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Produced by David Schwan

Geo. W. Brooks, Secretary and Treasurer, Founder of the Company as
reorganized in the year 1905

The Spirit of 1906

By George W. Brooks

Founder of the California Insurance Company (as reorganized in the year
1905) and who has continuously occupied the position of Secretary and
Managing Underwriter with the Corporation since that date.

Published by the California Insurance Company of San Francisco 1921

Copyright 1921
By Geo. W. Brooks

Dedicated to the Directors and Shareholders of the California Insurance
Company in 1906 who so nobly, at their own financial cost, did their
"Big Bit."

"On fame's eternall beadroll worthie to be fyled." - Spenser


Whatever of effort has been given in the pleasant pastime of writing
these rambling and sketchy pages of reminiscences is dedicated to those
who in the hours of trial and tribulation felt with Sir Philip Sidney,
"Honor is the idol of man's mind" and determined to do that which honor
demanded knowing that if they lost their honor they lost their all.

Reading between these lines, it is hoped there will be found some
intimation, some outline, of the character of the men who composed the
directors and stockholders of the California Insurance Company, who
acted well their part, who fought the good fight and held the faith,
whose stern sense of duty and heroic courage led them to lay upon the
altar of their idealism the financial sacrifices which they made.

Theirs is the honor achieved. They neither faltered nor hesitated in
upholding and protecting their own individual good name, the fair name
of the Company nor the integrity of the financial institutions of
California, and they, like Bacon "May leave their name and memory to
man's charitable speeches, to the next age and foreign nations."

The Spirit of 1906

The California Insurance Company having played one of the leading parts
in the reconstruction of San Francisco following the disaster of 1906
and there being no record of its activities, I have, after insistent and
repeated requests from directors, stockholders and others, finally
yielded to their importunities to preserve for reference my impressions
and memories of that most important crisis ever known to fire insurance.

From the time when Nero played the violin accompaniment to the burning
of Rome, down, through the ages, to 5:15 a. m., April 18, 1906, and up
to the present date, the San Francisco disaster is the most prominent
recorded in history. It was the greatest spectacular drama ever staged
and produced the biggest heap of the "damn'dest, finest ruins" the world
has ever seen.

In transferring the records from the tablets of my memory to the printed
page, I am dealing with accurate historical facts of the California
Insurance Company together with my own impressions. The facts and
figures regarding the Company are incontrovertible. My own impressions
are but those which were felt by thousands of other San Franciscans in a
greater or lesser or more varying degree. These may be taken as merely
the local color, the object being to set forth for enduring vision, the
splendid performances of honorably disposed fire insurance companies
amongst which none discharged to policyholders the liabilities under
their contracts with any greater sense of equity, honor and liberality
than did the California Insurance Company.

The Morning of April 18th

In common with the other half million citizens of San Francisco on that
fateful morning, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a continuous and
violent shaking and oscillation of my bed. I was bewildered, dazed, and
only awakened fully when my wife suddenly screamed, "Earthquake!" It was
a whopper, bringing with it a ghastly sensation of utter and absolute
helplessness and an involuntary prayer that the vibrations might cease.
Short as was the period of the earth's rocking, it seemed interminable,
and the fear that the end would never come dominated the prayer and
brought home with tremendous import the realization of our
insignificance, of what mere atoms we become when turned on the wheel of
destiny in the midst of such abnormal phenomena of nature's forces.

It was 5:15, broad daylight, and as I glanced at my watch those figures
were indelibly fixed in my memory for the rest of my existence. The
terror and horror which suddenly sprang like a beast of prey out of the
gray dawn and grasped our heart strings, came unheralded from a day that
otherwise promised all that should make life worth living. The night had
been particularly warm and inviting. So vivid was this impression of the
glory of the morning that I was possessed by a feeling of irony that
such a beginning should herald the inception of so bitter a calamity.
Fascinated, I stood gazing at a weathervane on the top of a house across
the street. It swayed to and fro like the light branch of a tree in a
heavy gale. I was jarred out of my inanition by a terrific shock. The
house lurched and trembled and I felt that now was the end. It was
afterward discovered that this crash and jar was caused by the falling
of a heavy outside chimney, attached to the adjoining house. It had
broken and struck our dwelling at about the first floor level and torn
away about twenty feet of the sheathing, some of the studding and left a
big hole through which the dust and sound poured in volumes, adding to
the already almost unbearable confusion.

The first natural impulse of a human being in an earthquake is to get
out into the open, and as I and those who were with me were at that
particular moment decidedly human in both mold and temperament, we
dressed hastily and joined the group of excited neighbors gathered on
the street. Pale faced, nervous and excited, we chattered like daws
until the next happening intervened, which was the approach of a man on
horseback who shouted as he "Revere-d" past us the startling news that
numerous fires had started in various parts of the city, that the Spring
Valley Water Company's feed main had been broken by the quake, that
there was no water and that the city was doomed.

This was the spur I needed. Fires and no water! It was a call to duty.
The urge to get downtown and to the office of the "California" enveloped
me to such an extent that my terror left me. Activity dominated all
other sensations and I started for the office. As all street car lines
and methods of transportation had ceased to operate it meant a hike of
about two miles.

My course was down Vallejo street to Van Ness avenue, thence over
Pacific street to Montgomery. When I reached the top of the hill at
Pacific street where it descends to the business section, a vision of
tremendous destruction, like a painted picture, opened before my eyes. I
saw fires on the water front, fires in the commercial district and also
portentous columns of smoke hovering over the southern part of the city.
Then like a blow in the face came the realization that all fire fighting
facilities were nil owing to the lack of water. One short hour previous,
San Francisco was sleeping peacefully in its prosperity, and now the
sight was appalling. Devastation, far as the eye could see, was spelling
death and destruction.

My route was down Clay street from Montgomery to Sacramento. In that one
block I counted twenty-one dead horses, killed by falling walls. They
had belonged to the corps of men who bring in to the market with the
dawn the city's supplies. When I reached the corner of California and
Sansome streets (the California office being one block away on
California and Battery) I found a rope stretched across from the Mutual
Life Insurance Company Building to the site where the Alaska Commercial
Company building now stands. All beyond was policed. A soldier of the
regular army was on guard and no one was permitted to pass. Arguments
and beseechments to get to the office were of no avail. The necessity
and the emergency, however, stimulated my determination and aroused my
ingenuity. Suddenly, I ducked under the rope and ran a Marathon which
was not only a surprise to myself but also to the officers and the crowd
who yelled after me. I am sure that in this one block my speed record
for a flat run still stands unequaled.

I reached the office and there found every intimation of a hasty
departure on the part of the janitor. The front door of the building
stood wide open. I rushed in, threw open my desk and hastily gathered an
armful of what I deemed were the more important books and papers.
Glancing around to see if there was any way of saving anything else I
again received a jolt by noticing that the fire was coming down a light
shaft from an adjoining building and through an open window into the
rear office of the "California's" office. In fact, furniture was already
burning in the president's room. This was no place for me. The only
avenue of escape was the way I had come, since so rapid was the spread
of the conflagration that north, south and east were already in flames.

Upon reaching California street I rushed and headed west, and the
instant I had passed, the entire four-story outer wall of the building
located on the southwest corner of California and Battery streets (then
known as the "Insurance Building"), fell with a roar, completely
blocking the street over which I had just made my escape. Realizing that
my safety was measured by a matter of seconds, I was for a moment
unnerved. My legs trembled, my heart pounded and my breath came quickly,
and only by a great exertion of will induced by the thought that it was
time to do and not to hesitate, I made the effort and arrived safely at
the rope from which I had started. I shook as if with the ague. Sweat
and grime poured from me, but the shout that went up from the watching
crowd and the many friendly hands that sought mine, gave me my second

I had already made up my mind that possibly the Liverpool and London and
Globe Insurance Company and Colonel C. Mason Kinne would allow me to
store within their vaults whatever salvage I had taken from my desk. My
trust in their courtesy was justified. I was made welcome and the
Colonel, in the name of the company, placed anything and everything that
it had in the shape of assistance at my disposal.

As we stood talking on the corner of California and Leidesdorff streets,
a friend still living in San Francisco who had an office in the
Liverpool and London and Globe Building suggested to me that I had
better take an option on some of that company's vacant rooms. I spoke to
Colonel Kinne, a verbal agreement to that effect was made, and I turned
and smilingly remarked, little knowing what the future had in store,
that the California Insurance Company would resume business in the
Liverpool and London and Globe Building "tomorrow morning."

I then stood and watched the firemen lower a suction pipe through a
manhole in the middle of the street and pump sewerage on to the old
Wells Fargo Building. It had about as much effect as a garden hose and
the supply was soon exhausted. The firemen stood perfectly helpless,
like soldiers without ammunition, in front of the enemy. The fire had
now about everything east of Sansome street and in the absence of water
it was only a question of one or two days at most when the entire city
would be in ashes. This was not alone my impression but the same ghastly
prospect impressed itself upon all those who were gathered in the

The minutes had ticked off until it was now about 8 a. m., when another
violent shock occurred - a sort of postscript to the original 5:15
trembler. It was of short duration but while it lasted it was decidedly
impressive. The crowd scattered and I with them, for we suddenly
realized that another wall might fall with a crash and that we might be
caught. This is the only reason I can assign for our agility in getting
away, unless it might be that we simply followed the first and natural
impulse of our overwrought nerves.

The Dominant Thought

As the various impressions and shocks succeeded one another, there
always came in the interim the dominant thought of the California
Insurance Company. This thought again became uppermost and I concluded
to at once get in touch with the president. I proceeded by devious ways
over bricks, past wreck and ruin, through the stunned and gaping crowds,
until I reached the St. Francis Hotel where he resided, and finally
found him in the lobby, which was packed by an excited throng of
humanity. If ever the St. Francis needed the S. O. S. sign, it was the
morning of this day. Everybody in the hotel must have been, with others,
in the lobby.

The president was in his usual hopeful and optimistic frame of mind. He
had no fear whatever but that the fire would be shortly under control.
How this was to be brought about, he could not tell, but he was
perfectly satisfied that it would be done. I looked at the man in wonder
and admiration. Such colossal optimism was superb. To expect from fate
what appeared to me to be the impossible was indicative of a hope
sublime. I envied such a nature. It was not only a great asset but was
also a great solace in the face of an unprecedented disaster. But he had
not been where I had been nor had he seen what I had seen.

Then my thoughts turned toward home and my depression increased almost
to despair as I walked past the wreck and ruin and through the crowds
who themselves were fleeing in indescribable habiliments and with all
sorts of futile treasures grasped in their hands.

No water! Little, if any, police protection! In fact, nothing,
apparently, except Divinity itself, to prevent the conflagration from
finally burning to the ocean. A most sublime tragedy! It meant the
impoverishment and lack of homes to thousands; it meant the sweeping
away of accumulations of years of endeavor; it might mean starvation; it
meant beginning again to climb the uphill trail to success; and last,
but worst, it meant the tremendous death toll either from immediate
causes or from after effects. Even today, years after the conflagration,
many men and women live in San Francisco in a greater or less degree of
ill health, the seeds of which were planted by the terror and mental
strain which they endured on the morning of that day.

Progress of the Fire

The day passed. Neither I nor any other can remember all the details
which marked the hours of suspense. It is to be presumed that others
like myself found various, and what then appeared to them to be
tremendous, things to claim their attention and then - the second day!

The fire had now reached Van Ness avenue and again came the messengers
on horseback who shouted in passing that everyone must move. My home was
on Vallejo street about five blocks beyond Van Ness and it was generally
believed that inasmuch as that street was one hundred and twenty feet
wide that it would form a fire break which could not be crossed.
Backfiring had already been started to meet the oncoming conflagration,
but everything, including the elements, seemed to favor destruction and,
as time passed, the worry and fear increased. Owing to inability to
combat the fire, through the lack of water, doubt began to creep in as
to whether the width of Van Ness avenue and the puny attempts at fire
fighting would check the march of the flames.

About this time the question dawned upon myself and neighbors as to what
we should do with the more precious of our personal belongings. Mr.
Joseph Weisbein, a friendly neighbor, since dead, and myself evolved a
scheme to bury our belongings in the garden at the rear of my house. We
assembled four trunks, packed these with silverware and wearing apparel,
and some of the hardest physical work I have ever done was in burying
these trunks, digging the hole with a worn out shovel and a broken
spade. Then, with the help of our Chinese cook, I brought out of the
cellar a baby's buggy which had lain forgotten and unused for several
years. We loaded it with bedding and other things and trundled it down
the hill to Lobos Park near the bay shore. Trip after trip we made
before we decided that we had all that was necessary or, rather,
absolutely needful for a camp existence. The next question was shelter.
After prowling around the partially quake-wrecked gas works, I found
some pieces of timber out of which I constructed a sort of framework for
a large A tent. I borrowed a hatchet from another refugee, a stranger in
adversity. The disaster had broken down the barriers of formality and we
all lent a willing hand each to the other. I secured some spare rope and
got up my framework. This was covered to windward with some Indian
blankets sewn together by those we were trying to make comfortable.
Under that hastily erected rude shelter nineteen people slept on
mattresses that night. I did not have the good fortune to sleep. Sleep
would not come to "knit up the ravelled sleeve of care," and through the
long hours I watched the intermittent flashes, heard the noises and in
the darkness went through the added suffering of overstrained nerves.

A neighbor, J. F. D. Curtis, since dead, but at that time and for years
after the manager of the "Providence Washington Insurance Company,"
passed the silent watches of the night with me, each of us smoking
ourselves blind and watching - talking but little, although thinking
and feeling a whole lot. We were a mile from the fire, nevertheless it
was so light that a newspaper could easily have been read by its glow
from the time when the sun set on the ruins to the hour when it rose on
the next day of horror. Curtis, turning and pointing to the flaming
city, inquired in quiet tones if the California Insurance Company could
pay the bill. I replied that as a stockholder in the company, I felt
that I was ruined and I feared that the company would "go broke." He
stated that he believed the Providence Washington would weather the
storm and if the worst came to the worst with me, he would like to have
me join him in the management of the company he represented. It was a
ray of sunshine. It was a beacon of hope. It was like a life buoy thrown
to a drowning man, and I shall never forget the encouragement that came
with his offer nor the gratitude I felt, and, although subsequent events
have shown that my first fears were wrong, my gratitude endures to this

The night passed and while we were eating a cold breakfast, principally
composed of sandwiches, the man on horseback arrived again; this time,
however, with the glad tidings that the fire had been stopped at Van
Ness avenue and we could return to our homes. It was afterward learned
that the salvaging of the section of the city beyond Van Ness avenue was
due to the excellent work done by two salt water streams pumped from the
bay by tugs stationed at the foot of Van Ness avenue and carried along
by relays of fire engines. So intense and so furious was the fire that
while one set of firemen, their heads covered with blankets, held the
hose, the second stream was used to drench them, also the engine.
Further proof of the fierce and terrific heat was shown in the
circumstance that houses one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and
thirty-five feet across the avenue had windows cracked and paint
blistered. The last grand heroic stand of the fire fighters was made at
the corner of Van Ness avenue and Vallejo streets.

A man was found with a wagon to cart our things back to the house and,
while we did not have much worldly wealth in our clothes, we were
prepared to pay liberally. Under the circumstances, when his modest
charge of two dollars was met we felt that he had earned it many times
and in addition, our gratitude. Arriving at the residence, we found the
sidewalks and the street in front of it three inches thick with ashes
and cinders. Now came the task of unearthing the trunks and with it came
the thought that had this section been entirely burned how difficult it
might have been to locate the place where they had been buried.
Necessity for action and to be up and doing was too strong, however, to
allow time for any such conjectures. There was too much going on to
dwell on post-mortems. That night the streets were patrolled by marines
from United States warships in the harbor, whom the government had
hurried to the scene of action with all promptness possible.

No lights nor fires were permitted in houses. It was either retire at
sundown or retire in the dark. Whatever water was needed had to be
carried from the nearest well and even after the mains had been restored
to normal efficiency this practice was continued for fear that the
possibly broken sewers might contaminate or pollute the water. No fires
nor cooking were permitted in any building until every chimney and flue
had been passed upon by the authorities.

In order to obtain water it was necessary first to procure buckets, then
carry it from an old well in Lafayette Square, some dozen blocks away.
Baths were forgotten and shaving was a luxury. It entailed severe labor
to secure water with which to prepare the necessities of life and to
maintain a reasonable degree of personal cleanliness. In common with
every other citizen our stove was placed on the curb and this was our
kitchen and dining room for over six weeks. As there was no oven, baking
and roasting had to be dispensed with, boiling and frying being the
established fashion.

The second day after the fire, a food station was opened across the
street in an old carriage house which belonged to Mr. J. L. Flood. Here
lines would form to receive rations, the millionaire rubbing shoulders
with the laborer. The panhandler got as much as the plutocrat. The
disaster leveled all classes. A million dollars in one's pocket would
have been of little use. Nothing could be bought with it and it could
not serve as either food or drink.

Getting Back to Work

Betweenwhiles, as one crisis after another came and went, I was still
constant to the idea and still felt my responsibility to the California,
and from time to time as circumstances permitted, was strenuously
endeavoring to reach the directors and stockholders. The president, in
spite of his optimism, had fled from the Hotel St. Francis and gone to
the home of his mother on Clay and Larkin streets. For the same reason
he left there and went to the yards of the Fulton Iron Works where his
yacht "Lady Ada" was laid up, got her off the ways and tacked over to
Tiburon where he remained for some time. Finally word was received from
him that the directors of the company would hold a meeting at the Blake
and Moffitt Building on the corner of Eighth and Broadway, Oakland, on
May 2, 1906. Who really located them, scattered as they were, and finally
got them together, has remained an unexplained mystery. It must have
been either the president or Chief Clerk Shallenberger. The late Mr.
James Moffitt, a stockholder in the company and the owner of the
building named, kindly secured for us two rooms in that building for an
office. They were on the third floor facing Broadway and the location
and the habitat of the company was disclosed by a canvas sign which,
banner-like, hung upon the outer wall proclaiming this to be the office
of the California Insurance Company. For furniture, there was a flat top
desk and a typewriter (both secondhand) and the balance of the equipment
was handmade, of ordinary lumber, by a local carpenter. There was not
very much cash among those thus assembled, but, fortunately, the company
had maintained a deposit in an Oakland bank and this was immediately
available for checking purposes.

First Meeting of the Board of Directors

Quietly and almost silently the directors gathered. The only emotion
apparent was that of the usual caution shown by men of large affairs who
meet to face a crisis. The president called the meeting to order and
stated that the object of the gathering was to inform the directors that
the company was heavily involved in the conflagration which visited San
Francisco on April 18, 19 and 20, 1906, that the amount of which
obligations was at present unknown, that they overshadowed the resources
of the company and that ways and means would have to be devised to
finance the California through this crisis.

The fire maps of the company were entirely destroyed and it was not
advisable to open the safe in which the records of the company were kept
until it was sufficiently cool to prevent danger of combustion. In light
of these facts, it was impossible to immediately ascertain the actual

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington BrooksThe Spirit of 1906 → online text (page 1 of 3)