“Latter-day Saints and the San Francisco Earthquake,” Ensign, Oct. 1998, 22
In mid-April 1906 about 125 Latter-day Saints lived in San Francisco, known at the time as the “Paris of the West.” The headquarters building for the California Mission, where President Joseph E. Robinson, his young family, and several missionaries lived, stood at 609 Franklin Street and was affectionately called “Six-Ought-Nine.”1
The dramatic experiences of the members who witnessed the terrible earthquake on Wednesday, 18 April 1906, reflect their faith and courage. The experience also shows that the hand of the Lord protected and guided many Latter-day Saints during those days of terror and uncertainty.
Upon his return from the April 1906 LDS general conference in Salt Lake City, President Robinson called a California Mission conference, which took place at “609” on 15–16 April. A social held on Tuesday night, 17 April, concluded the mission conference. In attendance were missionaries, San Francisco Branch members, and LDS visitors to the city, including Brother Matthias Cowley, formerly a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; his wife, Nora; and Bishop John R. Welker from Arizona.2 Also joining the party were five elders bound for Samoa and Australia. The five had arrived in the city that afternoon, left their baggage at the train depot to be transferred to a steamship wharf, and checked into a local hotel.3
At the social, the members were encouraged to attend a branch picnic to be held the following day at Golden Gate Park. Then, leaving “609,” the Cowleys, Bishop Welker, the Pacific-bound elders, and other guests and missionaries returned to their hotels or rented rooms throughout the city. About 20 missionaries spent the night at “609.”4
Early Wednesday morning, 18 April, two former Utahns—Race Whitney and Wally Young—finished an article for a morning San Francisco Chronicle deadline. As they left the Chronicle office, they noticed the eastern horizon above Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay, turning blue and the San Francisco streetlights dimming.
Suddenly, at 5:13 A.M., they heard a deep rumbling in the distance, then acrushing sound. Streets and buildings started to move and shudder, and power lines and cable car tracks jerked and swayed. They heard the creaking, grinding, and splintering of wooden buildings. Brick chimneys and walls crashed through roofs and tumbled to sidewalks.
“We were standing in the front of the Auditorium Hotel [113 Eddy Street] when the crash came,” Race wrote to his father, Apostle Orson F. Whitney. “Instinctively we started for the middle of the street, and where we had stood less than one second before, there was a pile of bricks seven feet high.” Then they ran 60 feet, barely outdistancing four more stories of the hotel that tumbled down. Surviving the hotel’s collapse was their first miracle that morning.
Wally moved into the middle of the street for safety, but then Race yelled to him and pointed to a dangling mass of electrical wires swaying overhead. Wally jumped to the sidewalk when “the wires came down, sputtering and tearing up everything they touched. That we were not both electrocuted was the second miracle of the morning,” Race wrote.5
A massive tear in the earth’s crust had moved across the Pacific Ocean floor at a speed of two miles per second and had left a path of destruction 20 to 40 miles wide and 200 miles long. As instant furrows showed, the surfaces along the crack line had sometimes shifted 20 feet apart. The earthquake was estimated at over 8.0 on the Richter scale.6
The first quaking lasted 40 seconds, but it seemed longer to the two reporters. Then, after a 10-second pause, the quake resumed for another 25 seconds. Thirteen minutes later the first of several strong aftershocks came. The earth sometimes rose three feet, streets cracked open, water and gas poured up from holes in the ground, and church bells jangled with abandon.7
The Ernst J. Broberg family, members of the local branch, lived on the second floor of a row-house near Golden Gate Park. When the quaking commenced, Sister Broberg rushed from her bed to stand under a door frame for protection. She held their three-month-old baby, and her five- and three-year-old boys clung tightly to her legs. The boys, Wally and Todd, remembered for the rest of their lives that moment when they saw pans flying off the stove, cupboard doors flapping wildly, and groceries and dishes tumbling to the floor.8
“Six-Ought-Nine,” three stories high, rocked. “I was awakened by a most terrible and horrible rending and rearing sound,” President Robinson said, “and the house at once began to sway and rock as though it would be dashed to the ground.” He called to his crying daughters to be calm and then “a more terrific shake came and I jumped out of bed to the middle of the room [but] by this time I could scarcely keep my feet.” In the parlor the mantle and fireplace and a candelabra crashed to the floor. Finally, when “609” stopped shaking, President Robinson reached and comforted his terrified children. The mission home survived the quake with but slight damage.9
Sister Robinson then noticed something ominous: “Papa, there are fires breaking out downtown. Great clouds of smoke are rolling up everywhere!” “Papa” Robinson dressed quickly and went outside. He saw a fire burning three blocks uphill (west) from “609” on Golden Gate Avenue and another three blocks south. He rushed back into “609” and instructed the mission secretary to pack up the mission records in case the fires spread.10
Meanwhile, the first earthquake barely disturbed the sleep of the five Pacific-bound elders, including Elder Leo Gardner who was sleeping with an arm draped on the sill of an open window. They were lodged in two rooms on the third floor of a five-story brick hotel. When noise down in the street became too disturbing, Elder Gardner peered out and saw people running in all directions and buildings collapsing amid dust and smoke. He and the four others dressed leisurely to go out and investigate. They had trouble prying their door open and then found “the hall was completely covered with plaster and rubbish.” They picked their way downstairs and then outside. There they discovered that the front and back brick walls of the hotel had sloughed off, creating giant rubble heaps on the ground. Fearing their luggage might be in danger, they hiked to the train depot. The baggage agent said their trunks had been moved across the street to a warehouse, by then engulfed in flames. Two disappointed elders threw away their baggage claim tickets, but Elder Gardner picked them up, just in case.11
The five elders walked back to their hotel. It was about 8:00 A.M. Suddenly an aftershock hit while they were in a narrow alley, showering bricks and chunks of wood. Unhurt, they entered their damaged hotel, and, Elder Gardner said, “to our great astonishment we discovered that the two rooms which we five missionaries had slept in were the only two rooms in the entire building which were intact.” Collecting their few belongings, they left the battered hotel and hiked to “609.”12
The Market Street hotel where the Cowleys were staying was terribly damaged. “You are lucky to be alive,” rescuers told Brother Cowley while helping him down an outside ladder. He said his own room was undamaged, not even a crack in the ceiling. When he reached the mission headquarters he told the Saints that he was not harmed because “I dedicated my room to the Lord last night.”13
Gradually some Saints from throughout the city gathered at “609,” including Bishop Welker and Sister Nash Rowlands, who was “terribly frightened—hair full of plaster.” By midmorning the Pacific-bound elders as well as the Cowleys had reached the mission home. Sister Robinson fed the excited group some sandwiches and bottled fruit and juice because there was no water. President Robinson divided his missionaries and the Pacific elders into teams and sent them to check on San Francisco Branch members. He visited a family by the name of Hooper and found the children to be upset. He administered to Sister Hooper, who was bedfast with rheumatism, and “she arose and dressed and was made whole.” Before noon the teams returned and reported. “I was thankful to my Heavenly Father to find all well so far as we could learn, and we heard from nearly all of them,” the president said.14
Having viewed nearby damage, members at “609” became curious to see more of the incredible disaster. They explored nearby neighborhoods, ruining their shoes on streets and sidewalks that were covered with broken bricks, boards, concrete, and glass. Fires burned freely in several neighborhoods because firemen could pump no water from broken city water lines. “The sun looked like a huge ball—blood red—through the heavy smoke,” President Robinson said.15
According to Elder Gardner, a police officer stopped him and six other elders at gunpoint and “ordered us all into a basement and to help clear out the rocks and brick” and to look for survivors. They found no one, dead or alive, but saw bodies being pulled from nearby buildings.16
The early morning fires near “609” were contained. But about 11:00 A.M., less than four blocks away, a woman tried to cook breakfast and her chimney flue caught fire. Firemen were too busy elsewhere to respond to this new “Ham and Eggs” fire, which spread slowly toward “609.” In the early afternoon, firemen ordered everyone out since the block where the mission home stood was being dynamited to prevent the fire from spreading. Before leaving, Brother Cowley led the Saints in a prayer for safety, and then the group hauled into the street about two dozen trunks, bedding, mission records, carpets, furniture, and the hand organ. To transport the piles of belongings, they flagged down two horse-drawn carts and willingly paid exorbitant fees demanded by the drivers. The “609” group joined their neighborhood’s evacuation uphill to nearby Jefferson Park.17
By about 4:00 P.M., the mission headquarters was partly blown up by demolition teams. The rampaging fires then burned what was left of it. But the sacrifice paid off, and that flank of the fire line did not spread beyond the block where “609” had stood.
Not all members were with the group at “609.” Medical student Parley Pratt Musser, with his wife, Martha, and baby, lived in a four-story apartment house in the section south of Market Street. Martha handed the baby to Parley and said she would join them outside. While gathering a few more things, she smelled gas, so she found a wrench and bravely descended into the dark basement where, riding out three aftershocks, she turned off about 30 gas meters. When safely outside, she and Parley decided to save some of their household belongings despite approaching fires. Into deserted streets they hauled a 150-pound trunk,Parley’s medical library bundled in a blanket, and two canaries. After one hour of backbreaking retreat, they were trapped by drifting smoke and advancing flames. Parley found some soft dirt and a tin bucket, dug a hole, and buried his books. Fleeing unbearable heat, they hiked two more miles before finding safety. Then Parley, though exhausted, saw that his medical skills were needed, so he spent 30 consecutive hours dressing wounds and burns at an emergency hospital. Later he rescued his buried books.18
The diary of 17-year-old Harold Jenson provides one of the most detailed first-person accounts of the earthquake. He tells how his father, a tailor, pulled a hand truck carrying a trunk loaded with tools and clothes that “weighed a ton.” Near Brannan and Sixth Streets, Harold’s father became exhausted and stopped to rest. Fires burned within 100 yards of them. When soldiers ordered everyone to move on before they dynamited the block, the father shook his head and murmured he could go no farther. “At that moment in my desire to get [my father] out of the way, I was gifted with the strength of a Sampson [sic],” wrote Harold. “How I thanked God after, that He had guided me from bad habits and also for the wonderful strength He gave me that day. On the impulse of the moment I picked [my father] up as though he were a mere child and sat him in the [hand] truck against the trunk. I got hold of the handles again and the big load seemed light as I wheeled it across the street and for half a block, while mother was close behind me wheeling the sewing machine.”19 Eventually they joined up with the Hooper family. Atop McAllister Hill, Harold said, “We got a splendid view of the burning city. All was fire, fire; oh … how our beautiful San Francisco did burn.”20
Toward evening, reporter Race Whitney finally camped at a cemetery. Reporter Wally Young found passage on a boat to Oakland where he helped publish a special earthquake edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.21
The Robinsons returned to Jefferson Park and spent Wednesday night with the members there. “It was a real trial,” Elder Gardner said, “to endure our thirst and to go without washing our faces and hands which were getting blacker with the dust and smoke.”22
Early Thursday morning President Robinson sent elders across the bay to Oakland to telegraph President Joseph F. Smith, and soon the Utah Saints heard the glad message: “Lives of Members and Elders Safe. Mission Home Burned. Loss Nominal. Elders enroute to Islands, with us.”23
Then the Saints at Jefferson Park moved to Golden Gate Park, 15 blocks away. Someone noted that the branch was having its Golden Gate “picnic” after all, although a day late. To help members find each other, President Robinson posted a sign in the “609” ashes informing the members about the LDS camp relocations.
The Pacific elders joined one of the great bread lines (four people abreast and many blocks long) and obtained two or three loaves each. Needing a change of clothing, if it could be salvaged, they returned to the railroad depot where they found only piles of charred luggage and assumed theirs had burned too. They headed back to Jefferson Park.24
Saints whose homes seemed safe, perhaps a dozen places total, opened them up to their Church brothers and sisters. On Friday, with fires still burning, President Robinson “visited the Saints” and then in the evening moved his belongings to the Broberg’s row house, near Golden Gate Park.25
Latter-day Saint and Utah government officials took immediate steps to send relief supplies. On Thursday, 19 April, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met and agreed to send $10,000 to California Governor George C. Pardee for the general relief of earthquake victims.26 General Relief Society officers “came with all haste” to a meeting called by Sister Bathsheba W. Smith. They contacted railroad men, secured space on a train car, and arranged to send a load of flour. They purchased ready-made clothing and bedding. “All day and far into the night the sisters worked faithfully, going themselves to the depot to see that the things were placed carefully in the car.”27
One ward donated 500 loaves of freshly baked bread. One woman wrapped her loaves in oil tissue paper to keep the bread from drying out. Within a few weeks, Utahns had shipped dozens of train-car loads of food and supplies to San Francisco. Utahns’ money donated for earthquake relief purposes exceeded $100,000 by early summer.28
On Saturday, 21 April, the Pacific elders moved to a hotel in Oakland. “What a relief it was to get in contact with some water once more and wash ourselves for the first time in four days,” Elder Gardner said. However, he awoke in the middle of the night when “a strong impression came to me that our baggage was not burned.” So he arose, dressed, visited Oakland’s city hall, waited three hours in line, obtained a permit to cross the bay, ate breakfast, and then road a ferry to San Francisco and visited the train station. “What … do you want now?” the angry baggage man demanded. Elder Gardner insisted on examining the baggage room. The minute the door opened the elder spied his trunk in the middle of the room “with all the baggage of the other four boys piled around it.” Even boxes of books and literature the Church was sending with the elders for the mission in Hawaii were there. Elder Gardner produced all the needed baggage claim tags, and the agent marked “hold” on the items with red crayon. “With a light and happy heart,” the elder ferried back to Oakland, where his companions hardly believed his news.29
Also that day many Saints and elders, including the Robinsons, moved to Oakland. The next day President Robinson had obtained a permit allowing him to move freely in and out of San Francisco to shepherd his flock. Each day he carried two suitcases filled with bread to San Francisco and distributed it to “the women and children in greatest need in four parks we visited.” The next week his main goal was to reunite LDS families fragmented by the quake and fires. “Family separations worried me more than the fire and its attendant discomforts,” he said.30
On 23 April, Deseret News special correspondent George C. Carpenter took a 12-mile walking tour of the charred city. He described the area of “609” as “ash heaps.” All that remained of the mission headquarters was part of an iron fence, a bathtub, and a half-burned telephone pole “to which was tacked the cards of several elders and notice to Latter-day Saints to gather at Jefferson Park.” From the ashes of “609” he picked up two heat-warped spoons as souvenirs. He then visited the Wolfinger residence that had become the temporary mission headquarters, and there he found 13 elders “well, safe, and happy” and affirming “they would not have missed the experience for anything.”31
On 28 April, President Robinson moved his family to Los Angeles and initiated the construction of a new mission home there. A week later, he returned to San Francisco “and was engaged there for some time helping the Saints readjust themselves, etc., and in disbursing the funds in my hands to those in need.” Then he assumed residency in Los Angeles.32
Like the mission, the San Francisco Branch suffered long-term damages. The quake destroyed its rented meetinghouse. “Quite a number” of San Francisco Branch members moved to Utah; others took refuge in Oakland. The Broberg family’s row-house was not burned, but Ernst Broberg sent his family to Utah for six months, and then they reunited to live in Oakland. The family of teenage diarist Harold Jenson spent two years in Oakland before returning to San Francisco. The Oakland Branch’s population doubled, and it became an independent branch.33
A small colony of members stayed in the decimated city. On the second and third Sundays following the earthquake, they gathered outdoors for unofficial Sunday School services, attended by 22 at the first meeting and 35 at the second. After that, however, Sunday meetings were discontinued that summer.34
On 28 June, two months after the disaster, some San Francisco members were still living in tents. The “Paris of the West” had become a tent city.35 The earthquake and fires destroyed nearly 500 city blocks of San Francisco, or five square miles, including the business district. The 28,000 buildings destroyed included 30 schools and 80 churches. Estimates of property dollar losses approached $500,000. Thousands lost homes, and more than 450 people died.36
Nationwide, and particularly in religious circles, the question of God’s relationship to the disaster was debated. Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that the sufferers in this disaster were not necessarily those who were most wicked.37 To this President Joseph F. Smith agreed, adding that the righteous often suffer with the unrighteous.38 Relief Society leaders expressed the belief that the tragedy gave people “an opportunity to prove their benevolence, their pity, their generosity, and their genuine love for humanity.”39 Elder Talmage felt this charitable instinct was proof of divinity in mankind.
President Robinson saw another aspect of divinity at work during the disaster, a notable calmness that enveloped the faithful Saints despite the crisis. “There was no hysteria, abandonment to grief, despair or complaint manifest. All seemed to possess that ‘peace of mind that surpasseth understanding’ which comes only to those whose ‘hopes were secure in the promises of the Father.’”40
A longer version of this article appeared in BYU Studies, fall 1983, 430–59.