San Francisco and Vicinity…The Story of the Great Disaster by Wilbur Gleason Zeigler is one of the many picture books compiled after the massive earthquake and fire that leveled much of San Francisco in 1906. The subtitle of the book is Told By Pen and Picture.
I came across the Great Disaster book by Zeigler at a gold rush paper and book show. It is barely a book in the sense that the cover is heavy construction paper and its 50 plus pages of glossy stock are stapled together. It obviously was not designed for mass production or wide distribution. More likely, Zeigler may have put the book together for close associates and friends.
However, with close to 100 pictures and illustrations, many Zeigler had received permission to reprint, it is a nice review of the destruction of the 1906 earthquake and reconstruction. Oddly, the first section of the book, Story of the Earthquake and Fire, begins in the third person. But one has to assume that Zeigler is writing about himself as he surveys the bright prospects of city from the Newspaper Angle building on Tuesday, April 17th, 1906.
Zeigler Describes 1906 Earthquake on Market Street
Zeigler switches to a first-person account as he describes leaving the Press Club at 5 a.m., April 18th. As he stops at a cigar stand to get a light, the earthquake hits.
I grabbed the counter and held on, realizing that the earth was shaking, and then came to me the most terrible of fears, the most sickening of sensations, like those which might be felt with the face of death close leering into your own, its icy breath upon your cheeks, its agony become part of you. I thought of melting of the solid flesh, and how the spark within it would pass, or was there to be absolute nothingness? My family, – I pray only for their safety.
A tremendous and continuous crashing of glass and crystal in the drinking and dining hall almost under my feet sounded, and four men, rushing up the stone stairs, fell on their knees on the sidewalk, one praying and another begging in a maudlin voice to be told how to formulate a prayer. I recognized several prominent sporting men in the distressed group, but it did not occur to me at the time that there was anything incongruous in this exhibition.
Then came a motion that seemed the effort of an all-powerful force to loosen the firm foundations of the earth, and a thundering crash arose, as the upper part of the front of the Columbia Theater tumbled to the pavement. It resounded terrifically. The top line of the James Flood Building swayed, reached out over the street, and then swung back into place entire. It was such an uncanny phenomenon that I doubted by senses.
The cigar dealer, with a face of frozen agitation, had jumped over or broken through the counter, and together we gained the middle of the street at the junction of Eddy, Powell, and Market, and stood there, not daring to move in any direction. It was so still again, so peaceful! We saw the tower of the ferry house far below, like a wraithe in the soft gray light, and the upper red rim of the sun above it.”
Zeigler then recounts his journey back to his home to check on the safety of his family. By noon, the fires had started to consume the city.
By night the westward progress of this fire was checked at Octavia Street; but in the meantime it had spread in the opposite direction, enveloped the Mechanics Pavilion and City Hall, and was sweeping on with the uplifted lances of flame and banners of white smoke to join the like battalions from the Mission. When they met, the south line of Market Street, with all that lay close behind and far beyond it, was a smoking mass of ruins. The north line of the street was still intact, but it crumbled at the combined assault, and the flames had free course to meet those coming from the smoking region of Sansome and Post.
Included int the story are anecdotes of martial law, shooting looters on sight, refugees streaming from the flames, and humorous asides.
Some, possessed with the spirit of humor, displayed it like Nero fiddling over the ruins. One refugee in Jefferson Park had his tent labeled: “Well Shook,” and the next one to it was “Shook Well.” A curb-stone kitchen had the sign “The Outside Inn,” and it looked it. A piano wagon bore these words: “Played by many; the last time by a fireman.” “We moved because the elevator stopped running,” was a notice placed on a pile of bricks. “Earthquake Shakes” was the sign above a street stand. “Quakers and Shakers Welcome” was displayed over the door of a restaurant instead of before a gospel meeting room.
The written account is only a small section of the book. Most of it are pictures of the destruction. The inside cover, in hand written pencil, is the inscription, “With the best wishes of Harry Cowper, San Francisco, 1906”. Some of the pages and images have comments, apparently from Harry, such a description of the fire near the water front near the ferry building, “It was here I was fighting the flames – H.” A picture of a ruptured cobblestone street near the water front has the comment in pencil, “Just in front of the dock, in wich (sic) I laid on the eventful morning of the 18th.”
It doesn’t appear that Zeigler took any of the photos, but used those of others with permission. While the bulk of the images are from San Francisco, there are also pictures of destruction in Palo Alto at the Stanford Library, Oakland, Santa Rosa, and San Jose. Zeigler also provides some images of locations before the earthquake as context to the scale of the destruction from the quake and fire.
Photos of Earthquake and Fire Destruction from 1906
Most of the photographs of the destruction are from April 18th to the 21st. Zeigler also includes images of the city being rebuilt. The latest image seems to be from December 1906 shortly before he published the book. One picture I particularly like is of the reconstruction of the city on Fillmore Street. It is a chaotic scene with the street torn up to replace trolly tracks, there are pedestrians, horse and buggy, and those new-fangled automobiles, along with rebuilt store fronts. It shows the 20th century intersection of San Francisco in the modern age while slowly releasing its reliance on past modes of transportation such as horse drawn carriages.
Video of San Francisco Earthquake Photos
Gallery of Illustrations and Photographs of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake and Fire
Pictures in gallery are in order of the way they appeared in the book. I photographed the images directly from the book. Because of the delicate nature of book, I could not get some of the pages completely flat for fear of tearing the paper. Hence, some of the photos may appear distorted.
Because the paper has darkened with age, I made mild enhancements. In addition to cropping, I increased the contrast and minor modifications to the brightness of the image. The last five images (panorama 1 – 5) are individual shots of a panoramic collage that folds outs. The width of the image precluded creating a single image of the fold out.
The book also includes some fold out panoramic photos and panorama made of a collage of images of downtown San Francisco, I think I’ll have it framed. The images have been reduced in size for quicker loading on my website. Full image sizes can be found in the folder 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Images.