San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Snapshots: The Chaos: Public Reactions to the Incident
The Chaos: Public Reactions to the Incident
“I saw thousands of men, women and children headed westward. All were pulling sleds, baby carriages, childrens’ wagons—anything on which they could load some of their belongings. . . . Many women were carrying babies in their arms, while over their shoulders were slung big bundles wrapped in bed sheets. All were fleeing the holocaust.” —Charles Kendrick
As the disaster raged, thousands of people migrated westward towards Van Ness Avenue, where it was reported that the fires had been stopped. Leaving the city, these refugees carried their remaining possessions using whatever they could find. Opportunistic looters began to pillage the city stores for provisions. Around midday, General Funston proclaimed the city under martial law and ordered the police to shoot anyone caught stealing.
Shortly after the quake, the renowned German American photographer Arnold Genthe found that his cameras were broken and immediately went to a shop to get supplies. When he got to the store on Montgomery Street, the shopkeeper told him, “take whatever you want, the place is going to burn down anyway.” Such was the attitude of several shop owners, but many people, mistaken for looters at work, were shot down by San Francisco police. The upper-right photo gives a glimpse of the chaos that John Lorin Taylor experienced as he navigated the streets, with looters amidst the smoke of the burning buildings.
“We never closed our eyes that night and it began to rain and a cold mournful wind began to howl around open chimney holes and busted roofs. At 5 o’clock a rifle shot was heard on the block and some young fellow fell dead who was misprudent enough to venture out to borrow some whiskey for his sick mother. A soldier ordered him to throw it away and shot him for refusing. This is only one of many cases. When daylight came we helped cook our breakfast in the street where rich and poor alike squat side by side cooking on brick stoves, and then all go stand in line to get their share of provisions. No one is allowed to sell a thing there but every thing left in stores has been distributed, and loads are coming in every day.” —Frederick H. Collins.
When the fires had died down, the broken streets of San Francisco became the gathering place for refugees. Unable to return home, they made whatever shelter they could from the remnants of their possessions. Though they had lost a great deal, they were not without hope. After recuperating from the shock of the disaster, many San Franciscans recalled a new sense of strength, virility, and even a comradery with one another as they strove to rebuild their fair city.