Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 169: 1906 Earthquake Commemoration

Every year, San Franciscans old and young gather at Lotta's Fountain to remember the earthquake and fire of 1906
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 15, 2016

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 169: 1906 Earthquake Commemoration Outside Lands Podcast Episode 169: 1906 Earthquake Commemoration

Podcast Transcription

169 - 1906 Earthquake Commemoration

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David!

David: Yes, Woody! I'm more excited today than usual.

Woody: Then… Why?

David: I'm just trying, just forcing myself.

Woody: Because it's gloomy, and foggy, and cold outside. So, you're just going to make yourself.

David: Yes, that's right!

Woody: You know, they've done a lot of studies. They're probably doing too many studies, on what makes people happy. Have you seen this? I mean, there's always like,

David: No, I haven't!

Woody: I, well, I'm going to tell you.

David: I need to, I need to see that.

Woody: Yes, you do. I, but I always see in the newspaper it's like happiness study number forty-three and things you're supposed to do. And, but a big, a lot of them kind of revolve around the idea that you make yourself happy. That you just have to try to act happy and, often, the happiness follows.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, you're doing it.

David: Yes, I am Woody!

Woody: Well, this week we're going to talk about something kind of depressing.

David: Oh. Alright! [00:01:00] Yeah!

Woody: I don't know if it's terribly depressing, really. But every podcast, David, we reach a point in our narrative where we say, “And then something happened.”

David: Yes, we do. And that thing is always the same thing.

Woody: Which is?

David: It's the 1906 earthquake, Woody, that changed the face of San Francisco. Destroyed the old city.

Woody: Right. And we have, I think in the past, done a podcast about the 1906 earthquake, other than just mention it in passing in every other podcast.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But with the anniversary, again upon us of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, I thought we should try to rally the troops and give people as much information as possible about how they can mark and commemorate this seminal event in the city.

David: That's a great idea.

Woody: Yeah. So that's what we're going to do this week.

David: Okay.

Woody: First…

David: That’s good.

Woody: Let's get our dates right, because if we're going to tell people to go, what is the date of the earthquake?

David: The date of the earthquake is April 18th, [00:02:00] 1906. That's the original date of it.

Woody: Yes.

David: And the commemoration happens every year on April 18th, on the day of the earthquake at something like 5:07 AM.

Woody: Right. So…

David: Maybe it's not 5:07, but you know, get there before five, you’ll be okay.

Woody: 5:03, 5:04? Anyway, just after five o'clock in the morning.

David: What is it? 5:04 was the ‘89 earthquake. 5:04 PM

Woody: Right, but this is an AM earthquake.

David: Yes.

Woody: So, let's give a little background. Because one thing I've learned, I have people come up to me, and they say things like, you’ve heard this David, “Oh, I heard there's these FEMA cottages that were created after the earthquake.” And we're like, “Yes, those were earthquake refugee cottages.” And people come to me and tell me about Carville at the beach and, and I'm like, we, there are always new people who, this is a new story for them. And we have to respect them and give them a little background.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, let's give a little background on the earthquake and fire of 1906.

David: Okay. So [00:03:00] sometime early in the morning,

Woody: Just after five.

David: Just after five, on the morning of April 18th, 1906, people were shaken from their bedsteads.

Woody: Right.

David: By what, they didn't have a Richter scale back then, but they think that the earthquake was somewhere in the high sevens, maybe even an 8.0.

Woody: Around eight, yeah.

David: Yeah. And many buildings fell down.

Woody: Yes.

David: And many, we don't know how many people were killed. But there is a, there is an ongoing project to document those who died in the earthquake.

Woody: Right. Do research on records and primary sources to figure it out.

David: But many old brick buildings in the downtown area fell down. There was extensive damage down the Peninsula, San Mateo and Stanford University.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And all over San Francisco.

Woody: Right. And people did die because of buildings falling [00:04:00] down.

David: Yes.

Woody: Yes. But, and a lot of it was, you're right, was damaged or there was devastation to the…

David: Right.

Woody: Built infrastructure and the water mains. But I think what people kind of like to talk about is: most of the city being destroyed happens right after the earthquake.

David: Right. For three days following the earthquake. I mean, so what happened was, the earthquake shook all the buildings, knocked all the pipes out of alignment, exposed gas lines that then ignited. Ignited a number of different large fires that spread unchecked throughout the city. For three days.

Woody: Right.

David: I mean, we have pictures on our OpenSFHistory site of people, of crowds of people standing in the street the morning of April 18th, watching, looking at the earthquake damage, but then in the background there's, you know, smoke and flames coming up the street. So, the city wasn't, wasn’t flattened by the earthquake.

Woody: Right.

David: It was flattened by [00:05:00] the fire.

Woody: Right. And that's, it's, it’s almost more of a tragedy because there's definitely stories that have come down, of people who the earthquake happened and they're like, “Oh wow, that was kind of crazy.” And then they leave their apartments, or they leave their artist studios, or they leave their bank, or their library, and then they go have breakfast. You know?

David: Right.

Woody: And they, they're like, “Wow, that was quite an event.” And then the tragedy unfolds over the course of the next few days, where they realize that their home, or their business, or their library, or the museum, is…

David: In the course of the fire.

Woody: Yeah, under siege. And then there's suddenly a mad rush to try to save what you can. But then, it's just kind of hopeless to watch the city, which is all wood frame buildings, mostly, get just eaten up by this, these giant fires. So yeah, that is the story. That, and we've talked about the displacement, and of course all the homes got burned out, all the apartment buildings in the downtown area. And so, you know, people were displaced, people were worried San Francisco would never recover, would never come [00:06:00] back. Everybody would move away to other cities. And it changed the way the city developed right after. It changed the way the architecture was built up. And it, sort of, I think, set the spirit for San Francisco. It was kind of set in previous disasters, but…

David: Right.

Woody: This sort of, “we're going to bounce back and you can’t extinguish the spirit of San Francisco.”

David: Well, it's funny, you know, the state, or the city symbol and the city flag of San Francisco shows a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Now, some people think that that's because of 1906. But, in fact, that flag had been, that symbol had been made back in the 1850s, where a whole bunch of different fires burned down the city.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah, we just burn down and then we rebuild.

David: So, when are we going to burn down next?

Woody: It could be, it could happen. I mean, they tried, I mean, we can get into that maybe later in the podcast. About the danger and trying to be prepared. But it's still a danger if you [00:07:00] have earthquake, if you have water mains going out and the fires start. We still have houses right up next to each other. There's no space between them.

David: Right.

Woody: You know? They're row houses essentially, and most of them are made of wood. So, if you have a giant fire, you could have a very similar disaster. 

David: And they're all over town.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Then…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Can't do anything about it.

Woody: Let's hope that doesn't happen though.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, let's talk about how people have commemorated this. We talk about the bouncing back and rebuilding immediately, and the spirit of San Francisco. And there was definitely a sort of good humor, in a sense, that came after this disaster. It wasn't, at least it's kind of been passed down that way. People writing graffiti and doggerel and humorous poems about bouncing back. Do you know the Hotaling Whiskey rhyme?

David: The, what was it? “God spanked the town for acting frisky, but he somehow…”

Woody: “But the churches burned down and saved Hotaling's whiskey.” Something like that. [00:08:00] Yeah, that the whiskey warehouse survived.

David: And there's all kinds of anecdotal stories where, yeah, where Hotaling was, who was a merchant, he had a giant liquor warehouse. Kind of in Jackson Square, I guess.

Woody: Yeah, in that area, yeah.

David: He paid the firemen to stay nearby.

Woody: Yeah.

David: With the, with the alcohol.

Woody: Yeah. And they saved that while the churches burned down. So, the point was that, you know, you try to be moralist and say, “Oh, it's because bad morals, God did this to us. But why did he save the whiskey warehouse?” But there's also, sort of humorous, like I said, graffiti on earthquake shelters and shacks and…

David: Sure.

Woody: Stories. And so, there was that sort of, like, you can't stop us. We're just going…

David: We're indomitable.

Woody: Yes, we're going to bounce back. And I think that marking the earthquake and the celebrations, or the commemorations, of the earthquake throughout the century and more since then, have kind of held that spirit.

David: Right. [00:09:00]

Woody: And people can still, people still do this, and people still meet on the day of the earthquake. Can you tell me a little bit about the series of events that happen every April 18th?

David: Well so, April 18th, a large contingent of historians and aficionados and survivors…

Woody: Right.

David: In the past have met at Lotta’s Fountain. Which is traditionally a meeting place, a place where people would rendezvous. So Lotta’s Fountain is right at the corner of Market and Geary and Kearney and Third.

Woody: And Third, right.

David: Yeah. So…

Woody: Traditionally, you know, it's right next to the big publishing offices of the Chronicle. And the Examiner and the Call were all in that area too. It's like this…

David: Right, they're all in those three corners.

Woody: Right. And I also think Lotta’s Fountain was a meeting place after the earthquake and fire that people went there to try to put up, you know, posters, like trying to find each other.

David: Right. Well, that's what I meant.

Woody: Yeah, yeah.

David: I mean, it's [00:10:00] a meeting place after the fire.

Woody: Right.

David: So that people could find each other.

Woody: Right. So, it's a meeting place now too.

David: Right. And every year there's a large contingent of people. I mean, it varies in size. They get there about, gosh, about 4:30. They set up a stage. There's a, there's a commemorative wreath that's placed at Lotta’s Fountain. Commemorate the dead. And a lot of speechifying and…

Woody: Right.

David: You know, just helping us to remember this, this huge event that we refer to so often.

Woody: Right. And they often, I mean there are politicians, but they don't talk too long usually. And they, the fire department and the emergency management people show up.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they usually have a moment of silence, but it's punctuated by the firetrucks and the ambulances and the police cars there all set off their sirens.

David: Right.

Woody: At the same time. So, it's a very haunting sort of moment where you're quiet and then there's this sound of sirens. And I guess the other, kind of, unreal thing about it [00:11:00] is if the earthquake had happened at noon, it would be a different kind of ceremony.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But when you get there, it's downtown and dark. You could park half a block away.

David: Yeah, exactly.

Woody: And it's just ghostly. And then to see this gathering of people around this stage at Lotta’s Fountain in the dark. It has more of a, I don't know, an emotional resonance, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: To the whole thing. Okay, so they do that. They have the speechifying, they used to have survivors of the earthquake. We don't have any of them left, really.

David: No survivors left.

Woody: Yeah.

David: At this point. This is the first year that there have been zero survivors that we can…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Find. Well, I mean, gosh, now it's been 110 years. So…

Woody: You’d have to be a little baby during the earthquake and then a really long-lived person. Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, what happens next? What is the traditional…

David: Then there's a, there's kind of a caravan out to 20th and Church Streets, which is just above Dolores Park. It's where the J car comes out of the right-of-way. And you get that view North and East of the downtown. Right [00:12:00] there on the top of the corner, they go to the Golden Fire Hydrant.

Woody: Golden Fire Hydrant.

David: The Golden Fire. So, the story is that, as the fire was burning through the Mission District, this was the first fire hydrant that still had water. At the top…

Woody: Right. Because the mains had all broken.

David: Of the hill. Yeah. And so that was the, that was the hydrant, they say, that saved the Mission District.

Woody: Right. So, the firefighters, they, they hooked up their hoses and they brought them blocks, I guess, from this one fire hydrant to try to create a line to stop the fire.

David: Right, and I mean, if you look, if you take a look today from that corner, you'll see that if you look North and East of it, it's all newer buildings. It's all new. And you look behind you, you'll see some older ones and that is, so that's the spot.

Woody: That's the marking point.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, it's a fire hydrant that saved Noe Valley, saved a lot of the Mission District and there's commemoration to honor a fire hydrant.

David: Yep. They paint it, they repaint it, gold every year. And there's [00:13:00] a plaque there in the ground. That talks about its importance.

Woody: Right. So, when people go there, the fire chief is usually there. And they have people with fire history and talking about, talking about sort of the emergency response.

David: Yes.

Woody: From the earthquake and fire.

David: And if you do go to that particular part of the commemoration, then you can help paint the fire hydrant. You know, a lot of people who had relatives, ancestors, will take a commemorative squirt of the spray can.

Woody: Right, right.

David: So to speak.

Woody: Yeah. You can honor anybody, or people, longtime San Franciscans, or people that you know that you think deserves some sort of recognition to San Francisco or to the earthquake or fire.

David: Have you ever painted the fire hydrant?

Woody: I did. I did it in a memory of my great-grandparents who met in the aftermath of the 1906 disaster and got married. So…

David: Wow.

Woody: Yeah. Without them, without the earthquake and fire, I wouldn't be here, my friend.

David: Hoh-hoh-oh! [00:14:00]

Woody: Hoh-oh.

David: Well, some good things came out of it, didn't it?

Woody: I'm glad you went that tact. So, there’s three legs to this commemoration.

David: I told you I'm, I'm up with people today.

Woody: Thank you!

David: Yeah.

Woody: I'm up peoples. There's three legs to this commemoration, and we should, maybe now is a good time to say before we get to the third leg, to recognize the organizers. In the very early days, the commemoration was done by a group of, kind of a fraternal organization called the “South of Market Boys.” And they were they were businessmen and civic leaders and just a whole bunch of gentlemen who had grown up in the South of Market area when it was more of a working-class neighborhood.

David: Right.

Woody: And that…

David: After the earthquake?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But then after, well, even before, and then, after when the South of Market was just gone…

David: Yeah.

Woody: From the fire, they basically rekindled their memories, and their, got together every year and had a magazine and events. And they were kind of the first to be, sort of, a [00:15:00] heritage group to commemorate the earthquake and fire happening.

David: Okay.

Woody: But in recent decades, it's been a gentleman named Lee Housekeeper.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Who's like a PR guy, and an organizer, and knows a lot of people in the city and the San Francisco History Association.

David: Right. Our friend Ron Ross and others there.

Woody: Right. And many other people have been involved in getting the survivors together in the past years and having a breakfast for them. And so, they are the ones that we could, should laud for keeping this tradition alive and organizing this every year.

David: Let ‘em have it, kids.

Woody: Yeah. And Tarin, all those folks were really great. So, what's the third leg of this event they put on then? I'll tell you what it is, David.

David: Okay!

Woody: You know! We go to Lefty O’Doul’s.

David: Oh yeah, of course. I, yeah, I, I often…

Woody: Don't go to that.

David: Skip the Lefty O’Doul’s, but I have gone the last couple years. So, after you go to 20th and Church and spray the fire hydrant, then everybody goes down to Lefty O’Doul’s for a pancake breakfast and [00:16:00] the traditional, some people imbibe, with the traditional Bloody Mary.

Woody: Right. And they have a deal there. It's like, I don't know what, $15 and you get breakfast and a Bloody Mary, essentially.

David: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Woody: And Lefty O’Doul’s is on Geary Street, just West of…

David: Near Powell.

Woody: Powell, yeah. Near Union Square. And again, it's still early in the morning, so it's not that hard to get back.

David: It's very fun. You just drive, it's, it's kind of funny to be up that early. You could just drive down, park at Third and Market, then drive over to 20th and Church, and then drive back down to Geary Street.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Have no problem. And then be out, then have been driving home, well, maybe driving home, with your, after you've got your Bloody Mary under your belt.

Woody: And those pancakes.

David: Yeah. You know, before the meter, before the parking meters come to life.

Woody: Yeah. And then you go home, take a shower, have your breakfast, and go to work.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You can get it all done before like 6:00. But it's fun. And, also people show up often in costume and, or they drive old vehicles and cars. So, there's sort of a [00:17:00] pageantry and interesting historical feeling, look, to the whole thing.

David: I recommend going to it, especially, it's going to, I don't know what it's going to be like this year. Because this is the first time that there hasn't been any, haven't been any survivors.

Woody: Right.

David: So, we'll see.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I don't think there was a, there was no survivor on site last year. Bill Del Monte, who just died this year, was the last survivor.

Woody: Right.

David: And he wasn't there last year, but we, he was there in spirit.

Woody: Right.

David: I think they Skyped him in.

Woody: No!

David: At 6:00 in the morning.

Woody: They didn't Skype him, did they?

David: They did, I saw him. See, he was Skyped. There was a, I did see that during the day.

Woody: Well, maybe we could just, in the future, have recordings of some of the survivors and play them.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because they could, sort of, be there digitally or video.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Or because there's been interviews. I mean, I've interviewed survivors, I had interviewed survivors.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And we have it on tape, so. But we recommend everybody go, you know, we can keep this alive. It's a fun event. You can get it all done before you go to work. I can't go this year, I'm going to be out of town. [00:18:00]

David: Oh.

Woody: I know, it's sad. So, David, you're going to have to represent Western Neighborhoods Project there.

David: As usual.

Woody: Yeah.

David: That's what I represent wherever I go, Woody.

Woody: Oh, well done David! Well done!

David: Always waving the banner.

Woody: And how do people recognize you at the event? Are you going to wear a paperboy hat or?

David: I'll be wearing an orange baseball hat.

Woody: Okay. Look for the guy in the orange baseball hat and say, “hi,” to David.

David: Maybe I won’t. I don't know what I'll be wearing.

Woody: Hey, I'm trying to get people to find you to learn about Western...

David: All right, I’ll be wearing… All right then, I guess I'm stuck wearing an orange baseball hat.

Woody: Look for the guy who's not dressed in a period costume. Unless it's 1990’s Giant’s baseball.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Wearing the orange baseball cap. And David, when people come up to talk to you at the event, I'm sure you'll hand them a brochure or a postcard.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And let them know about Western Neighborhoods Project. But they could just go…

David: That's right, what, if you see someone handing out postcards…

Woody: That’s you.

David: Please approach them. Yeah, always.

Woody: But they could just go to our website and get a head start on what you're going to tell them to do, which is what?

David: Join the [00:19:00] Western Neighborhoods Project. And that is done by going to outsidelands.org and clicking on the “Become a Member” link. Now, you know, we, we ask this every week in the podcast. Longtime podcast listeners are probably tired of hearing this message well I…

Woody: No, I love it!

David: Have a new one. I have a new message.

Woody: A new message? Okay. New call to action.

David: Hey, you people who listen to the podcast all the time: tell someone else to become a member. Tell them about our podcast and get us some new listeners. And some new members.

Woody: That sounds good.

David: That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

Woody: Yeah. What do they get for that?

David: They get undying gratitude from us.

Woody: Again?

David: Yeah, that's what we have.

Woody: That's all we got.

David: That's all we have.

Woody: A storehouse, of undying gratitude.

David: Gratitude. We're grateful. We're grateful.

Woody: Terrific.

David: You know who writes us every week?

Woody: No.

David: Our listener, Rachel Lee.

Woody: Really?

David: From Santa Cruz.

Woody: She's a positive person.

David: She is a positive person, and she wants the “The” to stay.

Woody: All right! The Western Neighborhoods Project will keep, will keep it for Rachel. Because I like her attitude. Like you, David, she's up with people. [00:20:00]

David: I'm up with people, me and Rachel. See you there, Rachel, on April 18th. Well…

Woody: With a big smile on your face.

David: Probably not, probably not. She's in Santa Cruz.

Woody: Okay, well enjoy it, David. Please remember the, all the folks who died, but also the recovery when you're there, because I won't be there. And say “hi” to all my friends.

David: Okay.

Woody: Okay. Thanks, David.

David: Thanks.

Woody: I'll see you next week.

David: I'll see you, Woody.

Woody: All right.

Ian: Outside Lands, San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley at Hadley Studios in the glorious Inner Sunset.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

On the Map (click marker for larger map)
More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 104: SF Genealogy

    Ron Filion, creator of one of the first SF History websites, tells us about the amazing sfgenealogy.com he runs with Pam Storm! (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jan 10, 2015)
  • Podcast # 286: Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt

    From 1953 to the early 1960s, the San Francisco Chronicle sent thousands of treasure-hunting locals around the city to dig in parks, beaches, and front yards. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jul 28, 2018)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History