Heritage Server > Story Bank > 1906 Earthquake and Fire > One Man's...
Published in p.t.m. magazine, April 1962. Reprinted with permission [pending] of Pacific Telesis Group.

(Editor's note: Every few years, p.t.m. has been fortunate to receive a contribution of some hitherto unpublished firsthand story of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. This year, we were similarly in luck when W. W. (Bill) Cole sent us a letter written by his father Orsamus Cole Jr., at a time when the ruins were still smoking. Bill is in Bay area's general commercial-engineering group, in San Francisco. His father was secretary of the General Benefit Committee, at the time of his death, January 2, 1939.)

My Dear Family:

Here goes for what I can tell you of events out here since April 18th.

When I woke up that morning, I thought Sidney was shaking the bed to wake me. Then when I saw no one and heard the crash of falling chimneys, the creaking of the house, pictures slamming against the walls, I realized that it was an earthquake. I endeavored to get to where Susan and Sidney were. I was thrown back two or three times but finally got started. I saw that Billie was all right and of course all my thought was for Susan. When I got there, Susan and Sidney were sitting up in bed, terror written over their faces. I hadn't any more than gotten into the room than Susan shouted, "Where's Billie?" I yelled back, "He is all right," and staggered back for him. Finally got him into bed with the others and then the quake ceased. I don't think I was as scared as I should have been, if I had realized at the time how dreadful it all was.

The only way to describe it is to say that it seemed as though some one simply picked the house up and shook it hard, then set it down with a bang, pretty soon did the same thing over again only harder, and then as though enraged that it still stood, jerked it up and down and flung it to the ground. The motion was side to side and at the same time up and down.

When I got downstairs I found vases overturned but not broken; the Tiffany vase was right on the edge of the mantle, how it ever stopped there beats me. Fine plaster dust and soot all over the house. Went out doors and found one chimney down on the ground; the other had been twisted around fifteen degrees and still stood.

No more sleep, so we had breakfast and I started for a 7:40 Key Route. Hardly liked to leave Susan, but as Mr. Lee went down, I thought I could too. Found things in bad shape all the way to the station, hardly a chimney standing and some had gone clean through roofs.

In company with two other men in the Telephone Co., and a Mr. Ralph Phelps, we fought our way onto an S. P. train. On the Mole, we could see flames and smoke rising from the City in three or four places. Boat was crowded and it was the last one to carry passengers to the City that day. Pulling into the Ferry Bldg. we could see the hands of the clock pointed to 5:15, the time of the shock. Shipping was getting away from the docks. We struck south in order to escape the fires. Streets in places had fallen in 2 and 3 feet, and once or twice we had to literally jump across places that had opened up in the earth. People were sitting in the street, with their belongings gathered around them. There was no sign of fire in this locality. As we passed further up in the foundry district, whole walls would be down and machinery sticking through the ruins.

On 2nd, we turned toward Market and then up Mission St. to New Montgomery south a block to where our new office bldg. stood and it was on fire all over. Ralph Phelps' office was in the Crossley Bldg. at this corner and I went upstairs to help him save what we could. Stayed with it until the panes of glass in the windows were so hot they almost cracked and then we ducked. This building and the Rialto, in which were the Allis Chalmers Co., are kitty-corner to one another and are the two Mrs. Oelrich took from the Law Bros. in exchange for the Fairmont.

As we worked our way up New Montgomery toward Market, the regulars and postal people were taking mail and quartermaster's supplies out of the Post Office back of the Palace Hotel. Out of the Palace Hotel's back windows were lines of hose playing on the fire which had jumped Mission Street. Companies and squads of regulars were by this time hurrying by. No water anywhere through this part of town, except in cases like the Palace Hotel who had their own wells and supply. You can imagine fighting a fire with nothing but dynamite and artillery.

Market Street south was the fire line and the regulars with bayonets were forcing the crowds back.

I went over to the Exchange bldg. on Bush St. Found all the men there and we started to get our toll lines cut into the rack-room on the first floor. The rear wall of the main operating room had fallen out. You see everyone thought the fire would be stopped. We kept moving back and forth between New Main and Old Main and congratulating ourselves that we were so nearly ready to cut over to New South Office and also that in a few months New Main would be ready.

Automobiles kept whizzing by carrying wounded and dead. I tell you, automobiles played a most important part in saving property and people. They were impressed into service with their chauffeurs early in the day. Regular army officers used them without exception. And the way they tore through the streets. Carried all the dynamite and gun-powder in them; men would sit in the seats hugging boxes marked "dynamite" as though they had been boxes of gold.

George Robinson, General Supt., and I took one of the Company's rigs and started to investigate the condition of our different offices. Found that Old South had been dynamited. A regular officer was killed by the explosion. Mission was down and out; Park office had fallen in but the boys had covered the switchboards with tarpaulin, so it was all right and can be used now. New East and West offices were as good as ever. By the time we had made the rounds, the fire had worked up to the Emporium, south of Market, and had crept around to just one block east of our old Bush Street bldg. Things began to look bad. I walked back to cor. of Montgomery and Bush and as I stood there the manholes in the street all along Bush and Montgomery blew up, with part of the pavement. Saw a horse slung 15 or 20 feet in the air and he landed on his feet and wasn't hurt at all.

The soldiers were forcing people back all the time, streets packed with all nationalities fleeing with what they could save. More people used sewing machines and piled stuff on them, then rolled them along the walks. Others were dragging trunks, lugging parrots in cages, and dogs and cats and monkeys on strings.

It was pell mell any way to get there. And all the time the dynamiting was booming off in the burning section, the roar of the fires and cinders flying all around. We bought cookies to eat, all we could get and we were not very hungry.

The docks and wharves were packed with people hurrying to get away from the city. Got a ferry and reached home about 4:30 P. M.

All during the night, we could see the city burning from our windows and bear the dynamiting.

Got an early boat the next morning. We couldn't get up town except by way of Telegraph Hill, for it was either all burnt or burning in every other direction. We encountered hundreds of people all making for the boats, most of them just about ready to drop. Rich and poor, old and young, dirty and sweaty. Express wagons, carriages, coaster wagons, baby carriages, filled to overflowing; same spectacle of dragging trunks, lugging enormous bundles of bedding with valuables. Vans of Chinese women and children with the men running along-side. Hardly a word spoken anywhere, but everyone gasping for breath and with their eyes set on the water ahead, which meant safety.

The fire by Thurs. noon was all around the Fairmont Hotel, which we could see at times through the smoke and flames. We spent a couple of hours helping people lug stuff up to the top of Telegraph Hill and then to the ferry.

Out near East Office in vacant jots, people were burying trunks, silverware, etc. in the sand. Everyone was getting ready to move to the other side of Van Ness Ave. for the word had gone around that they would make a stand there. Water supply was plenty on that street and by dynamiting all along the east side of it they hoped to save the west portion of the town. People, while nearly frantic, seemed to take it as a matter of course, for everyone was in the same boat.

(Will send this first copy on now and hope to get off subsequent editions in a few days.) All well, plenty to eat, but money is awful scarce. Don't worry a particle for we are surely all right.

Love to all
Orsamus Cole, Jr.

[Fireman's Fund Archives: 6-2-2-4-3; 1126.]

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