From the doorway of his downtown saloon, William Hearn believed he was watching “the entire town go down” that morning of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake. Soon the barkeep saw the “flames as they consumed building after building.” and surely wondered if his place would burn. By the end of the day, that entire block was gone. (It was part of the current Fourth st. location of the big Mexican restaurant adjacent to the Empire building.)


Although this was a simple and brief item, it proved quite tricky to verify, no thanks to the practices of old-timey newspaper editors to mostly identify people by formal and oblique names. Often adult males usually were mentioned by a pair of initials and surname: “J. W. Oates.” Married women almost always were reduced to an appendage of their husband: “Mrs. J. W. Oates.”

In this story, we learn that the plantiff was ” Naomi E. Davis Moke.” Only after much head-scratching did I learn that the names “Davis” and Moke” were linked in two different ways. On the morning of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, undertaker H. H. Moke lived with his family above the funeral parlor at 418 Fourth st, where his wife and daughter were killed. The building was owned by Moke’s former partner, one M. S. Davis. After the quake, the Aetna Insurance Company paid Milo Davis for the loss of his property.

In 1907, widower Moke married Naomi Davis – who soon became one of the first female undertakers in the state – but apparently was no relation to Moke’s former landlord. She was the daughter of H. S. Davis, who operated a well-known pharmacy at 517 4th st (directly east of Tex Wasabi’s). Naomi was executor of her father’s estate, which left her to battle in the courts with the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company. I mistakenly assumed that M. S. and H. S. Davis were likely the same person, and a victim of a typographical error.

Then there’s the matter of Attorney F. McG. Martin, who “gave a graphic description of her escape…” Wait – HER escape? That had to be a typo; surely there wasn’t a woman lawyer in misogynistic turn-of-the century Santa Rosa, where women were denied restrooms, much less opportunities of prestigious careers. Again, my error: In town was Frances McG. Martin, one of the founders of the suffrage movement in Sonoma County. In her 19th century history, Gaye LeBaron has quite a nice profile of Frances and her two equally remarkable sisters, one a pharmacist and the other a physician (their maiden name was “McGaughey,” and it was never explained why all three abbreviated it to “McG.”).

But Mr. Hearn never chronicled his experiences that day, nor was he interviewed by a reporter. His account comes from testimony in one of the lawsuits against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company, which refused to pay for any losses that happened on the day of the earthquake. Five plaintiffs fought them in court, the final case not being settled until 1911 by the state Supreme Court (MORE BACKGROUND).

Because there were so few surviving letters from eyewitnesses, summaries of the testimony that appeared in the local papers and which were cited in court decisions are invaluable. From testimony in another case, we learned that Fire Chief Frank Muther was pulling on his clothes as he ran towards downtown, and once there he made quick, decisive command decisions that probably saved the town. Besides Hearn, the article below mentions a dozen other witnesses who gave their own account of that terrible day. If court transcripts survive – and they must, given that years later, the California Supreme Court quoted sections at length – there’s a substantial body of first-hand accounts waiting in a musty archive for someone to investigate.

Insurance Case to go to Jury This Afternoon

The fire insurance suit brought by Naomi E. Davis Moke against the Connecticut Fire Insurance Company of Hartford will be completed this afternoon. The case will be submitted to the jury, and it is expected to have a verdict some time during the evening.

During the session Wednesday afternoon William Hearn, J. D. Ward, W. P. Barnes, W. H. Bailey, C. A. Brobeck and Paul Reynaud were on the witness stand. Their testimony dealt generally with the conditions here on the morning of the earthquake regarding the demolition of the buildings. Each of the witnesses testified to having been on the street directly following the seismic disturbance. None knew definitely how the fires which consumed property here happened to catch, and none could tell which particular stores they had noticed on fire early in the morning on that fateful day.

Hearn declared that he was at his saloon at the time of the earthquake, adjoining the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. He ran to the front door and said he saw the entire town go down and be demolished. Later he saw the fires break out in portions of the devastated district and noted the progress of the flames as they consumed building after building. Ward declared his greatest concern that morning was for any prisoners that might be locked up in the steel cages at the city hall. The city hall was demolished by the shock.

Among the witnesses to testify in the suit Thursday morning were Fire Chief Frank Muther, Henry G. Hahman, James William Duncan, F. McG. Martin, George F. King, F. Bailey, Ed M. Faught and Ernest W. Cornett. The testimony dealt particularly with the condition of things as they were just following the earthquake. Attorney F. McG. Martin gave a graphic description of her escape from the Doyle & Overton building, in which she made her home at that time, and of the fire breaking out just after her escape. She declared that she had left the building apparently before any blaze or smoke could be discovered.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 19, 1908

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