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1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Stories from My Great Grandmother

Updated on April 22, 2017
Artist's rendition of the damage done to City Hall
Artist's rendition of the damage done to City Hall | Source

The Day Started Like Any Other Day

In the early hours of Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, the people of San Francisco started the day like every other. Some women had been up getting the stove warm to prepare breakfast. Children were snuggled in bed with thoughts of the school day making their way into their drowsy dreams. Men began to rise as the work day loomed ahead of them. The many visitors were sleeping soundly hoping today's adventures would be as exciting as the day before. Most were either still in bed or just waking up to the new day.

At exactly 5:12 am, their world was knocked asunder. The earth shook violently sending objects crashing to the ground, brick buildings crumbling, and people fleeing into the street.

The worst was yet to come. Fires from ruptured gas mains spread throughout the city. Multiple fires sprung up at the same time. Water was inaccessible leaving parts of the city unprotected. People added to the problem by trying to use their gas stoves. The combination of earthquake and fire proved devastating.

The city's fire chief was killed during the initial earthquake. A firestorm with it's own weather-like pattern incinerated anything in it's path. The decision to stop the fire by creating firebreaks stopped the fire in some areas and only added fuel to the fire in others. The move was controversial at the time and it's still debatable as to whether it helped or hindered the fire.

The fire burned for 4 days. And, then when all seemed lost, the fire was put out and it rained.

The newspaper headline above was a joint effort of the city's three newspapers. It was the only newspaper printed the day after the earthquake. It was 4 pages in length. The headlines screamed:

"Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins"

"At Least 800 Dead"

"Entire City of San Francisco in Danger of being Annihilated"

"Loss is $200,000,000"

A digital copy of the newspaper can be read online at the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America collection, Call-Chronicle-Examiner, 19 April 1906

My ancestors were there that day. San Francisco was their home. Most of them survived. These stories were passed down from my great grandmother to my grandmother. She shared them with me. I have recorded them so that they won't be forgotten. San Francisco's history is so much a part of my people. It is their history, too.

All three newspaper companies joined forces to put out the news the next day.
All three newspaper companies joined forces to put out the news the next day. | Source

Did Your Ancestors Experience The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire?

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Don't Drop that Mirror!

My Grandma told me that her Grandfather, Thomas Augustine Jones, was a superstitious. Thomas lived with his daughter, Margaret, her husband, Harry Jackson, and their newborn baby in San Francisco on Natoma Street. The family was getting ready for their day as the earthquake struck.

Margaret rushed around making sure the baby was safe and getting everyone out of the house. She went into her Father's room only to find him standing in the middle of the room holding a large mirror.

She pleaded with him to drop the darn thing and get moving. Thomas replied "But, if I drop this mirror and it breaks, I'll get seven years bad luck!"

Somehow Margaret separated her Father and the mirror and they all got out safely.

They were the fortunate ones. As they were rushing out into the street, Margaret noticed her neighbor sitting on her front porch. She yelled out to her that she had to run. But the woman wouldn't budge. She paid her rent the day before and she wasn't moving.

Margaret and her family continued down the street. Another large jolt shook the earth. When they looked back, the woman was dead. The house had fallen on top of her.

Amazing Retelling of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

"The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned" retells those dreadful days with a collection of incredible photographs of the San Francisco earthquake and fire combined with historical details. This is one of the best books on this topic that I've read.

As I read it, I got chills. It's eerie to look back on such a devastating disaster and know that it was compounded by human error. To see how many lives were effected and then to know that your ancestors lived through it, it's really something. As I looked at the photographs and read the stories, I could imagine Granny Jackson, a young wife at the time, trying to marshal her family to safer ground.

Having been through a big earthquake, I know that some of the pain is emotional. That healing takes longer than rebuilding roads and buildings.

The Fire Caused More Damage than the Earthquake

Gas leaks created a dangerous situation after the earthquake. More than 50 fires spread throughout the city with very little water available to put them out.

The Earthquake and Fire - Did They Feel It?

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire shook not only San Francisco but many of the cities and towns for miles around. Jack London wrote an account of the damage he saw south of the city. Others reported seeing the effects far from the epicenter. My relatives in Oakland felt the quake just as severely as my relatives who lived right in the heart of the city, though the damage was not the same.

Actual Footage of the Devastation

The One Who Didn't Survive

My Great Great Aunt, Gertrude (Jones) Burke, was the only one in the family to suffer a loss on that terrible day. Her husband, Jack Burke, was somewhat of a gambler and big spender. On the day of the San Francisco earthquake, Jack was nowhere to be found.

At the time, Gertrude was 7 months pregnant. I can only imagine the difficulty she had getting around the city, meeting up with family, keeping her four young children with her, and fretting over her missing husband.

This is the way my Grandma tells it. A couple of days after the earthquake and fire, Jack Burke was found dead. He had been robbed--all his rings and money stolen. According to my Grandma, he was buried in a pauper's grave.

I did not find Jack Bourne's name in the Book of the Dead or any other list. However, I did find his family listed on the San Francisco Orphans List. It gives Jack's death date as 27 April 1906. As the earthquake occurred on the 18th of April, it looks like it was nine days before Jack's body was discovered.

Can you imagine what his wife and children went through during that time? And, then to find out he was dead. How they carried on, I do not know.

A Mother Must Leave Her Child to the Aid of Others

Burke family orphans
Burke family orphans | Source

I wasn't really sure if my Grandma's story about her Uncle, Jack Burke, dying in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was true until I came across this document. This sheet is from the Record of Orphans on State Aid, City & County of San Francisco: Book 1 . It names three of the youngest Burke children (Genevieve, Claire, and Virginia) who received aid from the state after the disaster.

I find it interesting that they were in the care of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I don't know much about what was going on at this time. My guess is that their mother, Gertrude (Jones) Burke, did not have the means to take care of them. She had no money and no home. Once she got back on her feet, she went back for her children.

The Death Count was Kept Deliberately Low

City leaders feared two things: That people would avoid the city if they thought it devastated and that a large death tally would hinder rebuilding. The official death count was kept low on purpose to make things seem better than they were. Officially, it was 700, while today the number is viewed as closer to 3,000.

From my personal collection, photo of an era baby carriage.
From my personal collection, photo of an era baby carriage. | Source

Baby Buggies and Boxers

William Bourne married my Great Great Aunt, Alice Jones. He was a boxer at the turn of the century. I found several newspaper articles about his bouts, his wins and his loses.

The Bourne's escaped their home on Twenty First Street and fled to safety. They came upon a shop owner who had several baby buggies for sale. William Bourne wanted to buy one as his wife was carrying their 6 week old son.

The man was selling the buggies for $50 a piece--trying to capitalize on people's time of need. William argued with the man for a minute or two. Then out of frustration, he punched him in the face. The man was knocked unconscious.

He pushed a baby buggy over to his wife and she laid their infant within. Then he began pushing baby buggies down the hill so that families could grab them. William stuffed several dollars in the man's pocket and then they left.

Taking Advantage of the Disaster

The man in the middle of the top photograph is my relative, Joseph McSwegan.
The man in the middle of the top photograph is my relative, Joseph McSwegan. | Source

There are always those who will take advantage of others misfortune. This is not a modern invention. I came across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, 30 August 1906. I was surprised to find that the police were looking for my Great Grandmother's cousin, Joseph McSwegan (mislabeled as "Joseph McGuegan" in the newspaper photograph).

Joseph was part of a gang who was terrorizing the victims of the earthquake and fire. They looted buildings and robbed people. The gang was made up of Joseph McSwegan, Samuel Dunphy, John Dunnigan, and Clarence Green. Clarence "Charles" Green was described as a mere boy, well educated, refined--an unlikely suspect

Their luck ran out when two of the men were caught looting. They were attempting to steal lead pipe from telephone reels at Seventh and Townsend. Office Cook arrested them, but as he was bringing them in, the other two appeared. A scuffle ensued and Cook was shot. The men escaped, but Green captured soon after. Though no gun was found, 25 cartridges matching the bullets fired at Cook were found in Green's pocket upon arrest. Under interrogation, he gave up enough information that lead to the arrests of Dunphy, Dunnigan, and McSwegan. Although the ammunition was in Green's pocket, Cook identified Dunnigan as the shooter.

I haven't been able to find a follow up article as yet on whether Cook survived. Nor have I learned if the case went to trial and what the verdict was. In an article dated 1 September 1906, the police seemed uncertain whether they could hold Dunphy, and Cook. Despite Cook's identification of the shooter, they were also unsure they would have enough evidence to convict Dunnigan. Besides Cook's testimony, they only had one clue--a hat that was left at the scene had been purchased that day at a local shop. The shop keeper remembered the sale, but couldn't identify the man who purchased it.

This is Margaret (Jones) Jackson and these are her stories from the San Francisco earthquake.
This is Margaret (Jones) Jackson and these are her stories from the San Francisco earthquake. | Source

Those Resilient Jones Women

I like to reflect on how life must have been for my relatives in the days and weeks following the San Francisco earthquake and fire.

There was my Great Grandmother, Margaret (Jones) Jackson. She had been married for just two year and she had just delivered her first child a month before the earthquake struck.

Her oldest sister, Josephine (Jones) Pohley, had at least three children. They ranged from 6 years old to 12.

Her sister-in-law, Matilda (McCoullough) Jones, had two sons to take care of. The youngest was 5 months old.

Her sister, Gertrude (Jones) Burke, was 7 months pregnant. Her husband died during the earthquake and fire and left her with four young children to care for. She had to give up her three youngest for 4 years until she could get back on her feet.

Her youngest sister, Alice (Jones) Bourne, was recently married. She had given birth to her first child six weeks before the disaster. Alice's home was the only one to survive when it was all said and done.

The weeks following were horrendous. My Great Grandmother and her family were living in the refugee camp at Golden Gate Park. She told my Grandmother of the poor conditions living in tents with little food. They used newspapers for toilet paper. I believe much of her family was there as well. Imagine that they endured all of this while one was pregnant and three had recently given birth! Can you imagine trying to care of a month old baby in these awful conditions? To their credit, all of those babies made it through the disaster and well into adulthood.

By 1908, the Jones women and their families were getting their lives back together. The Bourne's went back to their house on Twenty First Street. My Grandma said that all of the family lived together for awhile, so it must have been at the Bourne's house. By 1908, the family began to move out on their own.

My Great Grandparents stayed in San Francisco until 1911. That year, Harry found a job with Key Systems working on the ferry boats that went between San Francisco and Oakland. They moved across the bay to Oakland with their three children and Margaret's Father, Thomas Augustine Jones.

The Jones women must have been resilient. They survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire and all the other things that life threw at them. At a time when a lot of women didn't make it beyond their child bearing years, the Jones women outlived them all! Josephine died in 1962 at the age of 92, Margaret died in 1965 at the age of 84, Gertrude died in 1967 at the age of 85, and Alice died in 1979 at the age of 93.

They are a testament to the inner strength that people carry within them. It gets they through disasters and the many bumps in life's road.

What Were Those Three Days Like?

Earthquakes can cause devastation. Though, through modern architecture, retrofitting, and emergency preparedness we've gotten better at dealing with them. But, in 1906, not only were the buildings not retrofit, the city was completely unprepared for the fire that would engulf it.

I am so lucky to have the handful of stories and records that show that my ancestors survived the quake. Others are not so lucky. Personal accounts of others can give us insights into what it was like for our own relatives who had to live through those horrible events. For some it took years to get back on their feet.

Valuable Documents were Lost

Did you know that some people lost their valuables when they opened safes too soon? The fresh air caused the contents to burst into flames.

Research and Recollections of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Every year, the remembrances start on April 17th. Survivors, community leaders, and those who want to be a part of the history join together. On this day, a fire hydrant is painted. It was the one fire hydrant that worked that day and it saved a section of the city from devastation.

On April 18th, people will get up at the crack of dawn to gather at Lotta's Fountain at the moment the earthquake struck. This is where many survivor gathered in hopes of finding loved ones.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire disrupted the lives of many of my relatives living in San Francisco on that fateful day.

Only two people survive from the tragedy. Ruth Newman was born in 1902 and William Del Monte was born in 1906. This makes the preservation and sharing of my family's stories even more important. Pretty soon, there will be no survivors to tell the tales.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my relatives and their experiences during the San Francisco earthquake and fire.

© 2011 Melody Lassalle


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