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San Francisco Earthquake

On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m. the city of San Francisco experienced an earthquake followed by a fire that remains one of the worst catastrophes to ever hit an American city.

G.A. Raymond recounts his experience after being shaken out of bed at the Palace Hotel.

I had $600.00 in gold under my pillow. I awoke as I was thrown out of bed. Attempting to walk, the floor shook so that I fell. I grabbed my clothing and rushed down into the office, where dozens were already congregated. Suddenly the lights went out, and every one rushed for the door.

Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.

The great opera singer, Enrico Caruso, also staying at the Palace Hotel gave his own account of the disaster.
I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel, where many of my fellow-artists were staying, and very comfortable it was. I had a room on the fifth floor, and on Tuesday evening, the night before the great catastrophe, I went to bed feeling very contented. I had sung in “Carmen” that night.

But what an awakening! … on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming… Then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children.

I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like forty seconds I stand there, while the buildings fall and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea. And during that forty seconds I think of forty thousand different things. All that I have ever done in my life passes before me.

The city would go on to rebuild and flourish, but would never allow itself to forget the death and destruction of that terrible day. For the past 107 years, the people of the city have marked April 18th as a day to stop and remember that life is fragile and can change on a dime.

Located at the intersections of Market, Geary and Kearny streets sits Lotta's Fountain, an elegant cast iron fountain which remains San Francisco's oldest surviving monument.

Lotta's Fountain

It should tell one something about San Francisco in the 1870s that the monument was given to the city not by a politician or captain of industry, but by a famous Vaudeville performer, Lotta Crabtree. Lotta loved the city and had gotten her start there during the Gold Rush days, when she would dance on barrels in saloons for miners, who would throw gold nuggets at her feet. Said to posses "the most beautiful ankle in the world", she was famous for her red hair, dark eyes, and her dances she was especially known for the "Spider Dance, involving bodily gyrations intended to indicate shaking off of imaginary spiders and entangling spider webs." Using some of the gold coin, gold nuggets and gold watches that gentlemen bestowed upon her, Lotta bought the city a fountain in 1875.

After the 1906 earthquake, dazed survivors looked for anything left standing to congregate around. Lotta's Fountain served as a meeting place for people to be reunited with their loved ones. Every year at 5:12 a.m. on April 18th a couple hundred people, including the remaining survivors of the earthquake, (as of 2010 there was one remaining 104 year old survivor, Bill Del Monte, who was 3 months old a the time of the quake) meet in a ceremony of remembrance.

Just as San Franciscans have done for over 100 years, the gathering took place once again this morning, only this year marked two firsts for the city. Due to a suspicious package across the street from the fountain, police cordoned off several blocks of Market Street and moved the commemoration to the Dewey Monument in Union Square. The package turned out to be an abandoned suitcase containing nothing but clothing, but sadly our 2013 reality dictates that we all ere on the side of extreme caution.  

The other thing that marks today's commemoration as remarkable is that this is the first time in 107 years no survivors were present at the event. The first April after I moved to San Francisco in 1987 I attended the commemoration at Lotta's Fountain. Back then, there were at least a dozen survivors in attendance.

Today, only one survivor is still living. At the age of 107, Winnie Hook was unable to attend this morning due to her advanced age.

Winnie Hook
Image of Winnie Hook courtesy of David Gallagher, Flickr

Winnie Hook was but an infant when the earthquake happened, so effectively no one living today has any memory of what took place. Yet as today has proven, the people of San Francisco will never allow themselves to forget those who were lost and those who survived to rebuild the beautiful city by the bay.

Originally posted to Steven Payne on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 11:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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