Sydney Tyler.

San Francisco's great disaster; a full account of the recent terrible destruction of life and property by earthquake, fire and volcano in California and at Vesuvius .. online

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of the San Franciscans. Several years ago a movement
was put on foot to commerorate in one of the greatest ex-
positions the world has ever seen, the four hvndr^th anni-
versary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean ^^ Balboa.
This exposition was to have been held in IQ13. und com-
mittees had already been appointed to begin the prelimin-
ary work. ^

Scores of municipalities have been devastated by fire
and flood or have been shaken by convulsions beneath or
cyclones overhead, yet hardly has the shock passed than
the citizens are at work among the ruins, building better
than they Knew before how to build. Boston, Chicago
and Baltimore, swept by destructive fires, regained power
and within a few months were conducting their affairs as

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 317

though even the memory of disaster had passed from them.
Those who believe in San Francisco say the spirit of
Forty-nine will assert itself, that confidence will be restored
and that soon a new city, buttressed against the elements,
a city of steel and anchored masonry, will defy fate and
establish itself more firmly on the site where now are
broken columns and shapeless piles. The period. of re-
covery is surprisingly quick in American cities. Rebuild-
ing bepns within a few days, and in two or three years
scarcely any trace of the disaster remains.


Beyond all question^ the double ruin which fell upon
San Francisco represents the worst catastrophe which has
ever befallen a municipality in the United States. It great-
ly exceeds the Chicago fire of 1871, for when the Queen
City of the West was laid low she had only a population of
334,000, as compared with the 450,000 inhabitants who
dwelt within the limits of San Francisco. The area burned
in Chicago was about four square miles, while the district
devastated by earthquake and by flames in San Francisco
is approximately seven and one-half square miles. The
death roll of Chicago bore 275 names, while there is every
reason to believe that twice as many persons lost their lives
in San Francisco, taking conservative estimates of army
and navy officers as a basis.

Twelve thousand buildings were destroyed in Chicago,
and certainly more than that were reduced to ashes and to
broken beams by the double disaster which spread havoc
through the city by the Golden Gate. The monetary loss
sustained by Chicago, using careful estimates made by the
National Board of Underwriters, was $160,000,000, while

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3i8 SAN Francisco's great disaster.

that suffered by San Francisco is $250,000,000. In Chi-
cago the homes of ninety-eight thousand persons were de-
stroyed^ and in San Francisco, three hundred thousand lost
their homes. The disaster which has befallen San Fran-
cisco easily exceeds the one which devastated Chicago,
which had been considered the worst which had ever be-
fallen any Am*erican city.

Boston's fire in 1872 swept over sixty-five acres of
the business part of the city and entailed a loss of $70,000,-
000. The Baltimore fire of 1904 destroyed 2,500 buildings,
situated in eighty blocks, representing 150 acres of terri-
tory. The loss has been estimated at from $50,000,000 to
$70,000,000. The amount of insurance actually paid as
the result of the conflagration was $29,000,000.

In comparing the catastrophe in San Francisco with
others it must be borne in mind that the Western city has
of recent years not been considered heavily insured, as
comparatively small loses by fire caused many merchants to
make comparatively slight provision for the work of flames.
Many of the structures were hardly considered insurable on
account of their light and imflammable material and their
great age.

In all the i>ayments of claims the question whether the
loss was caused by the earthquake or the fire must be con-
sidered and many of the policies will undoubtedly be can-
celled on account of the earthquake clause.

This would not give the owners of buildings and of
stores as large an amount of insurance proportionately as
was received by those who suffered on account of the fires
in Chicago, Boston and Baltimore.

Yet for all that, those who know the disposition and
the temperament of the men of San Francisco say the citi-
zens will rise superior to all obstacles. Energetic and self

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 319

reliant are all San Franciscans; they have in their make-up
a buoyancy of spirit and a scorn of difficulties which come
from the olden days of the coast and the Spanish occupa-

San Francisco has had earthquakes before and has
experienced fires which have swept away considerable
areas. The first shock over, those who believe in the des-
tiny of the place maintain that the same energy will come
into play which caused Chicago in a year to regain
strength and to go forth on a career which has justified the
most sanguine hopes of her citizens.


Chicago was as near nothing as it was possible for the
city to be after the fire which began on October 7, 1871,
had burned itself out. The business district was a black
void and what had been hives of industry were blackened
ruins. Merchant princes were reduced to beggary and es-
tablishments which had done thousands of dollars' worth of
business in a day were nowhere to be seen. Stones and
bricks had not begun to cool before Chicago begpn to re-
coup her losses and to prepare for building anew.

The "Burnt Outers'*' walked about streets which
scorched the soles of their shoes. One of them was seen
fishing a brick out of a heap of masonry with the aid of
heavy folds of paper as a protector.

"Just trying to see/' he replied to an inquiry^ "when
these things will be cool enough to be laid down again."

The firm of Field and Loiter, composed of men since
known as merchant princes, saved its books from the fire
and set up a temporary office in a side street where a pla-
card was displayed saying they would be glad to hear from

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any persons who might owe them anything, as they felt
that they needed the money.

Chicago remained by the lake and day by day cleared
the ruin choked sites and laid the foundations of a new city
and a new career. Merchants who had been directing
great stores took to sidewalk stands, which they wna-
mented with the legend that although they had lost every-
thing they were still doing business at the old prices, and
exhibited meagre wares which they had received on long

"Derrick days'' in Chicago represented a period of
quick rehabilitation which before that had never been seen.
The idea of men remaining on a fire swept prairie among
the smouldering piles of the city which was commanded the
help and sympathy of the country and of the whole world.

$40,000^000 FOR REBUILDING.

What with $36,000,000 received from insurance com-
panies and $40,000,000 of contributions the city had not
much capital with which to begin life anew. Capital, how-
ever, advanced money, and Boston especially was active in
furnishing to the Queen of the West the means by which
she began her fight with fate. Millions of dollars poured
in from the American Athens. New York lent substantial
aid and her leading merchants volunteered to give all the
credit which was desired. Such messages as, "Suppose
you are burned out; order from us what goods you wish;
pay for them when you can," were wired to many ntier-
chants of Chicago, and as a result business was on its feet
again in less than a year and before two years Chicago was
well on her way to the realization of her ambitions.

One of her citizens, standing amid the city's ruins,

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 321

said that by the year 1900 Chicago would have more than
a million inhabitants^ and his prophecy, as all the world
knows, was more than realized. Chicago was the scene
of a world's fair a little more than two decades after the
*'burnt outers" walked among the smouldering embers
waiting for the time of rebuilding.

Boston, which had been the benefactress of Chicago,
was swept by fire in 1872, and yet within a year she was
blithely celebrating the centennial of the throwing over-
board of British tea in the harbor. Within five years all
traces of the conflagration were obliterated from her
streets as thoroughly as was the clog which disaster
brought removed from the spirit of her citizens.


Baltimore began deliberately to rebuild after nKuch
of the business centre had been destroyed. Two years have
passed sinc« those fat eful days and a more beautiful city has
arisen from the ashes. Tht fire was not thoroughly put
out, for in an excavation remnants of the blaze were fouml
only a few weeks ago. The merchants, afttt the district in
whkh they had been housed went up in smoke, hired old
warehouses and temporary buildin and re-established
themselves within a few days.

The municipal authorities thought that it was just as
well, considering that the city was to be largely rebuilt, to
do away with the narrow and often unsightly thorough-
fares of the lower districts. Their decision to have wide
streets and a better scheme of arrangement naturally
caused a clash, and it was six months before the prelimin-
aries were arranged. The city of Calvert took its time
about building and erected structures which have made it

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one of the most pleasing municipalities in appearance on
the North American continent.

Business^ however, did not perceptibly fail off in Bal-
timore, such were the energy and masterful self control of
her citizens. The real estate valuation of Baltimore for as-
sessment purposes before the fire in 1903 was $385,000,000,
and in 1904 the returns were a million in excess, while the
valuation of city real estate in 1905 in the Monument City
was $406,000,000, showing that the development of Balti-
more was little retarded.

How a city may rise superior to the worst attack of
the elements is shown by the history of Galveston, Texas,
swept by a tidal wave and a hurricane in 1900, and yet four
y<ears later celebrating amid restored prosperity and the
building of new defences against the encroachments of the
sea. The city of Charleston, S. C, shaken by earthquake,
returned to its usual occupations and prospered as though
nothing had happened. In many a thriving American city
to-day the visitor is taken to the top of some high structure
so he may observe the line of the last cyclone, marked by
a building erected to take the place of those which went
down or by the more recent masonry which is fitted in to
replace parts of houses which were damaged by the passage
of the storm.

"As far as any one being afraid to live there is con-
cerned," said Mr. Snow, "I do not think that is true. Men
will live on the edge of the crater of Vesuvius, and, as a
matter of fact they do. The country cannot do without San
Francisco. The harbor is one of the best in the world and
it is essential to the trade of the country. San Francisco is
an entrepot for the Orient and from it are shipped many
millions of dollars' worth of the products of the United
States. Its shipping is enormous It sends abroad the

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 323

grain from the rich Sacramento Valley by ship and
through it the railroads send fruit to the East. It is the
clearing house for the fertile state of California.

"San Francisco was there because it was needed and
it cannot be swept away. Perhaps it will have two or three
years of a struggle. Seattle may get some of the trade,
but for all that it is bound to triumph over adversity. I
have been in San Francisco often and I know the forceful,
energetic and yet apparently care free citizens of that
place." ,


Destruction of a great city might, in a financial way,
mean one or both of two things — entanglement of general
credit, or a heavy drain on capital. If New York were
deeply involved with merchants and bankers of a ruined
city, if obligations had to be met here without any pros-
pect of collecting obligations due from there — the possibili-
ties might be awkward. But that is not the situation.
Even in the Chicago fire of 1871, this turned out to be the
lesser evil.

When, however, outright destruction of property in-
volves enormous and immediate demands on capital to re-
store it, another question arises. To take merely round
numbers: If $100,000,000 worth of business houses, pave-
ments, gas and water mains, public buildings, manufac-
turing plants, and transportation appliances have been de-
stroyed in forty-eight hours, and if the necessities of the
case require replacement of all this property in the shortest
possible period, the situation as regards the country's sup-
ply of available capital must be affected. Money can be
borrowed for the purpose, but when borrowed, it must be
taken from quarters where it is already invested. In so

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far as insurance companies pay for the loss, tlie general
result is the same. The companies must withdraw from
other investments the capital awarded to owners of the
ruined buildings. The question of practical financial in-
terest is, how heavily this new load will weigh upon the


The famous modem instance was the Chicago fire of
October, 1871. Total property loss at that time ran be-
yond $200,000,000. Losses incurred by 341 insurance
companies, as a result of the catastrophe, footed up $88,-
634,122. It should be borne in mind that $200,000,000
meant a good deal more to American finance thirty-five
years ago than it means to-day. It is also interesting to
renxember that the Chicago fire occurred at the height of
a business "boom,'* with trade extremely active, and real
estate speculation rather wild in all sections of the countrj\
Bank loans were heavily increased over the year before,
without any increase in cash holdings, and a fortnight be-
fore the great fire of October 8, surplus reserves of New
York banks were down to $1,167,000.

Here are some interesting resemblances to our pres-
ent situation. What followed? Heavy Stock Exchange
liquidation, here and at London, came as a matter of
course; there were such declines, within a week, as nine
points in New York Central shares, eight in Union Pacific
and Burlington and Quincy, seventeen in Lake Shore,
twelve in Pacific Mail. So far as concerned the Stock Ex-
change, this flurry of alarm spent itself before the month
was over. Despite the large drain of currency to Chicago,
the New York bank position grew stronger. Naturally,
railways converging on Chicago had to report decreasing

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 325

earnings; the St. Paul's for instance, fell in October from
the $908,000 of 1870 to $841,000^ and in November from
$791,000 to $644,000; yet stocks even of these companies
recovered most of October's loss. What was most note-
worthy of all, was the fact that despite the catastrophe at
Chicago in October, the ensuing year was a period of en-
thusiastic speculation for the rise in everything, and of
itnmensely increased engagements of capital.


How is this to be explained? Was the Chicago dis-
aster really a negligable fact in finance, except for a
single week of Stock Exchange disturbances? This would
be a rather jsweeping conclusion; but, on the other hand,
the episode of the seventies leaves no doubt that the in-
fluence of such an event may be much overestimated. Pro-
digious waste of capital did occur in 1871, as it has occur-
red this month, and it had to be replaced. Y-et after all,
the loss at Chicago was but a fraction of the capital flung
away unproductively in the Franco-Prussian War, and the
San Francisco loss bears a similarly small proportion to
the tillion dollars or thereabouts sunk in the fight between
Russia and Japan. All that this proves is that capital is
more elastic than is sometimes thought, and that it can
beat pretty heavy strains so long as credit stands. There
are economists, as well as practical financiers, who ascribe
the f-anic of 1873 to the country's losses in the Chicago
fire ci 1871 and the Boston fire of 1872^ but the direct con-
nection is not easy to prove. In Europe, that panic has
been similarly ascribed to the losses of the Franco-Prus-
sian i^ar of 1870. What somewhat damages that theory
is the lact that France, the defeated belligerent, was about

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326 SAN Francisco's great disaster.

the only European nation whose markets did not fall into
panic^ three years later.


The one comforting feature of the San Francisco dis-
aster is found in the financial conditions of the stricken
city. The prompt action of the Government, which on
Thursday, the day after the great earthquake, authorized
the immediate transfer of $10,000,000 from New York to
San Francisco, started a steady flow of money toward the
metropolis of the Golden Gate. On that day $3,500,000
was sent by the National Park Bank of New York City
through the Sub-Treasury. According to the reports made
to the Comptroller of the Currency on January 29th last
the total of money belonging to San Francisco deposited
in various institutions in other points was not large; there
was due the San Francisco banks from other national
Banks ,$3,097,293; from state banks and bankers $3,988,-
230; from reserve agents, $5,873,468, making a total of

In regard to the first two items, which aggregate over
$7,000,000, a large proportion would be held in and around
San Francisco, and the balance would be scattered in var-
ious parts of the United States. The bulk of the last item,
nearly $6,000,000 was on deposit in New York City and


At the end of January there were ten National banks
in the city with aggregate assets of $98,191,060. After
the earthquake and before the flames had reached the bank-
ing district the doors of the various ba^ ks were called upon

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by depositors eager to secure their money. It became nec-
essary to close the doors of many banks and call on the
troops for assistance. Military guards were placed at the
bank entrance to keep the crowds in check and preserve

The United States Mint, in which was stored $39,-
000,000 in gold and silver coin and bullion, was the only
building left standing of the financial institutions of
the city. Heroic work by Supt. Leach and his as-
sistants saved the building from destruction. It with-
stood the earthquake shock and the later fire. The total
coinage at this institution for the fiscal year ended June 30,
last was $76,815,538, of which $64,313,500 was gold, and
$12,502,038 silver. The total coinage for the same year of
all the mints of the United States was $91,172,720, of which
$29,983,691 was gold. From these figures it will be seen
that the San Francisco Mint is the most important in the
country, so far as the coinage of gold is concerned.

The State Board of Bank Commissioners opened
temporary quarters in Oakland just across the bay and
took necessary steps to relieve stringency, in which task
they were aided by the government.

The banks showed the utmost pluck and no doubt
that San Francisco will arise more beautiful from her ashes
is heard from the financiers of the Golden Gate City.

San Francisco's population at the time of the confla-
gration was 450,000. The city receives from taxation a
total of $6,103,849. The taxes levied for state purposes
were $2,569489, giving the city a taxabU earning power of
$8,673,338 per annum.


Though because of the destruction of the business and

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328 SAN Francisco's great disaster.

of a larjc part of the residential section of the city, thou-
sands of the inhabitants are taking refuge in more or less re-
mote localities, this exodus is likely to be only temporary
and when the city shall be rebuilt the refugees will probably
return and renew their occupations. It is inconceivable that
no matter how great the inducements offered migration of
San Franciscans to perhaps more attractive neighborhoods,
there will be any permanent abandonment by them of the
city in which they have had their support and where very
many have accumulated their wealth. There is no other
municipality on the Coast having a location so advanta-
geous for the conduct of commercial and industrial entoi-
prises; none with so spacious and easily protected a harbor
and none combining trans-continental and ocean ti"anspor-
tation facilities as this Golden Gate — ^the nation's pathway
to the Far East. There has been built, from the beginning
of its career as a business centre, such a secure basis for
the development of all productive activities that not even
the most energetic rivalry of other newer and possibly, in
somt respects, quite as advantageous location will sup-
plant this city of Seven Hills as the metropolis of the West.
The interests, capitalistic and otherwise, which have
so long been identified with San Francisco, have no
thought of the abandonment of the city because of its ex-
posure to seismic disturbances. The disaster has taught a
lesson,which will never be forgotten, of the danger of per-
mitting the construction of buildings that, in case of con-
flagration, but add fuel to the flames; the practical solidity
of steel, reinforced with cement, as the foundation and the
framework of the structure,, has been fully demonstrated;
the disadvantages resulting from precipitate grades, which
could not well have been rectified in the early days, when
rebuilding followed disastrous fires^ will now be removed

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and the area for the resurrected city will be vastly aug-
mented. Engineering problems in construction have been
so completely solved that no difficulty will be experienced
in the rehabilitation of San Francisco in such a way as to
make it almost immune from the effects of shock and con-
flagration in the future and the new city will be, when the
work shall be completed, a marvel of modern construction.
Millions of money will be required, but it will be easily ob-
tained. The insurance upon the property destroyed will
supply much that may be needed; appropriations by the
Federal government for public buildings and by the state
and municipality for those required for the use of the com-
monwealth and the city, will be liberal; capital for private
enterprises and for the restoration of residences will be
provided without stint and the bond issues made neces-
sary will find a market in every section of the country.
The financial quarter will deubtlesss receive the earliest
attention and the institutions themselves may be expected
to undertake the rebuilding of edifices for their o^vn indi-
vidual requirements. The section of the city which is de-
voted to commercial enterprises has been spared by the
flames and probably nothing more will be needed there
than ordinary repair.


It is true that the calamity was appalling, and, meas-
ured by loss of life and destruction of property, quite un-
precedented in magnitude. It is not, however, of such a
wide spread disastrous character as would result from the
partial blighting of a single one of our season's crops —
grain, cotton or hay for example. Such a calamity would
be an unparalleled national loss and it would be felt by vast

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numbers of the community in a greater or less degree; it
might, however, be speedily reparable by the next or later
succeeding crops. The land in the residential and business
areas will doubtless be more valuable because of its im-
provement through rebuilding, filling in and regrading; the
money and securities in the vaults of the financial institu-
tions are intact and they will be made available. The
business that has been suspended by reason of the destruc-

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Online LibrarySydney TylerSan Francisco's great disaster; a full account of the recent terrible destruction of life and property by earthquake, fire and volcano in California and at Vesuvius .. → online text (page 18 of 25)