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San Francisco 1906 Earthquake

Updated on October 4, 2013

A Firsthand Account of the Aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire


oseph Heermance was one of the first volunteers to come to the aid of victims of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. With only his bicycle (simply called a "wheel" in the day) for transportation, he took the ferry from his home in Oakland to San Francisco with all the supplies he could carry.

Joseph Orville Heermance is my great uncle. At his tallest he stood no more than 5'4". When he left on the ferry that day, his young bride of only four months stood on the front porch of their Oakland home, anxious for his safety. The following information is taken from newspaper articles, personal conversations with Uncle Joe, and his personal photos and artifacts, all relating to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

Workplace and Family Across the Bay in San Francisco

Reassures Family in New York He is Well

MODESTO BEE, Sunday, April 19, 1959

Local Resident Recalls Visit To SF In 1906 On Day of Big Quake, Fire

By LaVerne Potts


Joseph G. Heermance, 1107 14th Street, displays the first San Francisco newspaper put out by the combined dailies of that city after the big earthquake and fire of 53 years ago. The newspapers joined in publishing the edition, using the press of the Oakland Tribune.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18 and 19, 1906, horrible as it was, was nothing compared to some of the record quakes which have rocked the world. But to retired Modesto jeweler Joseph G. Heermance who witnessed the San Francisco holocaust, it was bad enough to cause him to write relatives in Albany, NY, he "trust that I may never be forced to write you on such a subject again".

Heermance, now 77, while looking through his belongings recently came across his faded copies of newspapers, clippings and other mementoes of that historical event. The 1906 quake and fire killed 452 (now estimated at 3,000 to 6,000) persons and did $350,000,000 damage.

One of Heermance's keepsakes is the April 19, 1906 edition of the combined The Call - Chronicle - Examiner newspaper put out on the press of the Oakland Tribune after the plants of the San Francisco newspapers were destroyed.

Story In Headlines

The headlines tell the story: Earthquake And Fire; San Francisco In Ruins--No Hope Left For Safety Of Any Buildings--Blow Buildings Up To Check Flames--Whole City Is Ablaze--Church Of Saint Ignatius Is Destroyed--Mayor Confers With Military And Citizens--At Least 500 Are Dead--Newspaper Row Is Gutted--Entire City of San Francisco In Danger Of Being Annihilated--Big Business Buildings Already Consumed By Fire And Dynamite--300 Smaller Structures Swept Out And Remainder Are Doomed--Panic Stricken People Flee--750 Are Treated--Dead In Street--Big Fire In Mission--Residences Burning--Ruins 20 Companies--Emporium In Ruins--Without A Newspaper--Heartbreaking Scenes At The Pavilion--Martial Law Is Declared--San Jose Is Ruined--Refugees Go To Oakland--Santa Rosa Is A Total Wreck, etc., etc.

The Morning After the San Francisco 1906 Earthquake

Leaving work one evening and finding everything in ruins the next morning.


eermance, who at the time of the earthquake lived in Oakland and worked in San Francisco, went into San Francisco the morning immediately after the tremblor. In a letter to relatives in New York, he explained:

"As we left the Oakland Mole we could see that there were several fires in 'Frisco, but never dreamed that it was as bad as it proved to be.

"Arriving at the Ferry Building I looked up Market Street, which seemed to be all ablaze, so I went along the waterfront to Folsom Street, but there was fire everywhere. After some difficulty I worked myself to Bryant Street, where the Schmidt Lithographing Company was situated. (The company where he worked). The building was intact, not even the cement floor cracked or a window broken, but the structure has since been consumed by fire.

"I then walked to the corner of 2nd and Howard Streets and found all the buildings in that vicinity afire. On every hand wagons were carrying away goods and the greatest excitement prevailed. Things looked so bad that I knew my wife would hear the news and become worried, so I determined to return to Oakland. I worked my way down Mission Street to the Ferry Building, climbing over the dead bodies of steers and horses. I caught the 8:30 boat and arrived home at 9:15. I slept for awhile and then determined to go back to San Francisco and look up some friends.

"I started with my wheel (bicycle) at 4 o'clock, but found every avenue cut off, as martial law had been declared and no one was allowed to enter the city. I finally found a conductor who permitted me to ride to the Mole and I arrived in 'Frisco at 5:30. Everything on the waterfront was gone and the entire section I had gone through in the morning was in ruins. I walked along, pushing my wheel down Broadway. I passed many burning buildings and at times the heat became intense. I had to cover about five miles this way, often going around a block, and at times the guards refused to let me by.

"I finally got to the corner of Market and Church Streets and found that father and mother were safe. I then started back and found that in some places the fire had spread two and three blocks. The parks and streets presented a sickening sight. People were running about dragging their trunks with them and carrying bundles. The few things they saved from the fire is all they have left. The man of wealth walked along with the working man, carrying his pack on his back, both being in the same class.

"It is impossible to describe the sight and condition of things here. You cannot imagine leaving a city as I did on Tuesday night and finding it on fire Wednesday morning and in ruins Wednesday evening. Thousands are out of employment and people are coming to Oakland as fast as boat and train can carry them. Provisions are running low, but already supplies from outside cities are arriving. I must stop now, but trust that I may never be forced to write you on such a subject again."

There One Minute, Gone the Next

"Everything on the waterfront was gone and the entire section I had gone through in the morning was in ruins.. ."

"The man of wealth walked along with the working man, carrying his pack on his back, both being in the same class."

Returning Once Again to Bring Supplies and Relief

People Hadn't Seen Bread for Two Days

A Day's Relief Work

The Experience of a Single Trip to San Francisco and Return

On Saturday morning, April 21, I got up quite early and reported to the Oakland relief committee at the Chamber of Commerce to take up the day's work to relieve, if possible, the suffering of as many unfortunates as I could.

I left Oakland on the 8:30 boat for San Francisco with about 150 pounds of provisions on my wheel (bicycle). Arriving at the Ferry building I boarded a wagon bound for the Market Street cut to remove a load of furniture to Oakland. We proceeded along East Street intent on going up Howard Street, but when we got to Howard Street the federal authorities confiscated the wagon, for the steamer Roanoke had arrived with provisions which must be distributed among the sufferers, so I was forced to walk and push the wheel with its heavy burden.

I was bound for Seventeenth and Douglass Streets, which is beyond Castro. I went out Howard Street as far as Tenth. The only reason for knowing the corner was the remains of the old cable house of the Howard Street line. I went over Tenth till I got to Market; here the buildings of the Studebaker Wagon Company on one side and the Varney & Green Company on the other had fallen, making a pile of debris about four feet high, which was impassable with the load I had, so I was forced to unload and carry the wheel across, then go back and carry the three sacks of provisions, load up again and proceed. I now had a clear street ahead and arrived at Seventeenth and Castro at 11 a.m., after two hours of hard work climbing over broken wires and fallen walls.

On arriving at the top of the hill I found people who actually hadn't seen bread for two days, having in some cases been eating flour and water cooked in a frying pan. I distributed what I had, which consisted of twelve loaves of bread, some beans, rice, canned beef and butter.

Then I started back, but decided to proceed directly down Market Street. I passed hundreds of people who had homes still standing, but were cooking on stoves in the middle of the street, and in many cases a brick camp stove and also five-gallon oil cans were used.

Earthquake Brings Martial Law Immediately to San Francisco

Threatened by the Very People He was Trying to Serve

At Montgomery and Post Streets I met the first guard who wanted me. He thrust a gun in my face and told me to halt. I was very prompt to obey, for I know what martial law is.

"Pile those bricks," came the command.

"But I have a pass, talk to me, will you?" came the quick response. I produced my pass and was promptly told it wasn't worth the paper it was written on, to which I remarked:

"You are certainly a man of fine judgment. Now, let's be reasonable. My pass is for relief work and I am carrying medical supplies and am sure you need medicine worse than you need those bricks piled, but if you prefer bricks to medicine I am at your service."

I was immediately allowed to pass, but hadn't gone half a block when I was commanded to halt again and go through the same performance again, and it was the same about every half block until I reached the ferry.

It was my last day's work, for I was about worn out from the strain and loss of sleep, but I did it gladly, for I had plenty and was willing to share with those who were more unfortunate. I was glad to get back to Oakland, and arriving at home I promptly proceeded to pack to leave, for it was 3 p.m. and I had about two hours and a half to catch a train and get away where I could not see the suffering and could get a much-needed rest. --J.H.

Bricks or Medicine?

"Now, let's be reasonable. My pass is for relief work and I am carrying medical supplies and am sure you need medicine worse than you need those bricks piled, but if you prefer bricks to medicine I am at your service."

Joseph Garfield Heermance, Small in Stature, Giant Man

Proud to Be in My Family Tree


oseph Garfield Heermance (1881 - 1972) is my great uncle (my mother's uncle). Uncle Joe had many interesting stories to tell. At about 5'4", I can't imagine him standing up to an officer with a gun in his face or struggling a bike loaded with over 100 pounds of relief supplies over the ruins of the San Francisco Earthquake.

Look up stories of your ancestors. They're just waiting to tell them to you.

Thanks for stopping by, and please look at my other genealogy lenses.

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      What a courageous man. Not only did he provide relief for other people, but he stood up against the people who were supposed to serve and protect in order to do so.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      7 years ago from So Cal

      I have been writing local San Francisco neighborhood guides for Helium for the last month or so and have a lens on the trip that we are planning to see all the places. This is great information and I am adding it as a featured lens. Angel blessed.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      This is an amazing piece of family history and U.S. history as well. Did you see the other Squidoo lens with family memories of the same disaster? Blessed by a squid angel and will be featured on You've Been Blessed lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating story! And so personal - great lens.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      7 years ago from So Cal

      This is great and I really enjoyed it. Angel blessed.

    • delia-delia profile image


      8 years ago

      great story and lens! lived in San Francisco for 15 years and was in the 1956 earthquake, it traumatized me so that we moved across the bay, my sister was in the last big earthquake there, around 1989(?). I just found a huge old book on the 1906 earthquake it has great photos...a ~"Squid Angel Blessing"~

    • amandascloset0 profile image


      9 years ago

      Very nice lens! I love history and this was so insightful and well written. Thank you for taking the share this piece of history with us. 5 stars!

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      A terrifying experience! I became a little nervous even reading as I almost have a panic attack when we experience a slight tremor where I live, I'm sure my fear is to do with learning about the awful event in San Francisco in 1906.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      interesting story. Thanks for a well put together lens on this.

    • bgamall lm profile image

      bgamall lm 

      10 years ago

      Enjoyed this story of your great uncle. Very insightful to the problem of the quiake. My hometown, Coalinga, Ca had the downtown destroyed by earthquake in 1983 and the buildings that were destroyed had decorations knocked off in the 1906 earthquake, which was 200 miles away!

    • Sniff It Out profile image

      Sniff It Out 

      10 years ago

      Very interesting story.

      I was drawn to this lens because of my family history... A William Burnip was killed in the earthquake, he was the train driver in the crash that killed the elephant Jumbo, I am trying to find out if there is a connection to my Burnips. Anyway, I mat renew my efforts now :) 5*****

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      very compelling story.



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