There will always be mysteries surrounding the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, but now two of them are resolved. Well, one of them, for sure.
As the decades passed, the tale of the earthquake became enshrined into myth. The basic story holds that downtown area was completely destroyed, over 100 were killed (making the ratio of deaths worse than in the San Francisco quake), but the plucky litte farm town quickly rose from the ashes, phoenix-like. None of that is true, but that version has a nice dramatic arc.
All good myths need a hero, and ours was an elderly visitor from Kansas named Bertrand Rockwell. Realizing local banks were closed and Santa Rosa would have an urgent need to pay rescue workers, he and son-in-law James Edwards drove to Petaluma where he cashed a check for $5,000, as legend has it. What happened next has appeared in print several times, most famously in Santa Rosa: A 19th Century Town by Gaye LeBaron et al:
With the cash in hand, Captain Rockwell organized and paid gangs of workers to extricate the dead and wounded from the debris. He helped set up two emergency hospitals–one at the new Church of the Incarnation rectory, the other at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse. When the crisis had passed he divided the surplus money among all the minsters in town, for distribution to the sick and needy.
Trouble is, there’s no evidence that most of that happened. Yes, he went to Petaluma and came back with an auto probably groaning under the weight of silver dollars which he used to pay workers, but nothing can be found in primary sources that even suggests the rest of the story is true. There was no mention of him organizing workers and two hospitals (the latter is particularly easy to dispute because the Saturday Afternoon Club clubhouse wasn’t built for another two years). Nor did the newspapers and surviving letters from that time say anything about Rockwell showering the local churches with riches that would have been worth around a million dollars today.
The first mention of Rockwell’s involvement appears in the City Council minutes for April 19, the day after the earthquake: “Mr. Rockwell stated that he was willing to pay the workers for the first 2 days for their service in rescuing those caught in the wreck the amount subscribed was $800.00. On motion duly made and seconded the offer of Mr. Rockwell was accepted with thanks.”
That terse notice is of great significance. Rockwell put an $800 cap on his donation, which could imply that was all the cash he was able to get. But that he already had the money is what’s remarkable; as all banks in California were closed on April 19th by state order – and remained closed past the end of the month – which meant he had to have made the trip to Petaluma on that chaotic, end-of-the-world day of the quake itself, when few were thinking clearly. Another possibility: They obtained the money as a special favor when the Petaluma bank was not open at all, either after hours or on the morning of the 19th. In a later memoir of events, Florence Edwards specifically mentioned Frank Denman cashed her father’s check. As cashier of the Sonoma County Bank of Petaluma, Denman had keys to the bank – but he was also James Edwards’ brother-in-law, married to his older sister, Charlotte.
The next mentions of Rockwell came on April 21, the third day after the disaster. The combined Democrat-Republican newspaper reported, “Captain B. Rockwell of Junction City, Kansas, father of Mrs. J. R. Edwards, who donated $800 in cash to pay off men employed in removing debris and recovering bodies from the hotels gave each man his wage on Friday night and will do so again today.” The same edition noted, “[Relief Committee] Treasurer Edwards reported this morning subscriptions to the amount of $970.60, including the $800 donation from Captain Rockwell.”
According to the May 4 City Council minutes, Rockwell’s total donation ended up being $692 – enough to pay 173 men for working that Friday and Saturday. That is also the exact amount specified in a commendation sent to Rockwell at the end of May by the City Council.
The only other known primary source came from a letter by Florence Edwards published May 9 in the Wellesley College alumni newsletter (a remarkable discovery by local historian Neil Blazey). Florence wrote, “Father went right to the rescue and began to pay the workmen to unearth the bodies, and has spent a thousand dollars (all the money he could get) on the work.” The letter also mentions Rockwell had “sent for money to come by express,” so if he did make other charitable donations, it could have come later from those funds.
When Rockwell returned for a visit here in 1908, the Press Democrat reminded readers, “he was signally generous in his offers of assistance in that trying hour” without mentioning any dollar amounts, though the San Francisco Call noted he “paid nearly $1000 for wages to men.” During his next visit two years later, the PD stated, “At the time of the disaster in 1906, Captain Rockwell hurried to Santa Rosa and contributed hundreds of dollars in ready cash to pay for the rescue of the bodies of unfortunates and the demolition of buildings, thus providing employment for many men out of work and their pay.”
By the time he died in 1930, the legend was growing. According to his Press Democrat obituary, “He rushed off to Petaluma where his check for $2,500 was cashed and he brought back the coin in silver dollars. It was then he said: ‘Put men to work at once. Here is the money, and more will be coming.'” It’s a good heroic quote, but clear fiction.
At some unknown point later, the size of his generosity swelled to $5,000. That number is specified in an undated essay by Florence Edwards, so accurate or no, this became the family memory. A 1953 Press Democrat earthquake anniversary article on Rockwell’s gift is nearly verbatim the account that appeared later in Santa Rosa: A 19th Century Town.
Enlisting his son-in-law, an Exchange Bank officer, to drive him, Capt. Rockwell cashed a check for $5,000 in Petaluma and returned to Santa Rosa.
With the money, Capt. Rockwell paid organized gangs of workers to dig the dead and the trapped from the debris.
He also helped to set up 2 emergency hospitals–one at the newly-finished Episcopal rectory, the other at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse.
And when the crisis was past, the Good Samaritan from Kansas City gave funds to every minister in Santa Rosa for distribution to the sick and needy.
So in sum, Rockwell’s donation was officially $692.00 (which was still the largest contribution from an individual and more than an average Santa Rosa annual household income at the time) but in the telling and retelling and sloppy newspapering it was inflated until we reached the $5,000 figure now repeated as gospel. But here’s the thing: Exaggerating what Bertrand Rockwell actually did for Santa Rosa only gilds the lily. It was absolutely remarkable that he had the foresight to dash for cash and perhaps more amazing that he was able to get any money at all. His act need not be super-sized to make him a real life hero.
And I readily concede I could be wrong; trying to prove a negative is always a chancy business. There’s a gap in the Santa Rosa newspaper microfilm between May 3-18 (presumably a snafu at the town library, which archived the newspapers) and those editions might have reported in screaming headlines that Rockwell was going from church to church throwing money from the pulpits. But in those weeks other newspapers around the Bay Area were reporting on relief efforts in Santa Rosa and would surely have mentioned that a visitor was performing extraordinary act of charity. Also, Santa Rosa had no urgent need for cash donations past those first days of crisis; the relief fund had collected nearly $31,000 after two weeks had passed, most of it lying undistributed in a safe deposit box until the end of the year.
The second part of the Rockwell legend concerns a letter of gratitude. Again quoting Santa Rosa: A 19th Century Town:
His only reward was a letter dispatched from Santa Rosa to his Junction City, Kansas home on May 11, 1906…the letter was signed by 132 Santa Rosans–Luther Burbank, Herbert Slater, Frank Doyle, and Dr. James W. Jesse among them. It was apparently thanks enough. On the back of the letter, which passed to his heirs, Captain Rockwell had written, “I consider this the best thing I ever did.”
It’s a touching epilogue, but also appeared to be a fiction. In the City Council minutes can be found a resolution of thanks (again, specifically mentioning $692) but it was written a few weeks later and had a different text, plus there was nothing mentioned about having it signed by every prominent man. I queried archivists and other historians in California and Kansas, but no one knew where the document was, or could even say with much confidence it existed. At best, the response was, “I think I saw it once somewhere.”
As it turns out, there is a copy of the letter in a scrapbook maintained by Rockwell descendants – in the form of a yellowed clipping from the April 17, 1953 edition of the Press Democrat that published a reproduction of the thank-you letter. The PD chopped it up to format on one page, but it is shown here reassembled in what is believed to be its original form. (CLICK or TAP to enlarge.) At the time it was owned by 81 year-old Florence Edwards, but is now presumed lost.
So there were actually two letters of thanks sent to Captain Rockwell; the May 11 one with all the signatures and the formal city document of May 29 (the Rockwell family has that document). And I’m guessing there was a good story behind both.
On May 10, the City Council met and approved resolutions of gratitude be sent to Petaluma and Sebastopol for their assistance the day of the earthquake. There is no mention in the Council minutes of a similar resolution be drafted for Rockwell. It seems significant that the public thank-you was written the very next day and closes with a line that suggests enmity among the Council members: “We regret that some of us were prevented from personally expressing to you our appreciation of your generosity.” The big John Hancock at the top the signature list was Councilman William D. Reynolds. It is easy to imagine Mr. Reynolds, a real estate man by trade, storming downtown door-to-door collecting signatures to correct this affront. It was also Reynolds who introduced the May 29 resolution for the city to formally thank Rockwell, presumably after some arms were well twisted.
Also below are two memoirs of the 1906 earthquake, transcribed and published for the first time, courtesy the Rockwell family. Both speak of the terror of the moment “when the earthquake came crashing through this town,” as Florence Edwards wrote. Her mother, Julia, later recalled, “From the windows we could see great clouds and columns of what appeared to be smoke, going skyward…the town was on fire. No, it was dust from seven blocks of buildings down.” Both mentioned “We saw the pictures hung on long cords turn over to the wall,” which has to be one of the creepiest images of that terrible event I’ve ever encountered. Imagine fearing it is the actual end of the world and seeing the portraits of your departed ancestors and other loved ones turn around, as if even they could not bear to watch.
May 29 Resolution to Captain B. Rockwell
Councilman Reynolds offered the following Resolution-
Whereas Captain B. Rockwell, a citizen of Junction City, state of Kansas, was a visitor in the City of Santa Rosa on the 18th day of April, 1906. and seeing the distress of our people and their great financial loss, was moved by his generous impulses and sympathy for these in distress, to assist our people in the removing the ruins of our fallen buildings in search for the unfortunate dead, and for that purpose contributed from his private funds the sum of $692, and
Whereas in full gratitude to him for his timely assistance and also realize that such acts of generosity should not go unnoticed by a grateful people, therefore for it
Resolved, that Captain B. Rockwell has the heartfelt thanks of our people and especially of the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Santa Rosa for his timely assistance and generous act, and be it further
Resolved, that this preamble and Resolution be spread upon the minutes of the Council and that copy thereof certified by our Clerk with the corporate seal of our City attached, be forwarded to Mr. Rockwell and a copy for furnished the press of our City.
The letter here quoted was written from Santa Rosa, California, by a sister of Miss Bertha Rockwell, 1893-1894, and Miss Mary Rockwell, 1900.
“After four days of horror, with death and destruction on all sides, I must tell you that we are alive and altho’ penniless, have a house which can be lived in by having the foundations strengthened, new plaster and new chimneys.
“Father is going to have it done for us and will of course keep us in necessary food until I can command some sort of a salary.
“Our dead friends are buried, and we’ve been working in the hospitals and trying to dig out our houses. Not a brick building stands and our beautiful town in flat, most of it burned too. Oh, I cannot tell you what we’ve been through and still we are not as desperate as San Francisco. Five to ten millions won’t cover our losses here. We have had the most ruin of any place from the earthquake. I can’t describe the shock to you. We were all without our senses but I remember the frightful roar and my mother’s screams, the cracking of bricks and timbers. We couldn’t stand up, were rolled out of bed and around like nine pins. All the charm of this land is gone. We hate the roses as they cling about the ruin.
“Father went right to the rescue and began to pay the workmen to unearth the bodies, and has spent a thousand dollars (all the money he could get) on the work. There is no money to be had. We couldn’t get away if we wanted to, we can’t get credit and here we are, on the mercy of the public for our food. Oh, it’s terrible!
“All the money in the world could not a telegram sent from here. There are no lines. Father went away on the train to the nearest line to cable the girls we were alive, and also sent for money to come by express. There will be great want here and we must have help at once. I fear that everything will be sent to San Francisco and we will be forgotten. Anything people send will be appreciated.
“We do not need anything; but many many people will need. J. is treasurer of the relief fund, without much to deal out thus far. Perhaps the Wellesley girls will be interested in sending a small sum to ten thousand ruined people.”
FLORENCE ROCKWELL EDWARDS.– “Alumnae Notes,” College News, Wellesley Mass., May 9, 1906
My parents Capt. and Mrs. Bertrand Rockwell came to visit us in our home (rented) out on Humboldt Street when the earthquake came crashing through this town. I started to run to my screaming parents but was held back in a doorway where Jim and I stood and watched our grand piano roll to the other side of the room and back. We saw the pictures hung on long cords turn over to the wall and listened to the crash of our beautiful wedding china and glass as it smashed on the floor. My parents screaming as they both fell down on the floor amid glass and china and cut their knees and hands.
We dressed as fast as we could and ran to my aunt’s home (Mrs. Finlaw) opposite the Episcopal church – she could not open any of her doors, the locks were all banged and smashed. It was like the world coming to an end. Destruction on all sides. The problem was what to do – and then began to save those who were alive but underneath the buildings that had fallen.
My husband Jim Edwards and my father Capt. Rockwell drove to Petaluma so Frank Denman could get my father $5000 which he gave to Santa Rosa to pay men to work to release the people who were caught under blocks of destruction. Many lives were saved by the money my father donated. The bodies who died and those who were saved under the bricks of the Hotel Santa Rosa on the corner opposite the post office now standing. At that time all there was at the corner where the post office is now was the residence of Mrs. Edwards, Jim’s mother. We laid the bodies out on her lawn as they were taken from the Hotel Santa Rosa on the corner of 4th and B Street extending into 5th Street. For days the work of saving lives and removing bodies went on all over Santa Rosa as the pictures of the wrecks can be seen. We finally went to San Francisco hired one of the wagons who carried sight-seeing people all through the ruins of San Francisco from Van Ness Avenue out to the Presidio. Every one cooked in the streets as no houses had any lights or cooking facilities for months. Just masses of plaster and destruction for miles around where laid before what was our beautiful city of San Francisco.– undated essay by Florence Rockwell Edwards
Coming across a letter dated April 25th 1906 to Emily then at Detroit Michigan school told her in rather mild terms, I think now, not to alarm her unnecessarily about the earthquake. This was a week after it happened. The accounts I have read descriptive of the earthquake, and the movie of the same [presumably the 1936 Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald movie, “San Francisco” – Ed.], have passed over this dreadful catastrophe lightly than it really was I can vouch for that. Moveover it was detrimental to the growth of the state, which was all right. That morning of April 19th at five o’clock in the morning people wakened from sleep thought the world had come to the end. Terrific noise and the thought of self preservation ran as we did not conscious in the flight where to. Nothing that I’ve ever experienced in my life was as terrible as that shock. Evidently we got from our room into the hall, to be thrown down by a leather gun case, which had stood in the corner.
What a sight came to our eyes on coming to, was the living room, bricks from the living room fire place were scattered over the floor, all the ornaments from the mantle, books everywhere along with vases of flowers, and the only thing standing was bronze head of Wagner.
Jim immediately knowing it was an earthquake held Florence from going to me screaming as I was, while the plastering was falling about them, and I saw them standing in the doorway looking at the wreck. Not for long however, for Jim was at the telephone, no answer. He was dressed and on his bicycle to go see his mother and sister.
From the windows we could see great clouds and columns of what appeared to be smoke, going skyward…the town was on fire. No, it was dust from seven blocks of buildings down. Though several blocks did burn, and more destruction been caused, had not one Fireman driven his horse out at the first tremble and so saved some of the city.
I remember how cold I was, shaking, and with trembling fingers, adding more wraps to my already warm costume, to go see what was happening to my sister.
A woman running down the street screaming, “Oh, my sister, my sister” added to my trembling. No thought of breakfast had entered our minds, the china closet had opened, and all across the dining room the china and glassware, lovely wedding presents, along with jelly had crashed in a mass, but we did not stop except to step aside.
The milk and bluing bottles had emptied their contents on the table on the porch, and along the floor out the door, and the ornamental posts of the elaborate fence gate were lying across the street. What impressions one gets under such circumstances. Our maid had gone we knew not where so leaving the house all open we too made our way toward the city.
How crazy things looked, houses partly over, some on one side, others entirely down, people everywhere. A friend ran to tell us she could not have us that evening for dinner, we had entirely forgotten it in all the distress about us.
Sister had escaped being killed by a huge gun falling across the doorway, the pictures in the living room with its high ceilings were turned to over, come to think of it, was funny. No chimneys on any house, and the destruction grew worse as we neared the city.
The fine courthouse partly down, the dead and injured were being take out of buildings and laid on the grass in a yard, others being taken into homes not badly damaged or friends taking the bodies away, others brought in a wagon their clothing covered with blood, a gruesome sight. We could only stand and look since already many were at work.
The courthouse was badly damaged as were the places of business along the streets such a sorry sight one seldom sees and the smoke going up in clouds from the burning buildings.
I could look back at the Saturday before when a party of us came to the city from Inverness where we were summering, and found the Bay gay with flags on the shipping to greet a Governor coming from the Philippines, and now from our window we watched that city burning three days and nights.
In the twenty days after the earthquake we had many “shakes” and it was a question what to do, but the rescue of the dead among the ruins went on day and night, until more than one hundred were recovered, and people began to restore their homes, for no one had a chimney, ourselves among the number. We had a place out in the yard where we cooked and heated water and left the doors open at night so that we might run if another shock came.
A week after we were allowed to go to the City, where in a little wagon and one horse we drove about, indeed we went as far as the Presidio to see our friend Mrs. Andrews, then post mistress and passed the Park with its hundreds of campers, and many out on the sidewalks kitchen.
It was terrible sight the City of San Francisco no pen could describe the desolation. The water mains having been broken with the earthquake the ground went down leaving great ditches along the streets and this lack of water caused the fire. No water. No telegraph wires, so Mr. Rockwell took the train to Vallejo to send word that we were safe to the daughters, one in Detroit Michigan and the other to three daughters in Paris France.– undated essay by Julia Rockwell