In the days after the 1906 earthquake, bricks were everywhere in downtown Santa Rosa; it was as if the skies had rained brick, or maybe every brick building in town had popped like giant brick-filled balloons. It was going to be a mess to clean up.

(RIGHT: Work crews shovel debris on a wrecking train flatcar at the corner of Fourth St. and D Street. The church in the background is the Methodist church that was the headquarters of relief efforts in the days after the earthquake. Detail of image courtesy Larry Lapeere. Click to enlarge)

The town was fortunate that it had its electric streetcar system. Installed just a year before, the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railway was able to efficiently haul debris directly from the brick pile that was Fourth St. away to the countryside. A photograph owned by the Western Sonoma County Historical Society shows an engine pushing a string of flatcars loaded with rubble heading south through Sebastopol; if you're looking for artifacts from 19th century Santa Rosa, search the old track beds along the routes to Petaluma and points west.

Local historical architect Mark Parry believes that some people also used brick and stone debris as riprap to shore up creek banks adjacent to their property, starting the fill-in that has nearly wiped out the waterways that were once the town jewels. This makes sense; there are many small horse-drawn wagons seen in those early photographs of the cleanup, carts that wouldn't be used to haul heavy loads a great distance away. (Update: An item in the May 19, 1906 Press Democrat states "many car loads" of debris and brick were being used as fill under the E Street bridge.)

Everyone pitched in to help, at first. As Tom Gregory lyrically wrote in his 1911 county history:

...[E]verybody worked - even "father." Labor and its logical supply were inexhaustible. All hands, virtually, were out of a job, and broke. It was more practical and more philosophical to shovel brickbats and ashes on to a platform car, than to stand around sadly contemplating the ruins of office and shop. The storekeeper with no store to keep kept his song blistered dragging metal beams, plates and gaspipes out of piles of wreckage. Machinists with no machine in sight except the engine that was hauling the dirt-train, picked and shoveled to the manner born. Youthful attorneys with no cases before the court until the insurance companies began to "welch" on the fire losses, took a summer-school course in railroad construction and the method of filling in grade-cuts with train-loads of debris from burnt cities. Manual labor was the only recognized profession, and by this Santa Rosa was preparing to rise phoenix-like to another life. But in that day of gloom there was heard no complaint. There was no responsive audience for a complaint.

Without diminishing the spirit of volunteerism, it should be noted that among the workers was a squad of sailors with officers that came from Mare Island, and California Northwestern sent a wrecking crew with two gangs of railroad workers. In a little over two weeks the relief fund also paid $3,000 to those searching for victims or shoveling debris, and it was announced on May 4 that labor was now compulsory for any able-bodied male who expected free provisions from the banks of donated food.

But like the rebuilding, the work started quickly and with great enthusiasm yet took forever to finish. it was months before the collapsed courthouse building - the very icon of Santa Rosa in ruins - was even cleared away, and a full year after the earthquake, much rubble of the Grand Hotel at the prominent corner of Main and 3rd still remained.

Cleaning Resumed
The work of cleaning the debris from Fourth street was resumed with renewed vigor ths morning after the holiday of Wednesday [Memorial Day]. A number of men were busily engaged in loading flat cars and an electric motor was on hand to haul off the cars when they were loaded. It is believed that in a few days the debris will be all cleared from the principal thoroughfare of the city. Many property owners along that street are preparing to build in the near future, and it will soon be the scene of unprecedented activity.
- Santa Rosa Republican, May 31, 1906

(ABOVE: Work crews shovel debris on a wrecking train flatcar near the intersection of Fourth and A Street. The courthouse is seen in the distance)


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