California Historical Society
San Francisco, California

MS 3487

Charles E. Leithead Account of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire


Oakland, Calif. May 2, 1906.

The earthquake took place at 5:17 A. M. Wednesday the 18th of April. The clocks about town stopped at 5:17. It woke me up immediately and the house rocked so that I could not stand up. The dresser started for me and then changed its course and started back for the wall. My shaving mug which was on the dresser toppled over and the brush fell on the floor as did also the alarm clock. A bottle of shaving lotion and a box of talcum powder also tipped over on the dresser. On a little center table in the room was a jardenier with a potted plant in same. This rocked for a few minutes and finally crashed on the floor and broke all to pieces. Down stairs all the brick-a-brack on the mantle fell down and broke to pieces. In Dr Leithead's rooms all the plastering on the Laguna street side was cracked and broken up. The quake lasted about 48 seconds and while in progress, the groaning and creaking and crashing was something terrible and never to be forgotten. Men, women and children ran out into the streets in their night clothes, many women shrieking and the children crying. Everyone seemed to think the world was coming to an end.

Immediately after the quake, I looked out of the window. Off in one direction arose a big cloud of dust where evidently a building had collapsed; and in other directions in half a dozen places could be seen columns of smoke from fires, rising slowly in the air. It was already light and the air perfectly still and the smoke rose straight up. I dressed and went out and around for a mile or so in a circle and viewed the effects of the quake. The sight was one never to be forgotten. Just below us, the block bounded by McAllister, Laguna and Octavia, was burning and no effort made to stop the fire, as the

firemen were elsewhere and the fire alarms were out of commission. Along Polk street where I went for eight or ten blocks there was not a store window whole, and I do not remember a single chimney standing anywhere. Stone buildings and houses were badly cracked and a lot of them in very bad shape. The St. Luke's Church on Clay & Van Ness, a large stone church, was badly wrecked, the walls on both sides caving out so you could see the inside. St Dominick's cathedral near Fillmore and Bush Sts. was also in very bad shape, and the steeples were almost bare, everything being shaken off one steeple, and the other just had the tower on, and below that everything was bare. The girls' High School near Fillmore and Geary, a three-story brick, was very badly cracked and portions of it torn off and the whole will probably have to be pulled down. The three story brick building near Fillmore and O'Farrell, occupied by the Pierce-Roudolph Storage Co, was in bad shape also. The front came off altogether and you could see the goods packed on the three floors right up to the edge. Although the entire front came out, I do not think a single article in storage dropped out.

On Valencia Street near 18th, the Valencia Hotel, a three-story building sunk down just two stories, the people in the third story crawling out to the sidewalk through the windows. The building stood on filled in ground, and they say over an underground stream. The building afterwards took fire and the top story burned down. It is thought about 80 people perished in this building. Very few buildings escaped some injury by the quake, and the sidewalks everywhere were littered with fallen copings, etc. In an alley between Geary and Sutter near Kearney, where two teams were standing facing each other about 25 feet apart, the horses were killed and the rigs smashed to

pieces by falling bricks, etc. In the commission district quite a number of rigs were smashed and horses killed.

After breakfast, which was cooked on an oil stove, I went down town and saw the terrible effect the quake had on some of the large buildings. The City Hall dome was stripped clean off and only the uprights were supporting what was left of the dome. Other buildings had great big cracks in them and were otherwise damaged.

Found the streets already patrolled by the soldiers from the Presidio.

The Rialto building appeared to be in good condition from the outside, but on going inside found it very badly shaken up. The stair casing was all caved in onto the steps, and one could jump into the offices off the steps on the way up on almost every floor. There was only a narrow passageway up the stairs over the debris. Found our offices in pretty bad shape. The plastering was all cracked and bottles off the sample racks all toppled over and a number of the doors so sprung that they could not be opened. Opened the safe and proceeded to put in everything I could lay my hands on off Mr. Merrill's and my own desk. While I was at it, another quake took place (8:30) and I tell you the building got a good jolt, and I think my heart stood still for a couple of seconds. I thought it was all off with me. Had the first quake happened about three hours later or any time during the day when the people were out and in the offices, there would have been thousands killed for every one killed now. The loss of life would have been appalling, as a lot of the sidewalks were piled up with brick and stone, and the stairways of buildings would probably have been jammed with people during the panic. When I got

down town about eight o'clock the fire was already within two blocks of the Rialto on the East, West and South and when I left the building at 8:55, after going up a second time, the ninth floor was already afire and our offices on the Seventh Floor were so hot that the windows were already crashing out. I will never forget the roar of the flames and the crashing of falling walls. Remained down town with Mr. Merrill whom I met near the Rialto when I came out, and watched the fire start from block to block. No business had been transacted or meals served since the quake, so about 12:30 Mr. Merril said, "Come along, I think I know where we can get something to eat." He took me to one of his Clubs opposite Union Square on Post street, and there we found the fires out also and nothing being served. We watched the fire from there a while and saw the Emporium block burn. A truly grand sight watching this destruction of property by the fiery demon. We then went out and Mr. Merrill tried to get a hack to go out to the warehouse to see how that was. There had been no phone service since the quake and we did not know how the warehouse caught it. One hackman said he would not go out to the warehouse for $1000.00 spot cash. Of two others we asked, one wanted $30.00 per hour and the other wanted $60.00 for the job of taking us out there. I then left Mr. Merrill and went up to the house for a little lunch and then went back towards town. By that time the fire had covered a good bit of territory and still spreading. Thursday they started in to dynamite the buildings and all that day and that night the charges set off were something terrible. I watched them blow up a number of buildings on Mc Allister street. They would set the charges in half a dozen buildings a block ahead of the fire and set the fuses. A charge would go off, the building quiver for a few seconds, a puff of smoke would come out through
the sides, and the building collapse. In that way they would get the inflammable material low where it could be handled with a small stream, the water being very scarce owing to so many of the mains being broken and in leaky condition. Dynamite and powder were scarce and so Mare Island sent over on Thursday early, a special boat with a load of guncotton and three men to do the work, and then they began to do things and whole blocks were blown up to check the fire. The fire did not seem to spread at all from the dropping of sparks, but would just jump across the streets from one block to another from the heat. While the fire was moving along, the sights witnessed were those never to be forgotten. People moving trunks and household effects in every conceivable manner. Trunks were being pulled along with pieces of rope; baby carriages and go-carts were loaded full; boys wagons; sleds, etc, and even sofas and kitchen tables with castors were used in hauling along stuff that people made an effort to save. Bundles done up in bed spreads and sheets were very much in evidence. I even saw a lady moving a trunk on a lawn mower which was turned upside down, the cutters buzzing in the air. People did not yet seem to fully realize what fearful havoc the fire was working and went about in a dazed sort of way, in many instances saving articles of little or no value. I saw one woman going about carrying a bread toaster, and saw a man carrying a birdcage out of which the bottom had dropped and the cage was empty, yet the man did not seem to realize it. You have no conception of the sights witnessed. Incidents that would have been very amusing at any other time, no one thought them funny. Hundreds and hundreds of people on the move on every street trying to
get away from the fire, and no rigs of any kind available.

Immediately Wednesday morning the town was placed under martial law and all autos and other vehicles were pressed into government service early at the start. Besides the soldiers, thousands of men were sworn in and given stars and badges as special officers.

You may form an idea of how quickly the city was placed under martial law when I say that that day about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, I went to a corner grocery at Octavia and Geary for a bottle of wine for one of the girls at the house who was a nervous wreck and could not eat a morsel, and was informed by the grocer that he could not sell it to me as the penalty was death. He said he could not even sell it to me on a prescription and that I would have to get it at a drug store. At that time this was 15 or 20 blocks from the fire. Went to Dr Leithead who gave me a prescription and then I got the wine at the drug store. All saloons and corner groceries that carried liquors were immediately closed as far as sale of liquor was concerned, and the saloons are closed at Oakland still. Liquor of any kind found on anyone was taken away and destroyed. Men with suspiciously bulging pockets were searched. One young fellow who refused to give up a bottle was shot dead. Early Thursday people were given liberty to go into stores within a block or two of the fire and take whatever they wanted in the way of groceries. No liquors were allowed to anyone and the soldiers broke bottle after bottle. A number of soldiers were on guard at every corner and at every store, and at the stores as fast as the men came out, they would be searched for booze. I have seen the soldiers in two or three instances, smash in the windows of a store where liquor was on display, and smash on the pavement bottle after

of the choicest wines and whiskey.

Wednesday night I slept in Jefferson Square which was already filled with homeless people. The girls at the house would not stay inside over night, so I agreed to keep them company in the park and we took down enough blankets to make ourselves comfortable. That night as also Thursday and Friday was so light from the conflagration that you could read a newspaper without any trouble.

Thursday afternoon I moved my trunk to the cemetery, nine blocks further out on O'Farrell Street. One of the young men staying at the house succeeded in getting a little one horse trap on which we could load three trunks at a time, and three of us managed to pull this to the cemetery. After my trunk was out there, I started helping Dr. Leithead fix up a temporary shelter of sheets and bed spreads and by night we had things quite comfortable and that night and Friday night I slept on the Doctors couch which the two of us had shouldered out there. We did not have any hope of our end of the town being saved and moved in a hurry. Dishes and furniture were left at the house and only tin plates, etc. were taken to eat from and a few pans and kettles to cook in. As it happened, however, the fire was practically stopped within a couple of blocks of the house, at Van Ness, and although it jumped Van Ness in one place for several blocks, they got it under control. The lower side of this street was practically blown up from one end to the other to stay the fire. I am enclosing you herewith a map showing just how much of the City went up in smoke. Not a building in this entire district excepting the Post Office and Mint escaped. Although a number of buildings are standing, they are gutted.

At the cemetery we built our shelter right up against a mausoleum. Others who were not as fortunate, or rather who were helpless

and did not know how to put up a little shelter, spread their beds right on the graves and on the stone slabs covering the graves. I never in my life anticipated cooking, eating and sleeping in a cemetery. I was very glad to get in with the Doctors family as they are all so nice and agreeable. I was getting pretty tired on Mrs. B. and am glad to be away. Would have changed boarding houses long ago but hated the idea of moving.

A great inconvenience was getting food for a day or two. After that everything was taken in hand by the government and you could get the necessities for the asking by standing in line and taking your turn. Of course it was not handed out to you in chunks, but by going often and having several members of the family stand in line, you could get pretty well supplied. The Doctors family and I, were fortunate on Friday morning in getting bread. A baker near the cemetery started selling bread to the people early that morning at five cents per loaf, five loaves the limit to each individual. Herbert Isham, the Doctor's nephew and I, got into line while there were only about 30 ahead of us and we each got five loaves. Inside of half an hour the line was just three blocks long and the limit was made two loaves. All that day and until late at night the line did not get any shorter. As fast as people were supplied in front others would be stepping into line at the tail end. The bakery was going full blast all the time, the government having put on several shifts to keep things moving. After the rush started the baker tried to cinch the people at 25 cents per loaf, but the soldiers put a stop to it.

At Jefferson Square where there was a Commissary established, I stepped into line and the first time I got 4 potatoes, can peas, and a piece of bread that would make four slices. The second time I got

three spuds and a package of about 3 lbs Rice. The third time I was given a package of about 2 lbs. rice, 2 eggs and a can of corned beef. The women folk were as a rule more fortunate, and Mrs. Leithead who had to wait about 3/4 of an hour for her handout, got nearly all she could carry. I did not have to wait long for the first two turns there as they had started a mens line and that being short, I got quickly but after the second trip, the line started both men and women, and then the turns were long. The doctors folks have it easy now as the Doctor is on duty and all he has to do is sign an order, and Mrs. Leithead can get the order filled without taking her turn in the line.

All the people are pretty well taken care of, there being a commissary in every district. Thousands of people in the houses that escaped destruction, were requested to remove all lace curtains and put up the roller curtains, and the following night was the first night in which people were allowed lights. Candle lights were allowed from 7 to 10 P M, and six days later (last Sunday, April 29th) lights were allowed to burn until 11 P M).

If it were not for the regulars the murder and pillage would have been something frightful, but they immediately took hold of the situation and from the first day, patrolled the whole city, and especially where the people took refuge in the parks and squares, were the soldiers very alert and anyone coming and going had to give a good account of themselves. Where we were, any one going into the cemetery, was halted by the sentry and then sent under escort to where he was going and anyone who could not "make good" was placed under arrest. Sentries were placed at very frequent intervals and during the night, every half hour could be heard from post to post "Post 1, two o'clock

and alls well". One post would repeat after the other, giving its own number and the time of night. On Friday evening just above where we were camped, we witnessed five tough looking customers commanded to throw up their hands by a number of the soldiers. They had gone into the cemetery and tried to bluff by spreading their blankets on a little incline, but they looked too tough to pass the soldiers so they were lined up and searched. One had a bottle of booze which was broken and they were asked if they had any more cached away, but they said no. One of them in answer to question as to their business there said he had two sisters there he was looking after, but when the guard said all right come along to your people, it was found he was putting up a bluff and the whole bunch were taken to the jail.

Of course martial law cannot be tampered with and in a catastrophy of this kind it is not surprising that quite a number of people were shot. Right under Dr. Leithead, in the basement, lives a Japanese family. One of the Japs lit a candle a number of times before lights were allowed and he was cautioned about it by soldiers on guard. The third evening the Jap lit a candle again and he was taken out and shot. In Jefferson Square a woman took something off the Commissary Wagon. When commanded to put it back she said she was too weak to stand in line. She was commanded a second time and on refusing, was shot. One woman by the name of Cohen or Cohn, a couple of blocks from us lit a fire in her stove, and when commanded to put it out, said she was going to have a hot cup of coffee if the balance of S F burned down. She was immediately shot. Looters and thieves of course were quite numerous and a dozen or more were shot.

As yet no one is allowed to cook inside and it is all done out on the street. Some people have taken the ranges and stoves and set

them up outside, building little wind breaks about them, while others simply built up a little pile of bricks, putting in a grate to set the pots and kettles on for cooking. It looks very odd to see everyone cooking outside where the houses are standing. All water is to be boiled before drinking to avoid disease and orders have been issued to boil milk also. Cooking will be done on the outside for probably two or three weeks longer as the inspection and repair of chimneys will be very slow.

Some of the women must have suffered a good deal the first few days. In Golden Gate Park the first night, there were a couple of children born, and on Thursday or Friday night, there were five born. In Jefferson Square there were a couple of children born one night. I spoke with one of our travelers, Mr. Craig after the fire and he said his sister was nurse in the Waldeck. On the morning of the quake they had eight deaths. Some of the patients who had been operated upon the day before, jumped right out of bed, causing the stitches to come out, and a number of them started to run out in that condition. On Thursday night when it was seen that the hospital was doomed, there remained six patients who could not be removed. These were given strong injections of morphine by the doctors and left to their fate.

The fire covered an area of four square miles, and an auto that made a circuit of the burned district, registered 26 miles. This will give you an idea of the extent of the fire.

One bad thing was the fact that communications of all kind were paralized immediately after the quake, and not until the following Saturday did mail matter start, and then it was accepted without any postage. Telegrams could be sent from Oakland, but it was almost impossible to get over there, and then almost as impossible to get a

telegram sent as thousands and thousands of telegrams were filed and as many received. It is said that 10,000 telegrams alone were received by mail from outside points, at Oakland, and they say that the Western Union at Chicago took 15,000 telegrams they could not get on the wire, so put a messenger on the train and sent him through with them. Mr. Shields received a telegram from Seattle on the 27th. that was filed there on the 18th. Mr. Brick, one of our travelers received a telegram here in the office on the 30th. in the morning from Newark, New Jersey, dated there the 18th. I tried to telegraph the first thing Wednesday morning but was informed the wires were down, and then immediately the fire got full sweep and the mails were out of commission. Another thing that added to the distress of the terror stricken people were the reports that gained circulation about other points in the United States suffering. It was reported that Portland Tacoma and Seattle were worse even than San Francisco; that Salt Lake Suffered very badly; that Los Angeles was levelled to the ground; San Jose totally destroyed, and that Chicago was swept by a big tidal wave. Until Saturday when a copy of the paper came over from the Oakland press, people did not know absolutely whether the reports regarding other cities were true or not.

Last Wednesday on the way over to Oakland, I stopped at the Post Office and took a photo of one corner of the building. At this corner the sidewalk sank about 15 inches, and the sidewalk itself which is of cement, parted in the seams running across the walk, from two to three inches. The street just in front of the building on the South side, settled down from two to five feet. This territory is all filled in ground. In the cemeteries the quake plays some strange freaks. Many

of the shafts toppled over and broke through the marble slabs covering the graves. Other monuments were not damaged at all but were turned part way around on the base. Other shafts were moved without turning toward one edge almost ready to topple over.

On Saturday when the danger of fire was past and the weather looked threatening the question was how to move our stuff back to the house. No horses were available at any price. Finally the doctor and Mr. Magill who lived up-stairs, spotted a buggy belonging to some Japs and asked for its use. One Jap said "you better wait for the boss" Mr. McGill said "To H with the boss" and took the rig. We made seven trips altogether from the cemetery, and ye Gods, what hard work it was. The blooming rig, I guess, had not seen any axle grease for months. At least on the last trip when we were going for the last load, one of the hind wheels commenced to squeak, and it was all the three of us could do to get the empty rig to the camp. There I took a piece of gas pipe about six feet long, and with that and a hammer, succeeded in getting off the two hind wheels. On taking them off we found the axles perfectly dry and were so warm that when we put on a little lard, it melted. That last trip the rig ran pretty easy.

A number of our men got burned out, and quite a number were drafted and put to work throwing bricks clearing the streets. Work was started on the streets down town even while the fire was still raging in the residence district, and any one coming along who seemed to be viewing the landscape as it were, and did not have a pass, was rounded up by the soldiers and put to work, and there was no way of getting out of it. Mr. Fitzsimmons manager of the Fuel Oil Department was driving the bread wagon for a number of days, and Harlan, Rouaine and Brown, three of our men served time clearing streets. Roses friend Mr. Weyand also served time. Mrs. B told me when she saw him,

she did not know him at first. I managed to get out of it although I had narrow escapes before I got a pass. Several times I was walking along when suddenly a little squad would duck around the corner gathering up good looking men, and then I'd take a sneak. I managed to get a pass from the Chief of Police entitling me through the lines and on Saturday, I got another from Mr. Merrill from Funston's Department, entitling me to come and go from Oakland.

I could write a lot more but think this will give you an outline of the happenings following the earthquake.

About this text
Courtesy of California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105-4014;
Title: Charles E. Leithead account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
By:  Leithead, Charles E.
Date: 1906 May 2
Contributing Institution: California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105-4014;
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