113 Years Ago Today

Apr 18, 2019 | 0 comments

Sacramento Street, San Francisco – April 18, 1906

Dearest Helen and Harry and Girlies,
So much has happened since Wednesday morning that I don’t know where to begin to tell you of it.  Sometimes when we think of it all it seems a hideous dream from which we will waken to find everything as it was a week ago and dear old San Francisco smiling at us from her sand banks and hills but, unfortunately, it is a grim reality and we do not yet know what the end will be.

Thus, begins a letter written by Leila Rider, my grandmother Helen Richardson Espy’s girlhood friend.  “Aunt Leila” (as she was always called by our family) lived in Berkeley and was writing to my grandparents and their daughters Medora (7), Suzita (3), and Mona (2) who were in far off Oysterville.  It’s a long letter – 12 pages – written in Leila’s beautiful longhand script on April 24, six days after the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.  I include just a few excerpts here:

It was 5:13 Wednesday morning when the shock came.  As we frightened sleepers stumbled from our beds, we thought the end had surely come.  To my dying day I can never forget the horror of those few seconds, each of which seemed a minute.  The skies were gray and out of the depths of the earth came the roaring and rumbling that added to the terror of the dazed people.  Then came the starling crack of walls and beams, the falling of chimneys and tumbling brickbrac till it seemed everything would crush in upon us…

S.F. Ferry Building, 1906 Fire

…As we looked toward the City, we saw a great cloud of fire and smoke arising that did not die down till Saturday morning and left San Francisco a skeleton city and more than three hundred thousand people homeless.  Three fourths of the City, including the entire business district is wiped out and only the residence district west of Van Ness and in the vicinity of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio is left…

…In Berkeley, every available building is being used for a hospital or shelter and the University Campus and vacant lots are turned into camping grounds… You never saw such a motley collection of people as constitute the refugees or such a conglomerate mass as their possessions represent.  The articles saved are in some instances pitiful, in some humorous and in still others, provoking.  One man dragged a clothes basket filled with flat irons for blocks.  Another man arrived in Berkeley with a large mirror on his back and an empty bird-cage in his hands.  Such a collection of cats, dogs, monkeys, canaries, parrots etc. was never dreamed of!  The limit was reached, I think, Thursday when one woman arrived with twenty-three angora cats… 

An excerpt from Aunt Leila’s letter, April 12, 1906

We have been so busy working in the hospital shelters that we have hardly had time to consider our own loss, but Saturday night I found myself worn out and decided to rest till Monday morning.  Meanwhile, contagious diseases are breaking out among the refugees and I received my orders to stay at home so I expect I shall have to obey…


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