The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco and the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. Devastating fires broke out in the city that lasted for about four days and with the infrastructure destroyed there was no water to fight them. The Navy ran water lines from the bay to help with the firefighting efforts. As a result of the quake and fires, about 3,000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed. The earthquake was estimated between 7.8 and 8.3 on the Richter Scale. California has not had one that strong since. The violent shaking lasted for only 40 seconds – it started and then paused for 10 seconds and then continued again stronger for 25 seconds.
Roughly 28,000 buildings and 500 blocks were destroyed. It was the world’s first major natural disaster to have its effects recorded by photography. Not surprisingly, a later grand jury committee found that some insurance companies had used doctored photographs to avoid paying valid claims.
In 1906, San Francisco had been the ninth-largest city in the United States and the largest on the West Coastwith a population of about 410,000. San Francisco was the financial, trade and cultural center of the West and had the busiest port on the West Coast. San Francisco was rebuilt quickly, but the disaster diverted trade, industry and population growth south to Los Angeles, which during the 20th century became the largest and most important urban area in the West.
Out of its population between 200,000 and 300,000 people were left homeless. Every available area of vacant land was filled with makeshift tents. Even more than two years after the earthquake many refugee camps were still open.
At the time only 375 deaths were officially reported. Hundreds of fatalities in Chinatown were ignored and people were shot for looting so the total number of deaths is still uncertain, but research done later shows that around 3,450 people are known to have died.
Nearby cities of San Jose which is 55 miles south of San Francisco and Santa Rosa which is 55 miles north of San Francisco also suffered severe damage and deaths. The entire downtown area of Santa Rosa was destroyed and also suffered devastating fires. At that time Santa Rosa had a population of around 7,000 people of which one was my great great grandaunt Louisa Jane Hardesty Boettcher. She was the sister of my great great grandmother Mary Graves Hardesty Tucker.
A man sits in the rubble near the intersection of Mendocino and 5th in Santa Rosa. The fallen cupola of the courthouse can be seen in the distance. Detail of image courtesy Sonoma State University.
I have in my possession a letter that Louisa wrote her sister Mary just three weeks after the earthquake on May 8, 1906. Upon hearing the news about the earthquake Mary had written Louisa to make sure she was alright. “My Dear Sister I received your letter of inquiry and will say we are all saved and been on duty until the last few days.” Louisa is staying in Petaluma 15 miles south of Santa Rosa with her daughter Orie and her husband Herman Weber and their two daughters Lisette and baby Melba Janet just five months old. Petaluma had minor damage with fallen chimneys and a few brick walls collapsed. She goes on to say, “Mary, I can’t tell what I have went through. I can’t write it and if I was with you could not tell you of my experiences with all our loss. I am glad to say we are alive and so far have had our usual rations daily at our own experience our richest men before the quake are now standing in line for their rations and I wonder when it will stop. The earth is still in a swing and every day and night quakes. I wish it would stop. It makes one feel that we may go down every time. To say the least it is a perilous time. We do not and never will know how many were killed in Santa Rosa and as for San Francisco they are taking the dead out on barges and dumping them in the ocean by the thousands.” Orie’s sister Polly and husband Frank Berka and two daughters Rita and Reyna also lived in Santa Rosa. About them Louisa says, “Polly and family are on foot now of them very well.” (“Are on foot” is used to mean homeless.) “Frank lost in the quake but has his business. My old houses are all standing chimneys down and filled with refugees of San Francisco. They have taken the parlour and sitting room and bedrooms for kitchens. Can’t help myself as the town is under martial law.” The letter ends with “This letter is for all with love and kisses I remain your loving sister Louisa J Boettcher.”
Fourth St Looking East from A Street - Santa Rosa
(Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)
At the time of the quake Louisa, who was three years younger than her sister Mary, was almost 63 years old (she had been born May 19, 1843 in Eminence, Henry County, Kentucky.) She was widowed and living before the quake with Frank and Polly Berka in Santa Rosa. From a letter to Mary on June 29, 1910, she writes that they are still feeling the economic effects of the earthquake. Louisa has several empty rental properties and with all the empty houses the taxes keep going up and the property owners were being charged street repair costs.
Louisa continued to live with Frank and Polly although in June 1911 she had just returned home after spending four months at her daughter Orie’s house of which six weeks were due to being quarantined –“had a hard time but all better now.” On February 14, 1914 she writes again to her sister Mary, “My husband has been dead 18 years. I do feel sad and the longer he is dead the more I miss him. A true and noble man. I could pour out my soul to him.” Louisa Jane died on August 27, 1915 at age 72 and was buried with Frederick in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Santa Rosa. Her four granddaughters never married.