was a little family beginning life over again. What they had been able to rescue before the flames came was packed in a little express wagon. The elderly husband was drawing this. Behind him came his wife. With the fore-thought of a woman, she had either bought or stolen two pack-ages of breakfast food—all that stood between them and starvation. They looked drawn and anxious; and were rather peculiar in this regard.
Most of the refugees leaving their homes were cheerful.
I saw a pretty "tailor-made girl" meeting her friend on the street. One of them had a little bundle of things tied in a handkerchief.
"That's everything I own in this world," she said, grinning—positively grinning.
"That's nothing," said the other girl, smiling back, "I haven't a rag to my back or a cent of money, and I've lost track of my family somewhere in this crowd."
"Oh, well, what's the use of worrying?" And with that they parted.
Another touching little group was led by the father, who carried a sheet tied up with what he could carry. The young mother was dragging a child's express wagon laden mostly with pro, visions. Behind her trooped two sweet little girls. One was wrapped up in a big shawl (this was just after sunrise.) A kit-ten, which she held in her arms, was poking its nose protestingly out- from the shawl. Bringing up the rear was the other little tot, hugging a doll under each arm.
A fine looking young fellow in khaki trousers and a fashion-able coat was packing an enormous clothes bundle. His young wife was clinging to his arm. It was everything they had left in the world, probably out of years of hard saving, but they were both almost going along with good spirits.
A little further up the street, I saw a refined looking young girl cooking breakfast in the gutter. She wore a handsomely made but badly torn skirt and had a remarkably fine bracelet on one wrist. Her oven was made of two bricks and a toasting grill. A young man was bringing her bits of fire wood and they were consulting together over the frying of bacon.
Further on were two other women doing the same thing and having fun out of it between themselves.
"Is it so very much farther?" was the only complaint that came from one tired little woman who looked ready to faint. She was staggering under the weight of a huge bundle. She looked unused to work and her lips were white and trembling with exhaustion. She rested just a minute, then staggered on without another word of complaint.
Men spoke kindly to her, but none offered to help her, be-cause Woe was the great leveler and all were on the same footing. All the day I spent in San Francisco, I only heard one per-son speak unkindly to another. I wish I had that young man's name, just as a curiosity. He had been hired by a woman to drag a big Roman chair filled with treasures up the street.
"There," he said, insolently, "I have earned all the money I got for that; now take it along yourself."
Without a word, the woman took the chair from him and wheeled it on herself.
One rather amusing group was wheeling an immense and very handsome dining-room table. The young man who was pulling from the front was protesting vigorously; but the two young girls who shoved from behind, digging their stubby fashionable little oxford ties in the dirt for foothold, urged him peremptorily on. Following them was a half-grown hobbledehoy boy, strong enough to have packed an ox, who was doing his heavy share by carrying a little glass vase.
In a doorway half way up the hill, I saw an old Chinaman sitting with his bundle, which was all he had been able to save. He was just saying, "Oh, oh, oh," in a curious, half-sobbing moan that never seemed to cease.
The young tailor with me said the Chinaman had lost his laundry and was terror-stricken lest the white people should make him pay for their clothes.
While his own tailor shop was burning, the young tailor said that he was out trying to rescue the trapped victims in the burning Hotel Brunswick.
He could only get hold of one living man. He seemed to be caught in the wreckage, the smoke being too thick to permit one to see just how. Strong hands caught his feet and pulled desperately. When they dragged him out at last, they found that he had been caught under the chin. In pulling him out they cut his throat almost from ear to ear.
As we gained the top of the hill on Steiner street, a San Francisco man who came in with me on the train stopped dead still. "My God: look there!" he said, his voice catching with a sob.
Through the rift of the buildings we caught our first glimpse of the dying city.
"That was Market street," said the San Francisco man, softly.
He pointed across a vast black plain, hundreds of acres in ex-tent, to a row of haggard, gaunt specters that did seem to be in two lines like a street.
"There's the City Hall," he said, tremulously, pointing to a large dome surmounting a pile of ruins and surrounded like some hellish island with vast stretches of smouldering ashes and twisted iron girders.
The San Francisco man found a tottering, blackened pile of wall that he said was Mechanic's Pavilion, and a sort of thin peak of brick that he said was the new Bell Theater. He would go over the town from the top of the hill and torture himeslf trying to locate San Francisco's splendid landmarks in these acres of ash heaps.
Down in the middle of the city I found two young men in a violent argument over the location of Market street in the ashes.
At the pretty little park, Fell and Steiner streets, we came upon one of the strange little cities of refugees. I should pronounce this one of the most select residence districts of San Francisco now. It is the only home of hundreds upon hundreds of once well-to-do San Francisco people now ruined.
It was heart-rending to see the women tidying things up and trying to invent new ideas for attractive homes—trying to make their homes look better than their neighbors', just as they did before.
Some women made odd little bowers of two blankets and a sheet tent.
I passed one tent where a young mother was lying at ease with her little girl, under a parasol. Just as I was going by, the little girl demanded "another." The mother laughed happily and began, "Well, once upon a time
As though one of the stories of all the ages was not going on down the hill below her!
To one of the groups on the lawn came a young man grinning all over and positively swaggering. He was received with shrieks of joy. He had six cans of sardines. He brought them to people who would have been insulted at the idea two days ago.
The San Francisco man invited me into his house, where we saw the wreck of his cut glass and library. But he forgot it all over a rare piece of good forune that had befallen. The maid had managed to get a whole tea kettle of water. It was vile and muddy; but it was water.
The young tailor told me that he had gone from daylight until 11:30, parching for a drink. The saloons were closed by order of Gen. Funston, but he managed to get beer from a saloon man.
In some parts of the city there is plenty of water. But I saw people-rushing eagerly with buckets to catch the water out of gutters where it had leaked from a fire hose. In the first terrible water famine, the firemen broke into sewers and threw sewer water on the fire's.
The dramatic moments came as one neighborhood after an-other was told to pack up and move out. It was the sounding of doom. I saw several of these sorrowful dramas.
One was in an old-fashioned street where old southern houses with iron clogs planted about the lawns had been pressed in upon by lodging-houses and corner groceries. It seemed mockery to think how the people in the aristocratic old houses must have raged at the intrusion of the corner stores. How futile it seemed now!
Came a dapper young cavalry Iieutenant into the street. From their porches people watched him with pathetic anxiety. They could see the sentry's heels click together and his carbine snap down to a present. With a few words the officer would hurry on.
Making a megaphone of his hands, the sentry would turn and bawl these words up the otherwise silent street: "This street is going to be dynamited; if you want anything in the grocery store, go to it!"
The balance of his remarks, if there were any, would be lost in a shout of applause from the crowds that seemed to smell such things. A rush for the grocery store would follow.
Men would come out laden to staggering with loot—canned goods, flour, bacon, hams, coffee—as much as they could possibly pack.
I saw one little girl not over four. This was the day she always had been dreaming of. Hugged to her heart was an -enormous jar of stick candy, big enough to give her stomach-ache for the rest of her life. She could hardly lift it; but she put it down to rest, then went panting on.
At the warning of the sentry, the whole family in each house would rush back through the front door to rescue whatever treasure lay nearest their hearts. They only had four or five minutes. Men would come dragging bureaus and lounges. Often a man would be pulling along the 'family pride, the woman shoving from behind.
In one thrilling rescue I had the distinction of participating. An elderly woman grabbed me excitedly by the arms and gasped, "Catch it."
She pointed to a dejected canary perched on a window sill. I shinned gallantly up the side of a dead wall; just touched the canary bird with the tips of my fingers. It flew and a lady caught it triumphantly like a baseball as it came down. She went away "mothering" it.
Presently, the sentry would shout another warning and the people would scurry away, peeking out from behind safe corners. As if by magic, the streets would be thick with soldiers. The engineers would place the dynamite and they would all hurry out of danger.
Bang! And the grocery store would go scattering into the air.
It must be confessed that the dynamiting did very little good. It seemed to provide fine splintered timber as kindling for fiercer flames which jumped the gap supposed to check them.
The sound of the explosions was to be heard all day long al-most like minute guns.
Let a word be interjected here about those splendid boys in blue uniform hurried into the city from the forts about San Francisco. They make one proud of the army. No more superbly policed city ever existed than the burning and stricken San Francisco.
Soldiers seemed to be everywhere. Almost at every street corner with fixed bayonet and ominous cartridge belt. Infantry, cavalry (some mounted infantry) and engineers, all doing sentry duty.
Gen. Funston was in personal command—not from his office, either. He went plowing around the most perilous streets soaked to the skin from the fire engines.
San Francisco in this time of panic and distress was more quiet and orderly than ever before. I saw not a single disturbance of the peace. With it all, the soldiers were polite, and seemed to try in every way to show courtesy and consideration. When they had to order people back, they did it in a quiet and gentlemanly way.
I met men who claimed to have seen men shot down by the soldiers for defying orders for unlicensed looting. Also there is a story of a negro being shot dead by a policeman for robbing a dead body.
One story I would like to believe—that a poor wretch pinned in among the blazing ruins roasting to death begged to be shot and some cavalry trooper had the moral courage to send a bullet through his brain.
Although I walked probably fifteen miles back and forth through the city, I saw very little unlicensed looting. Many grocery stores which did not seem to be in immediate danger, were thrown open; one very oddly. The proprietor nailed up one window with slats about four inches wide. He made the refugees line up, and each was privileged to take all he could reach through the window slats.
Some grocers and tradesmen were not so charitable. In other places I saw them demanding from people in danger of starving, 75 cents a loaf for bread.
Bread was the scarcest article except water.
The last of the tragedy that I witnessed was not only the most dramatic but the most tremendous.
It should be called the "Exodus," for it was a Biblical scene. It was the headlong flight of those who were most terror-stricken to get out of the doomed city.
All day long a procession of almost countless thousands was to be seen hurrying with all the possessions they could carry. There were people with bundles, packs, laden express wagons, hacks bulging with plunder, brewery wagons pressed. into service, automobiles, push carts, even fire hose wagons.
I happened along at a crucial moment. One of the lieutenants whose peculiar and melancholy function seemed to be to pronounce the doom of one section after another, had just sent warning to Nob Hill, the center of fashion in San Francisco.
For hours I had been working my way toward the Oakland ferries. As a last hope, some one told me I might get there by going over these hills and following the line of the water front.
I got there after the warning had been given. It was San Francisco's wealthiest and most exclusive society who had to pack and sling their bundles over their shoulders.
And they did it with just as good grace and courage as the others. All were making a frantic attempt to hire expressmen with any kind of vehicle that would move, and most of them were failing.
During the first of the fire, some young society women with very poor taste, went autoing around the stricken districts as though it were a circus. They were stopped by a sentry and were made to get out of their car and hand it over to a posse of special officers being hurried to some district in new peril.
As I gained the top of Nob Hill and turned to look back, it was clear why the warning had been given. In one direction, hospitals were burning south of Market street.
In the center distance the big car barns were on fire and roaring with flames. Ordinarily this would have been a sensation of a week. Now it wasn't even considered worth while to send fire engines and nobody stopped to look as they walked by.
The main streets, where the business part of the city had been, were black with an immense throng of people who were walking up and down among the ruins.
Looking toward the ferries, I could count nine big skyscrapers, all crowned with fire, outlined in a lurid row against the sky line. The flames were creeping slowly, but with deadly persistence, toward Nob Hill, with several lesser fires blazing in between.
It was high time Nob Hill was moving.
One old man had chartered an express wagon, and was on top of the wagon frantically interfering with the work of removing the goods from a big, aristocratic-looking house.
"The books !" he shrieked, "Why in heaven's sake don't you bring the books?"
A swagger young woman came to the door with a handsome mantel clock and walked calmly down the stairs. "Please put this in some especially safe place, please," she said, as composedly as though this were nothing more than any ordinary moving day.
Down the street I saw a woman with the bearing of a patrician shoving at the rear of a push cart, loaded with all of the few things she could save; a servant was drawing it.
behind came a young girl, who half turned for a last look at the house, and burst out crying. Her mother left the load for a moment and comforted her. "Never mind, dear," she said. "Don't cry ! See, mamma isn't crying."
"Mamma" knew that in a few minutes her home and all the property she had in the world would die in the fire just as her husband's business had already done; but mamma wasn't crying.
On the corner of Van Ness avenue and Broadway, I saw a girl well dressed, who had evidently been driven out from there. All she had saved was a bed tick filled with something. As it was very hot, and she was very tired, she had spread it on the pavement, and was watching the throng from under her parasol.
I saw another girl in a trig outing suit and little patent-leather shoes, toss a bundle, done up in a sheet, over her shoulder and walk away in the procession with the most fascinating nonchalance.
One woman I saw going away in an elegantly-fitted private carriage. It was drawn by two horses with tails about two inches long and soaring; so she must have been near the top of the Upper Crust.
She, too, joined in the flight. Just as she got to the bottom of the hill she had the driver stop. I saw her turn and take a last wistful look from her carriage window at her doomed home. She was not attempting to take anything with her. Like many others, she had simply locked her door and gone.
Many of these people, rich one day, are practically paupers on the morrow. Many of them slept outdoors in the parks under a blanket, afraid to sleep in their own palatial homes.
What I call the "Exodus" fled down Van Ness avenue to the water front, thence along the Barbary Coast and tough water front by an enormously long detour to the ferries; it was the only way, the town streets being on fire and closed by the military.
The farther you went along the more conglomerate the throng became. The inhabitants of the foreign quarters began pouring out to join the flight.
I was so tired with a long day spent walking about the burning city that it seemed an impossibility that I should keep on. Every step was actual physical pain.
Twenty passing cabs, returning from the ferries, I stopped and tried to charter. The drivers, after bigger game, would wave me aside and say "Nothin' doin'."
One cabby said that he had to hurry out to the other end of the city to rescue his own family who were in danger. Another young autocrat on the cabby's box took a long puff on his cigarette before he replied to my appeal.
"Fellow, you couldn't hire this hack for a million dollars," he said.
There was one amusing feature in the terrible procession. She was a haughty dame from Van Ness avenue. All that she could save she had stuffed into, a big striped bed tick. She was trying to drag this along, and at the same time trying to maintain the dignity of a perfect lady. Candidly, it was not a success. One can stick pretty nearly everything into a striped bed quilt, but not dignity.
All along the way were women who had dropped out from exhaustion and were sitting there with their bundles in utter despair.