Urbanities

Charles Page
The Last Big One
Summer 2001

Just after 5 AM on April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake, measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale, hit the San Francisco Bay area, laying waste to the city. It reduced scores of buildings to dust, ignited fires that raged apocalyptically for four days, and cut San Francisco off from all outside communication. It killed some 3,000 people and cost San Franciscans a staggering $500 million—more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. To quell disorder, Mayor E. E. Schmitz declared martial law and in a sharply worded proclamation ordered federal troops and local police "to KILL any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime."

Charles Page (1847–1912) witnessed this greatest of all American urban disasters and described it with novelistic vividness in the following remarkable letter to his son Stanley. Born in Valparaiso, Chile, where his Philadelphia-trained father practiced medicine, Page was a man of some note. Graduating from Yale in 1868, Page studied law in Europe for two years and then moved to San Francisco, where he was admitted to the bar in 1872. Over a distinguished 40-year career, he won a national reputation as an expert in admiralty law. In 1883, he helped found the Page and Eells legal firm, which still exists today as McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen.

Dear Stanley:

I write a few words to tell you that we are well and at Charley’s home. We have had an awful experience, but the worst has passed. Our home stands uninjured except in the plastering and chimneys. It rocked in the earthquake, almost rolled side to side. You cannot imagine the horrible anxiety for a whole minute as your mother and I stood at 5 in the morning, waiting for the last strength of the walls to give way under the terrible strain. There seemed to be nothing to do but to hold on and await the results. We did not try to rush from the house. The servants rushed down the swaying stairs to join us.

Your mother, I believe, can hardly recall what passed. I heard her crying out (I was holding her) to Alice, "It is God’s will," and repeating it again and again and then, when it was over, she was by her bed on her knees. Then we dressed calmly but quickly and went upon the sidewalk, where all the neighbors were congregated in their dressing gowns and slippers. Some had run out in nightgowns and bare feet. We spent the morning in the street, sitting on our garden coping. There were more shocks during the day, all sharp but short.

I shall never forget the terrible feeling of the earthquake, the utter helplessness, the hopelessness of that minute. It seemed as if there would be no end to it except death under the fallen walls—but it did have an end, and our brave house stood the test.

The damage in the city was fearful. I cannot stop to describe it. Then fire broke out, worse than the earthquake, because the water mains had been broken in their beds and there was nothing to check the flames. Soon the city in different places downtown was burning furiously. Nothing could stop it now except lack of further fuel. The wind blew strong from the northwest. All day and all night it roared. From Alta Plaza, we watched it now and again, trying to draw hope that our district might be spared. One hoped for the best; another thought the tendency of the fire was away from us; another saw it eating its way toward us. One way or another, it galloped in great leaps and bounds. Great explosions every now and again came to our ears, the dynamiting of buildings in the vain hope that this would stay the fire. The troops and firemen were all out and working heroically. Martial law was proclaimed, and robbers were shot down without mercy.

The heavens all night again were lurid. We got together in your study, where we lay on the lounge and window seat. The servants were gathered in the hallway, all dressed and ready to fly for life. At last, it seemed toward morning that the fire would not reach us until the second day should come. So we rested quiet. We went in and out of the house, forgetting the possibility of earthquakes in the thought of the fire and the moment when we must desert the house. The hours went by. We made up a few packages in sheets of clothes and such provisions as we could get hold of, and water in bottles, ready to fly for the Presidio. Thousands had been marching by our house all night for that shelter. It was the probable home for all of us before night should again fall. Your uncle came over about noon and asked us to go to Berkeley. He had his wits about him and immediately went to work in the backyard. The Chinaman dug deep trenches into which we threw the silver and bronzes. Trunks were packed and lugged out, pictures were stored up behind the concrete walls of the back garden of the new house next door, which, by the way, had fallen in against our walls. Imagine the feelings of the cook the first morning when he was awakened by the shock. He ran for the door but the lock would not turn; the windows, you know, are barred. There he was, hemmed in, and the next house tumbling against his room! I went to him but I could not help him. A young carpenter going by helped and by smashing the door in gave Han his liberty.

In the afternoon of the second day, Charley got to us. How he managed it, I don’t know. The military refused to allow people to go to the city, though all those who wished and could do so, might go from it. Charley somehow got into a launch, landed at the Union Iron Works, and walked to our house. Then he went to work. Your mother then concluded to come to his home, and as Charley asked to be allowed to stay by the house, I came along with your mother. I brought along some of our earthly possessions swung over my back in a sheet. I had clothes, shoes, and all that remained of the office—a few [account] books that Atkinson had brought to me the day before. Our magnificent law library, of course, went with all the other contents of the Mills Building.

It was a heavy load for me to pack; and I have no doubt I made a queer-looking picture, but the earthquakes and fires are effective levelers, and I was for the time doing for myself what the poor Chinamen and Italians were doing for themselves—saving what would be most needed in the next few days and doing the trudging and packing ourselves. About 6:30 PM we bade good-bye to the house and in Athole’s buggy started for the waterfront. He sat in my lap as he drove. We went down Broadway to Van Ness and looked toward Clay, two blocks away. The flames had then jumped across the avenue—we turned down toward Bay Street—the very streets had been rent; great ridges had been thrown up, and in places the avenue had fallen in. The fronts of wooden houses had fallen out into the streets; brick houses had been demolished; lampposts were awry; wholesale destruction awful to behold; but all this was nothing to the tens of thousands of human beings—men, women, and children—driven before the flames. Every unbuilt on lot was crowded by them and their bundles; the streets were packed with them as they moved along in search for a place of refuge. They were living and dying in their places. They were being born and buried in those two days under the open heavens, in sight of those fearful sky-reaching flames and dense masses of smoke, in hearing of dynamite explosions, while the steady tramp of their fellow victims went on before their eyes. Oh! What a sight this made as we drove down to the bay! Yet marvels of all, we saw no crying women or downcast men. There was an exhilaration in the desperation of the moment. What it was, I do not know, but surely men forgot the past, seemed to overlook the present, and to face only the future, the future that would repair the disaster. There were smiles on people’s faces at times; there was seriousness all the time but the determination to overcome the disaster was universal.

So noting all around us as we drove, we continued until we got to a ferryboat somewhere on the waterfront. No tickets had to be bought. We stepped on board, two among thousands, and started for Oakland. The view of the burning city that night is beyond description. Just think of the Fairmont lit up in every window by roaring fire!

It was nine before we reached Charley’s home. At the station, willing hands helped us out of the train and we were asked whether we had a place to stay. A small boy took the heavy suitcase from your mother and carried it for her, saying that the boys had been thus engaged all day long and that none of them would take pay for it.

The best in human nature has been brought out. From the surgeons who flow from end to end of the doomed city without resting by night or day, in aid of the wounded; the soldiers, firemen, and volunteers who risked life and limb in fighting invincible fire; to the poorest and least able to help—we saw the same generous helping hand to those in distress. Each according to the measure of his ability—all equal so far as the heart is concerned. San Francisco has had the name of a bad city. If it is, it has received punishment in the extreme. The good in it has never been known until now. Its inhabitants are of all kinds; but neither race, nor education, nor condition in life could be distinguished in the spontaneous outburst of bravery, generosity, and self-sacrifice. All were alike.

I am trying to send you some papers. Address us at 2518 Pacific Avenue. We shall return as soon as possible.

When you have read this letter, send it to Judge Bradford, Wilmington, Delaware.

Your Mother, Charley, and Louise send their love.

Your affectionate Father,

Chas. Page

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