Looking back at the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake and fire | TheUnion.com
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Looking back at the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake and fire

Steve Cottrell
Special to The Union
This was the scene when San Francisco was devastated by the great earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906. The scene looks down Sacramento Street. Property loss was close to $350 million. More than 60,000 buildings, half of them homes, were shattered or burned. Some 265,000 of the 360,000 residents were homeless. (AP Photo/Arnold Genthe)
AP | AP

By the numbers

As of April 24

Number of COVID-19 cases in Nevada County: 36

Number in western county: 12

Number in eastern county: 24

Number of deaths: 1

Learn more at http://www.theunion.com/coronavirus

As local government bodies and community organizations work together during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep you informed and assist businesses and individuals in need, let’s look at an earlier April – April 1906 — when a deadly earthquake and fire left much of San Francisco in ruin and other Bay Area towns in dire need of assistance.

On April 19, one day after the earthquake hit, the Nevada City Board of Trustees (now called City Council) met in emergency session and, as The Morning Union reported, “Mayor Chapman was appointed to represent this municipality in San Francisco to do what he could to alleviate the sufferings of the people, and to discover, if he could, the whereabouts of numerous Nevada Cityans and their friends.”

Chester Warren Chapman (known simply as C.W.) carried with him a letter from his fellow trustees asking the Southern Pacific Railroad to grant “such privileges as may be necessary for him to reach San Francisco.” A second letter, addressed to San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz, affirmed that Dr. Chapman, a Broad Street dentist, was there to determine the status of dozens of local residents who were in the Bay Area at the time, as well as former residents who lived there. When Chapman met with Schmitz, he was issued a pass assuring him of whatever assistance he needed.

With Mayor Chapman in San Francisco, attorney Thomas Ford was named to head the Nevada City relief drive. Two days later, 2,000 pounds of clothing, 145 pounds of bedding, 1,140 pounds of bread, and $2,500 in donations were shipped by rail to Oakland, then ferried to San Francisco.

Chapman began sending telegrams, reporting on local residents who were safe, including, “Miss Grace Jackson and Harry L. Englebright, who have been sojourning in the city.” Their ability to emerge from the disaster unscathed had historical implications when, in 1912, Grace and Harry married, and in 1926, settled in Washington, D. C., where Englebright served in the U.S. House of Representatives until his death in 1943 – the final ten years as minority whip.

Meanwhile, in Grass Valley, Mayor William Van Orden was busy raising money and asking for donations of food and clothing. On April 20, two boxcars filled with Grass Valley donations were on their way, plus $2,700 in cash. A day later, another boxcar — this one containing 1,700 loaves of fresh-baked bread, 116 hardboiled eggs, four large boxes of crackers and biscuits, a box of Cornish pasties, eight large boxes of clothing, and an additional 10 large bundles of clothing — left for Colfax on the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad to connect with the Southern Pacific.

Coordinating the Colfax transfers was former mayor Charles Clinch, head of the Grass Valley relief committee. The second shipment included $2,300 in cash, intended, as The Morning Union reported, “to be largely spent on Grass Valleyans who may be in need of help (returning) home from the ruined city.”

The April 24 Morning Union included a report from Clinch, noting, “Words would not tell it, nor could the imagination paint the picture” of the devastation witnessed by the Grass Valley relief committee upon its arrival in San Francisco. Similar descriptions were sent by Dr. Chapman as he searched for affected Nevada City residents at Golden Gate Park, Fort Mason, Fort Point, and other emergency encampments.

Mine workers and owners in both towns raised money, as did churches and social organizations. In North Bloomfield, Columbia Hill and other rural communities, benefits were held and food and clothing were collected.

Although the initial push for money eventually slowed, essential goods continued to be donated and sent where most needed, including Santa Rosa and San Jose — both hit hard by the temblor. By the time relief committees in Nevada City and Grass Valley ended their respective campaigns in May, more than $12,000 in relief funds had been disbursed, (about $350K in 2020 buying power), along with several tons of food and clothing.

As Nevada County deals with a crisis in 2020 unlike any it has faced since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a collective effort is being made to support local residents who need help. Unlike 1906, however, when Western Union telegraph wires were often the primary mode of communication, news and advice — and even money — can be transmitted today with the click of a mouse.

Until the current crisis ends, stay connected to The Union, KNCO, KVMR and YubaNet, as well as local chambers of commerce — all with resources our grandparents would have considered science fiction in 1906. And by all means, support them financially as you are able.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.


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