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A city of great magnitude

A hotel, a fire hydrant and a doorway that goes nowhere. Remnants of quake-torn San Francisco tell of its past and present.

April 16, 2006|Janis Cooke Newman | Special to The Times

San Francisco — THE first time I visited San Francisco, I spent every minute filling my nose with the burnt-wood smell of cable-car brakes. I squeezed into Chinatown shops that sold jade Buddhas, drank Irish coffee at the wood-paneled Buena Vista. I climbed to the top of Hyde Street, gasping fog-tinged air, and gazed down at the sunlight sparkling on the water around Alcatraz. And every time I saw someone I imagined to be a San Franciscan -- a woman holding the hand of a little boy in a Giants cap, a lady in a silk jacket carrying a whole fish in a pink plastic bag -- I wanted to rush over and say, "See how lucky you are? You get to live here."

In April 1906, 70 years before my own first visit, Enrico Caruso also thought he was lucky to be here. The famed Italian tenor was supposed to be in Naples, but Mt. Vesuvius had erupted two weeks before, and Caruso thought he would be safer in San Francisco , where, after all, there are no volcanoes. "God has sent me here," the singer declared before he went to bed the night of April 17. When he was shaken from that bed the following dawn, Caruso changed his opinion of the Almighty's intent. "We are all doomed to die!" he shouted at his valet.

This year, the centennial of the great earthquake and fire, it's impossible to be here without being reminded of that disaster, which still ranks among the worst in American history. Bookstore windows are crowded with new retellings, archives of earthquake photos have been dusted off and tour guides are leading history buffs across town to the surviving landmarks. Visitors who immerse themselves in 1906 history might think San Franciscans are lucky there's a still city here at all.

The earthquake that woke Caruso measured 8.3 on the Richter scale, although that magnitude was estimated later, because the seismographs in San Francisco couldn't withstand more than a 7.9 quake. The San Andreas fault shifted along 296 miles, and the ground trembled for nearly a minute, the cobblestone pavement opening and closing like a mouth. Buildings tumbled, masonry fell into the road, and a herd of cattle being driven up Mission Street ran riot, goring some of those who had escaped their toppling houses.

After the shaking stopped, what followed seems like a string of incredibly bad luck compounded by bad decisions.

The day of the earthquake was windy, even by San Francisco standards. Natural gas escaping from cracked pipes and ripped-away chandeliers was ignited by embers left in cooking stoves; the wind fed the fire, spreading it between the blocks of wooden houses. Firemen raced into the streets, but the heat of the flames melted their hoses. That hardly mattered: The quake had twisted and split all the water mains.

Only one fire hydrant, on a corner of Dolores Park, continued to put out a steady stream of water. Thus, Sparky, as it's called, saved the Victorian houses just to the south in Noe Valley. A century later, Sparky's grateful neighbors give the hydrant a fresh coat of gold paint each April 18.

With nothing but soda water and the contents of chamber pots to put out the fire, the Army and other volunteers began dynamiting buildings, hoping to starve the fire of oxygen and create firebreaks. Rushing ahead of the wind and flames, they filled basements with explosives. Everything in Union Square was leveled to save the St. Francis hotel, then only 2 years old, although fire eventually gutted the interior anyway.

Mansions on Nob Hill were blown into rubble. A marble-and-brick portico was all that remained of the Towne mansion, which withstood the earthquake but not the dynamiting. In the days after the quake, this entrance to nowhere came to be known as the Portals of the Past; these days, it stands eerily beside a dark little lake in Golden Gate Park, looking as though the house has only just disappeared.

The dynamiting, done with highly flammable black powder, and executed by anyone with the desire to blow up something, made the fire spread. As the smoke and flames advanced on neighborhoods, whole families trapped beneath their own ceilings were beyond rescue. Patients had to be evacuated from asylums in straitjackets and at gunpoint, and doctors, after emptying their hospitals of everyone who could be moved, gave those left behind massive doses of morphine. By nightfall on April 18, so much of San Francisco was on fire that people claimed to be able to read by the light of it 100 miles away.


A prophecy comes true

WHEN the rest of the country learned of the destruction, some called it divine retribution. Only a few days before the quake, a missionary from an apocalyptic sect called the Flying Rollers of the House of David warned the city's residents to give up their wicked ways or God would send them earthquake, fire and pestilence. The Flying Rollers were not displeased to be right.

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