Every year, the Santa Rosa newspapers yielded new insights regarding the Great Earthquake. Here are the nuggets from 1910 and 1911:

HOW THE INSURANCE WARS WERE WON   Much has already been written here about the earthquake insurance wars (introduction and wrap-up), but in brief: Immediately following the disaster, there was considerable anxiety as to how much and how soon the insurance companies would pay for losses. A few small insurers declared bankruptcy and did not pay at all, but most eventually offered settlement, although usually for less than the value insured. The worst case was the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company, which flatly refused to pay its handful of Santa Rosa customers because they said the earthquake voided the fire insurance policies.

One of the strange angles to the story is that Connecticut Fire paid every single claim without fuss in San Francisco, and was praised by the SF Chamber of Commerce in November, 1906 as being one of the very few "dollar-for-dollar" companies. What was not mentioned at the time was that the Santa Rosa Chamber went to war over the double standards. As described in a 1910 Press Democrat article:

...the Connecticut advertised broadcast that it was "one of the few companies that settled all losses growing out of the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906." The facts being exactly to the contrary, several thousand circulars were sent out by the local Chamber of Commerce calling attention to the false claims being made by the Connecticut, and showing that of all the companies doing business here at the time of the fire  the Connecticut was the only one that had failed to settle on some basis or another. These circulars were sent to nearly every important commercial organization in the United States.

The 1910 Santa Rosa papers also printed the appellate court decisions against the insurance company, which revealed further bits of lost history.

As explained in the series' introduction, the legal fight was over the "fallen-building" clause in the insurance policies: If the contents of the building were on fire before the structure collapsed, the insurance company had to pay up (the Santa Rosa policies were all coverage of store inventories, not the buildings). To win, the insurance company lawyers only had to convince a jury that any part of the building fell down before fire destroyed the goods.

(RIGHT: Fourth street and Mendocino intersection after the 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)

Given that eyewitnesses encountered a scene on Fourth street of such absolute destruction that they often could not identify particular buildings, it seems like the insurance company should have won every one of these suits with ease. But while it was always safe to presume some trial witnesses perjured themselves to help their fellow Santa Rosans triumph over the insurance company, the appellate decisions show serious mistakes were made in the conduct of the trial and the suits were ultimately won by the Santa Rosa shopkeepers via legal hairsplitting, not the merits of any evidence.

The appeals court likewise showed bias towards the Santa Rosa plaintiffs. In the Moodey shoe store case, they refused the request for a new trial although they found the trial judge had completely misinformed the jury about the fallen-building clause. Superior Court Judge Denny told jurors it meant that "some functional portion of the building, the falling of which would destroy its distinctive character," and it didn't apply as long as more than three-fourths of the building was intact, even if the roof had collapsed along with the front falling away. All of these ifs, ands, or buts apparently tumbled out of the good judge's vivid imagination, but, hey, the appeals court ruled that didn't matter because the jury ended up deciding that no substantial parts of the building fell before the fire.

Bias was even more obvious in the appeal for the Davis pharmacy case. The insurance company lawyer wanted a mistrial because there was an objection to asking Fire Chief Muther and J. D. Ward, material witnesses on the scene, "do you know whether it fell by fire or otherwise?" The appeal was denied - although the justices had to twist logic into a pretzel to provide reasons why.

First, the Court of Appeals didn't like how that question was phrased: It implied Muther and Ward had "actual knowledge" of what happened. Since they weren't there when the building fell down, any answers would be merely opinion, which "could have added nothing to the probative force of their testimony." Note the point that their opinions didn't matter.

The Court also disagreed with the insurance company's argument that "the very issue in the case" was whether the building fell down because of fire or earthquake. The cause of the structure's collapse, said the Court, didn't matter at all - unless it fell down before the stuff was burned. Thus "why" and "when" were disconnected into separate issues, unless perhaps they weren't.

But even while the Appellate Court ruled opinions didn't matter and the sequence of events probably didn't matter, they wrote, "...from the facts to which the said witnesses testified only one inference could be drawn and that is that the earthquake virtually destroyed the building..." Ward had described that section of Fourth street as being "all a mass of debris tumbled down[,] I couldn't exactly distinguish where the Davis drug store was, but they all looked the same." Muther had also testified the earthquake had caused the damage to the drug store building.

In other words, despite (non-opinionated) testimony that the building's collapse was caused by the earthquake before the fire started, it wasn't important that the jury ignored this key fact in deciding their verdict.

Reading that decision, one gets the impression that the Appellate Court really enjoyed slapping the insurance company around (not that's necessarily a bad thing), making the point they lost the case despite having all evidence in their favor and the Davis lawyer making a stupid mistake. It was testified that Davis wanted to enter the wreckage to rescue his prescription book, but was prevented by two policemen who feared an aftershock could trap him in the debris. The trial should have ended at that moment; there could be no further debate as to the condition of the building before the fire. But Davis had died before the trial began, so the story was hearsay; the trial judge would have excluded it if the Davis lawyer was awake at the time and had objected. As the jury was apparently determined to ignore evidence in the insurance company's favor, this little anecdote had no bearing on the trial, and was not part of the appeal. The only reason for the Appellate Court to mention this at all was to simply rub the insurance company's nose in it.

THE MAGNITUDE OF THE TRAGEDY   Local history buffs still are heard to claim (boast, actually) that the 1906 earthquake had a relatively greater impact on Santa Rosa than San Francisco. That dubious honor is certainly not true and is based on skewed interpretations. The amount of property damage is routinely exaggerated; much of Santa Rosa's business district was flattened or burned but not all of it, and only a handful of homes were seriously damaged. By contrast to the fourteen commercial and municipal blocks here with buildings lost to fire or collapse, nearly 500 city blocks were destroyed in San Francisco and a quarter of a million people were left homeless.

It's also said there were proportionately more casualties in Santa Rosa, which is discussed on the 1906 earthquake FAQ page. That might be true if you play with the numbers - namely, that you select the highest estimates of those killed here and compare it to a low count of the population. The key part of that equation is knowing how many people lived in Santa Rosa at the time and that's no easy thing. Not only was 1906 between the decennial years of the national census, there was ongoing debate as to what constituted "Santa Rosa." The city was physically so small that anyone could bicycle from one end to the other in ten minutes, yet additional thousands lived just outside the city limits. The newspapers groused that Santa Rosa needed to expand its borders, but it was never seriously discussed in that era. (I suspect that they wanted to keep the town looking small but affluent as to attract investors to buy any municipal bonds.)

Finally in the 1910 census, a better picture emerges: There were 13,560 people in the entire Santa Rosa township that year with 42 percent of them living outside of city limits. It is fairer to use the overall township count when comparing the earthquake outcome because San Francisco included its entire footprint on the peninsula.

Working backwards from those numbers, it would place the earthquake population in the high 11,000s, which is also the figure that emerges from estimates by the company that published the city directories (see FAQ).

Bottom line: The best estimate we can probably ever make is that about 0.7 percent of the overall Santa Rosa population was killed in the 1906 earthquake, slightly less than half the percentage of fatalities in San Francisco.


Washington, March 10--The population of Santa Rosa township, including Santa Rosa city, is 13,560, according to the thirteenth census. The population of Santa Rosa township outside of the city is 5,743.
The population of the city by wards is...7,817.
The population of Petaluma township, including Petaluma city, is 8,787.
The population of Petaluma township outside of the city is 2,907.
The population of the city by precincts is...5,880.
- Press Democrat, March 11, 1911


The population of Santa Rosa is 10,851 as shown by the school census of 1910 just recently completed, based upon the estimate used by Job Wood, Jr., who is probably the leading expert of the state on school census figures and their relation to population. For fourteen years Wood has been connected with the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, being assigned to the census department. He has made a special study of the matter, and has arrived at his knowledge by comparing the school census with other computations of the population of the bay cities for many years. The last federal census and the various other computations such as the post office directories, city directories, school censuses, which included the whole population, etc., have all been used by him in determining the percentage.

The school census as reported to County Superintendent of Schools DeWitt Montgomery by the Census Marshals, reached a total of 1,973, or 63 more than a year ago. Mr. Wood declares that the population averages five and a half persons per census child which makes a total for Court House School district of 10,851. The usual average of computation, taking the state as a whole has alway been five, which would make the total 8,865.
- Press Democrat, May 24, 1910

Appellate Court Decides Against the Welching Connecticut Fire Insurance Company in the Fountain Case

Sacramento, March 3--In the case of O. Fountain vs. the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company the Third District Court of Appeal this morning affirmed the decision of the Superior Court of Sonoma county ordering the insurance company to pay Fountain for losses on merchandise in Santa Rosa caused by the earthquake and fire of 1906.
The course pursued by the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company in regard to its Santa Rosa claims aroused much hostile criticism, and resulted in its being dubbed "the welching company," a name that it will be apt to retain for a long time. Immediately after the fire, Manager Smith curtly notified his Santa Rosa policyholders that he would not pay, and he stuck to it. Later, the Connecticut advertised broadcast that it was "one of the few companies that settled all losses growing out of the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906." The facts being exactly to the contrary, several thousand circulars were sent out by the local Chamber of Commerce calling attention to the false claims being made by the Connecticut, and showing that of all the companies doing business here at the time of the fire  the Connecticut was the only one that had failed to settle on some basis or another. These circulars were sent to nearly every important commercial organization in the United States.
 - Press Democrat, March 10, 1910

The Full Text of Judge Burnett's Opinion Given Here

A copy of the opinion in the suit of Naomi E. Davis (now Mrs. H. H. Moke) against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company to recover the sum of $1,000, a policy the late Henry S. Davis had on the stock in his drug store on Fourth street at the time of the earthquake and fire disaster on April 18, 1906, which opinion affirmed Judge Denny's decision in favor of the plaintiff, has been received here. It was written by Judge Albert G. Burnett, and concurred in by the other justices of the Appellate Court, and is as follows...
- Press Democrat, April 2, 1910

Full Text of Opinion Interests Many Santa Rosans

Presiding Justice N. P. Chipman of the Appellate Court, wrote the decision affirming the judgement of Judge Denny in the suit of R. C. Moodey against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company which was in favor of Mr. Moodey...the jury rendered a verdict for $500.00...
- Press Democrat, April 21, 1910

Newer Post Older Post Home