1906 Earthquake Anniversary: Eyewitness Accounts

Sister Mary of the Presentation Brown tells her story about living through 1906 San Francisco earthquake that occurred on April 18th. You'll also find a letter from Sr. Stanislaus of St. Joseph to the Mother Superior about the earthquake experience in Santa Clara.

San Francisco Chapel, pre-1906.
San Francisco Chapel, pre-1906.

Candlesticks, vases, statues, and adoring angels fell around me. I fell upon my knees and prayed aloud. [The earthquake] seemed to slacken for an instant only to begin more furious than before. I heard a Sister screaming at the rear of the chapel, and tried to go to her, but could not move, the building was still rocking like a cradle. How much occurred in those 55 seconds, it seemed like an hour. Finally I made my way out and met Sr. Gonzaga. I thought we were the only two living, but was greatly relieved on reaching the porch to see that all the Sisters had fled to the yard.

Slight shocks occurred frequently during the hours that followed and it was in fear and trembling that we ventured up to the 3rd and 4th floors. No fire could be made in the kitchen as the chimney had fallen, but fortunately the one in the laundry was alright, and as we had not yet received the order forbidding fire, we made coffee for the last time in our pretty convent home.

Between 8 and 9 o'clock our kind Pastor called to see if it were possible to have Mass. In a few minutes the sanctuary was sufficiently cleared and the altar arranged. The Holy Sacrifice was begun. All the Sisters and a few boarders who remained during the Easter vacation, and a large number of people who had sought shelter in our yard were present.

The Father had just reached the Credo when quite a severe shock occurred. The Father hesitated for a moment, then turning said, "It is better to leave the chapel and go quickly to the yard, as it is not prudent to continue the Mass." 

Immediately after the earthquake fire broke out in several parts of the city, and no water, as all the pipes were broken by the shock. One of the principal fires started in Hayes Valley and by noon had reached the beautiful St. Ignatius Church and was fast traveling towards our convent. Already the yard was black with burnt cinders and ashes. We were told over and over again by those in authority that we were not in danger as it was reported they had made a connection and had water, and that the fire would be under control. However, our dear Sister Superior thought it prudent to collect the most valuable articles, with blankets, clothing and provisions and had them removed to ground floor as it was out of the question to spend the awful night in the house.

The good Fathers were back and forth all night and recited the rosary and litanies around the yard. At three o'clock in the morning of Thursday it was thought advisable to remove the Blessed Sacrament to the Shrine. We all received Holy Communion and had Mass at the early hour.

About 9 o'clock we were still told that the fire would not reach us but for prudence sake it would be well to remove the old and feeble Sisters as it would take them a long time to reach a place of safety.  It was impossible to get a conveyance of any kind. However, a relative of one of the Sisters came and made several trips in a little express wagon taking all the old and ailing Sisters and so many parcels as the wagon could hold up to Duboce Park.

Later in the day the remaining Sisters left in bands carrying all they were able with them, primarily blankets and provisions, as they were the most necessary things. It was all uphill work and the air was intensely hot and blinding with ashes. Our dear Sister Superior was the last to leave the convent and with three companions reached the park exhausted (for the principal nourishment for that day was crackers and canned fruit) but with a light and happy heart. She told us our convent was safe, the wind had changed, and the fire had turned leaving the convent to all appearances save.

Mission District burning after earthquake. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, H.D. Chadwick photographer.

Different reports were brought to the Sisters. Some stated that the block had been fired at the lower corner of 16th and Dolores, in order to confine the fire to the lower part of Dolores, for it had crossed to the opposite side, the whole mission and western addition would have gone. It was a consoling thought that Our dear Lord permitted the convent to be sacrificed for a greater good.

It was now night but the flames grew nearer and brighter as the night advanced. Sister Superior had been to the German Hospital and the superintendent had agreed to take 6 or 7 of the Sisters for the night.

The fire seemed so near that the people were beginning to be alarmed but an officer shouted at the top of his voice to be at their east, as there was no danger that night and that the people would be told in time. He also said he had wagons at his disposal and would have all the women and children safely removed, and the first wagon would be for these good Sisters. Another officer came along with a load of provisions which he left to Sister Superior to distribute to the needy. He then called that vast multitude to order and said to Superior in a loud voice "Give to each on what you think is right. Don't give too much to one and nothing to another, but do what is right and don't mind if they kick." He then ordered some of his men to make a fire in the street and make coffee and tea and bring it to the good Sisters to give out.  He then called to one of his men to see that order was kept and gave him full power to vet anyone rebelled or gave trouble.

Thank God, the order was admirable, the expression of faith, and resignation, the kindness of the people to one another was truly touching. A young girl was about to take a cup of tea when she saw a poor old lady waiting so she gave it to her. The provisions didn't last long, entrusted to Sister Superior, so she was free to accept the invitation to go to St. Joseph's Hospital.

The Sisters left the park in groups, carrying all they could. Sr. Stanislaus of the Angels and myself together, and stopped in at the German Hospital to see the Sisters who were to remain there and to our great surprise found the only shelter that they had was in an open shed, no floor, all kinds of people around them, the odor was most offensive, the only convenience was benches put together. Ten of our dear Sisters spent the night there, with their blankets around them. The open air of the street seemed more desirable than such a place, but they were so fatigued they could not climb the steep hill to the other hospital.

My companion and I started on again, and had reached the first terrace when we were hailed by a gentleman and his wife who said they were minding a load of our baggage that had been left on the street, the grade being too steep for the wagon to proceed any further; so we were obliged to take our post, as guards of the baggage. We had a good long wait and attracted the attention of all who passed by but everyone was extremely kind, and many offered to take us for the night.

Finally two more Sisters came along accompanied by a kind man who called several men and boys to carry the baggage to St. Joseph's Hospital. There we had a grand view of the awful fire which was then at its height. The district over which it had swept resembled a dense black sky thickly studded with bright stars, for from each smoldering ruin there still issued a tiny bright star-like flame. We could still see the coal bin burning on our now vacant grounds. It was then about midnight.

Edited for length and content.