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Great Fires: 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire

Reminiscences of John J. Conlon
1906 Great Earthquake & Fire
April 18, 1906
John J. Conlon , son of Battalion Chief John Colon 

To General Doolittle's brave flyers, it is the anniversary of their 1942 Tokyo Raid; to Bostonians, it is the date of Paul Revere's famous ride; but to a generation of San Franciscans, April 18th is the date of an earthquake at 5:13 on a Wednesday morning in 1906; one era in the city's history came to an end and another started. Thereafter, events were referred to as "before" or "after" the Fire. The earthquake, responsible for the fire, was a secondary matter. As a seven-year-old boy, free of parental control for three days, I enjoyed the excitement of the disastrous events around me without comprehending their consequences.

I belong to that group of sons whose fathers were called on that morning for a prodigious effort in their respective fields of activity. Father was a Battalion Chief in the San Francisco Fire Department. Like most sons, proud of their fathers, I would have questioned mine at an older age concerning his personal actions and experiences during that trying period. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Death is no respector [sic] of rank in the Fire Service. Only a few years later, as First Assistant Chief of Department, he was killed at a fire.

The 1906 Fire Department consisted of about 600 men in 9 Battalions and manning 38 Engine and 10 Ladder Companies together with miscellaneous apparatus. The men worked a 21 hour day. Then, as now, the Department responded to emergencies other than fires, and the cries of victims for help were often echoed over the fire alarm system. Father's command was the 9th Battalion, with headquarters at 30 Engine on Waller Street near Golden Gate Park. We lived at 718 Shrader Street. Father's preceding command had been the 5th Battalion on Nob Hill where I had left two objects dear to my heart—John, the dog mascot of 3 Engine and a ship model in my Uncle Ed's home that was to be mine when I was older. I was to judge the effect of the disaster by their fate. Our family on Shrader Street consisted of Father, Mother, a younger brother, two younger sisters and Flossie, who assisted Mother and subsequently married a cousin. Mother and my sisters were visiting in Stockton on the morning of the Earthquake.

The transfer to the 9th Battalion caused the usual family friction over the size of the fire alarm bell in our residence. Chiefs were permitted to sleep at home provided they lived within a block of their headquarters. Conscientious Father, fearful that he would miss an alarm, always wanted an eight inch bell. Considerate Mother, with the neighbors' ears and nerves in mind, wanted a six inch bell; we always had six inch bells.

There was never any question in my mind as to the severity of the earthquake at 5:13 on that Wednesday morning. I was awakened from a sound sleep by the shaking of my bed and the house. Father herded Flossie, my brother and me into a doorway for protection in the event the house collapsed; actually it was only slightly damaged. Within moments, during this period of the city's greatest emergency, the unusual silence of the alarm bell told its own story. The system was destroyed as was the functioning of the city's 30,000 telephones. For once, and tragedically [sic] so, the cries of trapped victims for help, generally referred to the Fire Department for attention, could not instantly activate rescue crews.

Father immediately started to improvise; certain Fire Companies were combined to strengthen his defenses in the combustible Haight-Ashbury District and all companies patrolled their areas, watching for fires and asking citizens not to use wood and coal stoves. The staff of the Park Emergency Hospital was moved to 30 Engine (1757 Waller Street) because of the partial collapse of the hospital, killing an attendant. Later, the Engine House became a temporary morgue. Shortly after these programs became operative, Father sent two companies to assist others fighting one of the two fires that burned west of Van Ness Avenue. This broad thoroughfare, traversing much of the city in a north and south direction, was always considered an excellent fire break in the event of a conflagration; it was in 1906.

About 7:30 that Wednesday morning, I heard 30 Engine leave their quarters with bells ringing and that was the last we were to see of them until late on the following Friday night. At almost the same moment, Father stopped his buggy in front of our house, got out and took Flossie, my brother and me across the street to a Mr. Levy. He told this fine gentleman that he had been ordered downtown with the remainder of his Battalion to help battle the flames now raging because of the destruction of the water mains, and asked if he could leave his family in Mr. Levy's care, which, of course, he could. The Battalion deployed in the South of Market area where its companies, with others, were able to save the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, subsequently important in getting supplies into the city. A Channel from the Bay made this victory possible; the remaining fire battle was a slow, three day retreat to the heart of the Mission District where the flames in that part of the city were finally controlled.

The morale of the 1906 firemen was severely strained because they were on duty at the moment of the earthquake and so continued until the flames were controlled. Few lived in the immediate vicinity of their firehouses, particularly those downtown. Minutes after the earthquake, most were in action and immediately aware of the magnitude of the disaster as they went about the grim task of rescuing victims from collapsed buildings and attempting to quell flames without water. Few knew the fate of their own families and for three days and nights they were to fight on with this gnawing concern on their minds. Two were killed. It is agreed they did their duty magnificently. The residences of 300 of the 600 firemen were destroyed and their fellow firemen throughout the nation sent $18,000 in relief funds, the New York City firemen being particularly generous.

In 1906, the main line of the Southern Pacific Company to San Jose ran through the Mission District and Colma. At the time, the Southern Pacific was constructing the present trackage along the Bayshore, necessitating blasting tunnels. On the second day of the fire, a man driving a truck approached my father and another Battalion Chief, Maxwell, at 8th and Market Streets.

He said his truck contained dynamite for use on the S.P. tunnels. He also said he was an expert dynamiter and he was sure that the Southern Pacific would not object to his turning the explosives over to Dad and Maxwell. With his help, Dad's and Maxwell's firemen dynamited all the buildings on 8th Street between Market and Folsom in hopes of stopping the flames. In later life, Dad always questioned the effectiveness of this operation.

Mother, immediately informed of the seriousness of the situation, left Stockton on Wednesday morning for home with my sisters. She was told on reaching Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, that she could not continue. As she turned her back on the city of her birth to return to Stockton, the large pillars of smoke in the western sky multiplied the fears she was already harboring for the safety of her family and relatives. Later, on Saturday, she successfully returned home.

I was very much on my own during daylight hours after Father left for downtown. The first activity was to examine the damage to a building in the Childrens [sic] Playground in Golden Gate Park. My playmates and I were just leaving this partially collapsed building about 8 a.m. when another sharp earthquake occurred and we witnessed a further collapse of the structure. Later, with older boys, I got as far downtown as Van Ness and Market, where a policemen, after questioning me, told me to return to my home district and stay there.

One-half mile east of our Shrader Street residence is hilly Buena Vista Park. The eastern slope had an unobstructed view of the 1906 city and it was from this vantage point that I watched the city burn for the next three days. It seemed quite a "show." The three nights were spent with the Levys in Golden Gate Park under blankets. Most people preferred the safety of the outdoors. During this time, I assumed Mother was safe. Emergencies were Father's stock in trade and I never questioned the ability of this strong man to overcome them. Occasional qualms for his safety quickly passed.

Friday night was noteworthy for two reasons: 1) About 8 p.m., Father, tired and unshaven, arrived at 718 Shrader in his usually spotless buggy, now dust-covered and drawn by a shaggy-looking nag instead of the beautiful, well-groomed Prince. Noting my crestfallen look, he told me he had left Prince in a livery stable for a much-needed rest. Engine 30 returned late the same night, and to my delight they had a new member, the dog mascot of Engine 3, which latter company was now homeless. At this time, the effects of the disaster seemed mild to me. 2) This was the night of the deluge. Our relatives, who had remained in their residences until forced to evacuate, and then had gone to parks and squares, started to arrive at 718 Shrader with only the clothes on their backs. They were ultimately to number 35, and their stays were to range from several weeks to 18 months. I was interested in but one person—Uncle Ed and the ship model. The happiness resulting from the recovery of the dog mascot was shattered by the most catastrophic of news, he was unable to save the model.

We were able to accommodate our refugees because of our large basement which was immediately partioned [sic] by the men. Fires were not permitted in houses until chimneys could be inspected and approved, requiring waits up to nine months. Our men, like many San Franciscans, built an elaborate range from salvaged bricks and sheet iron on our front sidewalk and covered it with a lean-to roof. I have seen few modern barbecue pits that surpassed our sidewalk kitchen. Here the women cooked the food that was served in three sittings in our large, glass-enclosed porch on the back of the house.

Mother was still a young wife, proud of her well-managed household, with its new furniture and linens, etc. She philosophically accepted the wear and tear on her furnishings; personal relations were another matter. You can be sure there was the childless wife giving unsolicited and unappreciated advice to the harassed young mothers. The forced mingling of these relatives under trying conditions resulted in lasting friendships and/or relationships thereafter on a formal and distant basis. Regardless, a young boy enjoys company, old and young, and I was never happier. Relatives had served with the First California Infantry in the Philippines in 1898, sailed the seas and hunted and fished. Their tales never failed to interest me.

The names of my uncles and aunts read like a roll call of Europeans at the United Nations. In 1906, the influence of the old countries was still strong and many of my relatives had fire insurance with companies of their national origin. The loss payment record of some of these foreign companies was poor and there was some real weeping and wailing when claims were settled. Our hyphenated relatives thereafter became Americans in fact as well as in name.

Everyone, like our family, offered shelter to relatives and friends. Many were housed in tents and temporary buildings in parks and squares, Golden Gate Park accommodations being particularly impressive. The latter was like a summer resort and I enjoyed walking through the camp areas at night to watch the activities of the refugees around the bonfires. Another source of entertainment for the youngsters of our neighborhood was a periodic parade on Haight Street of a National Guard outfit, mobilized for police guard duty.

Mother provided a box lunch for Father and me about ten days after the fire was controlled and in a hired buggy, we made a day long tour of the burnt area of the city. I have many memories of that ride but one stands out. To save the California and Hyde Street cable cars, the employees parked them on the California Street tracks from Franklin to Hyde Streets. After the fire swept over them, only the wheel trucks remained with hand brakes and cable grips standing vertical.

There was a bubonic plague scare shortly after the fire and because the fleas on rats were carriers of the germs, the city paid a bounty for dead rats. These bounty payments were my introduction to the functions of the "middle man." An older lad enriched himself by paying the neighborhood youngsters with candy for dead rats that he exchanged for cash at the repaired

Emergency Hospital. The fire drove thousands of rats into our district and Mother was horrified by them. Consequently, to avoid attracting them, all were instructed to securely cover garbage cans. Every morning, after the women had deposited the breakfast trash in the cans, I would remove the covers. Returning in about an hour, I would inspect the galvanized cans and if any rats were trapped therein, cans were tipped so that my Fox Terrier could kill the emerging rodent; then to the middle man for candy. Two of my teen-age cousins also disliked rats and while their family was living in the basement, the girls never could accept what they called the night roamings of these "canaries." As our refugees gradually left us, the girls with their parents were quartered on the first floor. Uncle Ed, their father, was a strict disciplinarian and whenever the girls, in their youthful exuberance, violated his 9 o'clock curfew and stayed out until, say, 9:07 with their boy friends, it was:  "Down into the basement with the Canaries, my fair ones, until you learn to return home on time."

This was drastic punishment and notwithstanding pleas, sentences were always carried out with a temporary improvement in deportment, until some young swain caused further tardiness.

The nation and the world were generous in the aid sent to the city's inhabitants. Relief stations were set up throughout the city, our Haight-Ashbury Station being located in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association building on Page near Stanyan Street. Here our relatives drew their rations. Father would not permit his immediate family to draw rations because his salary continued. Nothwithstanding (sic) his admonishments, I was not above getting in the relief line occasionally, with young friends, when such delicacies as cookies, jams, or canned fruits were being dispensed. For a time our water was rationed under control of the National Guard from a spring near the present University of California Medical Center School.

Mrs. Ella F. Murray, a friend and former neighbor on Nob Hill, asked Father to hire some young men to salvage bronze statuary from the ruins of her home. When the job was finished she insisted on his keeping six pieces. These relics were kept by my Father, and later by me, in sacks in our various basements until they could be cleaned of the debris welded to them by the heat of the flames. After Father's death, I planned to give them to the Wells Fargo Bank Historical Collection as relics of the Fire. My plan did not take into consideration a woman and her periodic housecleaning rampage. Notwithstanding their being sacked and neatly stored, they went out one day with garbage while I was in the hospital.

The fire was no sooner controlled on Friday, April 20th, than human activities rapidly began to return to normal. Work of all kinds was plentiful. Many of the Fire Companies from the burned districts, temporarily not needed, were discontinued. This made possible leaves of absence to firemen who returned to former pursuits. The Department was full of highly skilled men, attracted to the fire service by the steady employment.

All good things in a youngster's life must end, and all too soon. About October 1st our April-October vacation was over. Principal Alice Chalmers and her dedicated staff of Jackson Primary School on Oak near Stanyan Street, in welcoming us back, I am sure, overlooked our glum looks.

May the children of San Francisco, or any place, never again enjoy such an experience as mine.

(Signed) J. J. Conlon

From a Local Newspaper

In connection with this tour around the edge, I crossed the burned zone many times and saw the gradual clearing of the wreckage from the streets to permit traffic. I have often wondered whether I was the first to follow and record the fire boundary in such detail.

Some of the scenes which I failed to mention in my letter that still stand out are these:

The after shocks of course were quite frequent, some of them fairly good shakes and very frightening to the high-strung populace. I remember being in a grocery store at about California and Lyon streets, when there was the usual little tremble, and the woman standing next to me fell over in a dead faint.

In a drug store on Fillmore Street on the first night after the earthquake, there was a woman attempting to buy a certain kind of tooth brush (a prophylactic, medium, or something as particular). It was dark, and the druggist was allowed only one candle and he couldn't find his stock. He had plenty of tooth brushes available, but not the kind upon which the woman insisted. Suddenly he became furious and pushed her out of the store, stating that everyone else wanted either whiskey or morphine, or something important, and he had no time for tooth brushes. He was complimented by a policeman who was getting supplies for a temporary hospital.

I remember standing at the corner of First Avenue and California Street, when a woman in a nearby house started a series of the most unearthly shrieks. A soldier, with fixed bayonet, rushed into the building, but what the row was about I never heard. This kind of excitement was frequent, and strange to relate, wasn't followed up.

Our relations with the constabulary were usually quite pleasant. The soldiers were parked about one to the block in our area, principally to look out for lights. We often stopped to chat with them and ask for news. I believe that some time later candles were allowed until about nine o'clock, and I was called down once for reading some detective story overtime.

Another scene -- I think it was the second morning, when the children and I were walking to the ferry. We came upon a truck piled high with household effects near Franklin and I have some remembrance of the opening of the S. and W. safe, which was quite an affair, as the sales slips of several days' business had been left inside; I think they had rescued most of the important account books before the fire reached the building. Old man Sussman was in a fearful state; and as the mechanics worked on the safe he kept turning to me as an expert, and repeatedly asked me whether I thought they would be burned, or if burned whether they would be legible. I wasn't an expert and couldn't help him. The door finally swung open. The papers either burned then (from the effect of the oxygen on the partially charred material within) or they had already burned -- I can't remember which. There was a great to-do; but I think the slips, with the exception of a few on top, were finally deciphered in their charred state.
Source: Local newspaper, authored by an unknown survivor

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