This wraps up the core 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake series (except for a discussion of the relief fund, which requires peering into the following year). There are still a slew of coming items that touch upon the disaster in some way – search for the tag “earthquake 1906” to review them all. I have also corrected and/or added new material to some (okay, most) earlier articles since they were first posted, so you might want to take another look at them.

There’s still lots of original research that could be done, particularly in creating a better estimate of how many people died, a topic discussed previously in “Body Counts, Part II.” In San Francisco, city archivist Gladys Hansen and others expanded their fatality list from 478 names to over 3,000, finding many who were critically injured in the city but died elsewhere. There’s no question that similar research here would turn up far more than the 76 known killed; the majority of serious injuries in Santa Rosa occured in hotels and rooming houses, where almost everyone was an out-of-towner – a salesman, someone traveling through, a friend or family relative.

Casualty hunting aside, researching the 1906 San Francisco disaster is a far easier task than examining its little sister in Santa Rosa. There are at least four books currently in print that promise to reveal the “true story” of what happened in the jeweled city, and each successfully tells its particular aspect of the tale (the best of the lot, in my opinion, is Fradkin’s “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906“). Each of those books has the advantage of building upon a mountain of previous writings about the disaster; in Santa Rosa, however, the record is mostly blank.

Santa Rosa was not San Francisco, where three ultra-competitive dailies rushed out special editions with the latest details (and rumors), printed at regular newspaper plants in nearby Oakland. Santa Rosa’s media was limited to a flyer-sized edition cranked out on a newsletter press at the town’s business school. Nor did the local press have journalists experienced in wrestling with such a momentous story; the muckraking editor of the Republican apparently fled town after the quake, leaving the narrative of Santa Rosa’s most dramatic days in the hands of Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley, who had no newspaper experience outside of publishing his own small town daily.

No descriptions of what actually happened in Santa Rosa that awful morning ever appeared in the meager editions of the Democrat-Republican paper, which is quite understandable; with space at such a premium, best to use it as a broadsheet, informing residents about the whereabouts of displaced persons and temporary locations of stores, reports on disaster related civic matters, and whatnot. And besides, newspapers in that era often didn’t report on news that was already common knowledge; for example, it was never announced in the Democrat-Republican that all Santa Rosa saloons were closed after the quake, even though that was a significant event for all residents (well, all male residents). Yet even though space was so tight, column inches were available for daily updates about the situation in San Francisco, and by the end of the month, there was room for sensationalist tidbits about a midwestern scandal and LA murder.

But the silence over events of those traumatic days continued after normal publication of the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican resumed. No recollections appeared on the first anniversary, and the paper didn’t even print a major 1908 speech that described the aftermath, and which was written by the PD’s own former city editor for the dedication of the new courthouse. Finley himself skated over the quake in his 1937 county history, and wrote directly about those days only once and with nostalgia, describing how he whipped together the temporary printing plant.

Finley was also an indefatigable civic booster and no fool, so it can be assumed that he minded his words knowing there was widespread national interest in Santa Rosa’s calamity. Left intentionally unmentioned were probably a hundred details to downplay the awfulness of the situation. For example, farmer Martin Read brought eggs to sell a few days after the quake and noted in a letter that there was a smell from bodies still unrecovered. Had Finley even mentioned something like that, it surely would have been republished in newspaper headlines as, “Stench of Death Lingers Over Santa Rosa.” Instead, fluff fillers such as this appeared in the Democrat-Republican: “Property in Santa Rosa will soon be at a premium, and worth more than ever before, because Santa Rosa is going to be a better and more prosperous town than it has ever been.”

There’s also a gaping hole in our knowledge because of papers missing on the microfilm for both the Press Democrat and Republican between May 3-18 (presumably a snafu at the town library, which archived the newspapers). We can somewhat reconstruct what happened in this period by looking at what was picked up by other editors. In this period the official death count was upped to 69, the city declared the official value of damage at $3 million, labor was compulsory for any able-bodied male expecting food from the relief donations, and the city declared it was nearly out of cash for clean-up efforts. All stuff important enough to make the Oakland and San Francisco news, but much is obviously lost that might have filled in the picture. A major area of research can yet be done in reading microfilm of nearby papers – Petaluma, Healdsburg, Sebastopol, and Napa – to see if there’s other gleanings from those editions of the Press Democrat, and further hints at what Finley didn’t say.

Main Street, south of Courthouse Square. The mostly-cleared lots on the right of the street were the sites of the Grand and the Eagle Hotels. Detail of image courtesy Larry Lapeere

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