The Great Earthquake brought 45 seconds of absolute terror to the people of Santa Rosa, and for them uneasy days lay ahead. Many had friends and relatives still unaccounted for; many now homeless needed lodgings, and those with houses were camping on their front lawns, uncertain when – or if – it would be safe to return indoors; banks were closed, and it was unknown if the vaults would be opened to reveal only piles of ashes; even clean clothing became a luxury (a special call went out for donations of “men’s underclothing”). It was the worst of times; it was misery.
Naturally, they couldn’t wait to relive the experience.
As already mentioned, less than two weeks after the quake there were trainloads of San Franciscans coming to Santa Rosa to view someone else’s wreck, just as Santa Rosans were likewise rushing to San Francisco. That was just the beginning of our disaster voyeurism; before a month had passed after the quake, someone rented a building on Fifth street to show a “moving picture entertainment” of the fires in San Francisco. Mrs. Milo Fish – widow of the Press Democrat printer who was fatally injured in the newspaper building’s collapse – exhibited panoramic views of both San Francisco and Santa Rosa at her home. Hopefully she made some money to help feed her six children.
But more than anything else, Santa Rosans bought memorabilia. Display ads in the newspapers announced C. A. Wright & Co. had “Souvenir postals of the Santa Rosa ruins,” and Hosmer’s stationary store offered “Souvenir post Cards (old and new).” W.S. Hosmer was also an enthusiastic photographer; several of the images used in this series of articles came from Hosmer postcards, including the two panoramic views shown on the earthquake index page. Thousands and thousands of these cards must have been sold; collections are found in many libraries and museums, and you can always find a few available on eBay.
So popular were these disaster souvenirs that fakes soon began appearing. Reprehensible, yes, but understandable; piles of rubble look pretty much alike, so it would be easy to claim that photographs of any ruins just might be from Santa Rosa. What’s odd, though, was that some were apparently selling actual post-quake photos of the wreckage, but claiming they were taken before the catastrophe. Why there would be a market for such pictures is anybody’s guess, but as the Press Democrat reported, it was causing problems; at least one insurance company was refusing to pay claims by saying, “We have some pictures showing how the town looks.”
Some Fine Pictures
Mrs. Milo H. Fish has secured the agency for a series of panorama photographs of Santa Rosa and San Francisco, issued by a Los Angeles firm, which are without doubt the finest things of the kind ever seen here. One of the pictures measures seven feet in length. Mrs. Fish resides on E street, next to the Carnegie Library.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 26, 1906
Blixen and Beeswax–LaCell and McClearie’s earthquake pictures are corkers. Keller, the druggist has ’em.– Santa Rosa Republican advertisement, May 26, 1906
The Rosalie Theatre Company have leased the old church building between A and B streets on Fifth street, and commencing Wednesday night, will have a moving picture entertainment. The pictures will describe the San Francisco fire.– Press Democrat, May 12, 1906
The Rosalie Theatre Co.
Our program commencing tonight will include pictures of San Francisco taken in an auto going down Market street after the fire, Pulling down St Dominic’s Steeple, The Whole Damm Family at Lunch, and Invisible Men. The prize this week will be a gold watch and chain which can be seen at M. F. Noack’s jewelry store on Mendocino St.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1906
FAKE EARTHQUAKE VIEWS AND INSURANCE CLAIMS
Thousands of photographs purporting to show the effect of the earthquake here have been printed and sold since the recent disaster, and while many of the views are authentic the commercial instinct of those engaged in the business of handling them has in some instances resulted most unfortunately.
Nobody attaches much importance to a photograph showing the effect of an ordinary fire, because such pictures are comparatively common. A view showing the effects of an earthquake shock, however, is something of a rarity in the country and is apt to sell readily. For the purpose of increasing sales, numerous photographs taken in Santa Rosa after the conflagration have been labeled “Before the Fire.” Some of these fakes have found their way into the hands of insurance companies anxious to escape their responsibilities, and in at least one instance has resulted in the flat denial of all liability here. The American of Philadelphia, for instance, while openly admitting that none of its representative have visited this city since the disaster, has refused to pay any of its losses here, its managers attempting to justify their position by saying, “We have some pictures showing how the town looks.”
Those who are at all familiar with the facts will have to admit that any photograph purporting to show a building down but unburned, and which afterwards was swept by the flames, thus occasioning a claim for fire loss, is a fake, pure and simple. The earthquake occurred at a very early hour in the morning, and those buildings that burned were swept within a short time afterwards, some almost immediately. In the brief interrum great confusion prevailed, and nobody though of taking a photograph. In fact, so great was the deaiding [sic] the injured, fighting the flames, etc., that any one showing so little regard for the dictates of humanity as to waste time with a camera, even admitting that such a thing had been possible, would in all probability have been rushed to a telegraph pole and lynched. The insurance company that contemplates basing its opposition to paying losses here upon photographs is skating upon pretty thin ice, as it will soon find when it gets into court.– Press Democrat, June 24, 1906
Two views of the A. B. Ware home on College Avenue, which was one of the few houses to collapse in Santa Rosa. At the time of the earthquake, it had the misfortune to be raised on jackscrews so the foundation could be rebuilt. Notice the supports against the house at the far right. The young woman on crutches was probably Mabel Ware, who had sprained her ankle weeks before and had spent the month of April in bed – yet when the quake began, sprinted past everyone else in the family to be the first out of the house. Detail of photographs courtesy Sonoma State University (top) and California Historical Society (bottom) and Ware family story from Wallace Ware’s memoir, “The Unforgettables”