A Voice from ’06

Update: About half an hour after I posted this, we had a little earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey says it was a 3.8 magnitude shake, centered on the San Andreas Fault near the town of Pacifica, about 10 miles or so from where the 1906 quake hit.

A nice feature in the Chronicle marking the 105th anniversary of San Francisco’s signature catastrophe: ’06 Quake Through Eyes of Woman Ahead of Her Time. It’s a glimpse of the disaster from Leonie von Zesch, 23 when the temblor struck and one of the few women anywhere practicing dentistry at the time. (A contemporary newspaper clipping headlined “Woman Wields Forceps” describes her working “night and day” in a field hospital after the quake “battling that arch enemy of comfort–the toothache. [She] … is attractive as she is young.” Further, the article notes, “Race and caste make no difference to this dainty little lady. The dirty foreign boy receives the same gentle treatment as the daughter of a military officer.”)

Von Zesch’s account was part of an autobiography said to have run to thousands of pages, typed on onionskin paper and left among her personal effects when she died in 1944. The Chronicle’s account says von Zesch left her belongings to a niece who stashed them in an attic without looking at them. When she finally did, she discovered the writings, which will be published next month as “Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time” ($19.95 plus shipping and, if you live in California, sales tax).

If the rest of the book is on a par with her description of the earthquake and its aftermath, it ought to be a good read. It’s not clear how long after the fact she wrote her account, but it begins with the scene in the Nob Hill home she shared with her mother rocking violently as china, Mason jars, and a variety of other household goods crash to the floor. “All the while, a seeming eternity of a few minutes, there was an unforgettable humming, grinding sound that not even the walls shut out, the grinding and breaking of myriad things all over the city.” She and her mother ate a cold breakfast–a man from the gas company had already come through the neighborhood to warn against lighting fires–and then “decided to walk downtown to see whether anything had happened to the tall buildings. No one, as yet, seemed to have the remotest idea of the magnitude of the disaster.”

By the time von Zesch and her mother neared Market Street, though, it was clear the city was beginning to burn.

“In spite of the horror, the air was electric with a sort of holiday spirit, either because the disaster was a novel experience which released people from the humdrum of everyday life, or because there were in a mood of thanksgiving and glad to be alive.

“There was something of hysteria in it, too. To Mother and me, everything was fearfully exciting. We did not anticipate personal loss. Our own home on Hyde, now rented, was out of the supposed fire zone; the Sutter place where we lived, of course, would not burn! Why we and thousands of others were so optimistic, I’d like to know. The water mains were broken. People all over town were daring to light gas stoves. The wind was blowing. How could the city fail to burn?”

The Chronicle ran part two of von Zesch’s earthquake reminiscence today. It includes an excellent slideshow of images from 1906.

And while we’re talking about contemporary images and walking through the ruins, a couple of good references came to hand while I was trying to figure out where Dr. von Zesch and her mother lived (she mentions Sutter and Leavenworth, and the ruined Granada Hotel nearby; I can’t get any closer than that, and a rebuilt Granada Hotel, guaranteed at its opening in 1908 to be fireproof, is at that corner today.

Below is a film discovered by way of the Internet Archive. It’s a 1905 streetcar trip down Market Street; the Ferry Building is the structure way down the street in the distance. What’s most arresting here is the life on the street–the mix of streetcars, automobiles, horse carts, pedestrians, and the random cyclist.

That’s an 11-minute tour through the heart of downtown. For contrast, here’s a snippet of some of the same area of Market Street (note the tower of the Call Building to the right) after the earthquake.

And one last graphic take on the 1906 earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey has published a cool gallery of animations that try to convey the quake’s magnitude and the extent of the destructive shaking in the Bay Area. The image below is linked to an animation of the shaking in San Francisco:


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