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Sunday, April 16, 2006

No heavy damage in Solano from 1906 quake

Sabine Goerke-Shrode


But fears mounted for those visiting San Francisco

One hundred years ago, on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, local people awoke at 5:15 a.m., shaken out of their beds by the earthquake that devastated San Francisco.

Much has been written about the impact the destruction had on the City, but how did it affect Solano residents?

Local damage was surprisingly small. Two days later, on April 20, the front page of the weekly Solano Republican described both the San Francisco disaster and the local damage. The headline told readers that San Francisco’s “Loss Will Probably Reach a Billion Dollars or More. Loss of Life Heavy. Call, Chronicle and Examiner Buildings, Palace Hotel, Emporium and Many Fine Large Buildings Destroyed.”

Another section gave a vivid overview of the local impact. “The shock occurred in Suisun at 5:15 in the morning when most people were in bed,” the newspaper recalled. “There was great excitement among the people who made haste to leave their homes in scant attire. Soon the streets were thronged with people anxious to ascertain the extent of the damage, which proved to be slight.”

Residents knew each other, and the following statement surely provided a chuckle amid the destruction. “The only person in Suisun reported to have not been awakened by the shock was George H. Kinloch, who slept soundly and knew nothing of the trembler until after it was all over.”

Damage in Suisun mostly was severely shaken buildings, fallen chimneys and crumbled plaster. The plastering at the Arlington Hotel, Suisun’s premier hotel, was badly cracked. Local stores reported a number of shattered glass windows.

Other areas were harder hit. “The large water tanks in the railroad yards, containing about 50,000 gallons of water, fell and was completely wrecked.”

And befitting a small-town newspaper, smaller damage was also reported: “Fourteen jars of processed fruit in Armijo Club fell from the shelving and were shattered.”

Individual damage was quoted as the stories trickled in to the publisher. According to one quote, Attorney and Mrs. George A. Lamont lost their chimney, and the soot coming into their home ruined “a fine carpet.”

But all in all, damage was minor, and the newspaper was happy to sum up the initial local coverage by writing “When the appalling destruction and loss of life in other places are thought of, the slight damage in Suisun sinks into insignificance.”

Of more concern were the many people who had been in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake. A whole column listed who had been heard from and who was still unaccounted for. Touchingly, the original newspaper has pen check marks against next to most of the names.

“William Pierce was a guest at the Palace Hotel, but escaped uninjured and arrived home safely on Wednesday. ...

“Fred Chadbourne was in Oakland that night. He visited the terrible scenes in San Francisco Wednesday morning and returned to Suisun Wednesday night.”

More ominous were the following listings: “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Pierce, who were guests at the Palace, have not been heard from.

“J. B. Richardson, who was in the city to attend a meeting of the Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons, was a guest at the Grand Hotel. He has not been heard from.

“Mrs. Bert Dahl and Mrs. D. W. Dowe, who are visiting in the city have not been heard from.

“Mrs. D. N. Mason, who is in the city on a visit at the home of her daughter, Mrs. F. L. Stewart, has not been able to communicate with her family here, but she is probably safe as she was in the residence portion of the city.

“No word has been received from Mrs. Ernst Luehning and two children (likely Charlotte, aged 14 and Ernst Jr., aged 11) who are in the city. Mr. Luehning went to the city Wednesday afternoon but has not returned.

“Up to Thursday noon there had been no reports of any Suisun people injured and there is a feeling that all are safe.”

Thanks to the ferry system, transportation to and from the Bay Area was still available, although arrival in San Francisco must have been chaotic. Thus the Republican was able to report that “Some of the members of the party to San Francisco (one imagines a distraught Mr. Luehning among them) which went to San Francisco Wednesday afternoon on the launch Gwendolyn were compelled to seek lodging in the city jail building in Oakland, where they remained over night, it being impossible to find more comfortable quarters.”

Communication to the disaster areas was cut off, making personally delivered stories the best source of information. “W. E. Davidson, the Southern Pacific train dispatcher at Oakland pier, transferred his office to Suisun Thursday morning, all the telegraph and telephone wires being out of working order south of Benicia.”

The railroad was another venue to get to and from at least to the Oakland area. “The railroad track is clear to Oakland pier. The sinks in the track on the marsh between Suisun and Teal station (along today’s Interstate 680) have been repaired and the trains are running regularly.

“Visitors are allowed to go to and from San Francisco. The ferry is reached only by the way of Broadway wharf from Powell street coming from the western addition.”

Slowly, news filtered back telling of the destruction of other areas besides San Francisco. Santa Rosa had been hard hit, its entire business section in ruins, and many residents killed. Napa fared slightly better, with much destruction, but no lost lives. San Jose was completely in ruins. Damage in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda also was severe.

In Solano County, Benicia and Vallejo were hardest hit. Only slight damage occurred in Vacaville, Dixon and Rio Vista, although the earthquake could be felt all the way to Sacramento and north up to Eureka.

Fairfield, like Suisun, sustained more damage. The primary casualty was the courthouse on Texas Street. Built in 1878 and enlarged in 1887, it was already outmoded. The damage to its structure was considerable, making the building unsafe in the days after the quake. The description of the building’s layout and exit feature is nothing short of hair-rising.

“The old courthouse received a severe wrenching by the earthquake shock Wednesday morning,” said the Solano Republican in its editorial column on April 20, “so much so that the officials who were not absolutely compelled to do so, did not enter their offices for work, while those who could not possibly neglect their work went to their duties with reluctance and anxiety. As is well known the building consists of a number of additions to the original structure and there is but one exit from the upper floor and the exit leads out through the center of the building. In case of a shake-down the officers and employees would have little chance to escape.”

Other so-called safety features raised concern, too. “The courtroom has for several years been held together by iron rods placed there after the earthquake of 1892 to give additional strength to the building, which was severely shaken up by the shock at that time. Whether these rods serve the purpose or not is a serious question.

“The cornice work in the courtroom, above the jury box is now ... ready to fall on the jurymen. The Superior Judge’s chambers received a severe shaking up, the books being thrown from the cases and scattered all over the floor. Likewise the books in the District Attorney’s office were thrown out of their cases. The plastering in the Supervisors’ room fell off in great particles. The front of the building is perceptibly cracked above the Sheriff’s office and between old building and the annex.”

The editorial ended with a call to action to remedy the unsafe situation. Its tone makes it clear how shaken up everybody was, fearing that aftershocks or another earthquake could hit.

“Superior Judge Harrier and District Attorney Gregory have moved their working offices to a frame building in the lawyer’s row until the extent of the damage and danger can be ascertained. It is likely that the Grand Jury for 1906 will be immediately called together to pass upon the condition of the court house with respect to its safety. It is apparent that at least a better means of egress should be provided before the officers and taxpayers of the county are compelled to risk their lives within the walls of the building.”

Much of the immediate help came from neighbors, friends, and strangers, as well as government officials. On notification of the earthquake, Gov. Pardee hurried from his residence in Sacramento, according to the Solano Republican on April 20.

“Governor Pardee passed through Suisun Wednesday afternoon en route to San Francisco to render any assistance in his power.”

In my next column, I will explore the various local efforts to support the rebuilding effort. For an interesting view of local rescue efforts, visit the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum’s exhibit “Acts of Bravery and Daring: The Untold Story of the U.S. Navy’s Heroic Response to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.” The museum is located at 734 Marin St., Vallejo, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.