Wednesday, April 18, 1906 proved to be a fateful day for the people of San Francisco. That morning and as the city slept an earthquake measuring 7.9. The earthquake and resulting fire are remembered to this day as the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States alongside the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
One eyewitness to the earthquake of 1906 was a Belfast man and in this week in 1906 a letter written home to a brother detailing his experiences in the doomed city was published in the News Letter.
He wrote: “The size and importance of the disaster that has befallen Sail Francisco no human being can relate. Such a weird and reckless devastation is beyond the wildest imagination of a Dante’s Inferno.
“On the 18th inst, at 6.14 o’clock, San Francisco was aroused by an earthquake which for terror and disaster never before happened in a civilised modern city. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire people were seized with panic and fright, and the damage alone caused by the shake would have taken, months of time and millions of money to repair.
“Hardly had the trembling subsided from its deadly work than the cry of ‘Fire’ went up from several downtown parts the city, and in two hours’ time the flames had gained such headway as to be beyond all skill and the facilities of the firefighting appliances available.
“Building after building, street after street, went down before the deadly stroke of the flames, and at midnight of the 18th the district bounded by Kearny Street to the city front on the north, and from Sixth Street to the water front on the south of Market Street were abandoned to the flames.
“On [the] Thursday the fire continued to rage with deadly fury, licking up street after street on both sides of Market Street, until it reached Van Ness Avenue on the west, and extending as far north as Broadway.
“On the south of Market Street the flames proceeded with lightning rapidity through the mission, and did not cease until Twentieth Street was reached.
“Terror and inconvenience were added to the horrible situation by the complete collapse of the gas and electric light, telephone and telegraph, the absolute stoppage of every street railway, and the bursting of the water mains throughout the city.
“Realising that the entire district east of Van Ness Street was doomed to utter destruction, it was decided to make a last stand at this avenue in the hope of saving the western addition.
“Accordingly, under military direction of the United States army and navy forces, the two blocks bounded by Van Ness Street on the west, Larken Street on the east, Union Street on the north, and Market Street on the south, were entirely razed by the aid of gun cotton and dynamite.
“Back fires were started, and on the principle that fire under certain conditions fights fire what was started at Van Ness Street rushed on east to meet the deadly flames proceeding from every point.”
The letter home to Belfast continued: “We were never for a moment free of concern and danger from the time the earthquake struck its until late last night, and during the time it is safe to say few people had a moment’s rest or sleep.
“Everyone was filled with terror and foreboding as the thousands of homeless men, women, and children, packing and dragging bundles, passed through the streets to places of safety.
“What an awful night – no one can describe. Fully 50,000 homeless people are congregated in tents and anything else available in the Presidio and the vacant blocks of land below our house.
“Fully 100,000 people are similarly situated in Golden Gate Park and the Sand Hills to the Cliff House, while scores of thousands have wandered, footsore and tremulous, from the south of Market Street and the mission to the foot hills of South San Francisco and San Mateo County.
“Thousands also, who have the means, have gone across the bay to all parts, and the fear and horror of the immediate past and future is beyond description. Wherever the fire swept not an atom of anything consumable was left.”
The letter writer added: “Every store of every description east and south of Van Ness Avenue is gone, and not a vestige of anything remains, except devastated steel, brick, and stone to San Francisco’s former greatness.”
The letter continued: “The loss will certainly ran into the hundreds of millions, and hundreds of men that were reckoned in the millionaire class a week ago are amongst the homeless today.
“The disorganisation and collapse of a great city was never so complete or appalling, and what is before us no one can tell.
“The earthquake was of such a sudden and terrible character, followed by such a terrible fire, that hardly anyone, either rich or poor, was prepared, or could get time to prepare, or even after the shock had taken place deemed it necessary to prepare for the terrible results that we now see about us.
“Thousands of families were obliged to leave their homes with what they wore and could carry in their arms. Thousands are ruined absolutely, and the results of it all no one can tell.
“The Government is feeding us all, and you can picture to yourself what it is to see residents of Pacific Avenue standing in line for bread and canned stuff to feed their families.
“The Federal troops have taken charge of our neighbourhood, and all the surviving portion of the city and Vigilance Committees at various points have been organised to assist the authorities.
“Your father and myself have been sworn in an deputies and take our turn at night. No very serious attempts yet have been made, by the lawless, but attempts are feared, although all soldiers and police have received instructions to kill at sight all law-breakers.
“A good many have already been shot and killed for stealing and looting, and this will likely put a stop to such work.”
Concluding his letter home the expatriate Ulsterman remarked: “I am glad to say we are all well, and thankful to be alive.”
Sadly, neither the name of the brother in America who experienced the earthquake or the name of the brother who received the worrying letter back home in Belfast are recorded in the News Letter. But I am sure that the descendants of either men are still living in Northern Ireland and the US.