The 1906 Earthquake: Eyewitness Accounts Read excerpts of letters from survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco. Letters are courtesy of the California Historical Society.

The 1906 Earthquake: Eyewitness Accounts

San Francisco City Hall. National Archives hide caption

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National Archives

San Francisco City Hall.

National Archives

The quake left more than half the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Many lived in camps like this one in Jefferson Square. National Archives hide caption

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National Archives

The quake left more than half the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Many lived in camps like this one in Jefferson Square.

National Archives

Read excerpts of letters from survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco. Letters are courtesy of the California Historical Society:


In an April 21, 1906, letter to his mother, Capt. George Musson describes the earthquake and its aftermath. California Historical Society hide caption

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California Historical Society

In an April 21, 1906, letter to his mother, Capt. George Musson describes the earthquake and its aftermath.

California Historical Society

George Bernard Musson, captain of the S.S. Henley, a British steamer that was at port in San Francisco at the time of earthquake. The ship served as a floating refugee camp for many displaced by the earthquake and subsequent fires that engulfed the city. He wrote this letter to his mother on April 21, 1906, three days after the quake.

My dearest Mother,

...If you picture the scenes described and imagine the horrors a thousand times greater you will still know less than I have personally witnessed. The shock threw me from side to side in my bed and I thought our engines were blown up until I reached the deck and even in that short space of time smoke was breaking out from 100 places in the town and of course all water conduits were destroyed so that little could be done to save the city from the terrific sea of flames which swept and roared from block to block....

This is the most hideous catastrophe that has ever happened to any city and thousands still be buried beneath the smoldering ruins. I have got a large number of homeless people aboard and the tales of woe are fit to break any human heart….

One sweet old lady onboard saved only her umbrella and a cage of pet canaries together with the clothes she wears. Others have nothing but what they had time to put on, motherless children and childless women are here, the old and aged and young are all here, high born and low are all one class and I shame to say it, but the women are more cheerful in all their grief than the men....

I have been condensing day and night and have supplied tens of thousands with water to drink. Fancy people walking miles and miles through blazing streets to get a drink of water and a bite to eat....

Oh, the brave deeds will never be all known and neither will the despicable nature of others. Justice is swift and sure now and all are shot down on sight who refuse to work when called upon, or thieves, or for molesting women.

From Poor Old Burns

Percy H. Gregory

Percy H. Gregory, an immigrant carpenter, wrote this letter to his mother in Australia on May 29, 1906, nearly six weeks after the quake.

Dear Mother,

...The Hills rolled like great billows and cracked open, houses sank between seven and eight feet in places. All the big cheap lodging houses collapsed with all the people in them. Then the fire which started in one hundred places -- at once quickly burnt-up the dead and injured. The flames spread like fury, jumping six and seven blocks at once, 450 blocks were burnt to the ground in all. The water mains were all broken, by the quake, so that the fireman had no water to fight the fire with. All they could was to blow up the buildings with dynamite, in spite of this the rapidly moving flames sped on their way.... The fire was a beautiful sight -- at night miles of skyscrapers being gutted or burnt to the ground....

Men, women and children are streaming out of the city in thousands. With nothing but what they stood up in...everything they had being burnt in the fire… The number of dead will never be known. Some big places fell with 400 to 500 people in them. Then the fire done the rest. Not an ash is left to tell the tale.

With love and best wishes to all, Percy

Elmer Enewold

This undated letter is from Elmer Enewold, a San Francisco resident and member of the National Guard.

Dear Dad,

Oh it is awful, Dad to see nothing but ruin, ruin, ruin, ruin wherever you go and really cannot be described in writing or on paper but once impressed on the mind will never be forgotten. About 5:15 am April 18, I was awakened by the bed being worked back and forth something awful and it seemed it would never stop....

We marched down Geary to Market to Montgomery and up Montgomery. Just as we turned off Market to Montgomery, the Palace and Grand Hotel took fire and in a few minutes both big structures were ablaze, and it was an awe inspiring thing to behold.…

The brave fire-men were retreating step by step, block by block, doing their best to beat back the demon that was eating up our beautiful and dearly beloved Frisco, but of no use. They resorted to dynamite. The fire crept, eating up the Examiner and Chronicle which are to the ground. Then the Call Building, still standing like a huge monument in a vast graveyard -- the fire gutted this completely and is now a blackened pile....

The fire has now come up and taken hold of the Hall of Justice. In a few minutes it is a blazing pile, the flames reaching high in the air. We were beginning to get anxious now as there remained only a few blocks between us and the fire. My thoughts were of the folks at home. I had not seen them since early that morning. I wondered if the fire had reached them and how they were if they were also fleeing before the fire. I picked up a piece of paper lying in the gutter and scribbled a few lines to the folks letting them know I was ok and still alive and kicking. This was done by the glare of the fire. I got a man to deliver it...I found out later that Mother received it ok and it relieved her mind a great deal. It was about 3 a.m., the 19th, when the fire had come up within a block of the jail.... We started downtown. The fire had by this time come up to over the hill gutting the new Fairmont Hotel, leaving it black and stark.... We retreated to Jefferson Square on Golden Gate and Octavia. Here about 3000 refugees crowded into a space of about 2 square blocks....

During that terrible night, no one slept -- it was impossible, but from the heat and terror. About 4 a.m. half of our Battalion were ordered on out to Golden Gate Park to take care of the people lying out there in tents made of sheets, blankets or carpets, in fact anything that would shelter them from the cold and fog that you know comes over the city in the evening....

* * *

One evening during guard duty over the ruins at the end of 3rd St.. I saw a man about a quarter of a block away from me bending over something on the ground. I yelled at him to get out but he paid no attention to me, so I up and fired at him. I missed, of course, but the shot must have scared him for he started to run. I was just getting ready to shoot again, when a shot was fired from across the street and the fellow toppled over. This was fired by a regular who had seen him run after my shot was fired. When the two of us reached the fallen man we found he had been shot through the neck and was stone dead. It proved to be a negro. An officer came along and ordered us to throw the body into the still burning ruins, In it went. We went back to see what he was after and found a body of a man half buried under a heap of bricks. This we dug out and laid over the some 20 or more that had been killed in the collapse of a lodging house....

Here and there a tall chimney is still standing like some monument in a big graveyard. At last I reached Market St. Oh how it makes one's heart ache to see those big buildings that one was so familiar with during our business career, now only a pile of ruins. In fact, every single building straight down to the ferry, none are safe and what is still standing will have to be burned down for safetys (sic) sake. All our Public buildings are down, the City Hall is a mass of ruins and will all have to be torn down.

Ernest Goerlitz

The Conried Metropolitan Opera Company of New York was on a cross-country tour in April 1906 and arrived in San Francisco just a few days before the earthquake. The company included the tenor sensation Enrico Caruso, who was making his San Francisco debut. Ernest Goerlitz was the company's acting manager and wrote a story about his experience during the great earthquake and fire.

The engagement of the Conried Metropolitan Opera Company, of which I am the Acting Manager, began at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco on Monday evening, April 16, when the "Queen of Sheba" was given before a very large audience. On Tuesday evening, April 17th, "Carmen" was performed with Miss [Olive] Fremstad in the title role and Mr. Caruso as Don Jose. The house was completely sold out… The Company consisted of 230 members all told....

(Shortly after 5 a.m. the next morning, Goerlitz experienced the catastrophe along with the rest of the city. He was staying at the famous Palace Hotel, which some four hours later, would practically burn to the ground.)

I cannot better describe the motion of the Palace Hotel itself than by saying that it seemed to dance a jig, and what will remain incomprehensible to me at the end of my life is the fact that the building, after apparently being torn out of its angles during an entire minute, can return to its original position and stand instead of burying all inmates in its debris....

This state of affairs lasted for some time, the official report of the duration of the earthquake is, I believe, 48 seconds. I do not doubt this report, but I think I can claim without fear of contradiction that they were the longest 48 seconds any mortal ever lived through....

We felt extremely happy at being alive, and had the audacity to consider if we should lie down and continue our disturbed slumber. I decided, however to dress and look after the members of the Company. I had no idea at that moment of the havoc the earthquake had wrought in the city, nor of any danger from the subsequent conflagration. I tried to wash, but only an ink like fluid flowed from the faucets, so we had to forgo the pleasure of cleanliness.

On arriving in the beautiful courtyard of the hotel, I found a number of our artists, most of them greatly excited. I was told that Caruso had already left on a hired truck with his belongings.

(All members of the company eventually made it to the ferryboats that took them to Oakland. They arrived back in New York on April 24, almost a week after the disaster. The company lost scenery and costumes for 19 operas.)

Rosa Barreda

Rosa Barreda, 42 years old, lived with her widowed mother on Buchanan Street. This letter to a friend is dated May 15, 1906.

Wednesday morning, April 18… our poor old wooden house, with its four storeys (sic) and its front bay windows and its twenty-fifth year, was furiously and viciously shaken. This time the "Frisco Quake" asserted itself; we could not humbug ourselves by accusing the wind blasting or the milk wagon.... The noise was deafening, greater than thunder or the rolling sea. I wondered if I were falling below Earth from the confusion and crashing of sound....

The earthquake had twisted and broken the water, sewer and gas pipes, the car rails, the telegraph and telephone wires. The fire could not be controlled by water but through the blowing up of surrounding houses by dynamite. The city was under martial law.... If this unfortunate city was not destroyed through an earthquake, then by fire, if not by fire, by dynamite. You can find no history of a doomed city to equal the destruction of San Francisco, so absolute, entire, merciless. We are threatened with famine, pestilence, rioting....

We were notified not to light the fire for houses were burning through the stupid act of lighting fires in fallen chimneys....

Many burned-out people passed our house with huge bundles, and ropes around their necks dragging heavy trunks, if not huddled with baggage on wagons. From the moment they heard that fatal, heart-rending sound of the trumpet announcing their house would be burned or dynamited, they had to move on or be shot to death. As the sun set the black cloud we watched all day became glaringly red, and indeed it was not the reflection of our far-famed Golden Gate sunset.