San Francisco Earthquake, 1906

One of the largest earthquakes of all time. A strange subject for the Blantyre Project. However, there are connections. Recently, I became aware of a previously untold story where a High Blantyre family got caught up in the utterly devastating earthquake of San Francisco, on the West Coast of America in April 1906.

Colonel Wardrop Moore of Greenhall Estate, High Blantyre had in early 1906 for some time been ill and his doctor advised going abroad to warmer climates to convalesce. He chose the west coast of America for its warm climate and together with his wife and Miss Davids, the wealthy trio travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and across America.

By Tuesday 17th April 1906, they had arrived at the huge city of San Fransisco, and made their way, checking in at the grand Palace Hotel, which at the time was one of the largest hotels in the world. Exhausted from travelling, they ascended to their room on the 5th floor and went to bed early.

The timing MOST unfortunate, for in a few hours time, San Francisco would be flattened by a major earthquake measuring 7.9 on the richter scale, leaving hardly a building standing.

The following remarkable account is only available, for Colonel Wardrop Moore upon surviving the earthquake later wrote to his solicitor Mr. W. M. Kay in Hamilton a few weeks afterwards, advising that he was ok and not to worry. Within that letter was a vivid account of his experience of during and after the devastating earthquake. He wrote;

“As you are aware, things over which we had no control over, affected our plans and made us come through a most extraordinary experience, one which we will never, or I think anyone else living will ever come through or see again…..the complete destruction of one of the finest and most wealthy cities in the world. We arrived at San Francisco on Tuesday evening all well and little thinking what was before us. The Grand Opera was there on tour and all the masses poured their magnificence into the doomed city. After the performance, being tired, we went to our rooms on the 5th storey of the Palace Hotel. Before 5am, we were suddenly awoken by a most extraordinary, terrifying noise and with a sudden shoot of light, the building began to sway, the walls shook, the plaster came down in sheets, the bed rocked and the lights went out, varied by intermittent sheets of flame from the electric wires all around us.

From the windows, in the emerging morning light we saw buildings all around us crashing to the street. Our room had a final shake up like a railway collision and all the remaining plaster and stonewall, furniture etc went crashing in every direction. The shock subsided and all was suddenly quiet. Scrambling about the dark, we found some matches by good luck and striking one by one, had enough light to find and put on some clothes. We groped our way down the dilapidated, dangerous staircase to get to ground level. There the people were assembling in groups and we found a side door which took us out to the street.

There, everything was a mass of ruins and we wandered to the marketplace. Large buildings of several storeys lay strewn across the roads and tram lanes came from the ground leading up into the air like a switchback railway and finally when we thought the risk of further shudders was past, we crept back to the Hotel to see what could be done.

After again groping our way through the stifling sulphuric atmosphere up to where we imagined our rooms were, bricks and stones still fell occasionally around us. We luckily found the room and got properly dressed in the established morning light. After kind help and a lot of struggling, we got our luggage which we had only taken upstairs a short time ago, back down trailed into the broken hallway.

Amongst the sorry figures going about their own searches, we made our way to the kitchen foraging for some rolls and coffee left by the late arrivals in the night, then went out. By this time it was 6.30am and as we emerged out into the street at the Market Place, the drug store beside us immediately went up in a tower of flames, which spread to both sides of the street. By half an hour later, the city seemed to be on fire. The situation got worse as we found ourselves in a trap of fiercely blazing streets, others grief and falling buildings.

We had the good fortune to meet a transfer waggon and after some financial incentives were given, persuaded it to return for our baggage such as we had, and then by the most retired way, and with much difficulty, reached the Golden Gate Park about three miles out at a height above the city.

Our driver had a sister who extremely kindly took our baggage into safety and we went further up the hill for a better vantage. There below us was one horrific, terrifying sheet of flame, which leapt up a huge building , chased on and on, taking some people with it. The immense volume of smoke, flame, steam and explosions. The extent of buildings being blown up to try to stop the fire was appalling.

We walked about till night when the fire was ever gaining and getting nearer only stopping for a little rest. The woman’s family being our scouts. On going out again later, we found the fire getting nearer, gradually closing its doors to escape and determined to beat it, we accosted a motor passing by which came to our rescue. Picking though our luggage, we left the bulk of it, unable to fit it in the vehicle as we made our way to the wharf where the vehicle owner had a boat waiting. However, needless to say, the boat was put out , damaged and would not sail again for three weeks. There was no alternative other than to cross in the busy ferry to Oakland with the masses of evacuees. We reached the ferry terminal in safety and having got our tickets for Vancouver and after watching the fiery furnace in front of us which seemed to be approaching the terminal, we joined the scared crowds vainly attempting to fly. From 9am until 12pm we waited in the station and at last our express steamed away over the water to safety.

What the end of that city was, no one can imagine – totally wiped off the face of the earth. The coolness of the crowds was amazing. Men who had made their millions looked back at the fire as they watched them melt away under their eyes and in remarkable human spirit, only at that moment seemed to think of helping others. Despite our foreign tongues, we were offered food, money, anything we wished for to help us on our way. For a week afterwards, communication had completely stopped and everyone was anxiously awaiting to hear of their friends fate. As we were amongst the first to arrive here in Vancouver, we were first to be interviewed by reporters and everyone with relations in the city. The chief population of evacuees are encamped in the public parks, of which there are 9 here. Martial Law is the order of the day.”

Pictured is the Palace Hotel the day after the earthquake, still standing amongst all the ruined city buildings. The other photos show the scale of the devastation. San Francisco would be built again, but primarily of steel . To say Colonel Wardrop Moore and his family were lucky in 1906, is an understatement. They came back to Blantyre shortly after and Wardrop Moore lived until 1912.

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