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.”
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