1906


April 18th, 1906

As I put my pen to paper and write, I fear that the shaking of my hand shall render all illegible, as it will not abate. One could hardly blame me for it was less than two hours ago that I lost all, and not just myself, but many around me. The flames still leap in testament of the destruction that has ensued this Wednesday morning from the shaking of the earth under our very feet, and I expect that too shall go on unabated for days to come.

We came to this great city just over two months ago, my love and I, crossing over on a ferry and stepping foot onto the dock at exactly six in the evening. I still hear the clock tower of the ferry building chiming a welcome to us as the brisk wind of February tugged at our coats and threatened to blow our hats into San Francisco Bay. It was as if the city were playfully teasing us with a joyful ceremony in which nature herself took part. We’d arrived at last, and the wind opened its very arms to embrace us with cool, chilly kisses.

We hired a carriage upon arrival and went looking for a proper hotel. Not too expensive, but one free of miscreants and the like, or at least as free of them as can be for the price range we sought. We happened onto the Hotel Marybelle and have been ever since. That is, until this morning.

I’ve been trying to get on with the paper and working on a book in my spare time. She was helping out at the hotel with finances and expense reports, a task which lowered our rent. We didn’t expect to meet such amiable hosts as our current hotel owners and feel lucky that divinity steered us in their direction. Our savings amount to only so much and they agreed to help us by letting us help them.

It may seem silly to some that we came here with only dreams in our heads and no plans in our pockets, but what do they know? We’ve long since considered this place our home and always had intent to return, but it wasn’t until late 1905 that it even became a possibility. I was here years before, serving on a merchant vessel as a yeoman, but I gave up the seafaring life upon meeting her.

We both hailed from different parts of California so it was no surprise to me to discover that she had visited the city on frequent occasion during childhood, when her mother brought her to see the ocean, and she had fallen in wide-eyed wondrous love with the essence of it.

I came as a child too, taking annual treks in with my parents to visit a great aunt and uncle who have long since walked off into the foggy mist of eternity, but who still hold a special place in my heart. It was my uncle who first took me aboard a ship in the port of San Francisco and watched with a wily grin as I peppered the crew with questions. I think he knew he had a young seaman in the making!

We love visiting this city, even though we now live here, because of its grandiosity and things yet undiscovered. We revisit places that we’ve grown fond of and seek out new things, and rather constantly at that. The diverse peoples provide an endless source of amusement and wonder, and we feel as if we’ve both traveled the world while not even stepping outside the borders.

Lately we have seen a need to watch our expenses, but last night we went out despite our frugality. Odd for a Tuesday, but I have no work to worry me yet and she wasn’t to begin her next round of bookkeeping for the hotel owners until this coming Monday. We felt restless, as if something were stirring in the very air we breath, and it jiggled our bones to the core.

We needed to be together, and not holed in a room, as nice a little room as it is, reading our respective books. We needed to be out together, somewhere to dine, and take in the sights of this city that’s of such proportions I’ve never seen the like. It’s a grand and busy city, full of noisy light, adventurous souls and mad music

Word was that Enrico Caruso, the great tenor, was in town and performing Carmen at the Grand Opera House. Had we the funds to attend such a gala, we would have! But our meanderings took us to a small, inviting restaurant not far from the Marybelle and it was there we had a quiet supper and conversation. I’m now glad that’s the way it turned out.

We were back by ten and snuggled in by eleven. Our second room floor overlooks busy Mission Street, so the clip clop of horses with the occasional motorcar and conversation from inebriated passersby expertly lulls us to sleep, and last night was no exception.

I awakened hours later and, as usual, had a need for the water closet. I made my way through the dark without taking the trouble to tug the electric light on because it’s an easy trip through the door and just on the other side to the left. I’ve gotten to where I can hit the pot with my eyes closed and half asleep, so that’s what I did, unaware of the time but aware of the darkness and the silence. The drunken ones had long since laid down to sleep it off and with the horses now stabled, the street was eerily quiet at that time in the morning.

I’d just finished my business and was headed back through the doorway when hell paid a visit. A tremendous roar rushed in and I was thrown against the wall with such force I imagined a thousand stampeding horses of fury had just trampled the building. The shaking was of such a violent nature I screamed out but the sound of it was immediately engulfed in the cacophony.

All around me the building shook as if it were a stuffed doll in the teeth of a vicious dog, who was rendering it into little shreds. Works of art, vases and books flew past me and became debris, flashes of bright light accompanied sounds of sudden explosions all about, and the room I had been about to walk into just suddenly disappeared in a swirling flash.

All I could think of was her. She was sleeping so peacefully in that room and now it was gone, seemingly in the blink of an eye but during a ferocious buffeting that seemed to go on endlessly. It eventually ceased but I couldn’t tell you if it had endured for seconds, minutes or the entire month of April.

I choked and hacked at the swirling dust as I stood in that doorway, which was now a precipice, with rubble below and sky above. I don’t know how it was that I was unscathed except for a few cuts and bruises, but for that I praise and thank the Lord while cursing him at the same time for taking my loved one and leaving me to grieve.

I wasn’t resigned to her exit yet, though, so I grabbed some pipes that hadn’t seemed to be there moments before and slid down to the rubble to dig and dig and dig, until my hands were bleeding and nails tore from my fingertips, and then to dig some more.

It’s not that I watched the time, but in retrospect now I think it was a good half hour before I uncovered the awful truth that the Lord had taken half my life away. I used the bed-sheet to wrap her for the sake of dignity and then I forced myself to the duty of attending to those who could still utter enough breath to cry out in pain. It was a small hotel, this Marybelle, and the thirty rooms seemed to have yielded about four or five survivors including myself.

I saw Grace Jackson stumble out onto the street holding her little dog, and Max Sherwood was able to help me pull some rubble off Mrs.Swenson, so he’s attending to her wounds now. I ripped up another bed-sheet and applied it to old Mr. Macwillis’ arm to staunch the bleeding, so now I’m taking a breather to gather my wits about me for the task I know lies ahead.

While digging through the rubble to find my loved one, I managed to come across my journal, which I scribble in furiously now, and our cat, Taz, who made the journey to the city with us and is special to her, so I’ll not let him go. I’m surprised he didn’t succumb to fear and run off, but he seems content to stay near me and look about, as frightened an expression on his furry face as I’ve ever seen.

I hope you can read this prose despite the blood smears that my hand creates. I tried to clean off as best I could, but there doesn’t seem to be water, which is unfortunate given the fires that are growing increasingly fierce all around. I’ll soon have to finish up this journal entry and tuck it away for the future, then Mrs. Swenson and Mr. Macwillis must be moved to the street before this rubble is rendered into an inferno.

I was hoping for something to be done for my love, even in this state, but I guess cremation awaits. That’s okay because I know she’s no longer there, but instead she waits in the celestial realm, and I shall eventually join her.

But first I have much to do, so I best be at it. It’s now seven in the morning and I know I’ll be tending to the injured for days if not weeks to come. God help us quench these fires that are just beginning to cause the air to reek of the stench of death.

I must not think of her yet, as I have much to do. So very much to do.


The burning of San Francisco. Reproduced from the only photograph that shows the entire scope and extent of this awful conflagration the worst in the history of the world. Fire line over three miles long, property loss three hundred million dollars.

On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 AM a quake hit San Francisco. Greater destruction came from the fires afterwards. The city burned for three days. The combination destroyed 490 city blocks and 25,000 buildings, leaving 250,000 homeless and killing approximately 3000 persons.

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