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Salvation Army’s Help in 1906 Earthquake

by Judy Vaughn

In 1906 when The Salvation Army’s National Commander Evangeline Booth said, “San Franciscans have spirits like corks and come back with a bounce every time,” she was referring to more than just the earthquake and fire.

Survivors, she said, had “pluck.” Candidates applying to become Salvation Army officers also were expected to have “pluck and go.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, this was Horatio Alger’s definition for people who never gave up. The author of over one hundred popular books for boys applauded those who conquered adversity and rose above difficult times. They had resilience, he said, an understanding that no matter how devastating a disaster was, there was always hope for the future. The words seem quaint today, but in those days, everybody knew what they meant.

Salvationists were part of the resilience that brought the City back to life in 1906.

All but two of the Salvation Army’s buildings in San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake – Corps #4 at 24th Street and Mission and the officer’s quarters. The South of Market waterfront and workingman’s neighborhood where the Army had been most active since its arrival in 1883 was a tinderbox of matchstick wooden houses. These were the first to be consumed by flames. Once the fires spread, there was little anyone could do to help. So Salvationists found another way to provide service. An estimated 225,000 people were hurrying to catch the ferries out of town. The Army determined to meet them on the opposite shore.

Colonel George French was Commander of the Army’s Southern Pacific Province, headquartered at 1271 Mission, which ran back 160 feet to Minna Street. It was completely destroyed. Because the earthquake struck at 5:12 in the morning, French was still at his home in Oakland when it happened. He could see that thousands were fleeing the City, so he and General Secretary Brigadier George Wood quickly arranged for services at the Oakland docks and railroad stations and a round-the-clock shelter at the 9th Street Citadel, which operated from April 18th until May 11th. Since it had been built to accommodate a Men’s Training School for Salvation Army officers, it was already equipped with beds and had good kitchen facilities.

A mass community meeting was held in Oakland on the night of April 18th, and Brigadier Wood was appointed to the Oakland Relief Committee Executive Committee of five.

The Army was already hard at work. Had the refugees eaten a hot meal? Did they have more than the clothes on their backs? Did they need to be in touch with family in inland cities? Did they need help to find missing children? Reading the reports of Salvation Army services in 1906 is the same as if it were in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas after killer hurricanes in 2005.

The Army’s relief camp in Oakland’s Beulah Park served 200 to 800 people, including over 100 Chinese, which was noteworthy since it seems that other camps were segregated. It opened on April 20th and by the time government officials took it over on May 15th, the Army had provided 11,389 beds, 33,477 meals, and 21,897 garments for refugees from San Francisco.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the Army was helping at Mechanics Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and wherever needed. It also quickly began to rebuild a facility for providing services and shelter. According to French’s annual report dated September 28, 1906, the Army’s new temporary headquarters was the first on its block to be rebuilt. It was opened on June 18th and included housing for working men.

A year later, Staff Captain “Bill” Day, who had run the Beulah Relief Camp, reminisced that, in the midst of horrendous upheaval and uncertainty, people had reached out to each other. They had found an “indomitable spirit of dauntless grit” such that one man could advertise his assets boldly:

Cash $17.35

Reputation .30

Energies 100,000.00

Possibilities 100,000.00

Fixtures 15.00

1 suit clothes

2 white vests

1 plug hat, slightly damaged

TOTAL $100,032.65

“San Franciscans are a plucky people,” said Day. “Since the hour of their misfortune they have never found time to pine or whine, moan or groan.” There was an unquenchable sense of optimism. The town was down but – as history has shown – certainly not out.

SOURCES: “Re-Construction Days for The Salvation Army.” Annual report of Colonel George French dated 9/28/1906. History Room, San Francisco Main Library. “How Oakland Aided Her Sister City – Souvenir and Resume of Oakland Relief Work to San Francisco Refugees.” Harris Bishop, 1910 Free Library. History Room, Oakland Public Library. "Commander Visits the Stricken City," War Cry, 6/16/1906. The Salvation Army National Archives. “Beauty from Ashes. Good Results from a Bad Earthquake.” War Cry, 5/11/1907. The Salvation Army National Archives.

NOTE: Additional earthquake stories are found in Judy Vaughn’s new book The Bells of San Francisco – The Salvation Army With Its Sleeves Rolled Up, an anecdotal history of the Army in San Francisco available in local bookstores. Author Vaughn, a member of the City Guides Class of 2006, is a former San Francisco Chronicle feature writer and was public relations director for The Salvation Army for 27 years.

A version of this article will appear the week of April 18th in the Salvation Army’s publication New Frontier.

A note on Ferry Building photograph: This picture of 1906 ruins taken from the Ferry Building, printed in GuideLines, sparked considerable interest among City Guides. Not until it appeared on the front page of the April 18th 2006 San Francisco Examiner did we realize the version in our April issue was reversed.

Our source, a stereoscopic slide donated to The Salvation Army's archives in the 1930s, was labeled on the wrong side. The archivist in Alexandria, Virginia, who forwarded it to us was not familiar with San Francisco landmarks. In its small size, even local historians were disoriented.

The picture is shown here as it is in William Bronson's book The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned, which credits the California Historical Society as its source. The Examiner cites the Bancroft Library. The view is looking west on Market, left, and Sacramento, center.

City Guide Don Langley adds further information: “FYI, a picture taken from the same spot appears in the current issue of California History, the CHS publication. The photo identifies Sacramento Street going off to the right and Drumm as the cross street near the background. In the CHS publication, there are a lot of people on Market Street, but no streetcars in the foreground. The Call Building at Third and Market, visible in the Examiner photo, is cut out of the CHS photo. The rising smoke–God, it must have been awful–is also different.”

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The destruction of San Francisco viewed from the Ferry Building. Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army National Archive

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First Provincial Headquarters in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army National Archive

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Earthquake Refugees at Golden Gate Park. Photo printed with permission, S.F. History Center, S.F. Public Library.

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This photo of Commander Evangeline Booth in front of the New Provincial Headquarters Building was published in the June 30, 1906 edition of War Cry. Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army National Archive

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