people gather in front of city hall following earthquake 15

In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, the earth shuddered beneath San Francisco. The 7.7 to 7.9 magnitude earthquake remains one of the worst urban disasters in U.S. history. Though the quake lasted less than a minute, its immediate impact was disastrous. The earthquake also ignited several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks. Despite a quick response from San Francisco's large military population, the city was devastated. The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Aid poured in from around the country and the world, but those who survived faced weeks of difficulty and hardship.

Oakland, California: People standing in line for Relief following the 1906 Earthquake 2

The Earthquake's Impact

Although the majority of the death and destruction was centered in the city of San Francisco, there was significant damage to all cities throughout the Bay Area, including Oakland. Most of the buildings in Oakland that were constructed of brick were seriously damaged, many of the chimneys collapsed, and the water mains were broken, leaving the city without water. The 12th Street Dam was badly damaged, which broke a 20" water main. 14

The biggest impact was the influx of refugees from San Francisco, many who stayed in Oakland even after San Francisco had rebuilt. In the three days following the earthquake, more than 150,000 people fled to Oakland, doubling its population in 72 hours.10

Human Response to the Disaster

However, the important story about the earthquake does not reside in the quake or fire, according to an online exhibit of the Oakland Museum of California, but in the human response to the disaster.

While there is a wealth of information about the Great Earthquake, here are several eyewitness accounts by Oakland residents at the time.

F. H. Pratt

F. H. Pratt, who was secretary of the Alameda Building Trades Council, provides an East Bay perspective of the Great Earthquake of 1906:

The earthquake of April 18th which caused such havoc in San Francisco did not fail to visit Alameda County in its rounds. In Oakland particularly the destruction wrought by the temblor among the brick buildings and some of the weaker frame houses was large. Hardly a brick building escaped serious damage and throughout the city chimneys were thrown down. The water mains were broken and the city left without water.

In this condition Oakland was placed at the mercy of fire, from which it was saved most likely by the habits of its people. Oakland is a late rising town, there are no all-night restaurants in the city, and but few people have fires in their houses at as early an hour as 5:15 o'clock, when the shake occurred. With all this, however, seven alarms of fire were turned in within a few minutes. These incipient blazes were promptly subdued, and within four hours the water mains had been repaired.

In the meantime the people had begun to take stock of the damage done, and it was whispered around that many had been killed in the large rooming houses where the roofs and walls had fallen in. After careful searching five bodies were found in a theatrical lodging house on Twelfth street. One other death was caused by heart failure due to the excitement.

It was then learned that San Francisco was in flames and the attention of the people centered on the condition of the metropolis.

Fire-fighting apparatus and hundreds of men went across the bay to lend their aid in trying to save the city from destruction, and as the fire progressed others took up the work of arranging to relieve the condition of those made homeless."

Here it was that Oakland outdid herself. During the afternoon and night of the 18th thousands of refugees from San Francisco came to Oakland and the people of that city fed them and found places for them to sleep. On the next day the plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the stricken metropolis was hungry or without a place to sleep. This rush of refugees continued without interruption up to Sunday morning, and it is estimated that 270,000 people were thus cared for in that time by a city of less than 100,000 people, which has few wholesale business houses and but few warehouses.

Almost everybody in the city of Oakland lent a hand in thus succoring the refugees. The merchants, with few exceptions, held their prices as usual -- indeed in some instances lowering prices. There were a few who exhibited their ghoulish character and raised their prices, but they are all marked.

So everybody helped. A general relief committee was gotten together who took charge of the general relief work.

Every society and club in the city entered into the spirit of the time and opened headquarters for the work of handling their fraternal brother who had been left homeless.

And the trade unions did the same. The headquarters of the Building Trades Council of Alameda County, at 459 Eleventh street, became a general relief headquarters of the affiliated unions, where aid was extended to the union men from San Francisco.

A general register was established for purposes of registration and identification and has been maintained to date. Hundreds of mechanics registered here.

When the hordes of refugees began to come into Oakland it became apparent that the ordinary police force were unable to properly patrol the city and to render such help as was necessary. It was then that the Building Trades Council volunteered to furnish one hundred and fifty men to work under the direction of the city officials, to help in maintaining order. The offer was accepted and it is hardly necessary to say that after these volunteers had performed the duties assigned them there was no word of complaint, but rather unstinted praise for the manner in which they had acted.

It was while engaged in this patrol work that the writer had an opportunity to observe the workings of the relief committees and the way in which the refugees were handled, fed and sent to the various relief camps.

As each train arrived at the Broadway station or a creek route boat landed thousands of hungry and homeless people, they were met by committees who first directed them to places where they were given hot coffee and something to stay their hunger, and then took them to other places where they were given a shakedown and a place to sleep.

With further time other shelter camps were established and greater comfort assured. Hospital camps were established for the injured and they were given all the aid possible, and now, two weeks after the disaster, every one of the homeless has been cared for. Thousands have left the city and gone east, north and south, and other thousands are going, but Oakland has still a population more than double her usual number, and is probably the most popular city on the Pacific Coast.

Once again has organized labor shown itself able to meet the emergency. The Building Trades Coucil issued its statement of policy before the people had fairly gotten through dodging the falling bricks.

In the cities of Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley, and the surrounding country, every brick building and many frame houses were seriously damaged. Walls had fallen, foundations had been displaced, every brick chimney had been either thrown down or broken, making it unsafe to build fires in the houses; plaster was stripped from walls and ceilings and in many instances entire buildings were destroyed. A conservative estimate of the damage done in the cities of Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley alone would place it at over $2,500,000.

It was then that a special meeting of the Building Trades Council of Alameda was called to discuss the situation within twenty-four hours after the shake.

Some merchants had begun to increase the prices of the necessities of life, and rumors were being circulated that building mechanics were about to outrageously increase their wages, especially for the building of chimneys and fixing foundations.

At that meeting, held on April 19, the Council stated its position in unequivocal terms. It was decided that the trade rules would be suspended on all relief work. All restrictions on Saturday afternoon and Sunday work were removed on that particular class of work. The Council further declared that the same conditions as obtained before the temblor would continue on all permanent work.

What a contrast is presented here with the great and truly good people who collect rents!

Since the great fire in San Francisco many people from that stricken city are quartered, temporarily at least, in the cities across the bay. Accommodations must be had for them, and it is here that the opportunity of the sharks and real estate piraces comes in. Immediately rents were raised, in many instances five hundred per cent. And yet these ghouls who are now attempting to fatten on the misfortunes of others will continue to occupy the front pews at the fashionable churches and prate about the "unreasonable demands of the labor unions."

But these pirates are marked. The earthquake, which has been a great leveler of social lines as well as brick walls, and which has brought the great mass of our people together on one common plane of humanity, has given us all a common manner of thought regarding these disreputables -- for now they are disreputables and will be shunned by all self-respecting people. 4

Albert E. Norman

In A STEEPLE AMONG THE OAKS: A CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF THE FIRST METHODIST CHURCH 1862-1962, Albert E. Norman chronicles the relief efforts of the church and its volunteers:

"No. 54 A Typical Bread line in the early stages of the relief distribution." National Archives

During the three days following the disastrous earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, more than 100,000 person poured into Oakland by ferry, railroad and other transportation means.

This was equal in number to Oakland’s entire population of that day.

Many of these persons were almost insane with terror. The large majority were definitely destitute, having nothing but the clothes on their backs.

All churches in the East Bay Region were generous in extending relief. Also efficient was the Citizens Relief Committee, and the various fraternal organizations. All were given shelter and sustenance. Churches throughout the area were turned into dormitories, clothing depots, dining halls, employment and information centers, and hospitals.

At First Church, relief work was organized by Dr. Margaret Wythe, who demonstrated a positive genius for administration work. An organization was set up within 12 hours. Within that time meals were served hungry multitudes, and the auditorium of First Church took on the appearance of a dormitory. The stains on the carpets and mars on the woodwork were scars of glory. It was worthwhile to see our refined and cultured young ladies rise before dawn to work on the early shifts during those strenuous days. They were relieved late in the day by a second group, and the second group by a third group. They worked around the clock.

The exhausted were sleeping on cushions in the pews of First Church. Our restaurant set-up fed 1,500 daily. A similar number were housed in a dormitory, while the employment bureau worked long hours taking care of applicants for work. At our free clinic was an Army surgeon aided by a group of nurses to help with first aid. Clothing was dispensed at a supply station, and there was a nursery for infants.

The Rev. E. R. Dille, who was then pastor of First Church, said he had never in his life been so proud of people as he was of First Church workers in those hours of dire need and emergency.1

Joaquin Miller

The following is an excerpt written by Joaquin Miller for the Oakland Tribune regarding his observations of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire from his home in the Oakland Hills:

"... The birds hid when the earthquake came. My chapel was open at the time. It is always open except when strangers come and I have to shut them out, but I was lying in bed after five and wide awake, for I always go to bed with the birds and get up with the birds, and the first I knew my cattle began to low and my cats came into my chapel, and I thought there might be a strange dog.

I got up, and looked out for the dog, but it was nothing of the sort. The cats were under my great brass bed and I never witnessed such stillness. I lay down again and then the sun burst over the hills and San Francisco was silver and gold.

The streets seemed wide, bright and steep, and I've never seen the city so large, but the stillness was terrible and the light was unnatural, and then two little talented birds came into the chapel and a humming bird out of the apple tree came in and there was a bump and a thump as if I were in a small boat bumping against a wharf.

I felt about four of these bumps and got up and went to my chapel door, and saw one of my Japanese boys at my right hand, and one at my left.

I said "Earthquake?" and they answered "earthquake," and we went back to bed. The cats went out and everything seemed satisfactory.

After breakfast I went out to work in my garden, then the smoke began to curl up, and it curled up high and strong, for there had never been such a rich city in the history of the world – rich in rye and bourbon from Kentucky – rich in all brands of wines. Never had there been a fire so richly fed.

From every corner you could see the flames bursting higher and higher from these costly stores which no city had ever had before, and the clouds for all three days and nights were most wonderful to behold." 3

The following are eyewitness accounts of the 1906 earthquake and fire in Oakland, California, by two of the children of John Edgar McElrath and Elsie Ann Alden McElrath.

Phoebe McElrath

The first letter is written by Phoebe McElrath, who was 26 when the earthquake and fire occurred. She recalls the event 69 years later, as though it happened yesterday. It was dictated by Phoebe McElrath to her nurse and companion in Oakland, California, for her brother Alden’s granddaughter for a school project. It was retyped from the original copy in the McElrath Family Private Collection.

April 22, 1975

Dear -----,

This is my story of the earthquake of 1906 as I remember of the fires and trials of April 18.

I was rudely awakened by the violent movement of my bed about 5:00 in the morning. It was as though a giant had taken hold of the headboard of the old walnut bedstead on which I had been asleep and was shoving the bed rapidly back and forth across the room. I jumped out and ran downstairs and out the front door with the other members of the household, onto the wide circular lawn, under the old giant bay tree. We were a large family and had houseguests so that there were numerous white-clad barefooted people on the misty lawn. My recollection is that it looked a party of the spirits at dawn. There was no terror only wide amazement wondering what nature was up to. My father who had risen earlier and was working in the garden had enough terror. We felt the earthquake, but he saw it. Our house was an old Victorian mansion made up of many additions and had several very large handsome brick chimneys on its roof. As the earthquake proceeded they started to fly in all directions. At each turn and angle of the old mansion there resulted a pile of bricks as big as a small hay mound. Then my father saw my brothers leap out the side door. He thought “Thank God the boys are safe.” He said if he had not had his spade in the ground and clung onto it he would have been thrown flat. Such an early morning experience. Later one by one we sneaked back in the house and dressed and returned to the garden. But nobody was brave enough to sit in the house for several nights as there were dire predictions of earthquakes yet to come, so each one dragged their mattress and bedding out into the birch grove where they set up camp for a few nights.

Poor San Francisco! Little did we realize what had happened over there. Later we were to know. All night long the ferry boats brought hoards of folks across the east bay where they could seek shelter with relatives or friends.

I will tell you, all night long we could hear people shuffling on the sidewalk with packs on their backs, the family treasures including clothing rescued from their homes, hopefully seeking shelter in the east bay. Literally thousands of people had been shaken out of bed and now possessed nothing but what they could snatch before the fire reached them. The water mains had been broken and the fire department was helpless so they decided to use dynamite to blast a back fire path. Later when we went to tour the ruins from the ferry building to Van Ness Avenue there was nothing but a sea of ashes, not a building nor a stick in sight. Everything had been knocked down and burned up. One episode I remember hearing of was of a prominent local socialite who gave birth to a son on the ruins of Golden Gate Park. Another episode was that of Caruso who was the world-famous tenor who was shaken out of his bed in the Palace Hotel and was excitedly running around the streets of San Francisco in his nightshirt. With no homes, no food, no means of cooking, thousands of people would have gone hungry had it not been for the churches of the east bay. They set up centers and invited all to come in for free meals. All the neighboring cities and communities were generous and helped enormously. I remember being impressed by Petaluma who sent a carload of boiled fresh eggs. Other towns responded in like fashion. Finally order was restored in San Francisco and the wonder of it all was San Francisco was rebuilt earthquake and fireproof into one of the most beautiful cities of the world.

Use any part or all of this narrative as you see fit. I hope it is not late for your purpose. Events of which I had no control caused delay in answering your good letter which I enjoyed. Ask your teacher to give you a high mark for effort.

All my love,

(s) Phoebe McElrath

Clifford McElrath

The second letter is written by Clifford McElrath, who was 15 when the earthquake and fire occurred. He recalls the event 69 years later in a letter written in Jackson, California, for his brother Alden’s granddaughter for a school project. It was retyped from the original copy in the McElrath Family Private Collection.

April 15, 1975

Dear -----

When I came home this afternoon I found your letter and was very glad to hear from you. How are your mother and dad and all the family. Give them all my love. I have built a fire in the fireplace, put my supper on to cook and while it is cooking am going to start answering your letter. I will finish it after supper. I know you have a deadline to meet so am wasting no time.

As to the earthquake of 1906 I remember it very well. I, like many others had some interesting experiences. I will write them down without any attempt at logical sequence or order but just how they come to mind. You can sort them out and use them as you see fit.

The week before the earthquake I had spent my nights sleeping in a treehouse that your grand-dad and I had built. When I came back into the house I decided that sleeping under the stars was my dish. Outside my room was a flat roof with planter boxes around the edge. This was an ideal place so I thought to put my bed. I forgot to say that the week I spent in the tree house was the spring vacation. Starting back to school was a busy time so I did not get to move my bed out on the roof either Monday or Tuesday night.

Wednesday night I came home about ten o’clock from some school doing. It must have been Tuesday night as the earthquake occurred Wednesday morning at 5:30 give or take a few minutes. Anyway I started to move my bed out on the roof. Your grand-dad who was my brother Alden was sleeping in the room next to mine. He woke up and asked me what I was doing. When I told him he said “Don’t move it out tonight. Mother went to bed with a sick headache and you might wake her up.” So, I left it in the middle of the floor and went to bed.

At 5:30 the next morning I was awakened by my bed rolling on its castors all over the room. As I jumped out of bed not fully realizing what was happening a six-flue brick chimney fell covering the spot on the roof where I had planned to put my bed about two feet or more deep with bricks and mortar. If I had been out there they would have washed me off the bricks with a sponge.

Alden and I (Alden was your grand-dad) ran down the back stairs and out the back door. My dad (that would be your great-grand-dad) was out in the yard as was his custom working in the garden. He later said that he tried to wave us back as another chimney was just starting to fall off the roof onto the back porch. He said we ran out through a shower of bricks and he thought surely we would be killed. I don’t remember any bricks falling but when we were safely out and looked back I remember the back porch and steps were covered with bricks and some still falling.

Mother (your great-grandmother) and the girls all went out the front door. The front door jammed and they had trouble opening it and while they were struggling with the door a shower of bricks came down covering the steps about where they would have been. It seemed as though an angel was perched on all of our shoulders that morning as we all came through without a scratch. There were only a couple of neighbors but all were out in their night shirts and pajamas, the women all wore long nightgowns down to their ankles and a few of the men wore pajamas but most of them long nightshirts and that was how every-[missing]

Pages tagged “1906 earthquake”

Links and References

  1. A Steeple Among the Oaks: A Centennial History of the First Methodist Church 1862-1962 By Albert E. Norman
  2. Views of San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire OAC
  3. 1906 Earthquake Account of Joaquin Miller San Francisco Museum

  4. Alameda Building Trades Relief Work by F.H. Pratt (F.H. Pratt, Alameda Building Trades Council secretary)

  5. The Great Quake: 1906-2006 / Quake sparked boom in East Bay SFGate

  6. Letter from Phoebe McElrath about the 1906 Oakland earthquake.pdf This is a first-hand account of the earthquake as experienced by a young Oakland girl. Sixty-nine years after it occurred, she recounts the experience to her brother Alden's granddaughter. McElrath Family private collection.

  7. Letter from Clifford McElrath recollections of 1906 Oakland earthquake.pdf This is a first-hand account of the earthquake as experienced by a young Oakland boy. Sixty-nine years after it occurred, he recounts the experience to his brother Alden's granddaughter. McElrath Family private collection.

  8. The Planning History of Oakland, Ca.

  9. The Oakland Museum of California.

  10. Refugees Go To Oakland. The Call-Chronicle-Examiner. April 19, 1906. The Virtual Museum of San Francisco.

  11. San Francisco Earthquake, 1906. National Archives.

  12. Good Question: How Did Oakland Help Out In The 1906 Earthquake? CBS SF Bay Area. April 18, 2011.

  13. The New York Times. April 18, 1906

  14. Dam Is Badly Damaged Oakland Tribune April 18, 1906

  15. ohrphoto.earthquakes.003 Oakland History Center, Oakland Public Library