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Jack London reports from San Francisco
Why architectural memory is short in the City by the Bay
Jack London resisted writing about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The novelist and his wife, Charmian London, were at their ranch in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, on the early morning of April 18. They felt the ground lurch beneath them and saw sturdy oaks shaken by their roots. London, a San Francisco native, had been a miner, a tramp and a seaman before The Call of the Wild, based on his adventures in the Yukon, made him famous and rich. The damage to his ranch was modest, but he guessed San Francisco had fared much worse. “I shouldn’t wonder if San Francisco had sunk,” he said to Charmian, by her later recollection. “That was some earthquake. We don’t know but the Atlantic may be washing up at the feet of the Rocky Mountains.”
They saddled horses and rode to the highest point nearby. They discovered that the danger hadn’t ended when the ground stopping shaking. Several miles to their northwest, smoke rose above the town of Santa Rosa. Forty miles to the south, a larger plume ascended above San Francisco.
They galloped to the nearest railroad and boarded a train for Santa Rosa. There they caught a second train, for San Francisco. The last leg was by ferry across the bay.
By the time they arrived, the fires had been burning for nearly twelve hours. London had seen hardship in out-of-the-way spots—mining camps, merchant vessels, foreign ports. But he had never seen anything like this. The fact that it was his home city made the impact all the greater. "I'll never write about this for anybody,” he told Charmian. “No, I'll never write a word about it. What use trying? Only could one string big words together and curse the futility of them."
But Eastern magazines wanted the story, and one of the most successful, Collier’s, was willing to pay the unheard-of sum of twenty-five cents per word. London’s business sense got the better of his artistic reservations. The publisher at Collier’s held the presses for London’s article, which he transmitted by telegram.
“The earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of walls and chimneys,” London wrote. “But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property. There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.”
London reconstructed from interviews the events that preceded his and Charmian’s arrival. “On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds' twitching of the earth-crust.”
He described the fire and smoke as he had seen it coming across the bay. “It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.”
Firefighters took extreme measures, in vain. “Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire-fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.”
The fire made refugees of most residents of the city, as grew evident after dark. “Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk.”
The famous hills of the city became a special trial. “Many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women.” The well-meaning authorities added to their exhaustion. “Before the march of the flames were flung picket lines of soldiers. And a block at a time, as the flames advanced, these pickets retreated. One of their tasks was to keep the trunk-pullers moving. The exhausted creatures, stirred on by the menace of bayonets, would arise and struggle up the steep pavements, pausing from weakness every five or ten feet. Often, after surmounting a heart-breaking hill. they would find another wall of flame advancing upon them at right angles and be compelled to change anew the line of their retreat. In the end, completely played out, after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelled to abandon their trunks.” Strikingly, the rich suffered more than the poor. “Here the shopkeepers and soft members of the middle class were at a disadvantage. But the working-men dug holes in vacant lots and backyards and buried their trunks.”
By this time the authorities had given up on trying to halt the fire. Broken pipes had robbed the firemen of water. Their dynamite had run out. Not long after midnight, London toured the central business district. “Everything still stood intact. There was no fire. And yet there was a change. A rain of ashes was falling. The watchmen at the doors were gone. The police had been withdrawn. There were no firemen, no fire-engines, no men fighting with dynamite. The district had been absolutely abandoned. I stood at the corner of Kearny and Market, in the very innermost heart of San Francisco. Kearny Street was deserted. Half a dozen blocks away it was burning on both sides. The street was a wall of flame. And against this wall of flame, silhouetted sharply, were two United States cavalrymen sitting their horses, calmly watching. That was all. Not another person was in sight. In the intact heart of the city two troopers sat their horses and watched. Surrender was complete.”
The next morning London observed what twenty-four hours had done to the most prosperous city west of St. Louis. “Day was trying to dawn through the smoke-pall. A sickly light was creeping over the face of things. Once only the sun broke through the smoke-pall, blood-red, and showing quarter its usual size. The smoke-pall itself, viewed from beneath, was a rose color that pulsed and fluttered with lavender shades Then it turned to mauve and yellow and dun. There was no sun. And so dawned the second day on stricken San Francisco.
“An hour later I was creeping past the shattered dome of the City Hall. Than it there was no better exhibit of the destructive force of the earthquake. Most of the stone had been shaken from the great dome, leaving standing the naked framework of steel. Market Street was piled high with the wreckage, and across the wreckage lay the overthrown pillars of the City Hall shattered into short crosswise sections.”
The fire burned all Thursday. By Friday it was running out of fuel. It finally came under control Friday night. London depicted the city for the Collier’s readers. “San Francisco, at the present time, is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped tens of thousands of refugees. At the Presidio alone are at least twenty thousand. All the surrounding cities and towns are jammed with the homeless ones, where they are being cared for by the relief committees. The refugees were carried free by the railroads to any point they wished to go, and it is estimated that over one hundred thousand people have left the peninsula on which San Francisco stood.”
Yet San Franciscans, being San Franciscans, refused to despair. “The Government has the situation in hand, and, thanks to the immediate relief given by the whole United States, there is not the slightest possibility of a famine. The bankers and business men have already set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco.”