This survey of the 1906 Santa Rosa newspapers ends with 93 posts, 22 of them being chapters in a series on the great earthquake.
I intended to jet quickly past the quake with a handful of articles, assuming that so much already had been written that there was little to add. But as I carefully read the newspapers of the day, I found the true story was quite different – and often, far more interesting. For example, Santa Rosa was never under martial law, but there was a mini-crime wave on the morning of the earthquake, as scoundrels took advantage of the confusion to steal belongings that residents were moving out to their lawns. There was also a colorful con man who posed as a doctor to steal from the injured and the nurses.
Then there’s the question of how many were killed; even at the time, the count swung between 69 and 77. It’s now possible to say that there were at least 76 casualties, but the true number must be far higher – a credible source later wrote that the coroner didn’t even see all the bodies. Consider also that most of the dead were found in the hotels and rooming houses that collapsed and burned; yet although most rooms were occupied, about 3 out of 4 people on the casualty list were locals. Either Santa Rosans had the world’s worst luck that morning, or a great many out-of-towners quickly fled homewards with critical injuries.
There were other surprising discoveries – particularly concerning the town’s shameful misuse of food donations and relief fund – but the single most important insight I gained was that the disaster didn’t transport Santa Rosa into the 20th century, but instead thwarted reforms and meaningful progress, entrenching its 19th Century ways.
There’s still much we don’t know about events following the earthquake, but I’m passing the baton to someone else. I’d particularly like to thank Larry Lapeere for allowing me to reproduce images from his amazing collection, Terry Oden for his pioneering research into casualties, and Lynn Prime at the SSU library for help with materials in the LeBaron Collection. I’m also grateful that Google Books has made available court documents containing first-hand accounts of what happened that awful day.
Per the Oates in 1906, Wyatt made sure he had a ringside seat when Santa Rosa created a business shantytown that became the city hall and civic center for the next sixteen months, then at the end of the year he became chairman of the committee that decided the fate of the controversial relief fund. The couple’s social standing seemed to climb to even a higher pinnacle, if that were possible; Wyatt hosted a lunch at the house for the Masonic Grand Master of California a month after the quake and late in the year, Mattie hosted a meeting for the president of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs. Of future interest is that the Oates spent a week in September at the West County ranch of Charles Rule, a close friend who would become one of the executors of his estate. The Rule family is buried in the Rural Cemetery plot that is also believed to hold the graves of the Oates family.
In the waning days of 1906, Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley penned his traditional sunny annual report on the state of Santa Rosa, which might seem like quite a trick, given that the city had experienced one of the worst natural disasters in American history and four of his own employees were killed, most of them children who delivered his papers. But keeping with the PR guidelines promoted by business interests such as the newly-created Chamber of Commerce, mention of any deaths, injuries, even the earthquake itself were studiously avoided. Instead, Finley vowed that there were “great prospects of [a] golden future” which “should be the grandest and best in the history of Santa Rosa and old Sonoma county.”
LIGHT AND SHADOW IN YEAR 1906 IN SANTA ROSA
Great Progress of City Since The Disaster
New Year Opens Up With Great Prospects of Golden Future for City and Sonoma County
At the close of each year it has been the custom of the Press Democrat to call attention to the notable improvements that have been carried out in town and country during the year.
With the passing of old 1906 will end one of the history making years of the age in Santa Rosa and elsewhere. Santa Rosa was hard hit in the terrible disaster of April 18, when in thirty-eight seconds the work of man of half a century in the upbuilding of a city here was destroyed, and the attractive business section of the town went down.
While the sad tale of April 18, 1906, must always stand out prominently in the minds of everybody here, yet concurrently with it must run the brighter story of the city’s rebuilding. In the few brief months intervening between last April and the close of the year the scene of desolation marking the path of tremblor and fire has vanished and magnificent business blocks more attractive and substantial than ever adorn the city’s thoroughfares, some of them completed and occupied, others nearly so, while for other structures the foundations are being laid. The rebuilding of Santa Rosa calls forth the admiration of everybody who comes here, expecting to see the City of Roses barely recovered from the effects of the April disaster. And right on through the new year the rehabilitation of the city will continue and all being well by this time next year the story of Santa Rosa’s progress will be grander and even more conspicuous.
Saturday a Press Democrat representative visited the office of Building Inspector Cherry and inquired the value of the buildings specified in the permits granted by the City Council since last May. The result of the inquiry was almost amazing. The estimates figure almost a million dollars. These figures do not simply represent the replacing of buildings destroyed, but any number of new residences have been built.
Santa Rosa has grown in population during the year about to close. During the year and within the past two months the enrollment of children in the schools of the city reached the highest notch in the history of the district and the reports of the city superintendent have shown that the growth has been mainly on account of new families moving here from different parts of the state, and from other states. If a census was taken of the population of Santa Rosa at the present time it would be shown that it is bigger than ever.
During the year, carrying out the purpose of the municipal bond election, several miles of additional water and sewer mains have been laid, a new sewer farm bought and other municipal improvements carried out. The year also marks the first step taken towards the widening of public thoroughfares. It might also be recalled that in 1906 the new city charter went into operation.
Standing out prominently among the enlarging of the city’s business interests during the year, might be mentioned the erection of the new $100,000 ice making and cold storage plant on Sebastopol avenue by the National Ice Company; the opening of a large creamery by Grace Brothers; the enlarging of the great cannery by the erection of an immense warehouse; the enlarging of the capacity of the woolen mills, etc. Space will not permit a review in extenso. Attention might also be called to the enlarging of the school building facilities to accommodate more children.
All the cities and towns in the county have enjoyed progress during the twelve months…Another important incident of the year since last April is the voting of $280,000 bonds for the reconstruction of the new Courthouse and county buildings. Work on the new building will commence during the coming year, which should be the grandest and best in the history of Santa Rosa and old Sonoma county.– Press Democrat, December 30, 1906
Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates, accompanied by Mrs. Solomon and their guest Miss Annie May Bell, will spend this week at the Rule ranch near Duncan’s, the guests of Mrs. Chas. Rule.– Press Democrat, September 9, 1906
Mrs. Robert P. Hill, president of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs will address the Saturday Afternoon Club on the subject of “Club Federation,” Saturday afternoon, January 5. Tea will be served after the address, and Mrs. Hill will be the guest of honor. Mrs. James W. Oates has kindly offered her home for the occasion.– Press Democrat, December 30, 1906