What happens to a town when its business center is wiped out? In 1906 Santa Rosa, most merchants tried to continue doing business at their old locations during the reconstruction, while the less retail/more professional trade either worked from home or operated from a business shantytown that was cobbled together a block away from the old downtown core.

But first: How did James Wyatt and Mattie Oates fare during the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake? Was their grand home damaged? Did they pitch a tent on their lawn for a few days, as did many others? Alas, we don’t know anything about how they coped, but Wyatt kept his office near the center of the action.

Never was the house mentioned in the ad-hoc newspaper published in the weeks after the quake, so the damage, if any, probably wasn’t serious. Today, repairs or rebuilding likely would be impossible to spot; the home was scarcely a year old at the time, so any work done in 1906 would be indistinguishable from the original. And if the disaster did reveal any structural flaws, the Oates didn’t blame architect Brainerd Jones, whom they soon would work with again in the design of the Saturday Afternoon Club hall.

The quake hit just two days before Mattie Oates was to host her first party of the year, a Friday evening shindig for the Married Ladies Club on her first anniversary of being in the house. The party had been mentioned with anticipation weeks earlier in the society section of both papers and was, of course, postponed for several months. The Oates did host a lunch at the house for the Masonic Grand Master of California on May 18.

Wyatt placed a notice in the interim Democrat-Republican to announce that he was working at home temporarily, which was unusual; he hadn’t advertised in the paper before, and also because no other lawyer publicized himself at the time – yes, doctors, dentists, barbers, butchers, and other tradesmen bought classifieds in those hectic days to announce their temporary locations, but Oates was the only attorney to do so. This was likely more for reasons of ego than opportunism; the paper noted the same week that no suits had been filed since the quake.

Although his house has a cozy library/study, it’s more likely that Wyatt Oates commandeered the dining room during those weeks. The social convention at the time was that women held sway in the parlor(s), but men had the liberty to smoke and scatter their papers over the dining table outside of mealtimes. The side door leading to the porch also would have spared his family the fragrance of his stogies, Oates being a militant when it came to his rights to smoke anywhere in his house. Perhaps the bent-open letterbox that’s still next to that porch door is an artifact from those home office days.

By late May, Oates’ had moved his office into the Finlaw building at the northeast corner of Fifth St. and Mendocino (current location of the El Coqui Puerto Rican restaurant) which he was to share with Dr. McLeod. Here Wyatt Oates had a front row seat to watch the political reconstruction of Santa Rosa.

Immediately after the disaster, the intersection of Mendocino and 5th became the de facto emergency command center for Santa Rosa. Two views of it have already appeared in this space – most recently here, which offers a link back to an earlier photograph. At right, men with a wagon of debris state their business at the militia checkpoint on this corner (detail from image courtesy Larry Lapeere).

Dr. Finlaw’s former office on the corner was apparently unharmed by earthquake or fire; in that first urgent month, it became the post office and provided the only telephone line to points north – the phone used to reach points south was nailed outside of the Chinese laundry next door. That wash house wrapped around Finlaw’s small building, and Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley rented it quickly; for the following year and more, the laundry’s storefront on Mendocino with the telephone became the temporary home of the PD, and the side facing 5th street became the Santa Rosa Republican. In the crook of the L-shaped lot was the printing plant that the Press Democrat used by night and the Republican by day.

Next up on Mendocino was to be found one of the rarest sites in post-quake Santa Rosa – a large vacant lot. Amid all the rubble and wreckage, here was a spacious parcel which the Native Sons of the Golden West had cleared in preparation of building their new lodge hall. The construction of their magnificent red concrete building (which still stands today) was delayed as the property became the site of Santa Rosa’s city hall and the rest of the civic center for the next sixteen months.

No photos survive, but it must have been somewhat of a rat’s warren of sheds and shacks (and you probably don’t want to think about the lack of toilet facilities). Editor Finley, who later waxed fond over producing a daily newspaper in such hardships, offered a backwards glance as the campground closed. Writing in August 1907 he recalled, “… many small temporary structures [were] hastily erected to house public officials and accommodate private business. The Post Office, City Hall, Police station, numerous attorneys, cigar stands, the Lighting Company, photographers, architects, physicians, and The Press Democrat all found their first temporary homes on these two properties, and around them revolved for a time practically the entire business activity of the city.”

As the others packed their tents and left, so did Oates; he moved out of the Finlaw building as the last businesses cleared out of the Native Sons’ lot next door. For the rest of his life he would work across from the new courthouse at the Union-Trust Saving Bank Building at 4th and Hinton, now known as the corner of Courthouse Square with the Wolf Coffee shop Rendez-Vous Bistro.

Mrs. James Wyatt Oates to Entertain Married Ladies

Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will entertain the Married Ladies Card Club on Friday evening, March 20 [sic – April 20]. The elegant home of Colonel and Mrs. Oates will be thrown open to the members of the club and a few friends and they will be delightfully entertained. Colonel and Mrs. Oates enjoy a reputation second to none for hospitality, and the members of the club will spend a delightful evening with their hosts. The home of the entertainers on Healdsburg avenue is one of the most beautiful in this city, and is finely appointed for entertaining large parties.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 26, 1906

So far no suits have been commenced in the Superior Court since the quake. The justice and police courts are likewise bereft of business.

– Democrat-Republican, April 27, 1906

James W. Oates has his law office temporarily at his residence 767 Healdsburg avenue. Will be permanently in the Dr. Finlaw corner after this week.

– Democrat-Republican, April 30, 1906
Temporary Business Quarters Given Up and Work to Begin on Handsome Native Sons’ Hall

The next few days will witness the clearing away of the last vestige of what for several months after the great disaster constituted the business center of Santa Rosa. Before the present week is ended the temporary buildings hastily erected on Mendocino avenue, just off of Fifth, will all be tenantless and those occupying the Native Sons’ lot will be torn down to make room for the new Native Sons Hall, ground for which will be broken about Tuesday or Wednesday.

The first business established after the shake in the vicinity mentioned was the Telephone Exchange. On the afternoon of April 18 an old-fashioned long-distance transmitter was fastened to the front wall of the Chinese wash-house which then stood on the site that has since been occupied by the Press Democrat office, and outside communication was established with points north. Miss Clara Simmons was in charge of this unique outdoor exchange, and from that little beginning there immediately began to grow up a busy business community. The Finlaw property and the Native Sons’ lot were leased by various parties and many small temporary structures hastily erected to house public officials and accommodate private business. The Postoffice, City Hall, Police station, numerous attorneys, cigar stands, the Lighting Company, photographers, architects, physicians, and The Press Democrat all found their first temporary homes on these two properties, and around them revolved for a time practically the entire business activity of the city.

Monday morning the Press Democrat will move into its handsome and commodious new quarters on Fifth street, just off of Mendocino, while the Santa Rosa Lighting Company will leave its present offices at the same time for those now ready in the Union Trust Savings Bank building. Contractor J. O. Kuykendall is also to move Monday into the Eardley building on Fifth street, while W. H. Summers, the cigar dealer, will move into upstairs rooms in the Taylor building on Fifth street and discontinue the retail business for a while, doing manufacturing only until he can secure satisfactory accommodations elsewhere. Summers will be the last to move, as he has to wait for the arrival of permission from the government authorities for the removal of his factory. But he expects to “pull out”not later than Tuesday.

The new Native Sons’ Hall, which is to grace the site of the temporary buildings now being vacated, will be a handsome and commodious structure, details of which have already been published. The contract for the steel frame and general construction has been given to the Rickon-Ehrhart company. It is also the intention of Mrs. Finlaw to construct a fine building on the corner adjoining, although no definite plans have as yet been decided upon.

– Press Democrat, August 4, 1907

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How many died because of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake – and why is this such a tricky question to answer? It should be easy to determine; there were death certificates, and the hybrid Democrat-Republican printed several lists of the dead in the weeks following. The official state report on the earthquake published a couple of years later included a death count, as did a key speech given that year for the dedication of the new courthouse. But none of these sources agree. There were 66 death certificates with cause attributed to “Injuries sustained by earthquake” (or similar); 69 persons listed in the papers; 61 killed according to the state report, and 77 if you believe the number used in the speech. All in all, that’s a lousy statistical uncertainty of 12 percent.

Before wading too deeply, here’s the executive summary: There were at least 82 deaths caused by the earthquake and it can be said with high confidence that a minimum count should be 85 (see earthquake FAQ). An annotated list is available for download as a spreadsheet or PDF file. I believe, however, that the true toll is probably in the range of 120, and even may be two or three times that many. It all depends how you squint at the data. (edited July 2016)

(By the way: Have you already read the first “Body Counts” article?)

Compare the newspaper lists (PDF) with the official register of deaths.1 Four lists appeared in Santa Rosa newspapers between April 19 and May 11 (the date of the last isn’t certain because it is only available as a reprint from another paper), and five names repeatedly appeared which aren’t found in the index.2

How can someone die without receiving a death certificate? Simple: No remains, no official record of death (at least. not without a court order) – perhaps these five unfortunates were all but completely incinerated and their dust scattered, leaving not even the few “burnt bones and ashes” that served to identify four others who were listed as “unknown.” Another possibility is that the body didn’t make it to the town’s ad hoc morgue established in a church Sunday School room. Rev. Monroe Alexander of the 4th Street Methodist Church wrote later that the coroner didn’t get to see all the remains that were found, including a “poor Chinaman or an Italian whom nobody seemed to know.”3

Of those five unofficial casualties, the newspaper indicated three were “traveling men” (salesmen) which might seem like an unusually high number of visitors, but it’s not inconsistent with what we know about the others who were lost that day. Roughly 1 in 4 appears to have been an out-of-towner. And that is why it’s so hard to estimate the numbers; we don’t know how many people were here at the time. The fire and earthquake destruction in Santa Rosa was almost entirely in the commercial district of 4th and 3rd streets, where multi-story hotels were alongside little rooming houses above the stores. A couple of eyewitnesses wrote that most rooms were believed occupied, but nothing can be known for sure – all hotel registers were reportedly lost in the fires.

Locals certainly expected that the death toll in the hotels would be astronomical; Mrs. John Rhoades, in a letter sent to an Iowa paper five days after the quake, wrote that she had heard that 300-400 were dead. And nearly two years later, Herbert Slater, who was city editor of the Press Democrat at the time of the disaster, mused, “…Perchance there may have been many a poor human, who was a stranger within the gates of Santa Rosa, on the morning of the earthquake, whose life went out and whose remains were obliterated by the flames, of which no earthly record is known.”4

Aside from the assumption that there were remains not found, it’s reasonable to expect that many who were seriously injured here died elsewhere – wouldn’t you head directly home If you were a traveler caught in such a nightmare?

Local historian Terry Oden, who compiled the first comprehensive list of Santa Rosa earthquake deaths for the 2006 centennial, found an example of just such a non-local death reported in one of the local papers more than a year later. On the day of the earthquake, Mrs. Bernice Cook “…was visiting relatives in the Piedmont lodging house, which collapsed, and she was injured in the fall of the building. She never recovered from the effects of the injury.” She died in June, 1907 at an Oakland hospital.

Oden found four other collateral deaths besides Mrs. Cook: 5

  Charles W. Palm, a traveling man who died five days after the quake with delirium tremens listed as the cause. A little item in the April 24 Democrat-Republican, however, noted “he was buried in the wreckage of the Grand Hotel, and had several ribs broken, besides sustaining serious internal injuries.” (Mr. Palm, it turns out, has two graves.)
  Mary Crose, proprietor of the Piedmont Hotel where Mrs. Cook was injured, died April 29 with “contusion of right leg” on the death certificate and no mention being harmed in the earthquake.Two days before her death, however, it was mentioned that she was “badly injured but is doing nicely”
  William Tompkins, who died May 3 of tetanus – see earlier post, “Death by Earthquake Lockjaw” for a Press Democrat item that noted “a number of people have also been laid up here” for stepping on rusty nails during the cleanup
  America Lillard Thomas, who died about ten weeks after the quake on July 8, from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock”

Two other deaths in 1906 Santa Rosa were likely related to the earthquake, but are not included in this list because they are more speculative:

  Thomas B. Hood, a saddler and father-in-law of Judge Burnett, lived near the downtown corner of 3rd and A Street and died April 28 from acute pleuritis. Slater wrote of “dense white and red dust clouds” that were kicked up by the collapse of the many nearby buildings, and there was smoke from the fires that raged for two days – conditions that could easily be fatal for someone with asthma or otherwise damaged lungs
  Elwin Charles Hutchinson, a 15 year-old schoolboy who died Dec. 22 from “partial paralysis and nervous prostration.” No obituary appeared for the youth (which in itself is unusual) to explain his disabilty and why his emotional state would prove fatal

All of these people are mirror opposites of the five named only in the newspaper casualty lists. Those people had no death certificates, but the Democrat-Republican (and later, the PD) repeatedly included their names on the list of quake fatalities. By contrast, everyone in this group does have a death certificate, but it doesn’t mention a conclusive link to the disaster. Yet they all deserve to be included on the earthquake death toll, albeit with an asterisk; together, they are the “known unknowns,” to lift the famous Rumsfeldian solpsism.

Then there are the unknown unknowns. Officially there were four John/Jane Does, listed as found in different locations and “nothing but burnt bones and ashes” on the death certificates. One certainly was the child who was always mentioned in conjunction with Ceile Heath, AKA “Miss Excelsia” (see “SEEKING MISS EXCELSA“). But according to the newspaper, three unknown remains were found together on April 23, and the paper a week later mentioned that the coroner had just held inquests that morning over remains that included the Excelsia child and “six unknown persons, whose remains were found in the ruins.” All together, that means the coroner actually saw 7 to 14 total unknowns.

Also a mystery are the missing missing. The report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, which came out over two years later, cites “61 identified dead, with at least a dozen ‘missing,'” which was a bit of a surprise since no missing persons had been mentioned since the weeks immediately after the quake. In those early days, however, telegrams and letters poured in looking for those who were presumed in Santa Rosa and had not been in touch. From the April 24 paper: “hundreds of belated telegrams are being received here daily.” April 25: “the amount of mail matter that is being received here is immense.” Pleas for information about the whereabouts of different missing people appeared in every edition of the paper. A sample:

A lady named Cline is here from San Francisco making inquiries about her missing son… Anderson, George, from East; Bishop, Edison; Gotloff, Fred; Comley, Miss Annie, Vallejo; Hyde, Mrs; Kruse, J., Vallejo; Kane, K.; Kegee, K.; Lee, Andy; Muller, Mrs.; Muller, sister of above; Thurber, Fred; Valley, Mr. …A man named Price, who was last seen the night before the earthquake, when he said he was going to spend the night at the Central lodging house, is missing… Inquiries have been received by the Mayor and Chief of Police for the following persons: Miss Johnson of Marfa, Texas, Mr. and Mrs. William T. Robertson… F. V. Hansler wants information of his wife and child who are said to be here…Parties desire to know the whereabouts of of Joseph Bayes, Eliz McClain, Mrs. W. D. Nichels…

Of those 24 – and again, this selection is just a sampling – only the fate of two is known. A traveling man named “Mr. Robertson” (sans spouse) appeared on most of the newspaper lists, and there’s a death certificate for Joseph Boyes (not Bayes). Hopefully the rest ended up alive and well elsewhere – but like the quest of hunting those who died at home from their earthquake injuries, that’s a marathon race for genealogists to undertake.

Heed the example of San Francisco city archivist Gladys Hansen, who initially compiled a list of 549 fatalities in that city (up from the official tally of 478), then continued to dig deeper. She looked at obscure records, contacted genealogical societies, and particularly sought information on people who actually died outside of San Francisco proper; her list now contains over 3,000 names. The high number of transients that were in Santa Rosa that morning is likewise reason to believe that many later died in places away from here from their injuries suffered on that cool April morning.

…Poor Wayne’s bones were found and just filled a little thin pail. Mr. and Mrs. Carters’ bones were found. They had no chance for escape. A whole box of bones were found yesterday in the Eureka Lodging House. There are still bodies under some of the buildings and a lot of people were burned up that were transient guests….

– Jessie Loranger letter to her sisters, April 27, 1906


1 Register of Deaths Book 60: City of Santa Rosa 1906-1924
2 A sixth entry, “Fritz Tanner from Eagle Hotel” appeared only on the April 19 list, and is presumably an error. All subsequent casualty lists named “Mr. Murphy” and “A. William Westran,” both of whom were tanners staying at the Eagle Hotel.
3 Monroe H. Alexander, “The Earthquake in Santa Rosa,” California Christian Advocate December 27, 1906, quoted in Philip L. Fradkin’s “The great earthquake and firestorms of 1906” pg 160
4 Herbert Slater remarks on the Santa Rosa fires and earthquake presented at the dedication of the courthouse, April 9, 1908; Lebaron collection, Sonoma State University
5 Terry Oden’s list also included Annie M. Leete, a local woman who died in San Jose, and two Indians killed by a falling wall at L. D. Jacks’ ranch. They are not included in this list, which is restricted to deaths in Santa Rosa. If it were expanded to all of Sonoma County, the list would also include the three miners crushed to death at the Great Eastern quicksilver mine in Guerneville and the three killed by the collapse of the El Bonita Hotel at Duncan’s Mills.


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. With the remains of these three, the total number of persons taken to the Morgue since the catastrophe amounts to an even half hundred. The total known deaths now number 64.

– Democrat-Republican, April 24, 1906



Mrs. Bernice Cook, formerly Miss Bernice Pharris of Bloomfield, who was buried in Petaluma Friday afternoon, was injured in the earthquake here on April 18, 1906. At the time she was visiting relatives in the Piedmont lodging house, which collapsed, and she was injured in the fall of the building. She never recovered from the effects of the injury and of late has suffered great pain as the result. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel J. Pharris of Bloomfield. She was a well known girl and her death comes as a shock to many friends in Sonoma county. Her death occurred at the Fabiola Hospital, where she had been taken from her home in Red Bluff.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1907

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Another strange vignette from the 1906 earthquake finds a letter warning homeowners to shun smooth-talking hobos offering to do cleanup and repair jobs on the cheap. In truth, that was a light year for hobo sightings, so methinks that the letter-writer was one of those “reputable, responsible local contractors” who was not getting homeowners to pay the prices he was asking. Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley loved to elaborate on hobo stories, but aside from a brief sighting of “Tennessee Bill” and a couple of brushes with the law, pickin’s were slim.

Editor Republican: Refugees, some worthy, some not; hobos from everywhere and nowhere are finding that Santa Rosa is a veritable Mecca. Scarcely do they hit the town till they also hit some brother hobo who has taken the G. M. H. degree, and immediately he is set to work cleaning brick, shoveling debris, sawing, nailing, hammering, or what not, at a price that suits the G. M. H. The G. M. H. degree man very adroitly wormed himself into the confidence of some patriotic, kind hearted, enterprising citizen, securing a contract by smooth talk and underbidding all the reputable, responsible local contractors. Of course Mr. Grand Master Hobo has the best interest of the city at heart, and that is his pocket. He starts out with the full intention of working for the best interest of the city. He knows he cannot do along legitimate lines, so he calls his weaker brother hobo to his relief. Results: If contract is completed at all, a miserable botch job; our own legitimate, taxpaying contractor, journeyman and laborer, temporarily at least, laid on the shelf, the owner buncoed, the business man robbed to the tune of the hobo’s wages for he spends his money elsewhere. – CITIZEN

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 6, 1906
Man Upsets Serenity of Healdsburg Avenue Vicinity by Peeping Through Fences

Some little excitement was caused this morning in the vicinity of Healdsburg avenue, and College and Benton streets, by an individual who kept peeping through the fences of rear yards, and acting in a suspicious manner. This was noticed by D. J. Paddock, a resident of that vicinity, who made it his business to keep his eye on the suspicious acting individual. He finally lost sight of the man entirely, and then sought his good friend, Tol T. Overton, and from him borrowed a saddle horse with which to round up the man.

Finally the services of Officer Herman Hankel were called into requisition, and the officer apprehended the man and took him into custody. He gave the name of James Gordon, and said that he had been peering into rear yards to see if there were any wood piles he could get to cut, or any yards he could spade for the residents. He said he saw a man with “whiskers” eyeing him, and decided to get out of the vicinity. It was while escaping that Hankel captured the man, some distance from the section where he had caused such uneasiness by his peering around.

The neighbors breathed easier after Hankel had taken the man into custody. He has probably learned a valuable lesson from his experience, that it is not well to peer through fences into yards and act in a suspicious manner. Gordon is a genuine hobo.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 29, 1906
“Tennessee Bill” is Glad

Charles Cornelius Tennessee Goforth, one of the best known characters of the state, who was released on Monday by City Recorder Bagley on a charge of drunkenness, was before Justice Atchinson yesterday charged with disturbing the peace. Tennessee is noted for his voice and when he gets a little too much liquor aboard he lets it be heard in a yell which startles the whole city. Yesterday morning he mounted the court house steps and expressed his joy at again being in town after an absence of a year and a half. Justice Atchinson gave him fifteen days in the county jail to entertain him while here. Goforth came to California in 1856 from Tennessee and since 1858 has been a resident of the state.

– Press Democrat, February 28, 1906
Cheery Greeting Given Man From Healdsburg When He Entered Jail Here on Thursday

“Hello, Lapmin, you here again.” This was the cheery greeting given an elderly man Thursday afternoon as he passed through the portals of the county jail on Third street, escorted by City Marshal Parker of Healdsburg, by Jailer Serafino Piezzi.

“Yes, I have come to stay with you again for a time,” was the rejoinder. Piezzi had recognized in O. Lapmin on sight, a former boarder at the Hotel de Grace.

The man was sent here by Justice Provines for sixty day for vagrancy. On the pretense that he was the owner of a valuable stallion, that he had money in the bank, that he had worked for a Healdsburg citizen and was owed a considerable sum of money, that he had a large ranch in Humboldt county and that his sons there also had ranches–goodness knows how many more reasons–he had fed well and fattened at the residence of a respected old lady in Healdsburg who takes in boarders. Finally it was proved that he was minus all the worldly possessions he claimed. Then for a week past, it is said, he imbibed quite freely and sought the shade of the plaza benches in the northern capital to “sleep it off.” He was dozing peacefully more than once when the majesty of the law as represented in the Healdsburg marshal descended upon him and finally he went “up against” Judge Provines, who suggested that sixty days of more enforced rest would be about the thing for him.

– Press Democrat, August 24, 1906

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