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Sunday, January 21, 2001

When the earth rocked Solano County

Jerry Bowen

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Since their beginnings, the communities of Solano County suffered calamities in many forms with fire being the most predominate curse.

But one nightmare would shake the residents to their very roots and it would arrive in the dead of night.

There was no warning of the impending disaster except, in an after-the-fact observation, ” . . . in Brown’s Valley cattle seemed much disturbed and lowed frequently in an unaccountable manner,” according to the Vacaville Reporter two days later.

The residents of Vacaville, Dixon, Winters, Fairfield and Elmira had settled in for the night, but it was hot and sleep didn’t come easy. As was his custom before retiring, Mr. Dugan of Dixon left a night lamp burning in his store as did George Stevens and John Lyons in their Vacaville homes.

The Dobbins family and guests retired to their rooms after an evening of friendly banter and out in Pleasants Valley, William Cantelow organized his thoughts for the next day’s work before turning in. All seemed quiet and peaceful with the world.

On April 19, 1892, at about 2:45 a.m., an ominous rumble arose from southeast of Dixon and grew in intensity as it roared toward the sleeping towns of Solano County.

In Dixon, roofs, brick walls and chimneys suddenly collapsed in the wake of the invading force. Residents had little time to react, as debris and flotsam rained down on them. Terror and panic grew as the earthquake’s second wave slammed into the badly damaged buildings almost immediately after the first. It seemed like the shaking went on forever to the panic-stricken residents before it finally subsided.

The invading demon continued on to Vacaville, sending a great cloud of choking dust into the air from collapsing brick and plaster walls. Water mains ruptured. Oil lamps burst into flame, adding to the pandemonium as buildings began to burn. Some wells began to spout water as if they were artesian, while the bottom dropped out of others.

The eerie silence that enveloped the towns was shattered by the wailing of whistles and sirens summoning hastily formed groups of rescuers who set about the task of helping trapped and injured victims.

As the frightened people began to dig their way out, stories of survival emerged from the towns of Vacaville and Dixon, which suffered the most damage.

In Dixon, the fire-wall of Eppinger’s & Co.‘s store crushed the roof of John Rhemkes Saloon, covering the sleeping owner and employee George Haarms with debris. Incredibly, they survived with only cuts and bruises.

Shannon Keaton was sleeping in Rochford’s Butcher Shop when the north wall collapsed on him. He escaped with only minor injuries. The overturned lamp in Dugan’s Store started a fire, along with several others in the vicinity. Luckily, night-watchman Sam Comstock discovered the blazes and sounded the alarm. The flames were quelled before any more damage was sustained.

Downtown Dixon’s brick buildings were demolished, but most of the wood-frame buildings survived with only moderate damage. They were able to “roll with the punches,” so to speak.

In Vacaville, the destruction of the brick buildings was complete on the south side of Main Street. The street was littered with timbers, brick and concrete as walls were laid to ruin and interiors were exposed to the night air.

George McCabe’s daughter narrowly missed being crushed by a collapsing wall. Dr. Dobbins’ home was a complete loss. Miss Lou Dobbins and Mrs. A.J. Dobbins were sleeping in adjoining rooms when a large chimney collapsed and fell onto their beds. Remarkably, they both survived suffering only bruises even though their mattresses were crushed.

The burning lamps in the homes of George Stevens and John Lyons overturned and started fires, but were quickly extinguished.

In the valley, Carl Gate’s two-story brick home collapsed onto its sleeping residents. Again, all escaped with only cuts and bruises even though it took more than an hour to liberate Mr. Gates and John Forrest from the rubble.

John Thissell’s home was a total loss; it burned to the ground. Frank Buck’s well gushed a torrent of water and the John Caughy family narrowly escaped drowning in the resulting flood.

Cracks appeared in the hills of Pleasants Valley, threatening further damage from landslides. A particularly large crack appeared on the Cantelow Ranch on the east side of the intersection of Cantelowe and Pleasants Valley Roads, opening up into the hills above.

Elmira fared slightly better, although Allison’s store was badly damaged.

Aftershocks ruffled nerves for several days as people began the task of digging out and rebuilding. Lon Cantelow wrote a letter to his parents the following day describing some of the aftershocks commenting: “There was another heavy shake last night, but not enough to knock things down. . . . I was just talking with Mr. Pleasants and he says he was scared worse last night than the night before. There were two more shocks just now. We may be swallowed up yet ...”

In the final tally, many injuries were recorded although, fortunately, no deaths occurred as a result of the earthquake.

As with any calamity, time is the great healer and Vacaville once again returned to normal. More than 100 years have passed since the great shake of ‘92. The Dixon Tribune commented that, “If San Francisco had received a shock as severe as that which shook up Dixon and Vacaville, the loss of life and property would have been terrible.”

Fourteen years later, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 did just that.