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- The Spirit of 1906 - 3/6 -
lines would form to receive rations, the millionaire rubbing shoulders with the laborer. The panhandler got as much as the plutocrat. The disaster leveled all classes. A million dollars in one's pocket would have been of little use. Nothing could be bought with it and it could not serve as either food or drink.
Getting Back to Work
Betweenwhiles, as one crisis after another came and went, I was still constant to the idea and still felt my responsibility to the California, and from time to time as circumstances permitted, was strenuously endeavoring to reach the directors and stockholders. The president, in spite of his optimism, had fled from the Hotel St. Francis and gone to the home of his mother on Clay and Larkin streets. For the same reason he left there and went to the yards of the Fulton Iron Works where his yacht "Lady Ada" was laid up, got her off the ways and tacked over to Tiburon where he remained for some time. Finally word was received from him that the directors of the company would hold a meeting at the Blake and Moffitt Building on the corner of Eighth and Broadway, Oakland, on May 2, 1906. Who really located them, scattered as they were, and finally got them together, has remained an unexplained mystery. It must have been either the president or Chief Clerk Shallenberger. The late Mr. James Moffitt, a stockholder in the company and the owner of the building named, kindly secured for us two rooms in that building for an office. They were on the third floor facing Broadway and the location and the habitat of the company was disclosed by a canvas sign which, banner-like, hung upon the outer wall proclaiming this to be the office of the California Insurance Company. For furniture, there was a flat top desk and a typewriter (both secondhand) and the balance of the equipment was handmade, of ordinary lumber, by a local carpenter. There was not very much cash among those thus assembled, but, fortunately, the company had maintained a deposit in an Oakland bank and this was immediately available for checking purposes.
First Meeting of the Board of Directors
Quietly and almost silently the directors gathered. The only emotion apparent was that of the usual caution shown by men of large affairs who meet to face a crisis. The president called the meeting to order and stated that the object of the gathering was to inform the directors that the company was heavily involved in the conflagration which visited San Francisco on April 18, 19 and 20, 1906, that the amount of which obligations was at present unknown, that they overshadowed the resources of the company and that ways and means would have to be devised to finance the California through this crisis.
The fire maps of the company were entirely destroyed and it was not advisable to open the safe in which the records of the company were kept until it was sufficiently cool to prevent danger of combustion. In light of these facts, it was impossible to immediately ascertain the actual amount of the company's obligations.
In response to an inquiry as to the probable extent of our liabilities, I, as secretary of the company, ventured the statement that I believed they would reach a total of $1,500,000 net, explaining that I based this estimate upon the company's income and the average rate. I also knew that the larger part of the entire liabilities in San Francisco were in the burned area and that if the safe did not afford protection it would mean the loss of the company's records, leaving it without means of ascertaining the amount of the loss until claims were filed. This would cause a delay of several months before the exact total could be developed. I explained that the policy contract allowed sixty days for filing claims and expressed the thought that this limit would undoubtedly be extended by legislative action in view of the magnitude of the disaster.
In the meantime, in the April 27 edition of the Examiner, on the first page, extending over its entire width, had appeared the following statement:
"The California Insurance Company Will Pay in Full."
This was discussed and the meeting began to assume a more lively interest and the members to more actively participate. Director W. E. Dean offered a resolution that has passed into history as being, possibly, the most noticeable ever adopted by the directors of a fire insurance company. It is a question whether a motion under like conditions had ever before been put or carried or ever will be in the future. This motion was seconded by Director Mark L. Gerstle. It was as follows:
That the action of the president of this corporation in publicly announcing that the California Insurance Company would pay all its losses in full as ascertained and adjusted, be, and the same is hereby confirmed and ratified, provided that each of the directors of the corporation affixes his signature to the matters of this meeting. Unless such ratification be unanimous and evidenced by the signature of each director to the matters of this meeting, the above action of the board be null and void.
The signature of each and every director was subsequently affixed to this resolution and it then remained a matter of detail to find how funds were to be procured to make this resolution possible of fulfillment and something more than a mere matter of words.
In the absence of any specific or definite information as to the amount of the company's indebtedness this action of the directors was a most magnificent exemplification of nerve and integrity and a superb testimony reinforcing the axiom that a California man's word is as good as his bond.
The board might have instructed its secretary to make the best compromise settlements possible and have wound up the affairs of the corporation. The public mind was in a receptive mood to accept such compromise settlements and such action would have resulted in extreme financial advantage to the stockholders at the time when the resolution was passed. No one at that time believed that the California would discharge its obligations on a parity with the largest and strongest insurance companies in the world. Indeed the public announcement that the company would pay in full was regarded as ridiculous and unbelievable and was generally considered in the light of an extremely sagacious bluff.
The directors of the company were not bluffers; they were made of different stuff. They did not hesitate. They were in deadly earnest and absolutely meant to live up to their spoken word and the world knows how they redeemed their promises.
My original estimate of $1,500,000 fell far short of the final net payment which amounted to $1,840,000, but long before this had developed the stockholders were too deeply involved to think of turning back even had they desired to do so. Staunchly and loyally they stayed and paid to the end, building a monument to their good name that turned the sneers of welshing competitors into envy and admiration.
Second Meeting of the Board of Directors
In the advance of the company, the next historical date of importance was May 11, 1906, when the succeeding meeting of the Board of Directors was held at the home of Director Mark L. Gerstle, 2350 Washington street, San Francisco. Again, I was called upon to bring bad news. I was compelled to inform the Board of Directors that all the records of the company had been destroyed as the safe which contained them had been smashed by falling walls and the contents absolutely obliterated. The only thing recovered was some rolls of silver coins melted together by the intense heat. I also reported that three hundred and fifty claims had been filed for an amount totaling over $650,000.
The loss of the records was a very serious matter and complicated proceedings to a degree apparently almost insurmountable. Lost in the destruction of the safe were some $900,000 in re-insurance policies. This meant restoration of this data from the records of the re-insuring companies and at that time this looked like a superhuman undertaking. However, I immediately detailed two employes with instructions to devote their entire time to this angle of affairs. The companies met the situation with every courtesy and finally after several months' exertion all of the reinsurance was located, with the exception of about $18,000.
I do not like to harbor the thought, but nevertheless I feel that some company or companies, possibly still doing business, know that they owe the California some part of this re-insurance, which goes to show that in the insurance business, as in other enterprises, there are those who cannot bear the light of day.
About twelve months after the "Big Fire" I remember having received a re-insurance claim from a company whose home office is in New York. As this particular company was one of the very few that declined to respond to the request to assist us in restoring the lost data, I thought it the better part of wisdom to ask it to furnish the information previously requested, holding up their claim in the meantime while awaiting their reply. It never came, and their claim against the California still remains unpaid. The conclusion is too glaring to need further comment. A few similar instances might be recorded but they are best forgotten.
This meeting also made history. It levied the first assessment of $40 per share on the six thousand shares of capital stock of the corporation. This would bring in $240,000 and was subsequently followed, month by month, by seven others, until the total assessment had reached $305 per share, amounting in all to $1,830,000, of which $1,800,000, or 98 per cent, to the everlasting glory of the stockholders of the California, be it said, was paid.
The resolution bringing this about was as follows:
"Notice is hereby given that at a meeting of the directors held on the 11th day of May, 1906, an assessment of forty (40) dollars per share was levied upon the capital stock of the corporation payable on or before the 13th day of June, 1906, to Mark L. Gerstle, assistant secretary, at the principal place of business of the corporation, No. 2350 Washington street, San Francisco, Cal. Any stock upon which this assessment shall remain unpaid on the 13th day of June, 1906, will be delinquent and will be advertised for sale at public auction, and unless payment is made before will be sold on the 2d day of July, 1906, at 2 o'clock p. m. to pay the delinquent assessment, together with cost of advertising and expenses of sale."
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