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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The fire, which, in 1666, destroyed the greater part
of the city of London, is among the great tragedies of
history. Despite the fact that more than three centuries
have passed since this catastrophe, no great fire occurs
but that the event is a matter of mention. In D. Hume's
History of England, this reference to the event is found :

"While the war (with the Dutch) continued without
any decisive success on either side, a calamity happened
in London which threw the people into great consterna-
tion. Fire, breaking out (September 2, 1666) in a baker's
house near the bridge, spread itself on all sides with such
rapidity that no efforts could extinguish it, till it laid in
ashes a considerable part of the city. The inhabitants,
without being able to provide effectually for their relief,
were reduced to be spectators of their own ruin ; and were
pursued from street to street by the flames which unex-
pectedly gathered round them. Three days and nights did
the fire advance; and it was only by the blowing up of
houses that it was at last extinguished. * * * About 400
streets and 13,000 houses were reduced to ashes. The
causes of the calamity were evident. The narrow streets
of London, the houses built entirely of wood, the dry sea^^on,
and a violent east wind which blew; these were so many
concurring circumstances which rendered it easy to assign
the reason of the destruction that ensued. But the people
were not satisfied with this obvious account. Prompted
by blind rage, some ascribed the guilt to the republicans,
others to the Catholics. * * ♦ The fire of London, though

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34^ SAN Francisco's great disaster.

at that time a great calamity, has proved in the issue bene-
ficial both to the city and the kingdom. The city was re-
built in a very little time, and care was taken to make the
streets wider and more regular than before. * * * Lon-
don became much more healthy after the fire.

A closer view of the great fire may Be had in the
pages of Evelyn's Diary, a contemporaneous publication,
under date of September 7, 1666. The writer's experiences
are thus quaintly described :

"I went this morning (Sept. 7) on foot from White-
hall as far as London Bridge, thro' the late Fleete-street,
Ludgate hill, by St Paules, Cheapeside, Exchange, Bishop-
gate, Aldersgate and out to Moorefields, thence through
Cornehill, etc., with extraordinary difficulty clambering over
heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently mistaking
where I was. The groimd under my feete so hot, that it
even burnt the soles of my shoes. * * * At my retume
I was infinitely concerned to find that goodly Church
St. Paules now a sad ruine, * ♦ * Thus lay in ashes that
most venerable church, one of the most ancien* pieces of
early piety in ye Christian world, besides neere 100
more. ♦ * * In five or six miles traversing ;»bout I did
not see one loade of timber unconsum'd, nor m%ny stones
but what were calcin'd white as snow. * * * J *en went
toward Islington and Highgate, where one might have seen
200,000 people of all ranks and degrees disp^rs*'^ and lying
along by their heaps of what they could save from the fire,
deploring their losse, and tho' ready to perish for himger
and destitution, yet not asking one penny for reliefe,
which to me appear'd a stranger sight than any I had yet

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Mallett's earthquake cata^logue contains the record
of nearly 7000 seismic disturbances, but of these only a
very small number affected the northern part of this hemis-
phere. While earthquakes are on the record here as far
back as 1755, when the inhabitants of Boston were scared
by falling chimneys at about the time when Lisbon was
destroyed, only three serious disturbances in the North
American Continent are recorded.

Two of these occurred in-Califomia. One was in 1812,
when, while vesper service was being celebrated in the mis-
sion church of San Juan Capistrano, the building collapsed,
burying several hundred worshipers, some fifty of whom
were killed. In 1872 a series of shocks passed through the
Inyo Valley, Cal., with disastrous consequences both to life
and property. Chasms opened in the ground, swallowing
several persons. The town of Long Pine was buried under
a crumbling hillside and twenty-seven of its inhabitants
lost their lives. Some extraordinary phenomena were ob-
served on that occasion. In several places the land sank
many feet. Owen's Lake rose five feet, and for several
hours the waters of two tributary rivers were running back-


The third serious earthquake on this continent occurred
in the city of Charleston, at about 10 P. M., on August 31,
1886. The first shock was the most severe, causing the loss
of about fifty lives by the collapse of buildings and destroy-
ing property to the value of $5,000,000. It was estimated at


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the time that seven-eighths of the buildings in the town were
wrecked or damaged. The most terrible feature to the in-
habitants was the cx)ntinuance of slight shocks for ten days
afterward. None of these caused damage, but they kept
the population in a state of constant panic, and many slept
out in the streets during the entire time.

The Charleston earthquake is unique in having stricken
a section where seismic disturbances were unknown. Charles-
ton lies on a peninsula between the Cooper River, on the
east, and the Ashley River, on the southwest.

"At 9.51 P. M.,** says an excellent description, "the
attention of the observer in Charleston was vaguely attracted
by a sound that seemed to come from the office below, and
was supposed for a moment to be caused by the rapid roll-
ing of a heavy body, as an iron safe or a heavily laden truck,
over the floor. Accompanying the sound there was a per-
ceptible tremor of the building, not more marked, however,
than would be caused by the passage of a car or dray along
the street. For perhaps two or three seconds the occurrence
excited no surprise or comment. Then by swift degrees,
or all at once — it is difficult to say which — the sound deep-
ened in volume, the tremor became more decided, the ear
caught the rattle of window sashes, gas fixtures, and other
movable objects ; the men in the office glanced hurriedly at
each other and sprang to their feet — and then all was be-
wilderment and confusion.

"The long roll deepened and spread into an awful roar,
that seemed to pervade at once the troubled earth and
the still air above and around. The tremor was now a rude,
rapid quiver, that agitated the whole lofty, strong-walled
building as though it were being shaken — shaken by the
hand of an immeasurable power, with intent to tear its
joints asunder and scatter its stones and bricks abroad.

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There was no intermission in the vibration — from the first
to the last it was a continuous jar, adding force with
every moment, and, as it approached and reached the climax
of its manifestation, it seemed for a few terrible seconds
that no work of human hands could possibly survive the
shocks. The floors were heaving underfoot, the surround-
ing walls and partitions visibly swayed to and fro, the
crash of falling masses of stone and brick and mortar was
heard overhead and without.

"For a second or two it seemed that the worst had
passed, and that the violent nwtion was subsiding. It
increased again and became as severe as before. None
expected to escape. A sudden rush was simultaneously
made to endeavor to attain the open air and fly to a place
of safety; but before the door was reached all stopped
short, as by a common impulse, feeling that hope was vain—
that it was only a question of death within the building
or without, of being buried beneath the sinking roof or
crushed by the falling walls. The uproar slowly died away
in seeming distance. The earth was still, and Oh I the
blessed relief of that stillness."

The Charleston quake was divided into five phases.
Preliminary tremors and murmuring sounds Tasted about
twelve seconds, and, although they increased in strength,
they were succeeded somewhat suddenly by the violent oscil-
lations of the second phase, followed by a third phase of
much less intensity, and a fourth of stronger oscillations,
lasting about fifty seconds. The fifth phase, in which the
tremors died out rapidly, continued about eight seconds,
99 that the total duration of the earthquake was not less
than seventy seconds.

Many persons in the vicinity asserted that they saw
waves moving atong the surface of the ground. A Charles-

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ton resident, describing this phenomenon, said : "The vibra-
tions increased rapidly and the ground began to undulate
like the sea. The street was well lighted, having three
-gas lamps within a distance of 200 feet, and I could see
the earth waves distinctly. They seemed to come from
both southwest and northwest, and crossed the street diag-
onally, intersecting each other, lifting me up and letting me
down as if I were standing on a chop sea. I could see
perfectly, and made careful observations, and I estimate
that the waves were at least two feet in height.**


According to Professor E. S. Holden's catalogue of
Gilifomia earthquakes, covering the years between 1769
and 1896, ten of the earthquakes of the nineteenth century
were sufficiently serious to crack the walls of buildings
and discourage the erection of high and fireproof brick and
stone buildings, thus always laying the city more liable to
destruction in case of fire.

In the thirty-six years between 1850 and 1886 there
were in San Francisco alone 254 separate light seismic
disturbances, and in the same time in the entire State
there were 514 tremors. A very severe shakeup was on
October 8, 1865, when the tremor cracked the walls of many
buildings, and so frightened the people that a lot of pioneer
families left the city and State. The weird murmur and the
clattering of loose objects on the earth that go with earth
tremors have since become familiar things to San Fran-

A very severe shock in 1852 destroyed ene of the an-
cient and picturesque misions of the Franciscan Fathers
in Southern Gilifomia. It was felt in San Francisco, but
it did little damage there.

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On March 26 and 27, 1872, there was a series of vio-
lent shocks in the Inyo Valley, which destroyed several
small towns and killed some thirty persons. The disturb-
ance was felt in San Francisco, where the usual cracking
of building walls accompanied the quiver. Great damage
was done the Lick House, a well-known hotel.

A shock in 1898 did much damage in San Francisco,
though it did not cause any loss of life. It began at 11.43
on the morning of March 31. Houses were shaken to
their foundations, and even the old residents who were used
to the ordinary tremors were excited. A tidal wave ac-
companying the shock rolled in from the bay to wreck
small boats and parts of the docks. The city was cut oflf
from telepraphic communication for several hours. Since
that time no buildings more than two stories in height have
been erected on the Government reservation on Mare Island,
for the seismic disturbance of 1898 did over $150,000
damage to the naval station there.

This shock was felt in Central and Northern Cali-
fornia. Serious damage was done in three or four small
interior towns, where fires started. The tremor of 1898
is said to have been the severest San Francisco ever ex-
perienced, and it was counted remarkable that no lives
were lost.


Little news comes, out of San Francisco about the
ordinary and frequent tremors or "temblores," as they are
called, for it is not good business for the city. Strangers
sojourning there are sometimes alarmed by the quivering
of the earth that makes gas fixtures clatter and the bed
shake, but the old San Franciscan will always count such

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35^ SAN Francisco's gr£at disaster.

things as nothing, pooh-poohing the idea of danger. Often
a stranger who sees usually stable things about him cut-
ting up is told that blasting just outside the dty is re^>on
sible for the shock. In most cases it is some slight seismic
disturbance that is responsible.

The City Hall in San Francisco was one of the very
finest buildings in the city, and the people are proud of
it. It cost $7,000,000. One Sunday, not long ago, it was
noticed that the peak of one of the twin towers had been
jarred from its base. It was denied that seismic disturb-
ances had caused it, but the popular idea laid it all to the

San Francisco seems to be always the subject for
either very sudden evil fortune or very sudden good for-
tune. In 1849 her population as about 20,000. It had
just sprung up into a somewhat big city for those days
and that section of the country, following the discovery
of gold in her neighborhood. Like a mushroom it had
grown, coming up almost in a night from a little village
that was almost a century old.


While the city was experiencing the first influx of
good fortune there came the first big fire, in 1849. -^.11
the buildings on Kearny Street, between Washington and
Clay, were swept away. The loss was $1,000,000, which
was big for a city of its size. Lumber and labor were hard
to get. The wages for laborers went up as much as $8
or even $16 a day.

But in spite of the difficulties, San Francisco built up
her burned district with even better houses than had been
there before. Then the next year, on May 4, 1850, three

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 353

whole blocks were eaten up by the flames. Two of them
were between Clay, Jackson, Kearny, and Montgomery
Streets. The other one was bounded by Washington,
Kearny, Jackson, and Dupont Streets. Parts of other
blocks were burned. The loss this time was $3,000,000.

In a perfect frenzy the San Franciscans began to re-
build. Six weeks later, on June 14, a fire swept away
everjrthing bounded by Clay, California and Kearny Streets
and the water front. Again the loss was $3,000,000.
Nevertheless, rebuilding was begun at once, the effort al-
ways being to put up better houses than had burned down.
In the last two fires the merchants had suffered heavily.
Piles of goods lay about on the streets and much of it
was stolen. The harbor was filled with old hulks that were
used to store away the goods that had been dragged from
the burning buildings.

The next year, on the anniversary of the fire of May
4, flames swept over the entire business section of the city,
burning what had escaped former fires and what had been
built since they devastated San Francisco. The damage
this time was $7,000,000. More than 1,500 houses were
destroyed, and many persons were killed. Workmen con-
nected with two of the several brick stores remained inside
their walls to protect the goods. They perished.


The flames raged over sixteen blocks, ten being
bounded by Pine, Jackson, Kearny, and Sansome Streets;
five by Sansome, Battery, and Sacramento Streets and
Broadway, and one by Kearny, Montgomery, Washing-
ton, and Jackson Streets. The Custom House and the old
Jenny Lind Theatre were destroyed. A man suspected of

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354 SAN Francisco's great disaster.

having set the fire was beaten to death in the sight of the
flames he was supposed to have started. A Vigilance
Committee took charge of the city. The harbor was filled
with still more hulks that were brought from anywhere
to hold the goods of the merchants. San Francisco was
more a city of the water than of the land.

But San Francisco was not done with fires for even
a breathing spell. A few weeks later, June 22, eight
more blocks went to ashes. There wasn't much to San
Francisco then but a few little houses on the outskirts
of what had been the city and a motley collection of hulks
that choked the harbor.

One reason why the fires had been so disastrous was
that the buildings were of wood. As the city built up
after that finer and more substantial' buildings took the
place of those that had been destroyed, but always the
thought of earth tremors influenced builders to put up
frame structures,


The last earthquake that occurred in San Francisco
before that of April 18, was about the middle of January,
1900. Several distinct shocks were felt early in the morn-
ing, causing the vibration of buildings all over the city.
The chief building affected was the St. Nicholas Hotel,
which was severely shaken. The walls collapsed in parts
of the structure, patrons were thrown out of their beds,
and furniture was destroyed.

In 1904, there was a severe seismic disturbance in
Los Angeles, which was felt throughout that city and miles
around. No actual damage was done, but this was the
most severe shock that had ever been felt in Southern

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Science is baffled by the phenomenon popularly de-
scribed as "earthquake." Tremendous strides have been
made in the past half century in inquiry into every realm
of nature, but here there has been little progress. Wonder-
ful advances have been made in the instruments with
which earth tremors are measured and many have expressed
the hope that in some future day a process will be devel-
oped by which warning can be given that such disturbances
are imminent. But the day, so far as the achievements of
the present are concerned, is far in the future. Every
demonstration of this kind, now, is carefully studied in the
light of experience and from the visible records made by
the seismograph. The national government will direct
the study of the San Francisco disturbance. It is expected
that valuable results will be achieved, since this is the most
severe shock known to have taken place on this continent
The fissures in the earth, uplifts and depression, the direc-
tion of the waves, the geology underlying the affected
region, these, and a hundred considerations enter into the
study. Nothing will be overlooked that may be counted on
to throw any light on the general subject. The ambition of
scientists engaged in the study of seismic disturbances is
to perfect a system of earthquake warning. If this can
be accomplished it will take a place among the greatest
boons given by science to the human family. If the San
Francisco disaster brings the realization of this dream
nearer, it will have served a vast purpose.

For the present there is little in text books beyond
theories and opinions. The newest catastrophe has brought
out a new stock of these, and this chronicle would not be


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complete without mention of some at least of these. These
will be the sign posts, marking where science stood when
San Francisco was stricken. It may mark the starting point
for a new era of knowledge that shall supersede mere theory
and speculation.


Dr. G. Willard, Geologist of the United States Geo-
logical Survey, believes that the time will come when
scientists would be able to predict an earthquake sufficiently
in advance of its occurrence to give warning to persons
likely to be caught by it.

"Of course, I do not say that it will come soon," said
Dr. Hayes, "but I see nothing improbable in the idea at all.
I think it is largely a matter of having a sufficient number
of properly equipped observation stations, with prompt and
thorough exchange of observations. Earthquakes are al-
most invariably preceded by premonitory signs and symp-
toms. These are now recognized and recorded. But there
are not enough observers engaged in the work to make
their records and observations of practical benefit in the
way I have indicated.

"Fifty years ago the idea that it would be possible to
predict a storm would have been regarded as preposterous.
But with the increase of the number of weather observers,
and the development of the instruments, they have reached
the stage of practical certainty, and the service has become
of immense value throughout the world. Of course, they
have had a great deal more weather to observe than the ge-
ologists have had earthquakes, and the scope and thorou^-li-
ness of their observations have developed more rapidly
than in the case of seismic disturbances. But I see no rea-

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SAN Francisco's great disaster. 359

son why, with a proper extension of the field of observations,
and the proper equipment of the observers, there should not
result, in a comparatively few years, substantially the ability
to foretell, for an appreciable period of time, the occurrence
of serious earthquakes.

In discussing the shocks which devastated San Fran-
cisco, Dr. Hayes said that the ultimate cause was undoubt-
edly "a deep readjustment" of the earth, manifesting itself
upon the surface by a slip along the line of a fault. These
faults occur at various places upon the earth's crust, and are
similar to those found in ore or coal veins, except that their
scale is thousands of feet compared to inches in the mine
scale. When, for any cause, a deep readjustment takes place
the surface effect usually follows the line of a fault.

"This is the greatest problem," he said, " or one of the
great problems that we are studying all the time. We know
that certain parts of the earth are slowly going down and
other parts are rising. That has been going on in Califor-
nia. Only yesterday, speaking geologically, the coast line
of California was lifted up to a considerable extent. The
traces of the old beach line are easy to follow, and the fact
that the line has been lifted to different heights at different
places, and that in places it lies at an angle, and not hori-
zontally, shows that it was lifted, and that it was not the
receding of the water whidi left it there.'*

"It may be,'* said Dr. Hayes, " that a slip occurred
somewhere at the upper, or northern, end of one of these
faults, and, following down to the southeast, produced the
shock that destroyed San Francisco and wrecked Palo Alto


"If there was any connection between the eruptions

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360 SAN Francisco's great disaster,

of Vesuvius and the Causasus and Canary Island eartli-
quakes/' said Professor James F. Kemp, who occupies the
chair of geology at Columbia University, "other places in
all probability would have suffered, too. New York, for in-
stance, is on the same parallel as all these places. While
I would not deliver an absolute opinion, to my mind these
disturbances have nothing to do with the California earth-

"The California coast is a place where earthquakes
of more or less violence are frequent. The Pacific Coast
line is one of the latest additions to our continent. Con-
ditions there are absolutely unsettled ; it is still in the mak-
ing. The coast is very abrupt. It has few good harbors
and is very mountainous. It is a more unstable country
than any other part of the United States.

"The present earthquake in all probability was started
b5^ a slipping along some fault line, as we call it, in the in-
terior of the earth. A fault line is a line where two or more
geological deposits from the same or diflferent formative
periods meet. Accelerated by one cause or another, these
deposits slip apart and create a rift. There is a consequent
adjustment of the crust of the earth to the new conditions
in the interior, and this generally is the cause of an earth-
quake. Fault lines are very common in the mountainous
country of California."

Professor Kemp said he thought the earthquake in
California was not of volcanic origin, and therefore had
no connection with the great upheavals that have occurred
from time to time in Central America and the northern part
of South America. "The outer portion of the earth/' he
said, "from time to time adjusts itself to interior conditions.

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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 20 of 25)