In its efforts to recover from the 1906 earthquake, Santa Rosa faced the same main obstacle as San Francisco: Getting the Insurance companies to pay up.

Compared to the great city, losses here were chump change. The full value of the damage in San Francisco was estimated at around $500 million, maybe as much as a billion dollars – and even that lower figure was more than the entire federal budget for that year. But the insurers only paid out about $180 million; some residents were underinsured or didn’t have insurance at all, and the companies also pulled every trick possible to avoid paying. (Multiply these dollar figures by about 20x to estimate current value.)

Santa Rosa reported to the governor that damages totaled about $3 million, and at the June 27 meeting of the insurance companies, the insurance men pegged the town’s losses at no more than a relatively puny $400,000. But that didn’t mean that the insurance companies were any more willing to open their purses; if anything, the situation was worse in Santa Rosa for want of attention paid to the distant town. Few claims were settled in the two months following the quake when, after pleas to the state commissioner, insurance companies held a meeting specifically regarding losses here. The first proposal made was that they should form a committee to visit Santa Rosa and report back three weeks later – which would have pushed any possible settlements beyond 90 days from the earthquake.

There was nothing subtle in their tactics; the insurance companies wanted to stall indefinitely, playing a cruel game of nerves with people who were often desperate. When payments were offered on claims, most policy holders were pressured into taking cash offers that amounted pennies on the dollar, with the implied threat that the company just might decide to demand proof positive that the damage was 100% fire related.

Almost all policyholders had a “fallen-building” clause in their insurance policies: If the building fell down and a fire swept over the wreckage and burned everything, tough luck. If the contents of the building were on fire before the collapse, however, the insurance company had to pay something. Determining the precise sequence of these events was no easy thing, of course, particularly in Santa Rosa where the first fires were noted within seconds of the tremors. Hairs split further over situations such as: a) fire starts, b) structure collapses, resulting in c) inability of fire dept. to extinguish fires.

Some cases actually did drag on for years, with the last settled by the California Supreme Court in 1911 (the insurance company lost). The only happy news to come from all this litigation is that it preserved for historians the testimony by Fire Chief Frank Muther and others, which are the most accurate and detailed accounts from that day.

Both Santa Rosa papers followed developments avidly, and whenever someone received a check it was treated like a lottery win: “J. G. Wieland, the Fourth street baker, whose place was destroyed by fire on April 18, has received his insurance in full from the Delaware Insurance company,” reported the Press Democrat, June 23. Local resident J. L. Byers was cheered by the papers where he interceded on behalf of his daughter, who lived in San Francisco and had accepted a 75% settlement; he confronted the company rep and insisted that their payment was tantamount to admitting the full amount was actually due, and threatened suit. The agent supposedly wrote a check for the balance on the spot.

In the end, fewer than ten companies paid their losses in full, most prominent being Aetna and Lloyd’s of London. Like many insurers, Fireman’s Fund didn’t have enough in the bank to pay everyone’s losses, but they still made good; they paid 50 percent on all claims, declared bankruptcy, reformed the company, and paid the balance owed in new company stock. It was a remarkably fair and honorable resolution, particularly considering more than a dozen companies declared bankruptcy and never paid a cent.

(RIGHT: Ad from the July 23, 1906 Santa Rosa Republican)


The eyes of the entire commercial world are focused on the insurance companies just now. If they waive technicalities and pay up promptly, people may say they are all right and entitled to confidence and support. If, on the other hand, they interpose uncertain phrases and ambiguous clauses in the attempt to avoid carrying out their obligations, the public will be done with them. No one man in a hundred reads a fire insurance policy. He accepts it from the agent for what it purports to be on its face–a contract to protect the insured against loss by fire. The cause or origin of the fire cuts no figure with the insured. What he wants is protection, that is what the agent tells him he is buying, he pays his good money for it, and now it remains to be seen whether or not that is what he gets.

– Democrat-Republican, April 24, 1906
Insurance Matters

W. S. Davis and C. D. Barnett, insurance agents, visited the board of managers in Oakland on Tuesday. Mr. Davis says people must be patient. He is confident everything will be all right.

– Democrat-Republican, April 25, 1906

More Insurance Checks

Eardley & Barnett have received checks in payment of fire losses on April 18 from the Phoenix Assurance Association of London as follows: Rasin Trembley, $49.25; N.R. Davidson, $400…the check sent Rasin Trembley is the third he has received on account of damage done by the fire on April 18.

Santa Rosan Turned Down

Mrs. W. R. Parker of his city, who conducted the Pricess lodging house here up to April 18, was turned down in a cool manner in San Francisco recently. She went to call on Secretary Wait Blixon, of the National, regarding her loss by fire, and was curtly informed not to delude herself with the belief that she would be reimbursed. Blixon said his company would refuse to recognize claims from Santa Rosa, although no representative of the company had been here to view the situation. Mrs. Parker says some San Franciscans are settling on terms of forty cents on the dollar with Blixon’s company, the doughty secretary forcing these terms of policy holders.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 11, 1906

As a result of the many complaints that have reached this office concerning the treatment being accorded local policy holders, the Press Democrat yesterday wired both Insurance Commissioner Wolfe and Deputy Attorney General George A. Sturtevant of San Francisco apprising them of the conditions here and asking them of the conditions here and asking them to see that those companies apparently disposed to do otherwise be made to accord their customers fair treatment.

While some very questionable tactics have been employed, it would be anything but fair to place all the companies doing business here in the same class. It is true that very few claims have as yet been paid, but several of the leading concerns have sent representatives here to talk over the situation with their policyholders and try to arrange a satisfactory and equitable basis of settlement. Some of the Company Managers have even visited this city personally for the same purpose, and little apprehension is felt regarding the outcome of cases such as these. Other cases can be mentioned, however, that present a very different aspect.

The American Insurance Company of Philadelphia, for instance, has repudiated all its losses here, although when asked in his own office by an indignant policyholder whether the company had ever sent any of its men up to Santa Rosa to investigate and report upon conditions here, Walt Blixon, the American’s secretary and chief adjuster, was compelled to admit that it had not. “How can you claim to know anything about the situation there one way or the other, then?” he asked. “Well, we have some photographs that show how the town looks,” was Blixon’s reply. And this was all the satisfaction that the policyholder was able to get. The policyholder referred to is Mrs. W. R. Parker of this city. The following paragraph republished from an item that appeared in the Press Democrat a few days after Mrs. Parker’s return home here becomes of interest:

“Mrs. Parker gives an interesting description of her visit to the company’s office and the scenes she witnessed there. A room full of people were waiting to get a chance to see Mr. Blixon, but only one was admitted at a time. One man came in accompanied by a friend, and when his turn arrived wished to take his friend in with him, but was not allowed to do so. Another man on coming out of Blixon’s office was asked what he had accomplished. ‘I had to settle for forty cents on the dollar,’ he replied. An irate individual stalked out and refused to answer any questions. ‘He’ll come back and take our terms,’ laughed the office boy, a bright youngster of about twelve years old. ‘They all come back,’ he added, by way of explanation.”

The Phoenix of Hartford is another company that has denied its liabilities here, and numerous proofs of loss sent to the company’s Oakland office have been returned by registered mail, accompanied by a polite note to the effect that the Company “was in receipt of what purported to be proofs of loss,” but “begged to return the papers referred to,” etc., and “refused to consider the claim in any way whatever.” Some of the local policyholders in the Phoenix are known to have valid claims, and it is thought that the company’s unexpected stand has been taken through a misapprehension upon the part of its managers as to the true facts. The Connecticut has also denied its liabilities in a number of cases here, but has paid one claim which it at first refused to recognize. Other instances of peculiar work upon the part of two or three other companies might also be mentioned, but it is perhaps not necessary at this time.

In marked contrast to the course followed by the companies above mentioned is that of the Aetna, which has settled several losses without question, paying dollar for dollar. Temple Smith, the stationer, received a check from the Aetna for $500 on his stock of goods contained in the two-story brick building near the corner of Fourth and B streets. Mrs. M. J. Lowrey, who carried a policy on her household goods for a like amount i n the same company, was also promptly paid. She resided in the Kinslow building, a brick structure on Fourth street. The Aetna also paid the claim of M. S. Davis for $1,750 on the brick building on Fourth street formerly occupied by H. H. Moke as an undertaking parlor. Mention might likewise be made of two claims paid only a few days ago by the Phoenix of London and the Fire Association of Philadelphia. The former paid a $500 loss on the Temple Smith stock, and the latter forwarded a check for $1,000 to the same party without question upon receipt of proof of loss. The Queen paid the claim of the Elks and several other companies have indicated their intention to pay, so the action of the companies mentioned leaves those concerns that have flatly denied all liability here in a very peculiar position, to say the least.


W. S. Davis & Co., the company’s local representatives, are in receipt of a letter from the San Francisco office of the Northwestern National stating that every possible effort has been made to advance settlements of the company’s losses in San Francisco, and that over half of its claims there have already been adjusted and paid, while the matter of settling the company’s losses in Santa Rosa will be taken up in a few days. Accompanying the letter was a draft in payment of the claim of Mrs. Lilia Ware for damage done her building at the corner of Fourth and Davis street.

– Press Democrat, June 23, 1906

A few of the “welching” insurance concerns are trying to escape responsibility here by claiming that they are exempted under their contracts by the falling wall clause, which reads as follows:

“If a building, or any part thereof fall, except as the result of fire, all insurance by this policy on such building or its contents shall immediately cease.”

It will not be denied that certain buildings here were destroyed or ruined by the earthquake. Their number is far less, however, than the insurance men of the type above mentioned would make it appear. But are there any buildings here that really fell, within the true meaning of that word?

To say that a man fell out of a window when in reality he was thrown out by another man during the progress of a fight, or blown out by an explosion, would clearly be a misstatement of fact. The motive for making such a statement under those circumstances might be open to question, but the natural inference would be that somebody was trying to create a wrong impression. What is the natural inference, then, when an insurance man says a building “fell,” when it was really thrown down by an earthquake?

In the event of having to try to sustain their position before the courts, the companies contending that a building thrown down by an earthquake was not really thrown down at all but simply fell, would doubtless argue that the matter of earthquakes was in contemplation when the clause above referred to was inserted in their policies. The fact is, however, that inherent weaknesses and faults of construction were really what the companies employing that clause were trying to guard against. The companies that were figuring on earthquakes said so, for what is known as the “earthquake clause” appears in place of the “falling wall clause” in the policies issues by many of the concerns engaged in the insurance business at the present time, and has for many years.

– Press Democrat, July 6, 1906

Photo courtesy Larry Lapeere

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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

Moving Pictures

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

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”

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The 1906 earthquake may have created headaches for downtown Santa Rosa merchants, but it also was a profitable time to be a newspaper publisher, such was the great demand for advertising. Displaced stores needed to let customers know where to find them, or when they would reopen – and that included saloons; probably never before in Santa Rosa’s history did so many liquor stores and bars have to advertise the whereabouts of booze.

There was little news in the newspaper except for the front page, and the bottom part of that always had a large display ad or two. Inside the four-page papers were more display ads, want ads, and notices. Brooks Clothing Co. had reopened near the old post office (“Look for the store with the yellow front”) and the White House department store was moving to their new location at B and 5th next week. Pedersen’s offered a “full line of earthquake proof furniture, carpets and linoleums” from his home at 328 Second Street. W. E. Nichols, contractor and builder, wanted to let you know that he was “open to any kind of legitimate business proposition.”

A few ads played with quake humor. The Santa Rosa Poultry Association was “Shaken Up and Still Moving,” paying spot cash for eggs; Price and Silvershield’s real estate and insurance office wanted you to know that they were “Slightly Disfigured But Still in the Ring;” the Hahman pharmacy at 504 Mendocino St. vowed their motto was to “Stick to Santa Rosa.” A paint and wallpaper store declared, “We Were Bent But Not Broke,” and hopefully they were better at painting and wallpapering than they was at grammar (at the bottom of their ad was the odd yet earnest tag, “Yours truly, Wilson Bros”).

Fourth Street, looking west at the courthouse from the D Street intersection. Detail of photograph courtesy California Historical Society

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