Noe Valley Voice April 2006

1906 in Noe: An Eyewitness Account of the Great Quake and Fire

From the Pages of the 1931 Twin Peaks Sentinel

By Melinda Breitmeyer

In 1931, the Twin Peaks Sentinel, a crisp little community newspaper not unlike the Voice, ran a serial telling what it was like to survive the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, in Noe Valley. The four-part story, which commemorated the disaster's 25th anniversary, was written by Frances Gibson, who in 1906 was 19 years old.

After the quake struck, Gibson grabbed her camera, hit the streets, and made like a reporter, as the following excerpts from her piece in the Sentinel show. Let's hope the Noe Valley Voice staff would do the same in a future calamity.

But in 1906, Noe Valley was not the crowded urban village it is today. There were quite a few vacant lots scattered about. In addition to stores on 24th Street, there were produce markets, bakeries, and butchers on almost every block, usually on the bottom floor of corner Victorians. Many of the roads were unpaved. Sidewalks were slatted boards. An automobile was a rare sight, and horses clip-clopped up and down the hills separating Noe and Eureka valleys.

The view up to Twin Peaks was of bare slopes dotted with cows instead of apartment buildings. Beyond Twin Peaks, an almost uninterrupted expanse of sand dunes stretched to Ocean Beach. Noe Valley was the edge of the frontier, and one of the places where streams of refugees halted to make new homes during the long summer of 1906.

It was the fire, rather than the quake, that did the most damage. Thus, survivors initially referred to the disaster as the Great Fire, not the Great Quake. At the fire's height, the view toward downtown from Twin Peaks was one of a hellish inferno, red flames lighting up the night sky through billows of black smoke.

As the fire raced through the city, people in the streets shouted information that was often inaccurate or exaggerated. There was no Internet, TV, or radio to tune in to for the latest developments.

Our fearless Sentinel reporter, Frances Gibson, lived at 70 Clipper Street, between Church and Dolores, with several of her six siblings and her parents, who were immigrants from Ireland. The family had never been instructed to get under a doorway, but in those somewhat simpler times, they knew how to clasp hands when an earthquake hit, and that is what they did in the early-morning hours of that fateful spring day in "ought-six."

Wednesday, April 18, 1906


I jumped up from my sleep, rubbed my eyes, and yelled, "What the ­ ­ ­ ­ was that?" Crackety, crack! went the walls, and the ceiling bowed as the walls bent and almost touched each other with the force of the shock.

Ma was sitting on the edge of her bed in a half faint, praying, "God, save us all." I looked at the clock. It had stopped at 13 minutes past 5 a.m.

My father and brothers rushed into our bedroom and grabbed us, pulling us into the other room. Standing together pale and with drawn faces, we all took hands and clasped together.

We awaited the end as the house rocked to and fro. It seemed an eternity until the shock was over. Then Tom broke the silence: "That sure was a corker!"

We all with one accord rushed to the window. I opened it, and horrible noises, indescribable, reached our ears. From every door and window, ghostly faces were peering; neighbors were running wild in their nightgowns.

The family got busy and put on their clothes. Sis went downstairs to make a pot of coffee to revive Ma. "Have the grace of God about you all. It is no joking matter," she warned us.

As luck would have it, the well was OK and the pump was still working, so the kettle was filled. When the kettle was put on the stove, the stove refused to work and smoked like fury, but we forced it along long enough to boil the water and fix up a breakfast.

Gas mains had broken all over the city during the quake. Escaping gas was one of the primary causes of fire, especially from people trying to cook on stoves.

Running water had only recently come to Noe Valley. Mains had been installed around 1900, and these broke along with the gas mains, forcing people to fall back on disused wells. An underground creek ran under Clipper Street, supplying the Gibsons and their neighbors' wells.

Tom and 'Lisbeth started out for work. They had only gotten a short distance from the house when they learned there was no car service. The streets had been plowed up and cracked all over town. Rails had been twisted out of shape.

Worst of all, people were rushing around like mad, yelling, "The town's on fire! The big buildings are down, and everybody is killed!"

Actually, surprisingly few civic buildings fell down during the quake. There was one notable exception: the newly built City Hall. Its shoddy construction was later connected to graft, which toppled the careers of several city officials. In Noe Valley, there was little major damage. Many chimneys fell, and some houses lost their Victorian gingerbread, but no one was killed here during the quake.

On the morning of the shaker, 52 fires were recorded, and there were probably many more unreported blazes. Broken water mains made life rough for the firefighters, many of whom were volunteers.

"No car service" to and from Noe Valley meant that the cable car lines on Castro and the trains on nearby Valencia Street were not running. Both lines had their rails twisted like pipe cleaners by the quake.

I had a few films left in my camera, so I loaded up and started going. I got as far as 22nd and Mission, and there, Lippman Bros. Dry Goods Store and the old Somps residence were burning to the ground for lack of water.

Along Valencia Street from 21st to 17th, there was a hole big enough to bury at least 50 people, not to mention horses. The old Valencia Street Hotel, where I had played sliding over the banister, was lying flat on the ground and all the people in it had lost their lives, was the report.

Valencia Street was an old creekbed, which had been filled in and then built upon. The severe jolts of the quake caused the soft-packed fill to settle suddenly, leaving gaping holes in the street. The buildings on top of the fill reeled with the force of this settling, and houses for several blocks leaped off their foundations. The four-story Valencia Hotel collapsed like a tower of cards. Its top floor landed intact in the middle of the street with the bottom three floors flattened underneath, crushing at least 15 people.

This scene found its way into the 1936 movie San Francisco. As Clark Gable searches desperately through the city's rubble for Jeannette MacDonald, he comes upon the collapsed hotel. A policeman tells him, "Those on the top floor stepped right out their windows to the street. The others were out of luck."

The crowd of people, autos, wagons, and vehicles of all kinds, all coming in one direction, made the way impassable. Everybody was heading for Noe Valley and the hills. Chinamen with sacks of clothes, women and girls carrying bird cages, hat boxes, pictures, and other useless articles. The men and boys followed, pulling along trunks, kids' express wagons, and baby buggies, all loaded heavily. Mothers clasping babies to their breast, fathers trying to quiet crying children as they toddled bravely on at their sides. Dogs and cats, scorched and bleeding, were jumping off wagons and running wild.

Downtown, they said, the flames were stopping at nothing, eating up all, and people were being "roasted alive." All you saw or heard, no matter which way you looked was Fire, Fire, Fire!

South of Market was filled with ramshackle houses, built in the 1850s and '60s by early settlers who abandoned them when the cable cars opened up more desirable locations. The area had since deteriorated into a slum. The shoddily built structures collapsed during the quake, crushing or trapping scores of residents. Along the Embarcadero, shipping warehouses built on landfill also collapsed. These two areas became tinderboxes, and when numerous blazes broke out from gas leaks, the flames soon raged out of control. The Great Fire had begun.

There were indeed cases of people "roasted alive" in collapsed buildings. The ones who escaped, many with just a few sentimental possessions or pets--whatever they could carry--streamed out to the unthreatened areas of the city, some fleeing across the Bay on ferries. North and westward they went, to the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, even the beaches.

Thousands came to Noe Valley, some climbing Twin Peaks to watch their homes burn.

Ashes were coming down thicker and thicker. Bank notes and burned pages from municipal records were crunching underfoot. The air grew hotter and hotter, and suffocating. The wild yells, the clang of the ambulances as they rushed to the emergency, the wounded and dead piled in heavy wagons, reminded one of Dante's Inferno, but Dante had nothing on this hell.

Then came the proclamation from Mayor Schmitz, nailed on telegraph poles, electric poles, and every available space.

Mayor Eugene Schmitz had declared martial law. Army troops from the Presidio policed the city, "authorized to KILL" looters. (Executions of looters did occur.) The soldiers also cordoned off the fire, keeping people away at bayonet point, and helped fight the flames, care for the injured, and bury the dead. In Noe Valley they enforced the curfew and distributed tents to refugees, who camped out wherever they could.

Thursday, April 19, 1906

The news came that as soon as the fire reached 20th Street, Noe Valley was to be dynamited. Charles Powers and his brothers got busy with their teams [of horses] and took all our belongings, free of charge, one load after another, up to the hill at 29th and Noe, where we all camped. My sister sat on the curbstone and cried as we left the "auld hoose."

I was sore. I had watched the fire from its start, but Pa ordered me to the hills with the rest. The old Captain in him said, "I sink with the ship." He wouldn't allow me to take Beaut, my Newfoundland dog.

The parrot's cage door was opened to give Polly a chance for her life. Polly was 21 years old. Darby, the canary, we took with us.

Many Noe Valley residents left their homes on Thursday, as the fire approached. On Wednesday night, as fire consumed much of downtown and, hungry for more, moved outward, another fire took hold in Hayes Valley, dubbed the "ham and eggs" fire because of the meal someone had been cooking when it broke out. By Thursday morning, it met the main fire, and a flaming wall raced southward into the Mission District. Stretching over six blocks between Dolores and Howard, it advanced steadily, passing 16th Street, then 17th, then 18th...

Two hundred men of Noe Valley combined with other firefighters with barrels of water and wet sacks, and barricaded themselves behind wetted doors to backfire at Mission Park [now Dolores Park]. Old John Center's well furnished the water supply, from subterranean tanks he had made with hydrant connections in 1859. Up on our hill, no church ever held a communion service like the 11 of us lying side by side on mattresses on the grass.

My brother came up to the hill at 3 a.m. and told us the fire had been conquered. We couldn't get up off that grass quick enough, but he said, "Stay where you are. It's better here till daylight."

He took a pint flask from his pocket, and from one mouth to another this "saving swig" was passed.

Someone had pulled an old tin can piano out of a nearby home and was playing "Home Never Was Nothin' Like This." A babble of excited voices talked in all languages all night.

The fire had at last been halted at 20th Street. The neighborhood brigades, helped by water from Old John Center's well and a wind that suddenly came from the south, had saved the day (and Noe Valley from dynamiting!). Hoses linked to a trusty hydrant at 20th and Church had also doused the blaze.

Today the victory is marked by a repainting of the hydrant each year on April 18. (You can join the '06 earthquake survivors in gilding the plug at 7 a.m.)

The excited babble of voices in "all languages" that Frances heard, reflected the makeup of the population of Noe Valley. Census records show that the majority of residents were immigrants, from almost every nation on earth.

North of Market, the fire still had the upper hand, and here the south wind blew it toward Russian Hill and North Beach, where it weaved back and forth, chased by frenzied firefighters. Before it was finally vanquished Saturday night, most of the area bounded by Market, Van Ness, and the Bay had burned.

In the Mission, the ground was razed "almost as bare as when the Spaniards first landed," according to one writer. On Dolores Street, where the fire had burned most of the east side, the houses across the wide thoroughfare had escaped the flames, but their paint was blistered and singed by intense heat. The church on the corner of 16th and Dolores was so badly damaged it later had to be torn down. But nearby Mission Dolores, established in 1776, survived in one piece.

Friday, April 20, 1906

We started a cavalcade back to Clipper Street. The old camp kitchens were still intact, and boy, but they looked good. There were plenty of bricks around our yard. We handed them around [to make a fireplace], and soon the frying pan was sizzling and the bean pot set aboiling. Windbreaks were built up around the stoves, and soon San Francisco's cooks were on the job. Kettleful after kettleful of water was boiled and we made coffee. The refugees stopped, drinking and warming themselves. Each had a tale to tell.

Since gas stoves were unsafe, almost every home had a makeshift wood stove, placed in the street. These stayed in use for several weeks. Some were bordered by hastily constructed windbreaks, or even covered by a little shack. Noe Valley soon became a motley collection of proper Victorians and hobo shanties.

The Following Weeks

Things began to hum in Noe Valley after the troops arrived on the 25th Street hill. The big Army truck had come tearing like mad down our street, with its mules and yelling soldiers almost knocking over the camp kitchens. Everyone got an eyeful of military life by day and night. Went to sleep with Taps, woke up with Reveille. Breakfasted at Mess Call.

At night, when the order came, "Lights out," the only sound to be heard was the steady tramp of the sentinels as they watched and walked their beats and at the least strike of a match, yelled, "Put out that light!"

Soldiers forced saloonkeepers to give up eatables. These were put in wagons and taken to James Lick School, which had been turned into a Food Supply Station and an Emergency Hospital. I lined up with the rest at the old school and got my can of tomatoes.

Inside of a week the hysteria was over, and the refugees were settling down to meet existing conditions. People were housed in churches, garages, cemetery tombs, caves on the hillsides, streetcars, barns, barracks, tents on the hills, in parks and in private homes.

The population of Noe Valley was almost doubled by the influx of refugees, who camped in every available space. Many residents opened their homes to those in need. One man remembered that his parents let in 120 people, most of whom slept on mattresses in the basement.

With all the stores closed by official order, everyone lined up at James Lick and other schools to receive their ration of potatoes, macaroni, and canned vegetables, which were cooked in the convivial atmosphere of the street "kitchens." Cows on Twin Peaks continued to supply Noe Valley dairies, but bread was hard to come by because the bakery stoves were not yet functioning.

There was no lack of water in Noe Valley. The pioneers' foresight now came in good stead. Our 40-foot well supplied over 2,000 people. The pump coughed up from morning till night, day after day, week after week. Tubs, boilers, jugs, demijohns, dishpans, barrels, bowls, pitchers, kettles, pots, pans, glasses--all were brought into our yard to be filled. Many had never seen a pump before and got a kick out of pumping. Not so us who had to do the 500 strokes daily to keep the tank filled.

We had 23 little quakes between April 18th and May 24th. On May 25th another came when we were all asleep. My bed caved in. When Ma yelled, "Where is she?" I yelled, "Don't worry, Ma! I'm safe down here in the alley." But I wasn't as far down as I thought--only on the floor.

When the Gas Company got orders to "light up," my brother lit up the house, and all the neighbors gathered around for a sing-song festival. The inspector said the chimney was OK, but not until my mother gave him a bottle of her famous catsup, a couple of glasses of homemade jelly, and a loaf of homemade bread.

Life began to return to normal in Noe Valley and the rest of San Francisco. But repairing the devastation would be a herculean task. Half the city had burned down. From 2,000 to 3,000 people had died. And more than 200,000, almost half the city's population, were now homeless.

Still, like the phoenix rising from the ashes on San Francisco's seal, the city was able to pull itself up by its bootstraps. In less than a decade, the town had been rebuilt and San Francisco had hosted an opulent open house: the glorious Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

100 Years Later

Noe Valley fared relatively well in the 1906 quake, as it did again in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. And we like to think we are even better prepared today. Building codes have improved, and foundations have been bolted down. More people are aware that they should avoid lighting matches or using gas after an earthquake. On the other hand, there are more buildings erected on landfill today, the population is more densely packed, the Army is no longer housed at the Presidio, and humans are still, well, human.

So, as we wait obliviously, nervously, or somewhere in between, for the earth to move again, we can only hope we have the spirit of the San Franciscans of 1906, who knew how to clasp hands and pull together in the face of disaster.

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Note: This story was adapted from earlier publications in the Noe Valley Voice, in our April 1980 and April 1999 issues. A special thank-you to Melinda Breitmeyer, Victoria Colgan, former Noe Valley Librarian Roberta Greifer, and, of course, to Frances Gibson, for her immeasurable contribution to San Francisco history.