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- The Spirit of 1906 - 2/6 -
I had already made up my mind that possibly the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company and Colonel C. Mason Kinne would allow me to store within their vaults whatever salvage I had taken from my desk. My trust in their courtesy was justified. I was made welcome and the Colonel, in the name of the company, placed anything and everything that it had in the shape of assistance at my disposal.
As we stood talking on the corner of California and Leidesdorff streets, a friend still living in San Francisco who had an office in the Liverpool and London and Globe Building suggested to me that I had better take an option on some of that company's vacant rooms. I spoke to Colonel Kinne, a verbal agreement to that effect was made, and I turned and smilingly remarked, little knowing what the future had in store, that the California Insurance Company would resume business in the Liverpool and London and Globe Building "tomorrow morning."
I then stood and watched the firemen lower a suction pipe through a manhole in the middle of the street and pump sewerage on to the old Wells Fargo Building. It had about as much effect as a garden hose and the supply was soon exhausted. The firemen stood perfectly helpless, like soldiers without ammunition, in front of the enemy. The fire had now about everything east of Sansome street and in the absence of water it was only a question of one or two days at most when the entire city would be in ashes. This was not alone my impression but the same ghastly prospect impressed itself upon all those who were gathered in the vicinity.
The minutes had ticked off until it was now about 8 a. m., when another violent shock occurred - a sort of postscript to the original 5:15 trembler. It was of short duration but while it lasted it was decidedly impressive. The crowd scattered and I with them, for we suddenly realized that another wall might fall with a crash and that we might be caught. This is the only reason I can assign for our agility in getting away, unless it might be that we simply followed the first and natural impulse of our overwrought nerves.
The Dominant Thought
As the various impressions and shocks succeeded one another, there always came in the interim the dominant thought of the California Insurance Company. This thought again became uppermost and I concluded to at once get in touch with the president. I proceeded by devious ways over bricks, past wreck and ruin, through the stunned and gaping crowds, until I reached the St. Francis Hotel where he resided, and finally found him in the lobby, which was packed by an excited throng of humanity. If ever the St. Francis needed the S. O. S. sign, it was the morning of this day. Everybody in the hotel must have been, with others, in the lobby.
The president was in his usual hopeful and optimistic frame of mind. He had no fear whatever but that the fire would be shortly under control. How this was to be brought about, he could not tell, but he was perfectly satisfied that it would be done. I looked at the man in wonder and admiration. Such colossal optimism was superb. To expect from fate what appeared to me to be the impossible was indicative of a hope sublime. I envied such a nature. It was not only a great asset but was also a great solace in the face of an unprecedented disaster. But he had not been where I had been nor had he seen what I had seen.
Then my thoughts turned toward home and my depression increased almost to despair as I walked past the wreck and ruin and through the crowds who themselves were fleeing in indescribable habiliments and with all sorts of futile treasures grasped in their hands.
No water! Little, if any, police protection! In fact, nothing, apparently, except Divinity itself, to prevent the conflagration from finally burning to the ocean. A most sublime tragedy! It meant the impoverishment and lack of homes to thousands; it meant the sweeping away of accumulations of years of endeavor; it might mean starvation; it meant beginning again to climb the uphill trail to success; and last, but worst, it meant the tremendous death toll either from immediate causes or from after effects. Even today, years after the conflagration, many men and women live in San Francisco in a greater or less degree of ill health, the seeds of which were planted by the terror and mental strain which they endured on the morning of that day.
Progress of the Fire
The day passed. Neither I nor any other can remember all the details which marked the hours of suspense. It is to be presumed that others like myself found various, and what then appeared to them to be tremendous, things to claim their attention and then - the second day!
The fire had now reached Van Ness avenue and again came the messengers on horseback who shouted in passing that everyone must move. My home was on Vallejo street about five blocks beyond Van Ness and it was generally believed that inasmuch as that street was one hundred and twenty feet wide that it would form a fire break which could not be crossed. Backfiring had already been started to meet the oncoming conflagration, but everything, including the elements, seemed to favor destruction and, as time passed, the worry and fear increased. Owing to inability to combat the fire, through the lack of water, doubt began to creep in as to whether the width of Van Ness avenue and the puny attempts at fire fighting would check the march of the flames.
About this time the question dawned upon myself and neighbors as to what we should do with the more precious of our personal belongings. Mr. Joseph Weisbein, a friendly neighbor, since dead, and myself evolved a scheme to bury our belongings in the garden at the rear of my house. We assembled four trunks, packed these with silverware and wearing apparel, and some of the hardest physical work I have ever done was in burying these trunks, digging the hole with a worn out shovel and a broken spade. Then, with the help of our Chinese cook, I brought out of the cellar a baby's buggy which had lain forgotten and unused for several years. We loaded it with bedding and other things and trundled it down the hill to Lobos Park near the bay shore. Trip after trip we made before we decided that we had all that was necessary or, rather, absolutely needful for a camp existence. The next question was shelter. After prowling around the partially quake-wrecked gas works, I found some pieces of timber out of which I constructed a sort of framework for a large A tent. I borrowed a hatchet from another refugee, a stranger in adversity. The disaster had broken down the barriers of formality and we all lent a willing hand each to the other. I secured some spare rope and got up my framework. This was covered to windward with some Indian blankets sewn together by those we were trying to make comfortable. Under that hastily erected rude shelter nineteen people slept on mattresses that night. I did not have the good fortune to sleep. Sleep would not come to "knit up the ravelled sleeve of care," and through the long hours I watched the intermittent flashes, heard the noises and in the darkness went through the added suffering of overstrained nerves.
A neighbor, J. F. D. Curtis, since dead, but at that time and for years after the manager of the "Providence Washington Insurance Company," passed the silent watches of the night with me, each of us smoking ourselves blind and watching - talking but little, although thinking and feeling a whole lot. We were a mile from the fire, nevertheless it was so light that a newspaper could easily have been read by its glow from the time when the sun set on the ruins to the hour when it rose on the next day of horror. Curtis, turning and pointing to the flaming city, inquired in quiet tones if the California Insurance Company could pay the bill. I replied that as a stockholder in the company, I felt that I was ruined and I feared that the company would "go broke." He stated that he believed the Providence Washington would weather the storm and if the worst came to the worst with me, he would like to have me join him in the management of the company he represented. It was a ray of sunshine. It was a beacon of hope. It was like a life buoy thrown to a drowning man, and I shall never forget the encouragement that came with his offer nor the gratitude I felt, and, although subsequent events have shown that my first fears were wrong, my gratitude endures to this day.
The night passed and while we were eating a cold breakfast, principally composed of sandwiches, the man on horseback arrived again; this time, however, with the glad tidings that the fire had been stopped at Van Ness avenue and we could return to our homes. It was afterward learned that the salvaging of the section of the city beyond Van Ness avenue was due to the excellent work done by two salt water streams pumped from the bay by tugs stationed at the foot of Van Ness avenue and carried along by relays of fire engines. So intense and so furious was the fire that while one set of firemen, their heads covered with blankets, held the hose, the second stream was used to drench them, also the engine. Further proof of the fierce and terrific heat was shown in the circumstance that houses one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and thirty-five feet across the avenue had windows cracked and paint blistered. The last grand heroic stand of the fire fighters was made at the corner of Van Ness avenue and Vallejo streets.
A man was found with a wagon to cart our things back to the house and, while we did not have much worldly wealth in our clothes, we were prepared to pay liberally. Under the circumstances, when his modest charge of two dollars was met we felt that he had earned it many times and in addition, our gratitude. Arriving at the residence, we found the sidewalks and the street in front of it three inches thick with ashes and cinders. Now came the task of unearthing the trunks and with it came the thought that had this section been entirely burned how difficult it might have been to locate the place where they had been buried. Necessity for action and to be up and doing was too strong, however, to allow time for any such conjectures. There was too much going on to dwell on post-mortems. That night the streets were patrolled by marines from United States warships in the harbor, whom the government had hurried to the scene of action with all promptness possible.
No lights nor fires were permitted in houses. It was either retire at sundown or retire in the dark. Whatever water was needed had to be carried from the nearest well and even after the mains had been restored to normal efficiency this practice was continued for fear that the possibly broken sewers might contaminate or pollute the water. No fires nor cooking were permitted in any building until every chimney and flue had been passed upon by the authorities.
In order to obtain water it was necessary first to procure buckets, then carry it from an old well in Lafayette Square, some dozen blocks away. Baths were forgotten and shaving was a luxury. It entailed severe labor to secure water with which to prepare the necessities of life and to maintain a reasonable degree of personal cleanliness. In common with every other citizen our stove was placed on the curb and this was our kitchen and dining room for over six weeks. As there was no oven, baking and roasting had to be dispensed with, boiling and frying being the established fashion.
The second day after the fire, a food station was opened across the street in an old carriage house which belonged to Mr. J. L. Flood. Here
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