Remembering the 1906 Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco

Remembering the 1906 Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco

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It is the 109th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.  There are just two survivors left from that terrible day.  Some day soon, there won’t be any and we will have to rely on published accounts and the stories passed down in families.

If you’re interesting in learning more about the disaster, William Bronson’s “The Earth Shook and the Sky Burned” is an excellent read. It is somewhat difficult to find, but well worth reading.  I got this sense from Bronson’s work of how quickly things change. The prologue, which tells of the spirit of April 17th, gave me chills.  For San Franciscans, it was like any other day with it’s typical joys and disappointments.

Then, on April 18th, they woke up, started the fire in the stove, and got dressed.  The only thing on their minds was getting ready for another work day or getting the children off to school.  By 5:15 am, their world was shattered.

The book depicts the four days, one leading up to the disaster and the three days after.  It shows us the devastation and the terror.  But, it also shows us the renewal of hope as people grieved, got over the shock, and began to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

My people were there.  My Jackson, Jones, Kelly, and Dolan relatives were all residents of San Francisco, many of them natives. Several years ago, I sat down with my grandmother, Anna (Jackson) Shellabarger and she recounted the stories that her mother, Marguerite (Jones) Jackson, told her.  The Jackson’s escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Remarkably, my great grandmother, her sister, Alice (Jones) Bourne, and her sister-in-law, Matilda (McCullough) Jones had all given birth recently and all those babies survived!

They lived in the refugee camp at Golden Gate Park, getting food wherever they could, and spending the nights in makeshift tents.  Can you imagine scrambling through the debris with all the aftershocks, escaping the many fires, and living in these conditions with a 3 week old baby?  That’s what my great grandmother did.

Sadly, not everyone made it out alive.  Gertrude’s husband, John Burke, went missing.  They found his body a couple of weeks later.  My grandmother said that when they recovered the body he had been robbed of his money and jewelry.  He was known for the rings that he wore.  All of them were gone.

If you’re interested in Marguerite’s stories and my research surrounding this era, I’ve compiled them in the article “1906 Earthquake and Fire:  Stories From My Great Grandmother“.  I hope I’ve done my great grandmother justice by keeping her stories alive.

Were your relatives there?  I bet their experiences were similar.  What inner strength they had to call upon to survive those terrible days and weeks before rebuilding could even begin.


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