Heritage Server > Story Bank > 1906 Earthquake and Fire > String Saver
From the Fireman’s Fund Record, April 1962.

Alice Eastwood was a string and rope saver. Friends chided her about hoarding every scrap of twine that came into her fourth-floor office of the California Academy of Sciences Building, which, in that year of 1906, was on San Francisco’s Market Street, near Fourth.

"Alice," one co-worker said, "may I speak plainly? Your hobby is silly, just silly. Even your friends are laughing at you." "Let them laugh," challenged Miss Eastwood intuitively. "Some day I may need twine. Rope, too." But she wondered if what she said could be true.

On the calm, balmy night of April 17, just 55 years ago, she went to bed early but couldn’t sleep. Dogs in the neighborhood kept up an incessant barking, something they seldom if ever did. Finally, Miss Eastwood dozed off. Early next morning – at 5: 12 o’clock to be exact – she awoke with a start. Was someone shaking her bed? She lighted a bedside lamp. No, she was alone. Still her bed kept rocking. She observed the bureau ad-vancing toward her. A picture crashed from the wall.

Almost at once, she knew what was happening – an earthquake. What she didn’t dream, however, was the com-ing scope of this April 18 temblor and its accompanying fire – a disaster that was to blacken 4.1 square miles of the city, leaving 452 dead, 1,500 injured. 265,000 homeless, a $350,000,000 calamity that still shocks the world.

Miss Eastwood’s first thought was of her botanical specimens, her price-less specimens of dried plant life that filled the display cases of her office. Nothing must happen to that treasure! Nothing must happen!

Never before did she dress so fast. In town, to her dismay, she found the California Academy of Sciences Building damaged, its stone staircase a shambles. As far upward as she could see, the stone was broken, piled up, seemingly impossible to climb.

Miss Eastwood stopped a passing expressman, ordered him to wait on the sidewalk, and there was some-thing about her imperious manner that made him obey. Now she tackled the staircase, and did what a seasoned mountain climber would have found fantastic. She climbed it.

With every step, she barely found room for a toehold. Often the stone would slip and send her sliding back down a heartbreaking distance. Other cascading stones cruelly gashed her ankles, her legs. The wobbly banis-ter nearly gave way. At last, panting hard and near collapse, the small woman reached her goal.

Inside her office, she produced her twine, tied piece after piece together, joined it to rope, tied an end around a bundle of plant specimens, lowered the bundle from a window to the wait-ing expressman, who would load it onto his wagon. Time and time again, while devouring flames approached from the south, she repeated her act. Finally, the display cases were clear. She never remembered how she man-aged to reach the street, but the build-ing she left was soon to be completely gutted by the fire.

To the expressman she said, "Drive me home!" He warned her of the cost, adding, "I can make a fortune this day." And he could – just as some others were doing. "I’ll pay you," she snapped, amazed at her own brashness. "Now get started. Whip up your horses." Beside him on the driver’s seat, she directed him all the bouncing, cob-bled way to her house.

There, the driver darkly demanded $100. "But I’ve only three dollars," confessed Miss Eastwood, her heart in her mouth. To her amazement, the expressman slowly grinned. "For the likes of you – for a lady with your pluck and plain gall – there’s no charge at all." And he gallantly unloaded her wares, carrying them to her porch. He left at a gallop, heading into the smoke of the burning city.

And that’s all there is to this simple story of disaster and a woman – a brave and determined woman, one of the most dedicated curators of botany any academy ever had. But there’s a postscript to the tale. To her dying day, which occurred in 1953, Miss Eastwood remained a faithful saver of string.

[Fireman’s Fund Archives: 4-1-3-4-80, 0414]


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