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- The Spirit of 1906 - 1/6 -


Geo. W. Brooks, Secretary and Treasurer, Founder of the Company as reorganized in the year 1905

The Spirit of 1906

By George W. Brooks Founder of the California Insurance Company (as reorganized in the year 1905) and who has continuously occupied the position of Secretary and Managing Underwriter with the Corporation since that date.

Published by the California Insurance Company of San Francisco 1921

Copyright 1921 By Geo. W. Brooks

Dedicated to the Directors and Shareholders of the California Insurance Company in 1906 who so nobly, at their own financial cost, did their "Big Bit."

"On fame's eternall beadroll worthie to be fyled." - Spenser

Foreword

Whatever of effort has been given in the pleasant pastime of writing these rambling and sketchy pages of reminiscences is dedicated to those who in the hours of trial and tribulation felt with Sir Philip Sidney, "Honor is the idol of man's mind" and determined to do that which honor demanded knowing that if they lost their honor they lost their all.

Reading between these lines, it is hoped there will be found some intimation, some outline, of the character of the men who composed the directors and stockholders of the California Insurance Company, who acted well their part, who fought the good fight and held the faith, whose stern sense of duty and heroic courage led them to lay upon the altar of their idealism the financial sacrifices which they made.

Theirs is the honor achieved. They neither faltered nor hesitated in upholding and protecting their own individual good name, the fair name of the Company nor the integrity of the financial institutions of California, and they, like Bacon "May leave their name and memory to man's charitable speeches, to the next age and foreign nations."

The Spirit of 1906

The California Insurance Company having played one of the leading parts in the reconstruction of San Francisco following the disaster of 1906 and there being no record of its activities, I have, after insistent and repeated requests from directors, stockholders and others, finally yielded to their importunities to preserve for reference my impressions and memories of that most important crisis ever known to fire insurance.

From the time when Nero played the violin accompaniment to the burning of Rome, down, through the ages, to 5:15 a. m., April 18, 1906, and up to the present date, the San Francisco disaster is the most prominent recorded in history. It was the greatest spectacular drama ever staged and produced the biggest heap of the "damn'dest, finest ruins" the world has ever seen.

In transferring the records from the tablets of my memory to the printed page, I am dealing with accurate historical facts of the California Insurance Company together with my own impressions. The facts and figures regarding the Company are incontrovertible. My own impressions are but those which were felt by thousands of other San Franciscans in a greater or lesser or more varying degree. These may be taken as merely the local color, the object being to set forth for enduring vision, the splendid performances of honorably disposed fire insurance companies amongst which none discharged to policyholders the liabilities under their contracts with any greater sense of equity, honor and liberality than did the California Insurance Company.

The Morning of April 18th

In common with the other half million citizens of San Francisco on that fateful morning, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a continuous and violent shaking and oscillation of my bed. I was bewildered, dazed, and only awakened fully when my wife suddenly screamed, "Earthquake!" It was a whopper, bringing with it a ghastly sensation of utter and absolute helplessness and an involuntary prayer that the vibrations might cease. Short as was the period of the earth's rocking, it seemed interminable, and the fear that the end would never come dominated the prayer and brought home with tremendous import the realization of our insignificance, of what mere atoms we become when turned on the wheel of destiny in the midst of such abnormal phenomena of nature's forces.

It was 5:15, broad daylight, and as I glanced at my watch those figures were indelibly fixed in my memory for the rest of my existence. The terror and horror which suddenly sprang like a beast of prey out of the gray dawn and grasped our heart strings, came unheralded from a day that otherwise promised all that should make life worth living. The night had been particularly warm and inviting. So vivid was this impression of the glory of the morning that I was possessed by a feeling of irony that such a beginning should herald the inception of so bitter a calamity. Fascinated, I stood gazing at a weathervane on the top of a house across the street. It swayed to and fro like the light branch of a tree in a heavy gale. I was jarred out of my inanition by a terrific shock. The house lurched and trembled and I felt that now was the end. It was afterward discovered that this crash and jar was caused by the falling of a heavy outside chimney, attached to the adjoining house. It had broken and struck our dwelling at about the first floor level and torn away about twenty feet of the sheathing, some of the studding and left a big hole through which the dust and sound poured in volumes, adding to the already almost unbearable confusion.

The first natural impulse of a human being in an earthquake is to get out into the open, and as I and those who were with me were at that particular moment decidedly human in both mold and temperament, we dressed hastily and joined the group of excited neighbors gathered on the street. Pale faced, nervous and excited, we chattered like daws until the next happening intervened, which was the approach of a man on horseback who shouted as he "Revere-d" past us the startling news that numerous fires had started in various parts of the city, that the Spring Valley Water Company's feed main had been broken by the quake, that there was no water and that the city was doomed.

This was the spur I needed. Fires and no water! It was a call to duty. The urge to get downtown and to the office of the "California" enveloped me to such an extent that my terror left me. Activity dominated all other sensations and I started for the office. As all street car lines and methods of transportation had ceased to operate it meant a hike of about two miles.

My course was down Vallejo street to Van Ness avenue, thence over Pacific street to Montgomery. When I reached the top of the hill at Pacific street where it descends to the business section, a vision of tremendous destruction, like a painted picture, opened before my eyes. I saw fires on the water front, fires in the commercial district and also portentous columns of smoke hovering over the southern part of the city. Then like a blow in the face came the realization that all fire fighting facilities were nil owing to the lack of water. One short hour previous, San Francisco was sleeping peacefully in its prosperity, and now the sight was appalling. Devastation, far as the eye could see, was spelling death and destruction.

My route was down Clay street from Montgomery to Sacramento. In that one block I counted twenty-one dead horses, killed by falling walls. They had belonged to the corps of men who bring in to the market with the dawn the city's supplies. When I reached the corner of California and Sansome streets (the California office being one block away on California and Battery) I found a rope stretched across from the Mutual Life Insurance Company Building to the site where the Alaska Commercial Company building now stands. All beyond was policed. A soldier of the regular army was on guard and no one was permitted to pass. Arguments and beseechments to get to the office were of no avail. The necessity and the emergency, however, stimulated my determination and aroused my ingenuity. Suddenly, I ducked under the rope and ran a Marathon which was not only a surprise to myself but also to the officers and the crowd who yelled after me. I am sure that in this one block my speed record for a flat run still stands unequaled.

I reached the office and there found every intimation of a hasty departure on the part of the janitor. The front door of the building stood wide open. I rushed in, threw open my desk and hastily gathered an armful of what I deemed were the more important books and papers. Glancing around to see if there was any way of saving anything else I again received a jolt by noticing that the fire was coming down a light shaft from an adjoining building and through an open window into the rear office of the "California's" office. In fact, furniture was already burning in the president's room. This was no place for me. The only avenue of escape was the way I had come, since so rapid was the spread of the conflagration that north, south and east were already in flames.

Upon reaching California street I rushed and headed west, and the instant I had passed, the entire four-story outer wall of the building located on the southwest corner of California and Battery streets (then known as the "Insurance Building"), fell with a roar, completely blocking the street over which I had just made my escape. Realizing that my safety was measured by a matter of seconds, I was for a moment unnerved. My legs trembled, my heart pounded and my breath came quickly, and only by a great exertion of will induced by the thought that it was time to do and not to hesitate, I made the effort and arrived safely at the rope from which I had started. I shook as if with the ague. Sweat and grime poured from me, but the shout that went up from the watching crowd and the many friendly hands that sought mine, gave me my second wind.


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