Two things found everywhere in downtown Santa Rosa after the great 1906 earthquake: rubble and rubber-neckers.

Most of the earliest photographs show the streets crowded with well-dressed men and women along with children of all ages. Some, such as 17 year-old Obert Pedersen, pitched in to join the rescue crews digging for survivors or carting away the dead; others came to gawk at the sights and chat – an awful voyeurism, given that some of their neighbors were literally buried at their feet. A letter that appeared a few days later in New York and Los Angeles papers told of a small girl found alive after four days trapped in the wreckage, adding, “There would undoubtedly have been a great many lives saved if they could have been got out in the first twenty-four hours, but the task was so great it was an impossibility.”

(LEFT: Ruins of the Grand Hotel at the corner of Main and 3rd, currently the Bank of America location. Detail of image courtesy The Huntington Library. RIGHT: Near the intersection of Mendocino and 5th looking towards the courthouse, nearly the same position as a previous photo. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library. Click to enlarge)

Order was restored within two days as local National Guard Company E and Petaluma’s Company C joined forces to patrol the streets and set up checkpoints. The April 21st edition of the “Democrat-Republican” warned that “Nobody, except for the military or duly sworn-in peace officers, are allowed within the lines after 6:30 o’clock in the evening from now on,” and in the next issue, “People who desire to enter the military lines during the day time for the purpose of working must be passed by the special guard on duty and vouched for by him.” Photographs taken after this show the streets almost empty, except for cleanup crews and officials displaying an access pass on his or her hat.

The Guard also manned the train stations, checking to see if arriving passengers had legitimate business in town. Weekend sight-seers were apparently okay, as were San Franciso refugees – by mid-May, the Call reported that about 500 from the metropolis were staying in Santa Rosa. But not all refugees were welcomed: “A number of Chinamen came in on the Sunday night Southern Pacific train and the officers kept them moving out of town.”

The city wasn’t formally under martial law, although many presumed so. Farmer Martin Read came to town a week later to sell eggs, and wrote to his brother that “…martial law prevails, and several more have been shot for robbing the dead,” repeating a rumor that was circulating. But despite the Guard’s presence, serious crime actually was attempted. The newspaper reported on April 24:

Miscreants made a bold attempt to break into the Press Democrat’s safe lying in the ruins, some time during Monday night. One corner was cut off with a cold chisel and the door partly pried open, so that when C. O. Dunbar of the Press Democrat went to the scene Tuesday and attempted to get into the safe with a crowbar, he did so inside of two minutes. O. M. Tuttle, one of the guards, reports that he ran two men off the premises Monday night. “When questioned they said they ‘had the right of way,’ but he said it was against orders and they would have to go. Of course he had no idea they had been attempting any mischief, as they talked all right. Owing to the safe’s having been partially pried open, allowing air to enter, all contents with the exception of actual coin were completely destroyed. The money was badly tarnished, but otherwise in good condition, but it was almost red hot.

Gullible soldier Tuttle undoubtedly spent the rest of his military career on latrine or KP duty; this was exactly the scenario that businesses most feared. Banks in San Francisco were hesitant to open their safes even two weeks after the fires, out of concern that once air rushed into the super-heated interior that all paper money and irreplaceable papers would vanish in an instant poof.

Thankfully, the local National Guard forces were deemed good enough to spare Santa Rosa the Army occupation that San Francisco endured (although the great city wasn’t under actual martial law either). But an item in the paper suggested that the local boys were sometimes less than professional: “A man who spoke slightingly on the military here is reported to have been given his deserts in the form of an impromptu cold bath.”

(RIGHT: A man with an access pass in his hatband passes in front of a member of the National Guard. Detail of photograph courtesy California Historical Society)

There was also petty crime outside the Guard’s purview. Judging from some of the classifieds that appeared in the Democrat-Republican, scoundrels took advantage of the fear and confusion after the earthquake to help themselves to property that residents were temporarily storing outside:

A black suit of clothes bought at White House, left in yard at 409 Fifth street on the morning of the earthquake; any information will be rewarded.

The person who so kindly took care of the suit case containing blue silk mull and white silk mull dresses for Mrs. Geo. H. Allan will please return the same…

Will the man who was seen to take a new blue serge suit from the Yakima lodging house on the morning of the earthquake return the same to the Rose City Soda Works, Main Street?

Will the parties who assisted in the removal of the goods from our residence No 417 Third street on the morning of the earthquake, please return the same, or let us know where we may find them, especially our table linen, as there was but one napkin left us

Militiamen Have Parade

Many of the members of Company E had a little jollification Tuesday, with a parade through several of the streets. Those participating were dressed in ludicrous attire, two members seated in a jinricksha drawn by a diminutive burro, and they had a ceremony, of “burying the camp.” Those who witnessed the ludicrous parade and costumes enjoyed a hearty laugh, and all believed the soldier boys should have ample latitude for enjoying their fun after the rigid military discipline to which they have been subjected. Preceding the parade was a bugler who blew taps every few steps, and a muffled drum gave forth the funeral notes. At the camp the “burial service” was performed.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1906
Tents Have Been Struck

The city of Santa Rosa is no longer guarded by her citizen militia, Company E’s officers and men having been relieved from further duty Wednesday evening. This was done on orders from Adjutant General Lauck, for the reason that the services of the boys were no longer required….

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 24, 1906

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It’s a common nightmare of any newspaper editor: The biggest story of your lifetime comes along, but you have no way to get the news out.

Such was the dilemma faced by the Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. For most of the next fourteen days, the rival newspapers published a combined “Democrat-Republican” edition using a small printing press that was normally used to print Sweet’s Business College’s “Saul’s Letter” and was, as Tom Gregory wrote in his 1911 county history, “about the dimensions of an infantile pocket-hankerchief.”

The hanky-edition of the paper(s) is disappointing to anyone seeking out ghastly tales of death and destruction, even though some out-of-town newspapers at the time were describing Santa Rosa as a modern-day Pompeii laid waste. Mostly the thin twelve editions served as a newsletter listing the whereabouts of displaced persons and temporary locations of stores, reports on disaster related civic matters including building permits and relief (“G. E. Smithers brought in a load of eggs…a tierce of hams, a barrel of salt pork and a huge case of clothing were received Saturday from Patterson, N. J…”), notices of aid available to members of the many fraternal organizations, and lots of news articles describing San Francisco as a modern-day Pompeii laid waste. Still, it’s a remarkable document of Santa Rosa’s history (PDF).

With space at a premium on the tiny pages, even a visit from California Gov. Pardee, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, the general in charge of San Francisco and other officials merited only a single paragraph. After listing names and titles, the paper noted tersely that the group “walked up Fourth street through the blocks of ruined business houses, and then entered automobiles and were taken around the town and shown the various residences which were wrecked by the earthquake. The sights which met the gaze of the visitors was one that they will never forget.” Still, there was room to squeeze in the latest from the melodramatic life of local beauty and wealthy widow Abbie Treadwell: “Mrs. Abbie Treadwell Hall and her husband, Dr. Walter Hall, the Petaluma dentist, whom she sued for divorce, have made up again and are living quietly in San Rafael. Mrs. Hall lost over $300,000 in the San Francisco fire.”

Probably the best parts of the short-lived Democrat-Republican are the vignettes that allow us glimpses of how they coped with the disaster. From the long-distance telephone fastened on a tree to hundreds of Santa Rosans packing the Sunday train to San Francisco to gawk at someone else’s ruins, this is what catastrophe looked like in 1906:

A telephone office for points south to Sausalito has been established on a tree in the rear of the old office. For points north on the old Dr. Finlaw office. [sic]

Mrs. Keithley of Bodega reports that two of her cows died of fright during the earthquake.

Anxious relatives and friends of Santa Rosans are arriving here from all over the Pacific Coast to make inquiries.

A quantity of provisions have been received by Dr. H. W. Mallory for the Independent Order [of] Foresters. Members call at Mallory residence, 450 Beaver.

Hundreds of people gather at the depots upon the arrival of each train and eagerly scan the passengers for relatives and friends.

The library trustees will meet today to talk over the repair of the building without delay. No fines will be imposed on books that are out, President McMeans stated today

Former Congressman Bell, representing the [Fraternal Order of] Eagles, arrived here today with financial relief for members of the order.

The amount of mail matter that is being received here is immense.

Tomorrow morning [Sunday, April 22] services will be held by the various churches, either in their edifices or in the lots adjoining. In the afternoon there will be a union service in the old College grounds [College Ave and E, now Santa Rosa Middle School] in which every church in town will participate.

Several hundred visitors were attracted here on Sunday [April 29] to view the ruins and several hundred Santa Rosans did a similar thing in San Francisco.

Hundreds of belated telegrams are being received here daily for Santa Rosans and Sonoma County people.

There are several individuals in Santa Rosa at the present time who can find nothing better to do than to go about inspiring alarm in nervous people by stating that some fool has predicted another earthquake, naming several dates. One of the alarmists was threatened with a thrashing if he did not desist.

Looking eastward near the intersection of 4th and B, adjacent to the Shea building, where one of the early fires started. The small structure in the right foreground is the W.C.T.U. water fountain (really, a faucet) that was on the Shea street corner, and was installed the year before as alternative to saloons for thirsty men. A closeup photographed by James O. Rue had the false claim that it was “The only thing on Fourth St. that remains intact.” Image courtesy Larry Lapeere

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In April, 1906, Santa Rosa was a small town of about 10,000 and everybody pretty much knew everybody else. Now everybody knew somebody dead.

One of three known photographs taken on the day of the 1906 earthquake
One of three known photographs taken on the day of the 1906 earthquake

From the April 18 newsletter-sized edition of the Santa Rosa Republican, published the afternoon of the Great Earthquake:

Those who are known to be dead, or who are believed to be in the ruins are: Mr. and Mrs. L. W. Carter… Mrs. C. E. Manning and child… Miles H. Peerman, Chester Trudgeon, Jacob Woods, Joseph Domeniconi, Nick —-, Mr. and Mrs. Blum, R. W. Mallory and child. Trudgen and Peerman were burned alive, being pinioned beneath timbers, and rescuers were unable to extricate them…

The Press Democrat picked up the grim tally the next morning:

N. L. Jones, manager Sunset Telephone company, Mrs. N. L. Jones, wife of the above… Louis Blum, proprietor Sample Rooms, not recovered… Miss Willie Reid, school teacher… Fritz Tanner from Eagle Hotel… Child by the name of Kayser… Biu Yuin, Chinese… Miss Excelsa, Novelty theatre…

And so it went. The lists contained over fifty names, and the list of injured suggested more would very soon be dead:

Mr. and Mrs. Lewis C. Cnopius, the latter believed to be fatally hurt… Mrs. Demmer, serious, will die… H. Kang, Japanese, ribs broken, will die… Barney Mullen, prize fighter, neck wrenched… Lyman C. Hill, leg and head mashed…

It was not all tragedy: “Mrs. N. L Jones was not killed as first reported. She is at Dr. Lain’s residence where she is doing nicely…Mrs. L. C. Cnopius, believed to have been fatally injured, is improving nicely,” the merged Democrat-Republican newspaper reported a few days later, and it was good to hear that Ferdinand Drey was pulled uninjured after a day trapped beneath the ruins of the Eagle Hotel. But otherwise there were sad tidings from the rescue crews:

Milo Fish, the pressman [for the Press Democrat]… was dug out while alive but succumed [sic] to his injuries shortly after being taken to his home. He leaves a wife and six children.

The charred remains of Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Carter were recovered this morning.

The bodies of three unknown persons were brought to the Morgue late Monday evening, having been found in the stairway to the Princess lodging house. Nothing could be learned of their identity. It is supposed to be a man, woman, and child.

The remains of a woman, supposed to be those of Mrs. A. S. Rogers, were taken from the Reynolds building on Third street this afternoon.

The remains of a man supposed to be Contractor Richards of San Rafael were discovered in the ruins of the Occidental Hotel, and were taken to the morgue in a small box today.

The body of Charles Shepard, the last of the three Press Democrat carriers who lost their lives in the catastrophe, was recovered this morning from a pile of ruins across the street from the press-room door. The poor boy had evidently rushed out of the building with the others, and had gotten clear across the street when he was caught by the falling walls. All the debris in that vicinity had been worked over in the effort to locate the body, but it was not until this morning that it was recovered. Four of the Press Democrat employees, three carriers and a pressman, lost their lives as the result of the earthquake. Carrier Shepard was seventeen years of age.

[T]he remains of a man were found in the ruins of the Eureka Lodging house on Fourth street. With the remains were a few coins and the remnants of a watch.


Remains of the Saint Rose Hotel on the corner of Fourth and A, looking east
Remains of the Saint Rose Hotel on the corner of Fourth and A, looking east

Those days were a swirl of confusion, and the town’s newspapers, struggling to publish anything at all using a small newsletter press owned by the business school, reported events as well as they possibly could. But mistakes were made, even about something as serious as the finding the dead. The body of Smith Davidson, for example, was found twice, presumably in different locations. On the 21st, it was noted that “the remains of Smith Davidson were recovered this morning from the ruins of the Kinslow building above C. A. Wright & Co.’s store.” Then six days later, “A portion of a human body was found in the ruins at the entrance to the stairway leading to Mrs. Loughery’s rooming house this morning. It is supposed to be the remains of Smith Davidson.”

Then there’s the mystery of “Miss Excela,” part of the “Sensational Gun Jugglers and Fencers” act that was appearing at the Novelty Theatre that week. The April 19 death list listed “Miss Excelsa, Novelty theatre,” then two days later, “The remains of Miss Excelsa, the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house.” A full profile of her can be read here: “SEEKING MISS EXCELSA.”

There is also the disappearance of Fred Thurber; nearly two weeks after the quake, the following item appeared; apparently his whereabouts are still unknown.

Who knew Fred Thurber? Inquiry has been made here for a man named Fred Thurber, supposed to be among the missing of the Alma lodging house ruins. Any one knowing whether or not he was in that house on the night of the disaster will kindly communicate with Mrs. Cunningham, Dutton avenue. The parents and two daughters of the missing man are anxious to get some tidings regarding him.
Notice on wreckage of City Hall. Detail of photograph by James O. Rue, courtesy California Historical Society
Notice on wreckage of City Hall. Detail of photograph by James O. Rue, courtesy California Historical Society

But the sad truth is that we even don’t know for certain how many people died in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906. The report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, which came out over two years later, cites 61 identified dead, at least a dozen “missing.” The Democrat-Republican has the death total as 65 at the end of the month – yet an adjacent item on the very same page mentions the coroner’s inquests that morning included “six unknown persons whose remains were found in the ruins.” When the next list appeared in the Press Democrat the following week, the total was now 69, with the addition of “four unknown dead,” presumably those “six unknown,” downsized for unknown reasons. (NOTE: For further details and a longer discussion, see Body Counts, Part II.)

A letter from Mrs. John Rhoades appeared in the May 3 Fayette, Iowa newspaper: “…The loss of life in the three large three-story hotels was great and can never be known definitely, as fire finished what the earthquake left, including the registers [emphasis mine]. They claim that there were over one hundred guests in each hotel. As to that I cannot say; however there were a great many rescued alive. Besides the the first-class hotels there were four second-class hotels that were also full and shared the same fate, besides six or eight lodging houses, all filled. It is estimated that between three and four hundred people lost their lives, but as I said before I doubt very much if we ever know…”

Then there was the letter that appeared in New York and Los Angeles papers claiming, “…From the St. Rose they took out nine bodies to-day. They found a little girl in these ruins. She was unhurt, but very hungry and thirsty, having been buried four days and nights.” The Democrat-Republican newspaper did not mention a dramatic late rescue or the discovery of a large number of casualties found on April 21, but no paper was published on Sunday, April 22 – was this news that fell through the cracks?

The first frontpage that was printed, just hours after the calamity, offered an advance apology: “The lists of dead and injured given herewith are necessarly [sic] very incomplete, but will be made complete as rapidly as possible. There were many narrow and thrilling escapes, but the limited facilities for publishing a paper after the awful devastation prevent even a mention of these at this time.” Sadly, the papers never got around to telling us about those “narrow and thrilling escapes,” which were too few, or printing an accurate toll of the dead, which were too many.

A young woman named Jessie Loranger wrote to her sisters a couple of days later, “Clarence went to the cemetery this afternoon & worked like a man digging a trench and helping to bury seven corpses. Tonight he has blisters on his hands but feels he has done his duty. A great many don’t do their part. Pa painted the names on boards for marking the grave. He used a little brush of Sybilla’s and a little paint Charlie had at home.”

Also from the letter of Mrs. Rhoades: “There were forty bodies buried here yesterday [the first Sunday after the earthquake].”

As both of the local undertaking parlors were destroyed by the earthquake, Coroner Frank L. Blackburn brought up a number of coffins from Petaluma…

Seven of the bodies of the unfortunate victims for whom no private arrangements could be made were interred in one big grave Friday afternoon, for the present at any rate.

(Image courtesy Larry Lapeere)

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