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)

Life was tough for anyone living in Santa Rosa in the week after the 1906 earthquake. Electrical lighting was out for six days, and gas remained shutoff for more than a week beyond that. Many pitched tents on their lawn and slept outside while some camped in lodge halls or moved in with others who lived in towns less shaken.

Pity also the friends and families outside of Santa Rosa. In that first week they heard that the town was completely wiped out with thousands possibly dead, and the pitiful few survivors were living like animals in the wilds. No wonder that the Democrat-Republican newspaper noted that "the amount of mail matter that is being received here is immense" and "hundreds of belated telegrams are being received here daily for Santa Rosans and Sonoma County people."

The rumors of Santa Rosa's demise were greatly exaggerated, of course, and the worst of the misinformation appears to have originated in an outrageously false item published by the cobbled together San Francisco "Call-Chronicle-Examiner" the day after the catastrophe. Here was the first reference to "10,000 homeless men, women, and children huddled together... [in the] hills." Those survivors were huddled in the Rincoon [sic] hills, specifically, and that was only the beginning of the bad news: Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale, Hopland and Ukiah were also destroyed, along with Sonoma, Glen Ellen, and the rest of the Sonoma Valley. Nearly everything between Marin and somewhere near the Oregon border was now flattened, if you believed that article, and sadly, many other newspaper editors around the nation did.

It took a couple of days for the national media hysteria to wane; on April 20, a Washington Post headline warned, "Loss of life in Santa Rosa may reach to thousands," but the paper shifted down gear the next day with the more accurate, "40 die at Santa Rosa - First reports of the disaster greatly exaggerated." Still, an appetite for horror remained.



A few days later, several papers also picked up the dramatic first-hand account of C. O. (sometimes, C. A.) Duffy, who escaped death in the Saint Rose Hotel by throwing himself on the floor of his room next to a sturdy mahogany dresser just as the building collapsed. The Associated Press wire story of April 22nd claimed he also said, "When I registered at the Santa Rosa Tuesday night there were ninety-eight people in this hotel altogether. When the crash came during the awful earthquake none could escape." Not explained was how a hotel guest happened to know that there were precisely 98 people there on that morning, but it certainly made it a more tragic tale, and nudged the death toll higher.

But the award for Best Creative Writing goes to an AP story datelined April 26, more than a week after the quake: "Cut off by the disaster from communication with the outside world, Santa Rosa knew nothing of the destruction of San Francisco until the arrival from there of a trainload of nearly 1,000 refugees, begging for help..." It was utter bull; the edition of the Santa Rosa Republican printed the very afternoon of the quake had details about the situation in San Francisco, noting that the news came on the morning train (sans refugees). The author of this melodramatic scenario probably went on to a swell career writing Hollywood screenplays.

Awards for audacity and tastelessness must also be given to the advertisement shown at right, which appeared in the June 16, 1906 Oakland Tribune, and used the Santa Rosa tragedy to promote both sobriety and peddle soda pop: "If you are looking for miracles, try one of those Fruit Punches at Lehnhardt's."


SAN FRANCISCO CALL-CHRONICLE-EXAMINER (April 19) - This city is a total wreck. There are 10,000 homeless men, women, and children huddled together. The loss of life is not to be estimated. It will probably reach the thousands....

...What was not destroyed by the earthquake has been swept by fire. Until the flames leaped into the heavens there was hope of saving the residence district. It was soon apparent that any such idea, that might have been entertained, was to be abandoned.

This was appreciated by the citizens and they prepared to desert their homes. Not even their household goods were taken. They made for the fields and hills, to watch the destruction of one of the most beautiful cities of the West.

The water system of the municipality was destroyed by the earthquake. Fire fighting was not to be thought of. The city was at the mercy of the elements and crumbled and cracked as the gentle west breeze from the great Pacific blew from the hill to fan the flames to undestroyed localities. Thus the citizens watched from the Rincoon [sic] hills their homes erased.

In a few cases some attempted to return to the burning city to rescue valuables. Many of them who ventured too close were overcome by the heat and smoke. They dropped, choked and fainting, in their tracks. In many instances these foolish souls were left to their fate. There were too many injured and dying who needed attendance, and who had been injured in the first awful crash to allow those who had returned of their own free will to be cared for...

...On the north conditions are fully as shocking as here. There is no communication by wire or railroad between here and Healdsburg...Many have arrived, however, on horseback and in wagons.

Three messengers bring the saddest tiding of the destruction of Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale, Hopland and Ukiah. This report takes in the country as far north as Mendocino and Lake counties, and as far west as the Pacific Ocean...

...West of here seven miles the town of Sebastopol is no more. The bank building is the only structure left standing in the village...

...To the southeast of here, Sonoma, Glen Ellen, and a dozen other small towns throughout the Sonoma Valley, are all reported in ruins. The country far and wide, from the meager reports received by horsemen, must be in ruin.

How many are dead and suffering in these outlying districts cannot be ascertained at the writing. It seems that to say, "Some are alive," is the easiest and most accurate report to send to the outside world.



ASSOCIATED PRESS (April 19, Sacramento) - Oscar Lucas arrived last night from Santa Rosa. He left there at 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon. He said:

"There is not a brick building left standing in Santa Rosa, and the entire devastated territory has been burned over.

"Dead bodies were being taken out of the debris of the wrecked houses on all sides. It is estimated that the death roll will foot up from 200 to 500."



WASHINGTON POST (April 19) - It is certain that Santa Rosa, a pretty town of about 10,000 inhabitants, is as completely destroyed as San Francisco. The part spared by the earthquake was swept by fire, and the inhabitants are shelterless in the hills. Rumors place the loss of life at 500, and it may reach into the thousands.



OAKLAND TRIBUNE (April 22) - Bankers and millionaires are going about with only the few dollars they happened to have in their pockets when the catastrophe came and are little better off than the laborers who are digging through the debris. Money was of practically no value here, for there is no place to spend it, and this phase of the situation presents its own remedy.



ASSOCIATED PRESS (April 26) - The entire business section of the town was destroyed and many residents went down. Cut off by the disaster from communication with the outside world, Santa Rosa knew nothing of the destruction of San Francisco until the arrival from there of a trainload of nearly 1000 refugees, begging for help that could be given them. But near-by towns came to the rescue and after a period of starvation and suffering aid was received.

Two things found everywhere in downtown Santa Rosa after the great 1906 earthquake: rubble and rubber-neckers.

Most of the earliest photographs show the streets crowded with well-dressed men and women along with children of all ages. Some, such as 17 year-old Obert Pedersen, pitched in to join the rescue crews digging for survivors or carting away the dead; others came to gawk at the sights and chat - an awful voyeurism, given that some of their neighbors were literally buried at their feet. A letter that appeared a few days later in New York and Los Angeles papers told of a small girl found alive after four days trapped in the wreckage, adding, "There would undoubtedly have been a great many lives saved if they could have been got out in the first twenty-four hours, but the task was so great it was an impossibility."


(LEFT: Ruins of the Grand Hotel at the corner of Main and 3rd, currently the Bank of America location. Detail of image courtesy The Huntington Library. RIGHT: Near the intersection of Mendocino and 5th looking towards the courthouse, nearly the same position as a previous photo. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Click to enlarge)



Order was restored within two days as local National Guard Company E and Petaluma's Company C joined forces to patrol the streets and set up checkpoints. The April 21st edition of the "Democrat-Republican" warned that "Nobody, except for the military or duly sworn-in peace officers, are allowed within the lines after 6:30 o'clock in the evening from now on," and in the next issue, "People who desire to enter the military lines during the day time for the purpose of working must be passed by the special guard on duty and vouched for by him." Photographs taken after this show the streets almost empty, except for cleanup crews and officials displaying an access pass on his or her hat.

The Guard also manned the train stations, checking to see if arriving passengers had legitimate business in town. Weekend sight-seers were apparently okay, as were San Franciso refugees - by mid-May, the Call reported that about 500 from the metropolis were staying in Santa Rosa. But not all refugees were welcomed: "A number of Chinamen came in on the Sunday night Southern Pacific train and the officers kept them moving out of town."

The city wasn't formally under martial law, although many presumed so. Farmer Martin Read came to town a week later to sell eggs, and wrote to his brother that "...martial law prevails, and several more have been shot for robbing the dead," repeating a rumor that was circulating. But despite the Guard's presence, serious crime actually was attempted. The newspaper reported on April 24:

Miscreants made a bold attempt to break into the Press Democrat's safe lying in the ruins, some time during Monday night. One corner was cut off with a cold chisel and the door partly pried open, so that when C. O. Dunbar of the Press Democrat went to the scene Tuesday and attempted to get into the safe with a crowbar, he did so inside of two minutes. O. M. Tuttle, one of the guards, reports that he ran two men off the premises Monday night. "When questioned they said they 'had the right of way,' but he said it was against orders and they would have to go. Of course he had no idea they had been attempting any mischief, as they talked all right. Owing to the safe's having been partially pried open, allowing air to enter, all contents with the exception of actual coin were completely destroyed. The money was badly tarnished, but otherwise in good condition, but it was almost red hot.

Gullible soldier Tuttle undoubtedly spent the rest of his military career on latrine or KP duty; this was exactly the scenario that businesses most feared. Banks in San Francisco were hesitant to open their safes even two weeks after the fires, out of concern that once air rushed into the super-heated interior that all paper money and irreplaceable papers would vanish in an instant poof.

Thankfully, the local National Guard forces were deemed good enough to spare Santa Rosa the Army occupation that San Francisco endured (although the great city wasn't under actual martial law either). But an item in the paper suggested that the local boys were sometimes less than professional: "A man who spoke slightingly on the military here is reported to have been given his deserts in the form of an impromptu cold bath."

(RIGHT: A man with an access pass in his hatband passes in front of a member of the National Guard. Detail of photograph courtesy California Historical Society)

There was also petty crime outside the Guard's purview. Judging from some of the classifieds that appeared in the Democrat-Republican, scoundrels took advantage of the fear and confusion after the earthquake to help themselves to property that residents were temporarily storing outside:

A black suit of clothes bought at White House, left in yard at 409 Fifth street on the morning of the earthquake; any information will be rewarded.

The person who so kindly took care of the suit case containing blue silk mull and white silk mull dresses for Mrs. Geo. H. Allan will please return the same...

Will the man who was seen to take a new blue serge suit from the Yakima lodging house on the morning of the earthquake return the same to the Rose City Soda Works, Main Street?

Will the parties who assisted in the removal of the goods from our residence No 417 Third street on the morning of the earthquake, please return the same, or let us know where we may find them, especially our table linen, as there was but one napkin left us



Militiamen Have Parade
Many of the members of Company E had a little jollification Tuesday, with a parade through several of the streets. Those participating were dressed in ludicrous attire, two members seated in a jinricksha drawn by a diminutive burro, and they had a ceremony, of "burying the camp." Those who witnessed the ludicrous parade and costumes enjoyed a hearty laugh, and all believed the soldier boys should have ample latitude for enjoying their fun after the rigid military discipline to which they have been subjected. Preceding the parade was a bugler who blew taps every few steps, and a muffled drum gave forth the funeral notes. At the camp the "burial service" was performed.

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1906


Tents Have Been Struck
The city of Santa Rosa is no longer guarded by her citizen militia, Company E's officers and men having been relieved from further duty Wednesday evening. This was done on orders from Adjutant General Lauck, for the reason that the services of the boys were no longer required....

- Santa Rosa Republican, May 24, 1906

It's a common nightmare of any newspaper editor: The biggest story of your lifetime comes along, but you have no way to get the news out.

Such was the dilemma faced by the Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. For most of the next fourteen days, the rival newspapers published a combined "Democrat-Republican" edition using a small printing press that was normally used to print Sweet's Business College's "Saul's Letter" and was, as Tom Gregory wrote in his 1911 county history, "about the dimensions of an infantile pocket-hankerchief."


The hanky-edition of the paper(s) is disappointing to anyone seeking out ghastly tales of death and destruction, even though some out-of-town newspapers at the time were describing Santa Rosa as a modern-day Pompeii laid waste. Mostly the thin twelve editions served as a newsletter listing the whereabouts of displaced persons and temporary locations of stores, reports on disaster related civic matters including building permits and relief ("G. E. Smithers brought in a load of eggs...a tierce of hams, a barrel of salt pork and a huge case of clothing were received Saturday from Patterson, N. J..."), notices of aid available to members of the many fraternal organizations, and lots of news articles describing San Francisco as a modern-day Pompeii laid waste. Still, it's a remarkable document of Santa Rosa's history (PDF).

With space at a premium on the tiny pages, even a visit from California Gov. Pardee, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, the general in charge of San Francisco and other officials merited only a single paragraph. After listing names and titles, the paper noted tersely that the group "walked up Fourth street through the blocks of ruined business houses, and then entered automobiles and were taken around the town and shown the various residences which were wrecked by the earthquake. The sights which met the gaze of the visitors was one that they will never forget." Still, there was room to squeeze in the latest from the melodramatic life of local beauty and wealthy widow Abbie Treadwell: "Mrs. Abbie Treadwell Hall and her husband, Dr. Walter Hall, the Petaluma dentist, whom she sued for divorce, have made up again and are living quietly in San Rafael. Mrs. Hall lost over $300,000 in the San Francisco fire."

Probably the best parts of the short-lived Democrat-Republican are the vignettes that allow us glimpses of how they coped with the disaster. From the long-distance telephone fastened on a tree to hundreds of Santa Rosans packing the Sunday train to San Francisco to gawk at someone else's ruins, this is what catastrophe looked like in 1906:

A telephone office for points south to Sausalito has been established on a tree in the rear of the old office. For points north on the old Dr. Finlaw office. [sic]

Mrs. Keithley of Bodega reports that two of her cows died of fright during the earthquake.

Anxious relatives and friends of Santa Rosans are arriving here from all over the Pacific Coast to make inquiries.

A quantity of provisions have been received by Dr. H. W. Mallory for the Independent Order [of] Foresters. Members call at Mallory residence, 450 Beaver.

Hundreds of people gather at the depots upon the arrival of each train and eagerly scan the passengers for relatives and friends.

The library trustees will meet today to talk over the repair of the building without delay. No fines will be imposed on books that are out, President McMeans stated today

Former Congressman Bell, representing the [Fraternal Order of] Eagles, arrived here today with financial relief for members of the order.

The amount of mail matter that is being received here is immense.

Tomorrow morning [Sunday, April 22] services will be held by the various churches, either in their edifices or in the lots adjoining. In the afternoon there will be a union service in the old College grounds [College Ave and E, now Santa Rosa Middle School] in which every church in town will participate.

Several hundred visitors were attracted here on Sunday [April 29] to view the ruins and several hundred Santa Rosans did a similar thing in San Francisco.

Hundreds of belated telegrams are being received here daily for Santa Rosans and Sonoma County people.

There are several individuals in Santa Rosa at the present time who can find nothing better to do than to go about inspiring alarm in nervous people by stating that some fool has predicted another earthquake, naming several dates. One of the alarmists was threatened with a thrashing if he did not desist.


Looking eastward near the intersection of 4th and B, adjacent to the Shea building, where one of the early fires started. The small structure in the right foreground is the W.C.T.U. water fountain (really, a faucet) that was on the Shea street corner, and was installed the year before as alternative to saloons for thirsty men. A closeup photographed by James O. Rue had the false claim that it was "The only thing on Fourth St. that remains intact." Image courtesy Larry Lapeere

In April, 1906, Santa Rosa was a small town of about 10,000 and everybody pretty much knew everybody else. Now everybody knew somebody dead.

(RIGHT: A man sits in the rubble near the intersection of Mendocino and 5th. The fallen cupola of the courthouse can be seen in the distance. Detail of image courtesy Sonoma State University. Click to enlarge)

From the April 18 newsletter-sized edition of the Santa Rosa Republican, published the afternoon of the Great Earthquake:

Those who are known to be dead, or who are believed to be in the ruins are: Mr. and Mrs. L. W. Carter... Mrs. C. E. Manning and child... Miles H. Peerman, Chester Trudgeon, Jacob Woods, Joseph Domeniconi, Nick ----, Mr. and Mrs. Blum, R. W. Mallory and child. Trudgen and Peerman were burned alive, being pinioned beneath timbers, and rescuers were unable to extricate them...

The Press Democrat picked up the grim tally the next morning:

N. L. Jones, manager Sunset Telephone company, Mrs. N. L. Jones, wife of the above... Louis Blum, proprietor Sample Rooms, not recovered... Miss Willie Reid, school teacher... Fritz Tanner from Eagle Hotel... Child by the name of Kayser... Biu Yuin, Chinese... Miss Excelsa, Novelty theatre...

And so it went. The lists contained over fifty names, and the list of injured suggested more would very soon be dead:

Mr. and Mrs. Lewis C. Cnopius, the latter believed to be fatally hurt... Mrs. Demmer, serious, will die... H. Kang, Japanese, ribs broken, will die... Barney Mullen, prize fighter, neck wrenched... Lyman C. Hill, leg and head mashed...


It was not all tragedy: "Mrs. N. L Jones was not killed as first reported. She is at Dr. Lain's residence where she is doing nicely...Mrs. L. C. Cnopius, believed to have been fatally injured, is improving nicely," the merged Democrat-Republican newspaper reported a few days later, and it was good to hear that Ferdinand Drey was pulled uninjured after a day trapped beneath the ruins of the Eagle Hotel. But otherwise there were sad tidings from the rescue crews:

Milo Fish, the pressman [for the Press Democrat]... was dug out while alive but succumed [sic] to his injuries shortly after being taken to his home. He leaves a wife and six children.

The charred remains of Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Carter were recovered this morning.

The bodies of three unknown persons were brought to the Morgue late Monday evening, having been found in the stairway to the Princess lodging house. Nothing could be learned of their identity. It is supposed to be a man, woman, and child.

The remains of a woman, supposed to be those of Mrs. A. S. Rogers, were taken from the Reynolds building on Third street this afternoon.

The remains of a man supposed to be Contractor Richards of San Rafael were discovered in the ruins of the Occidental Hotel, and were taken to the morgue in a small box today.

The body of Charles Shepard, the last of the three Press Democrat carriers who lost their lives in the catastrophe, was recovered this morning from a pile of ruins across the street from the press-room door. The poor boy had evidently rushed out of the building with the others, and had gotten clear across the street when he was caught by the falling walls. All the debris in that vicinity had been worked over in the effort to locate the body, but it was not until this morning that it was recovered. Four of the Press Democrat employees, three carriers and a pressman, lost their lives as the result of the earthquake. Carrier Shepard was seventeen years of age.

[T]he remains of a man were found in the ruins of the Eureka Lodging house on Fourth street. With the remains were a few coins and the remnants of a watch.

(RIGHT: Searching the ruins of the Press Democrat building. Detail of image courtesy California Historical Society. Click to enlarge)

Those days were a swirl of confusion, and the town's newspapers, struggling to publish anything at all using a small newsletter press owned by the business school, reported events as well as they possibly could. But mistakes were made, even about something as serious as the finding the dead. The body of Smith Davidson, for example, was found twice, presumably in different locations. On the 21st, it was noted that "the remains of Smith Davidson were recovered this morning from the ruins of the Kinslow building above C. A. Wright & Co.'s store." Then six days later, "A portion of a human body was found in the ruins at the entrance to the stairway leading to Mrs. Loughery's rooming house this morning. It is supposed to be the remains of Smith Davidson."

Then there's the mystery of "Miss Excela," part of the "Sensational Gun Jugglers and Fencers" act that was appearing at the Novelty Theatre that week. The April 19 death list listed "Miss Excelsa, Novelty theatre," then two days later, "The remains of Miss Excelsa, the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house." In the April 21 newswire list of Santa Rosa's dead - and which contains some details that did not appear in the Santa Rosa paper - she became "Miss Excelia." Finally, she appeared as "Excelsa, Miss, Novelty actress and child" on the death list that appeared in the April 30 Democrat-Republican. Presumably "Miss" was not her given name, and Excela/Excelia/Excelsa was a stage monicker, but I've been able to find nothing about her. (Update: her name was Ceile Heath.) There was no mention in the paper about the bodies being shipped to somewhere home, no article in the multitude of digitized newspapers about a local woman and her child dying in the famous earthquake, and given that vaudeville acts that played the Novelty Theatre were Gong-Show quality, there are not even any reviews of the act. And was that even her daughter? The following lists also have an entry for "Little girl (unknown), Ramona Lodging House," which is probably the same child being counted twice, but is all the more mysterious because the girl is listed with no name whatsoever.

There is also the disappearance of Fred Thurber; nearly two weeks after the quake, the following item appeared; apparently his whereabouts are still unknown.

Who knew Fred Thurber? Inquiry has been made here for a man named Fred Thurber, supposed to be among the missing of the Alma lodging house ruins. Any one knowing whether or not he was in that house on the night of the disaster will kindly communicate with Mrs. Cunningham, Dutton avenue. The parents and two daughters of the missing man are anxious to get some tidings regarding him.

(LEFT: Notice on wreckage of City Hall. Detail of photograph by James O. Rue, courtesy California Historical Society. Click to enlarge)

But the sad truth is that we even don't know for certain how many people died in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906. The report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, which came out over two years later, cites 61 identified dead, at least a dozen "missing." The Democrat-Republican has the death total as 65 at the end of the month - yet an adjacent item on the very same page mentions the coroner's inquests that morning included "six unknown persons whose remains were found in the ruins." When the next list appeared in the Press Democrat the following week, the total was now 69, with the addition of "four unknown dead," presumably those "six unknown," downsized for unknown reasons. (NOTE: For further details and a longer discussion, see Body Counts, Part II.)

A letter from Mrs. John Rhoades appeared in the May 3 Fayette, Iowa newspaper: "...The loss of life in the three large three-story hotels was great and can never be known definitely, as fire finished what the earthquake left, including the registers [emphasis mine]. They claim that there were over one hundred guests in each hotel. As to that I cannot say; however there were a great many rescued alive. Besides the the first-class hotels there were four second-class hotels that were also full and shared the same fate, besides six or eight lodging houses, all filled. It is estimated that between three and four hundred people lost their lives, but as I said before I doubt very much if we ever know..."

There are accounts of other deaths that may be apocryphal. One of the postcards created by M. Rieder has the caption, "Wreck of Haven Hardware Co., Santa Rosa, Cal. Where powder exploded killing eight rescurers [sic]," but the Democrat-Republican newspaper did not mention such an accident. Then there was the letter that appeared in New York and Los Angeles papers claiming, "...From the St. Rose they took out nine bodies to-day. They found a little girl in these ruins. She was unhurt, but very hungry and thirsty, having been buried four days and nights." The Democrat-Republican newspaper did not mention a dramatic late rescue or the discovery of a large number of casualties found on April 21, but no paper was published on Sunday, April 22 - was this news that fell through the cracks?

The first frontpage that was printed, just hours after the calamity, offered an advance apology: "The lists of dead and injured given herewith are necessarly [sic] very incomplete, but will be made complete as rapidly as possible. There were many narrow and thrilling escapes, but the limited facilities for publishing a paper after the awful devastation prevent even a mention of these at this time." Sadly, the papers never got around to telling us about those "narrow and thrilling escapes," which were too few, or printing an accurate toll of the dead, which were too many.

A young woman named Jessie Loranger wrote to her sisters a couple of days later, "Clarence went to the cemetery this afternoon & worked like a man digging a trench and helping to bury seven corpses. Tonight he has blisters on his hands but feels he has done his duty. A great many don't do their part. Pa painted the names on boards for marking the grave. He used a little brush of Sybilla's and a little paint Charlie had at home."

Also from the letter of Mrs. Rhoades: "There were forty bodies buried here yesterday [the first Sunday after the earthquake]."


As both of the local undertaking parlors were destroyed by the earthquake, Coroner Frank L. Blackburn brought up a number of coffins from Petaluma...

Seven of the bodies of the unfortunate victims for whom no private arrangements could be made were interred in one big grave Friday afternoon, for the present at any rate.

(Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)

Even while the town was furiously shaking, fires were starting on Fourth Street. On the corner of B Street in the Shea building, Mrs. Martin ran into the hallway during the quake and saw flames visible through a glass door. She smashed the glass only to find a roaring fire underway, presumed fed by a broken gas line. Smoke soon billowed from the building.

Frank Muther jumped out of bed on the first shock. Grabbing his clothes, he dressed as he ran as fast as he could to downtown, two blocks away. As Santa Rosa's Fire Chief, Muther had a reputation for being first at the scene, but he was also owner of cigar factory and store on Fourth Street and he headed there first. Like the rest of the block, his business (near the current location of "Tex Wasabi's") was in a two-story wood building that was badly damaged and nearly unrecognizable from the loss of its ornamental cast iron and brick fa├žade, yet it was still standing. From the vantage point of his roof, he gazed upon his ruined town as dawn was breaking.

Fourth street before the 1906 earthquake, looking west from courthouse square. 1) The Shea building at the corner of B Street, where fire was reported while the quake was still underway. 2) The roof where the Fire Chief Frank Muther stood as he scanned the devastation. Visible to the far right is the hose and bell tower of the Fifth St. firehouse. 3) The Occidental Hotel. (Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)

The top story of the courthouse had crumbled, taking with it the great two-story-high cupola that capped the building, along with the life-size statue of the goddess of justice that stood sentinel upon the dome's peak.

On Fourth St. between Mendocino and D Street, everything was gone. All those fine brick buildings were so much dust -- the old Athenaeum, Santa Rosa's opera house that could seat 2,500, the town's post office, the long row of little stores, even the grand new Masonic Temple that wasn't quite finished. The Fifth Street side of the block was lost, too, which included the two largest livery stables. Probably most of the horses quartered there were dead, but that wouldn't be the greatest tragedy in that block; there were rented rooms above some of the stores, so there also would be people buried there in the rubble.


Muther made a command decision that it would be better to let the fires burn themselves out in the collapsed brick structures, and the quicker they burned up, the less risk they posed to the parts of town that might still be saved. He decided to concentrate fire fighting efforts on trying to save wood frame buildings, like his own.

But fires were springing up everywhere. Flames were coming from two stores near him, and his entire block was already doomed. Santa Rosa's Fifth Street firehouse was right across the alley from Muther's store, and the alley was filled with materials ready to burn. Muther saw that flames were just starting to reach behind the stores to the sheds and piles of wooden boxes that were stacked as high as a man could reach. The fire was spreading down the alley fast, towards the firehouse.

Now just a few minutes past dawn, people were streaming into downtown. Some were storekeepers wanting to protect their shops or at least salvage their wares; others came to help, and some certainly to gawk. Seventeen year-old Obert Pedersen arrived on his bike and was stunned to see "the whole thing was down." People who lived in the rooming houses above the stores were trapped in the wreckage and screaming for help. Pedersen helped rescue several who were pinned on their mattress, trapped by a falling ceiling or a collapsed headboard of their own bed. He also helped carry corpses to a makeshift morgue setup on someone's front yard.








L: The only known photograph taken while post-earthquake fires were underway. Taken from the marble amd granite works on the corner of Fourth and Davis, looking west (Detail of image courtesy Bancroft Library)
R: Remains of the Saint Rose Hotel on the corner of Fourth and A, looking east

Luther Burbank was among the early to arrive at the scene. "Electric wires were sputtering," he recalled in 1911, "gun powder and various chemicals were exploding; the gas had sprung a leak at the gas works and other places had caught fire; gunpowder, chemicals, cartridges, and shells were exploding, and fires were breaking out in a dozen different places...with fires advancing unchecked, people were crawling out through the rubbish, bleeding and half dressed, covered from head to foot with lime and sickening dust."

On the western end of Fourth Street, Mr. Duffy lay trapped in the ruins of the New Saint Rose Hotel. His quick wits had saved his life; instead of rushing down a collapsing hotel stairway, he threw his body next to the substantial mahogany dresser in his room, which protected him as the three-story building pancaked. It was five hours before rescuers were able to pinpoint his location, despite his shouts for help. He was lucky; after he was pulled out, he told newspapers that he saw arms waving from amid the debris, but there was so much other noise on the street that their screams could not be heard. "Just then, as I looked, the flames swept over them and cruelly finished the work begun by the earthquake. The sight sickened me and I turned away."

Duffy was presumably describing the horrific death of Miles Peerman, a former Santa Rosa constable. A religious magazine published a detailed account: " [He] was held down by wreckage in the Carither's building [today the site of the Zap building at the corner of 5th and B] in plain view of the people. They did their best to dig him out, but the heat of the raging fire became so intense that they could no longer stay by him. He then begged them to shoot him. So he was burned to death fully conscious of his approaching fate."

Detail of State Earthquake Investigation Commission map of fire and earthquake damage. Areas colored solid red were buildings destroyed by the quake, areas cross-hatched were destroyed in the following fire. 1) The courthouse. 2) The Athenaeum and post office. 3) The fire station. 4) The Shea building, across the street from the Occidental Hotel. 5) The Hotel Saint Rose. (Image courtesy David Rumsey Collection)

Fire chief Muther also led his two crews in rescuing victims - one trapped man later described the gratitude he felt as cool water began trickling through the debris as the flames were approaching his position - and the firemen were lucky that their horses and both steam engine rigs at the Fifth St. firehouse were unharmed. Not so fortunate was the situation they faced. The fire hydrants were all but useless; the city's cast iron pipe system was already notorious for poor water pressure due to leaks (see "Santa Rosa's Water System Wars,") and now there were cracks from the earthquake and underground explosions in the gas mains - nearly a year later they would uncover a water pipe bent like an archer's bow. The desperate firemen resorted to sucking what water they could from Santa Rosa Creek. And then there were the streets themselves, which were almost impassible. Fourth Street, 75 feet wide, was reduced to a footpath down the middle because of all the debris from buildings on both sides. At times, the firemen had to unhitch the horses and pull the rigs by hand. The fires burned for at least two days.

One of the best accounts of this day came from Jessie Loranger, who came downtown to watch the destruction of Santa Rosa with her family. "The sight that met our eyes was terrible. Fire was raging in a half a dozen different places. Men were digging and chopping in the ruins of what had been hotels and lodging houses trying to get out those buried beneath the falling timbers and debris. As we went down B Street at Mrs. D. N. Canther's, the body of a man lay on a door covered with a sheet on the lawn near the gate. Women were crowded everywhere crying and everyone near the fire had household goods packed to go as soon as the flames got nearer. Although men worked with all their might the water pipes were broken and a very small amount of water was available. Chas. [her husband], in helping with the hose, got his eyelashes burned off. The heat was overpowering and all that saved the town was the absence of wind."

Like so many others, 8 year-old Ernest Spekter and his family stayed outdoors that night and was unable to sleep. They lived in Occidental, which was also badly damaged by the quake, his family's home knocked off the foundation. As darkness fell they joined neighbors on "Indian Hill" (now Sugarloaf Summit), the highest point in West County. From there they could see the lights and smoke of San Francisco burning to the south and Santa Rosa burning to the east. It was a night of a terrible red sky.




SOURCES: Frank Muther testimony in Fountain v. Connecticut Fire Insurance Co. and Loomis v. Connecticut Fire Insurance Co., The Pacific reporter, Volume 117 pp 630-648 (1911) and quoted in California Supreme Court Decisions, Volume 158, pg 766-744 (1911). Obert Pedersen: San Francisco Chronicle Earthquake 75 year anniversary (1981). The San Francisco Earthquake Horror (1906). Burbank recollection from Nov. 14, 1911 excerpted in Sonoma Historian, 2006 #1. Peerman death from Monroe H. Alexander, "The Earthquake in Santa Rosa," California Christian Advocate, Dec. 27, 1906. History of Sonoma County, Tom Gregory (1911). Jessie Loranger letter quoted in The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. Spekter description from Press Democrat July 5, 1976.

Video courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

A few minutes before dawn, Mr. Brown of Tupper Street felt his house start to move. Recently he had a conversation with someone about earthquake waves (perhaps even his neighbor, Luther Burbank) and was curious whether he could actually see them, so he stepped outside. From the west, he heard sounds and saw treetops shaking. The disturbance was big, and it was rushing towards him, fast. He reached out to brace himself against a tree. The tree was torn from his grasp, as if it recoiled from his touch. Suddenly the ground beneath him was rippling like the ocean with a two-foot high surf. He looked north towards downtown. The great dome on the courthouse was starting to sway.

On Second Street, eleven year-old Harold Bruner probably didn't understand at first why he had been thrown out of bed. It wasn't the doing of his mother; he saw she was still in her own bed, but curiously on her hands and knees, holding her body protectively over his infant baby brother. Then he looked out the window and saw something even stranger; the tall courthouse dome was rocking back and forth. Once, twice. On the third swing, it crashed down.

On the Fourth Street side of the courthouse, Marvin Robinson apparently stood transfixed by the sight of the dangerously swaying dome, even as it seemed to be looming over him. To his great good fortune there was one more wobble left before it fell.

Not far from Marvin, Green Thompson was sweeping on Fourth street. He heard a great rumbling sound before every single building between Mendocino Avenue and D Street collapsed at the same time, leaving him staring into a blinding cloud of dust.

The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa's morning paper, had just finished its print run and a handful of boy carriers were ready to fan out over the town making home deliveries. When the brick building on the corner of Exchange Ave. and Third St. began shaking, everyone rushed towards the side door of the pressroom. The printer and four of the newsboys made it out to the sidewalk, and just as night foreman Linsley reached the door, the wall fell away, burying all of those ahead of him.

It was later agreed that all of this happened in less than 45 seconds.





SOURCES: Brown, Robinson, and Thompson: Report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission 1908. Duffy: The San Francisco Earthquake Horror, 1906. Press Democrat pressroom: The Democrat-Republican newspaper, Apr. 19 and 21. Bruner: 2006 Press Democrat Earthquake centennial edition and San Francisco Chronicle Earthquake 75 year anniversary, 1981. Tinted postcard courtesy California Historical Society. Earthquake graphic courtesy USGS


On the eve of the great 1906 earthquake, it's remarkable how completely unremarkable that week otherwise was in Santa Rosa. From the April 18th Press Democrat (which, of course, was written and printed in the hours before the earthquake struck):

* Mrs. T. B. Hickley broke her leg while helping her son fly a kite


* "The Girls Behind the Guns," De Rossett and Excela, were appearing at the Novelty Theatre: "Sensational Gun Jugglers and Fencers" promised the ads


* August Sanders, a 60 year-old rancher near Sebastopol dropped dead while repairing a water pipe


* A snippet from an Oakland Enquirer editorial was reprinted that called Santa Rosa an "enterprising city" for planning to build a major convention hall. PD editor Finley opined at the end, "Yes, and right away"


* Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Thomas Magee were given a surprise party by the Ladies of the G. A. R. in appreciation of her good work as president of the Ladies' Circle. "About fifty pieces were played by the phonograph"


* The youngest Warboys girl fell while skating on the sidewalk and broke her arm


* The newly elected City Council held its first business session, and most of the meeting was ceremonial. Mayor Overton called for all city officials to have an office in the City Hall, a horse and buggy be purchased for use by the street commissioner and committee members inspecting city work, and that the fire house on Fifth street be made more comfortable for the firemen


* That evening the Linnaean Society would hear T. L. Vance deliver a paper on "Cosmic Forces"


But when it seemed that nothing at all interesting was to be found, I noticed that there was handwriting at the top of the April 18 front page. it was too faint to read directly from the scratched microfilm; I made a digital copy, and with image processing, I was finally able to decipher the message. It was a personal epitaph, probably written months afterward by a librarian:

"The boy who delivered this paper was killed in the quake."

(ABOVE: Fourth Street looking west, with the courthouse on the left and Mendocino St. intersection on the right. This is probably the last scenic view of Santa Rosa before the Great Earthquake. Detail of Cardinell-Vincent Co. postcard image courtesy California Historical Society)

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