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Every April my thoughts turn to the Great Earthquake and Fire, which rudely shook San Francisco awake at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. I try to imagine how the people of our fair city rose above the disaster.
I have no firsthand knowledge of the earthquake, because my family didn't move here until 19 years later, when I was 5. By then, everything seemed to be in apple-pie order.
We stayed for a short time on 23rd Street, between Chattanooga and Church, with the Haglunds, friends and members of the Swede-Finn colony in Noe Valley. Each day, my mother went out to search for living quarters large enough to accommodate our family of five. While she was gone, I often stood at the front window studying the interesting manor across the street. It seemed grand compared to our farmhouse in Idaho. It was bigger than our barn!
I developed a fondness for that house, and as an adult I often returned to sketch it. One day, an old school friend, Esther Koch, happened by as I sketched, and told me that her uncle lived in the house. She asked me to do a painting for him, and later she requested that I do another for her mother, who had grown up there.
I saw Esther again not too long ago, and she told me regretfully that both her uncle and mother had died. And alas, the paintings she had commissioned had been carried off by other members of the family. Thinking that Esther deserved one of her own, I did another painting for her (but this one was "on the house"!).
That wooden house at 3784 23rd Street, Esther told me, had withstood the 1906 Earthquake, but the fireplace had broken apart. Fortunately, the bricks fell out into the garden and not into the parlor where the family had gathered.
I wondered what the kids thought of this huge upheaval. In the '20s, the occasional tremors my two brothers and I felt were a novel experience for us Idaho natives, but as children we did not feel fear, perhaps due to the conditioning of our father. Whenever there was a jolt in the night, he would call out gleefully, "Wasn't that fun!" Generally it was, and the hint of danger made things even more exciting.
Sometimes the quakes came in a gently rolling motion, and we felt as though we were being cradled and lulled back to sleep by Mother Nature.
But in the minds of other San Francisco newcomers, the smallest quiver could provoke a violent reaction. A medium-sized quake struck in 1957, soon after our friend John moved here. We were visiting him and his wife in their 30th Street apartment when the shaking started. John jumped to his feet, his eyes wide open, and shouted, "I'm going back to Florida!"
However, John's bride Barbara, who was from the Bay Area, was not so inclined. She had lived in Florida for a short time, until the day she discovered an alligator in her garden! Barbara thought there were worse things in life than an occasional earthquake.
I too find it hard to accept how terrible the devastation of 1906 really was. Thousands of lives were lost and buildings destroyed. One of the few physical remains on Nob Hill was a small colonnade at the entrance to the elegant Towne Mansion. Aptly titled "Portals of the Past," the graceful columns were later moved to Golden Gate Park, where they stand framed by cypresses at the edge of a tranquil pond.
I learned about another fine downtown mansion lost to the fire -- and of the people who lived in it -- from the daughter of a prominent physician, Phillip Brown, and his wife, Adelaide Brown.
The Browns wrote to loved ones after the quake, letting them know that they were alive and well. The letter was a wonderful, vivid account that began, "With the first shake, the mantle and the chimney were thrown across the room. Then the chimney from the nearby church fell through the skylights and landed on the lower floor. Every glass globe, bottle, dish, and glass in the house was smashed in 46 seconds."
The concerned parents rushed over the bricks and rubble to the children's rooms and were relieved to find their three little ones safe and sound. A dozen or more shocks followed, but the house remained standing, although they had no gas, water, or telephone service. When they looked out the front window, they saw their neighbors running around the middle of Van Ness Avenue in their nightgowns!
From the rooftop they could see fires igniting all over. The water mains had broken, and there was no water to put out the flames. The Palace Hotel burned down. Then City Hall was consumed.
At that point, the mayor took drastic measures, fearing that if the fire were not stopped at Van Ness Avenue it would devour the Fillmore as well as the rest of the city. He ordered the residents to leave, allowing them to take only what they could carry. Whole blocks were then blown up with dynamite in order to halt the fire.
The fire was stopped, but only after half the city lay in ruins and hordes of homeless people clogged every street and pathway leading out of town.
This mayhem was witnessed by a lady I spoke with one day while waiting for a bus near Van Ness and Market. She told me that as a little girl, she had stood at her window, at this same intersection, watching the masses of people streaming by, carrying their belongings. Many of them, she recalled, were carrying birdcages and Tiffany lamps.
She added that the family across the avenue had gathered their possessions, then dug a deep hole in their back yard. There they buried the piano, which was too heavy to move very far. When the ashes had settled, they returned to dig up the treasure, only to discover that someone had already stolen it!
Although the fire north of Market was contained, it raged south into the Mission District until it threatened to cross 20th Street. Luckily, a hydrant at the top of what we now know as Dolores Park still had its water supply and firemen and volunteers were able to bring the blaze under control. Today we can thank this "Little Giant" for the wealth of older Victorians in Noe Valley.
Our son Jan enjoyed living in one of them for a while -- the Daly House, which overlooks the city from the southwest corner of Guerrero and 21st streets. John Daly, the owner, operated a dairy on the outskirts of San Francisco, and after the quake, a tent city sprang up in his pasture. The town that later grew out of that site was named Daly City in his honor.
Last April 18, as I traveled downtown on the J-car, the young lady seated next to me spotted the balloons, ribbons, and flowers adorning the fireplug at the corner of Church and 20th streets. She wondered aloud what all the fuss was about. I was pleased to explain that this was the hydrant which according to legend had stopped the Fire of 1906.
Each April 18 at about 6:30 a.m., the the members of the San Francisco Hook and Ladder Society, joined by as many '06 quake survivors as can still make it, come to repaint the hydrant in gold. The oldest survivor gets to use the spray can first! Then everyone shares reminiscences and gives thanks to the heroic fireplug, which spared the Mission (and our delightful neighborhood as well) for future generations to enjoy.
Writer Florence Holub, who has lived on 21st Street for 49 years, first shared her earthquake stories in the April 1997 issue of the Noe Valley Voice.