San Francisco Crumbles

from Aimée Crocker, Queen of Bohemia by Kevin Taylor

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was wrecked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake at 5:13 a.m. that lasted for 55 seconds. Many buildings immediately caught fire, and trapped victims could not be rescued. The earthquake shock was felt from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Los Angeles, and as far east as central Nevada, an area of about 375,000 square miles, approximately half of which was in the Pacific Ocean. Governor Pardee arrived in Oakland at 2 pm and declared a bank holiday. Novelist Jack London was an eyewitness and wrote a piece about the devastation for Collier’s:

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco’s history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.

Reevaluation of the 1906 data, during the 1980s, placed the total earthquake death toll at more than 3,000 from all causes. It claimed more lives than any disaster in U.S. history just after the Galveston hurricane in 1900. Both Will and Charles Crocker’s homes were among the 28,188 that were destroyed. The Crocker-Woolworth Bank Building was gutted by fire. Damage was estimated at five hundred million in 1906 dollars.

The Crocker family’s Nob Hill homes after the earthquake. Top left is the Charles Crocker home, top right is the Crocker Bank, bottom left is the W.H. Crocker home and bottom right is the Aimée Crocker Ashe home.

Will described seeing the city for the first time, ten days after the earthquake:

I knew from the New York newspapers and my own wires, that the destruction, especially from the fire, was colossal. But actually no words can describe it.  You have to see it through your own eyes to realize how horrible it was. My first sight of it overwhelmed me. We were standing, Mrs. Crocker and I, on the floor deck of the ferry when we got our first full view of the fallen city. It was too much for us. We went back inside and sat down and wept.

A quick-thinking servant of the W.H. Crockers saved some of their priceless artworks including Rembrandt’s “Head of a Boy,” Millet’s “The Man with the Hoe,” Rousseau’s “The Oaks,” Corot’s “Dance of the Nymphs” and a few rare tapestries. Burned to ash were Reuben’s “Holy Family,” paintings by Tenier and Degas, unrescued tapestries and other precious art items.

The prominent part played by Will Crocker in the restoration of San Francisco, following the Great Disaster of April 1906, would bring him to the forefront as a strong community leader. In a full page/front page feature editorial, William wrote:

We must have a ‘pull-together’ spirit. It is to be hoped that the prominent people in every line of endeavor — merchants, financiers, leaders of labor — will soon become impressed with the importance of working in unison for the city’s upbuilding and substituting a spirit of civic selfishness for individual or class contention… At this time especially unity of the classes is needed in San Francisco. We cannot afford to permit any city on the Pacific Coast to wrest from us the supremacy in everything which we have always enjoyed. If we do not help ourselves by helping each other we cannot expect outside aid or encouragement in our tremendous task of restoring San Francisco.

The demand for money and credit was enormous.  Three thousand acres in 497 blocks were laid waste. An astounding amount of money was required to finance rebuilding. In Will’s biography Great Citizen, author David Warren Ryder wrote, “Not only did he rally the business, financial and industrial leaders of the community — as no other man could — to begin the reconstruction before the ruins were cold, but he, more than any other one man, was responsible for obtaining the tremendous amount of money and credit which this stupendous task required.”

Mrs. Crocker would lend a hand and her influence to organize and set up improvised kitchens in Union Square, and direct the task of preparing and serving free hot meals every day to hundreds of destitute and hungry San Franciscans.

Ethel Crocker’s soup kitchen

After the earthquake, the Crockers donated the site of their Nob Hill House for Grace Cathedral. Then Will tendered his interest in the Charles Crocker Homestead and convinced the other heirs that they do likewise, so that the entire Crocker block was made available as a site for the church.

Aimée’s former home at the southwest corner of Van Ness Ave. & Washington St. survived the 1906 disaster but required considerable restoration. After the quake it became, not sacred ground for a cathedral, but the temporary home of the City of Paris department store, where the latest designs in frills and frocks were sold.