No doubt about it: The 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake was a “Kodak Moment.” At least a hundred different images survive, mostly postcard souvenir views which were apparently sold in vast numbers. Other pictures are the excellent work of local professional photographers and camera hobbyists; at the bottom of the heap are the amateur snapshots, probably taken with the popular new $1.00 “Brownie” cameras sold in local drug stores. That the latter photos weren’t thrown away – despite being often out of focus, taken in dim light, or badly composed – shows they were treasured as mementos of the historic event.
(Portrait of pavement with two men waaaay in the distance: A snapshot of the Fourth and A St. intersection looking east, with the remains of the Saint Rose Hotel on the left. Another view of this location can be found in an earlier post)
By comparison, few personal letters are known to exist that describe what was happening in Santa Rosa in those chaotic days. Most valuable are Jessie Loranger Lomont’s letters to her sisters, particularly the one written April 19th, describing the first twenty-four hours: “…men worked half the night in the ruins. Every once in a while a cheer announced that they heard someone alive and the worked like crazy men. Oh we have heroes here now…They heard poor people cry and moan but after while it would cease and they of course were dead…It is very warm here and I am afraid the conditions will be very bad if they do not get the bodies out but it seems they can’t make much impression. I can hear the axes chopping as I sit here writing…”
The lack of first-hand descriptive accounts makes the article below all the more interesting, and it’s good to know that the shaken Santa Rosans were able to make a few jokes about the calamity just a couple of months later.
LUDICROUS INCIDENTS OF THE DISASTER
Some ludicrous incidents occurred the morning of April 18th in the midst of the harrowing scenes of death and injuries. While they did not seem to be mirthful at that particular time, they are rather laughable at this date, two months following the disaster.
One thing that has caused people to laugh wherever the same has been told, was the answer given an attorney when he accosted a maimed and bleeding man early on that eventual morn. His sympathies were aroused when he saw the blood trickling down the dirt begrimed face of the injured man, and he inquired tenderly, “Why my good man, where did you come from?” The reply was entirely unexpected by the attorney, and he was almost floored when he got it. “From Missouri, and I wish I was back there,” was the response. The attorney expected to ascertain from which building the man had been rescued.
The idea of a saloon man praying will strike some people as a surprising and laughable incident at first mention. This actually what happened. A saloon man of Santa Rosa on the morning of April 18 believed the world was coming to an end, and he dropped to his knees, clasped his hands reverently before him, and approached the throne of grace. What added to his belief that the world was about to terminate its existence was the Biblical promise he had learned in early youth that when the Lord again destroyed the world it would be with fire. And the fire was raging all around him in fierce order. An apparition appeared to the man, and when he saw a young lady of this city, clad only in her robe gently picking her way over the fallen brick, he believed he beheld an angel tiptoeing over the debris. It was the sigh of what he believed to be the angel that caused him to drop to his prayer bones and ask for mercy. When the young lady had approached close to him and he learned she was not the real angel he had suspected her being, he made his way hurriedly into the crowd, lest his identity should become known.
A former councilman was one of the unfortunate victims who was pinned down by the debris in the Grand hotel. He was dug out by a number of friends, and rarely had any comment to make while he was being removed. He bore his bruises and pains with the stoicism that is believed to belong only to the Indian race. No complaint escaped his lips. One of his friends who was more than solicitous for his welfare undertook to explain what had happened. He started in: “Well, old man, we’ve had an earthquake.” But the former councilman broke in on him unexpectedly, and said: “Who the devil ordered it?”
A Kansas man who found himself in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake was nonplussed, as he ran about the hotel where he chanced to be stopping. He remembered that in his Kansas home provision was made in the residences for cyclones, and he startled others in his immediate vicinity by inquiring in stentorian tones: “Where in the world is the cyclone cellar.”
Quite a set-back was given the guests of a San Francisco hotel on that eventful morn, when an eastern lady came down to the dining room at the breakfast hour, dressed as if going out on a pleasure trip. Her demeanor was chic, her complexion perfect, her attire natty, and nothing had occurred to ruffle her superb self-possession. She had been on one of the top floors of that caravansary, and had noticed that it had swayed gently, as with the wind. She saw around her men, women and children, with traces of worry on their faces. They appeared frightened. She asked what in the world had happened to cause the people to be so downcast, and was informed that San Francisco had had a severe earthquake that morning. She responded: “Why, I thought you people had those frequently out here.”
Two of the best known ladies in Santa Rosa are being considerably joshed about the actions on the morning of the great fire. One is the mother of a charming little daughter, and she became greatly agitated when the tremblor visited this city, fears for the safety of the child increasing the mental distress she was suffering. Grasping the child, the mother hastened from one room to another, going aimlessly, and all the while she was calling, “Show me the way to heaven! Show me the way to heaven!” Her husband having admirable control of himself, quieted her fears, and when she became calm, ventured to peer through the windows of his residence evidently looking for the coming of the angels himself. He saw on the opposite corner a building which had been badly damaged and hastily robed himself to see if he could be of any assistance. When he appeared to the good woman who owned and occupied the house, she informed him that the water pipes in the house were leaking badly, and implored him to “send quick for a plumber.” Now the families call to one another good naturedly from their homes on opposite corners, “Send quickly for the plumber,” to which a cheery response comes, “Show me the way to heaven.”– Santa Rosa Republican, June 23, 1906