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From the Fireman’s Fund Record, April 1946.

April 1906 was earthquake month in more than one part of the world. On April 16 a great quake in Valparaiso, Chile, killed 1500 people; on April 17 many thousands lost their lives in Formosa Island, Japan; on April 18 it was San Francisco’s turn. For several days prior to the San Francisco shock Mount Rainier, which towers over Puget Sound, had been in a threatening mood. A pillar of smoke rose high into the clear air and low rumblings were heard. But it was on San Francisco that the blow fell. As the earthquake passed, fire broke out.

With indomitable courage anything can be accomplished; without it, an individual, a community or a world must go down to failure or defeat. Cities which stand today as monuments to insurance are really monuments to courage, and this quality loomed large among the citizens of San Francisco in the days and months immediately following April 18, 1906.

Indomitable courage was needed equally by the insurance companies which held policies on the city’s properties. Because the men at the helm of Fireman’s Fund possessed that courage in no small degree, the catastrophe of 1906 has earned a special niche in the history of our company. As San Francisco, crushed to earth by the forces of nature, rose from its ashes to build a greater metropolis, so did Fireman’s Fund rise from potential ruin to find itself with a host of new friends, its assets restored, and its reputation established even more firmly as one of the nation’s sound insurance carriers. An old story now, forty years later, it has been told and retold. But nothing can dim the fact that San Francisco, with its incomparable position on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, stands for all time as one more of the country’s great monuments to insurance.

From its earliest days San Francisco was bedeviled by fires. An unimportant hamlet when gold was discovered in California in 1848, it was transformed overnight into a busy port with immigrants pouring in by land and sea. To accommodate them and their stores wooden shacks were hurriedly built, some having hangings and even walls made of cloth. The heart of this flimsy city was Portsmouth Square. In a nearby gaudy gambling den known as Dennison’s Exchange fire broke out just at dawn on December 24, 1849. There was no fire department and the water supply was inadequate, so the townsfolk tore down and dynamited buildings until they had things under control.

Fifty buildings were destroyed, at a cost of $1,250,000. A little better construction went into the rebuilding, and a fire department was formed. Before it could be properly equipped a second big fire broke out on the very same spot, the United States Exchange, formerly Dennison’s Exchange. This time 300 houses were destroyed, at a cost of $4,000,000. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of construction that went into the rebuilding when we read what a contemporary paper wrote proudly: "In 10 days, more than half the burned district was rebuilt."

The third big fire cost between three and five million dollars. The fourth, in September, was followed by two smaller fires in October and December. Then eight whole months went by without a good fire. But they made up for it in May 1851, when an incendiary fire left San Francisco little more than a memory, its only surviving buildings being a few isolated homes among smoking ruins or in sparsely settled outskirts. Twelve million dollars went up in smoke in this fire, with 1,500 to 2,000 buildings destroyed; just two of these buildings were insured.

The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1854, had this to say: "San Francisco had never before suffered so severe a blow, and doubts were entertained by the ignorant that she could possibly recover from its effects. Such doubts were vain. The bay was still there, and the people were also there; the placers of the State were not yet exhausted, and its soil was as fertile and inviting as ever. The frightful calamity, no doubt, would retard the triumphant progress of the city – but only for a time."

They were still dreaming of "a Greater San Francisco" when the sixth great fire broke out, on June 22, 1851. Blustering winds and lack of water swept the fire out of control and 450 buildings, worth $3,000,000, were destroyed. Six big fires in eighteen months had gradually convinced the city that it must build solidly and well, and many of the buildings then erected were in continuous service until the terrible morning of April 18, 1906.

Easter Sunday fell on April 15, 1906. Three days later, just twelve minutes after sunrise, which came at 5:01, the sleeping city felt the first tremors of an earthquake shock. The earth under the city heaved and rocked like a stormy sea. A few minutes later came another sickening shock. Great crevices opened up in the streets. With the gas mains broken and the street lamps out, the roar of falling buildings, the wrenching steel and masonry and explosions in the gas mains combined to make a weird background as people ran in the half light in terror from their homes. Then came a light that was brighter than full dawn – fire!

For three days the fire raged. Everybody knows the story and there is no need for repetition. It is a story of the destruction of costly buildings, hotels, homes, museums, theatres, art treasures, rolling stock and the loss of human life; a story of helplessness as fire fighters attached hose to fire plugs only to obtain a few feeble, trickling drops, while tons of water gushed unharnessed through broken water mains. High winds drove the fire from block to block. There was nothing to be done but to use dynamite to stop the conflagration. Scores of buildings were blown up in an effort to check the fire; the awful bombardment was kept up all day and night of Wednesday and until Thursday evening. In thirty-six hours San Francisco – in point of population the eighth city of the nation – had been reduced to a waste of ashes and twisted steel.

The sturdy pioneers who established Fireman’s Fund on May 6, 1863, had built into their company a spirit of the highest business integrity. Not even earthquake and fire combined could destroy the courage needed to live up to the traditions for square dealing for which the company stood. But to come out on top was no easy task. It called for the combined efforts of company officials, stockholders, agents and other known and unknown friends to accomplish the unparalleled job of paying out more than the company had in its coffers. It was not money or strong financial reserves which saved Fireman’s Fund and placed it in the forefront of the nation’s in-surance companies, but courage and the deeply embedded will to survive – based on an invincible determination to live up to every obligation.

Just as it is with a company so is it with a city; its greatest wealth is an intangible substance – a fighting faith and a staunch integrity. Fireman’s Fund is proud of its home city and proud to have been connected with it in its fiery trial and resurgence into life. San Francisco – one of the nation’s monuments to insurance.

[Fireman’s Fund Archives: 4-1-3-4-59, 0411]


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