RSB Books

RSB Books

Richard Schwartz

Writer, Historian


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RSB Books

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

Earthquake Exodus, 1906

Berkeley 1900

Circle of Stones

Earthquake Exodus, 1906
Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees

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The earthquake that struck at 5:14 a.m. on April 18, 1906, was felt from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Los Angeles and into eastern Nevada. Destruction was unleashed unevenly throughout California from Fresno to Eureka within thirty miles on either side of the newly named San Andreas Fault. People all around the San Francisco Bay felt the quake, but their experiences were remarkably different. Some sensed only mild shaking; others witnessed complete devastation. For tens of thousands, it would be the last time they awoke in their own beds in their own homes.

To date, no book has told the story of the city of Berkeley's experience during and after the earthquake, or of its response to the thousands of refugees who poured into Berkeley seeking relief from the ravages thrust upon San Francisco by the quake and subsequent fire.

Compared with the earthquake's impact in San Francisco, Berkeley was only moderately rattled. Almost every chimney was knocked down. Many buildings were damaged, and a few were destroyed. Collapsed chimneys, dislodged electrical wires, and flammable substances thrown from shelves ignited fires, but Berkeley firefighters, working efficiently with a plentiful water supply, were able to squelch the flames before they could spread from building to building and engulf sections of town. In the absense of functioning power and telegraph lines, (two-way phones were not a reality yet in Berkeley), Berkeley residents had to ask their neighbors for news of the extent of the disaster. Most stood outside their homes quietly talking about what had occurred and wondering how bad the situation was elsewhere. As they looked west, however, they could see huge, broad plumes of black smoke rising above sections of San Francisco forming massive black clouds slowly drifting towards them by a gentle morning breeze.

This sudden firestorm, not the damage from the earthquake, was what ultimately destroyed so much of the city. Along with the spreading flames and choking smoke, San Franciscans were assaulted by dust from collapsed buildings, the sight of dead bodies, and the nearly overwhelming chaos and panic. When word spread that Berkeley and other East Bay towns were safe havens, they fled to ferry terminals and train stations, seeking a way across the bay.

Within hours of the quake, before the San Francisco refugees arrived in numbers, Berkeley residents came together and began to prepare for what would be an unprecedented wave of stricken, exhausted refugees. Berkeley's relief assistance was notable for a number of reasons. It was conceived and run by ordinary citizen volunteers who did not wait for the government to take the initiative. Their efforts were extraordinarily well organized and took advantage of scientific and military principles and procedures that many Berkeley residents had backrounds in. The entire town&emdash;individuals, businesses, fraternal and religious organizations, and the university&emdash;mobilized in a concerted way and opened their homes and financial resources, along with their hearts, to the refugees.

The relief effort lasted only about ten weeks. By the time it was over, refugees had established themselves as new Berkeley residents, found homes or employment elsewhere, or returned to San Francisco. Despite the brevity of the relief period, it had a lasting impact on both Berkeley and San Francisco. The story of both the refugees who fled to Berkeley and the Berkeleyans who met them with open arms has been neglected by history. Earthquake Exodus, 1906 tells their story, accompanied by many photographs, a number of them published for the first time. My hope is that this book not only offers insight about Berkeley's and San Francisco refugee's experience of the 1906 earthquake, but also inspires us to react to future tragedies with the same compassion and determination displayed by citizens a century ago.

Richard Schwartz