San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 1906

For us as postcard collectors the earthquake and fire that ravaged San Francisco in 1906 have special significance. Coming at the tail end of the undivided back era, the earthquake was the first major United States disaster to be extensively recorded on postcards. The Johnstown Flood was a few years too early; the Spanish-American War did not provoke widespread coverage; and in 1904, Russo-Japanese War postcards were not well known beyond the embattled nations.

Besides being at the end of one era, the 1906 disaster was also at the beginning of another: real photos. Postcard cameras and preprinted paper had appeared a bit earlier, but here was an occasion to use them to record history as it was being written. Although few real photo makers were active during the four days of the catastrophe (commercially, perhaps only one was at work), in the weeks and months that followed a number of photographers made photos for printed cards and RPs that appeared on AZO, sailboat, Cyco and other backs.

Photo reproductions were little used in publications at that time, and postcards brought news and images of San Francisco to the world at large, underscoring the importance of postcards as historical records. Furthermore, correspondents at the time were obliged to put their messages on the fronts of the cards, making them especially interesting to historians and collectors.

At 5:12 on the morning of April 18, 1906 tectonic plates shifted beneath California, and an earthquake of powerful magnitude caused upheavals along hundreds of miles of coast line. Towns from Ferndale in the north to Salinas in the south reported damaged and collapsed buildings. Cities from Santa Rosa to San Jose had extensive damage and some loss of life. San Francisco, the major city of the west, suffered the most destruction. The broken cornices, collapsed homes and fallen buildings meant little compared to what was to come.

Soon after the ground stilled from its 45 seconds of shaking, wisps of smoke were seen rising from among the closely packed wooden buildings of the working class residential areas. Chimneys had failed; stoves and lanterns had overturned. FIRE! The small fires spread, joined forces and coalesced into a raging inferno that swept northward, toward the central business district, fueled by all that lay in its path.

It was at about this time, midmorning, that the first photographs were made that would be reproduced on postcards. A. C. Pillsbury rushed from his home across the bay to take pictures that would appear as perhaps the only professionally made real photos of the early stages of the fire. Other photos, such as one made of the burning Call Building on Market Street at 10:17 a.m., would be seen on printed cards.

The fire was to rage for three days blazing its way through financial, business, residential, warehouse and palatial areas of the city. The fire department was helpless. The water mains had broken in the quake; the streets were blocked by flames and debris; and, most deplorably, the respected and capable fire chief had been killed when the tower of the California Hotel had collapsed and crashed through the neighboring fire house. The mayor asked for assistance from federal troops stationed at the Presidio. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets holding spectators back from the flames and guarding against looters. A demolition corps began dynamiting buildings which mostly fed the flames rather than creating an effective firebreak. Eventually the buildings along the east side of wide Van Ness Avenue were demolished, and when the wind calmed the fire halted there and died.

At the first shaking, fear was everywhere. People were knocked from their beds, including Enrico Caruso, the tenor who had performed “Carmen” the night before. When he found himself lying on the floor of his quarters at the elegant Palace Hotel he threw on his clothes and, followed by his valet and baggage, ran into the street screaming “’Ell of a town!” Caruso was among the thousands that crowded the ferries to escape to the safety of Oakland and points east. He never returned.

About 200,000 San Franciscans were left homeless. Half that number had fled, but the others, unwilling to leave the ruins of their homes and city, found refuge in the parks and open space. Tents and shanties were erected; because of failed chimneys fires were prohibited indoors, and people cooked and dined on the sidewalk. Sorrow and misery were everywhere but were overcome by the joy of having survived and not having abandoned one’s city. Humor smiled here and there. Signs on tents proclaimed “The House of Mirth” (from the popular novel of high society by Edith Wharton) and other witty comments. A network of camps was organized with tents supplied by the Army and, later, thousands of “earthquake shacks,” some of which were converted into permanent dwellings on private land.

Postcards recorded it all. There are many hundreds of cards of the disaster and its aftermath. Real photos showed the damage, the cleanup process and reconstruction as did printed cards which appeared within a few weeks from publishers across the continent and in Europe. Newspapers included cut-apart sheets of earthquake and fire cards. Series of comic cards gave sardonic views of the events, human interest and political wranglings of the time. Advertising cards gave new addresses for businesses. Finally when the city had arisen from its ashes many more cards promoted and recorded events that celebrated the “new” city: the Great White Fleet’s visit, 1908; the Portolá Festival, 1909; 60th statehood anniversary in 1910; and – greatest of all – the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.

The cards tell the story.

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