That Terrible Wednesday: The Saints in the San Francisco Earthquake


Late Tuesday afternoon, April 17, 1906. President Joseph E. Robinson of the California Mission arose to conclude the two-day conference of the San Francisco District. Pleased by the special spirit of the sessions, he praised the members and missionaries present, then warned them of the predicted latter-day calamities by quoting from Luke, wherein Jesus tells of wars, pestilences, heavenly signs, and earthquakes in divers places. Afterwards, to round out the conference, the missionaries gathered for an MIA social at the mission home on Franklin Street. Joining the festivities were five elders who had arrived that afternoon on their way to missions in the South Pacific. When the party ended about midnight, local missionaries were reminded of the district picnic scheduled the next day for the Golden Gate Park.

That night, while most of the 122 Saints and elders of the San Francisco Branch slept, two former Utahns were at work in the San Francisco Chronicle office. Race Whitney and Wally Young, both reporters, worked through the night until daylight on an article about the visiting Metropolitan Opera Company. Exhausted, they were walking home at 5:13 A.M. when the world seemed to fall apart. The entire city suddenly began to jerk and sway. Timbers splintered and groaned, and walls collapsed with a roar.

“We were standing in front of the Auditorium Hotel when the crash came,” Race Whitney wrote to his father, Orson F. “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.” With legs wide-spread to keep their balance, they outran the remaining four stories which likewise crashed to the street behind them. Wally stopped in the middle of the street beneath a dangerous mass of electric wires; Race yelled a warning, and Wally jumped aside just as “the wires came down, sputtering and tearing up everything they touched. That we were not both electrocuted was the second miracle of the morning.” Half in shock, they congratulated themselves on being the only reporters on the street to witness the spectacular earthquake, little dreaming that a few hours later every newspaper office in town would be smouldering in ruins, unable to print their stories of the catastrophe.

Three massive tremors also rocked the LDS mission home on Franklin Street, “as with a giant’s mighty hand,” until it seemed to the occupants that the three-story structure would collapse. According to President Robinson: “The chimneys crashed into the roof and ceiling of the room above us. In the parlor the mantle and fire-place with the candelabra … fell outward and covered the floor. Dust arose from the broken walls, swinging pictures, etc. The chains of the little cuckoo-clock … were broken into a hundred bits by the swinging weights and flew about the room.”

While comforting his terrified children, President Robinson glanced out a window and in the early morning grayness could see broken buildings, frightened dogs trying to get into houses, and shattered glass covering the sidewalks. Moments later an observant daughter cried out, “Papa, there are fires breaking out downtown and big clouds of smoke everywhere.” The mission leader felt stabs of fear as he viewed the spreading holocaust and pondered the fates of branch members scattered throughout the huge city.

And what about the Pacific-bound elders? President Robinson did not know until later that their hotel, a five-story brick structure, received massive damage. The five elders were jarred awake by the violent tremor. Noise and confusion outside convinced them that they should dress and investigate. Forcing their door open, they found the outside hall and stairwells filled with fallen plaster, rubbish, and dust. Reaching the main entrance, they were shocked to see that the front and back walls of their hotel had collapsed to the sidewalks. Panicking, they followed along with a mob of terrified people rushing through the streets. Then, somewhat regaining their reason, they decided to rescue their luggage, which contained all their mission clothes and supplies. Through debris and smoke they hiked to the railroad depot, where the baggage agent told them their things had been transferred to the warehouse building across the street, pointing to a structure which was a solid blaze of fire.

Dejected, the five headed back to their hotel when a second strong quake caught them in an alleyway. Dodging bricks and beams, they managed to reach the hotel without a scratch. Once there, said Elder Leo Gardner, “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. There was not even so much as the plaster knocked off the ceiling of either room.”

Such reports were common among the terrified populace, and other Mormons felt similarly fortunate. One young Latter-day Saint nurse, a Sister Wolfinger, was on duty at French Hospital when the first earthquake came. According to President Robinson, nearly every hospital room was wrecked and all were damaged except the one where she was nursing. Keeping calm, she helped move patients out and into tents in a vacant lot for safety.

The mission home became the organizing point for many of the Saints. By mid-morning the Pacific elders arrived there and found the structure relatively undamaged but waterless due to severed water mains. After consuming sandwiches and bottled fruit (to quench their thirst), they went two by two with local elders to survey the condition of branch members. By noon, reports on all the Saints were in: to the joy and gratitude of the group, not one branch member was missing or seriously hurt.

Some missionaries spent the afternoon walking through the city to view the terrible destruction and spreading fires. Everywhere they found cracks and tears in the earth, broken and bulged streetcar tracks, and shattered cement sidewalks. Demolished brick structures filled the streets with debris. Many houses had been torn from their foundations. Fires spread unchecked—the water systems were broken—and smoke filled the sky.

That afternoon, orders came from firemen to evacuate the mission home so it could be dynamited and razed in an effort to clear a fire line. Drawers, beds, rugs, furniture, record books, and suitcases went onto a horse-drawn dray that took them to a small park two blocks away. Here the load was placed in a compact pile and covered with a carpet, under which some of the elders tried to sleep that exciting night. The fine organ recently given to the branch by the mayor and other friends was safely stored with one of the members.

All day that terrible Wednesday, all the following night, and for two more days and nights, the city burned. Men, women, and children dragged trunks, pianos, and furniture up and down streets. Wagons and other wheeled vehicles were in short supply. Streams of homeless and injured poured into the Presidio, Fort Mason, Golden Gate Park, and into cemeteries, vacant lots, and public parks. To combat massive disorder, the mayor declared martial law and troops from the Presidio were called out. Relief committees were appointed, and kitchens, bakeries, campgrounds, hospital and sanitation facilities were improvised.

With telegraph lines down and contact with the outside world cut off, rumors spread among the shocked and frightened populace like the fires through the city. Chicago had sunk, people were told. New York was no more. Los Angeles was totally destroyed. Particularly distressing to the Saints were the wild reports that Salt Lake City had been inundated by the Great Salt Lake.

During those chaotic days the elders and Saints were not passive observers of the spreading disaster. Race Whitney camped in a cemetery Wednesday night and stayed there for three more days. He and others built a dugout for women in the homeless crowd, guarded the camp, and foraged for food. Elder A. T. McCarty, the mission secretary, worked a day and a half dispensing food to hungry thousands in the endless bread lines. Other elders cleared places in the ashes and helped erect temporary bakeries. One time the Pacific elders were stopped at bayonet point and ordered to clear rocks and bricks from a basement to search for buried bodies. They found none themselves but could see rescuers carrying out the dead all around them. While on an errand, Elder John Nelson likewise was commandeered by a soldier, given pick and shovel, and required to spend several hours clearing streets. Told where they could get food being given away, two other elders entered the wrong store by mistake and were shot at as looters. Elder J. R. Shepherd spent two nights on fire engine detail, part of an amateur team supervised by one veteran fireman. Other elders and members helped soldiers distribute rations and dig sanitary trenches or assisted Red Cross workers in removing the sick and injured.

On Thursday, as the fires and dynamiting continued, the Robinson family and several other Saints relocated in Golden Gate Park—a day late for the scheduled picnic! There they were better off, they knew, than other homeless members camped in Jefferson Square, where sanitary conditions were abhorrent. For food, the Saints took turns waiting in bread lines which ran four abreast and blocks long; two or three loaves per person was the limit—if supplies outlasted the line. A special pass allowed President Robinson to cross the bay to Oakland for bread, bringing back “two suitcases full each day, distributing the same to the women and children in greatest need in four parks we visited.”

Nearly a dozen families still had undamaged homes and did all they could to house the other branch members. But in fleeing fires, many families were divided. Thousands of people found means to cross the bay to Oakland where refugee camps and relocation centers were quickly proliferating. Among those in Oakland by the weekend were the Robinsons, some elders, and many members. During the next week, the mission president’s number one concern was trying to unite separated LDS families on both sides of the bay.

Meanwhile, the Pacific elders visited the baggage depot again on Thursday morning hoping to salvage a change of clothes, but piles of charred luggage outside the burned building turned them away. The next day they, too, found accommodations in Oakland. About midnight the first night there, Elder Gardner awoke with the strong impression that their baggage was not burned. He dressed, spent three hours in line for a permit to cross the Bay, then found passage on a ferryboat. Upon seeing him again, the baggage man was provoked: “What do you want now? There is absolutely no use! Your baggage is burned!” insistent, Elder Gardner finally was permitted to inspect the ruins. Inside, piled together unharmed in the middle of the room, were his own trunk, boxes of books and literature the Church was sending to Hawaii, and all the baggage of his four companions! Happily he hurried back to Oakland with the news. The next day the five claimed all of their luggage and within a week were able to obtain passage on a steamer bound for the Pacific isles, glad to be leaving the disaster area.

Hearts in Utah, meanwhile, had been shaken by the first news of the incredible earthquake. First dispatches from the coast brought dire predictions of the entire destruction of San Francisco. That Wednesday hundreds gathered around the Deseret News bulletin board, desperately seeking information about relatives and friends in California. Through the day and into the night Relief Society officers worked to secure, load, and ship one of the first train carloads of flour to reach the stricken city. Nearby stakes and wards hurried goods to Salt Lake City, and soon loads of food, clothing, and quilts were on their way. The First Presidency, on behalf of the Church, immediately cabled $10,000 to Governor George C. Pardee of California to aid quake victims.

Gradually, accurate reports about the San Francisco Saints began reaching Utah. Early Thursday morning, President Joseph F. Smith finally received a brief telegram from President Robinson: “LIVES OF MEMBERS AND ELDERS SAFE MISSION HOME BURNED LOSS NOMINAL ELDERS ENROUTE TO ISLANDS WITH US.”

Postal authorities permitted San Franciscans to send letters without envelopes or stamps, including those written on shingles and other paper substitutes. The Deseret News dispatched a special reporter to the scene, and he immediately cabled that all Utahns were unscathed; “The Latter-day Saints here ascribe their escape to the intervening hand of the Almighty,” he added. President Robinson wrote that distress among members was minimal, but several families saved nothing but the clothes on their backs. Fire damage had put some Saints out of work and left many homeless. A few would be dwelling in tents until winter. For those Saints needing aid, President Robinson requested and received $1,500 from the First Presidency.

In Utah various groups and individuals raised relief money. The Tabernacle Choir joined with a band from Fort Douglas to perform a benefit concert. A week after the quake Utahns provided free lodging, baths, meals, and clothes to quake victims passing through Salt Lake on special refugee trains. By summer, nearly $100,000 in cash and dozens of carloads of food from Utah had assisted the California sufferers.

The San Francisco Branch itself suffered considerably from the disaster. Many members moved out of the ruined city, reducing the membership by one-half. The meeting house and mission home had been destroyed, and rather than rebuild the latter, it was decided to relocate the California Mission’s headquarters in Los Angeles. President Robinson asked that no more new missionaries be sent for a while because “our most promising and largest field is now wiped out.” The small colony of Saints that remained, although surrounded by “riven pillars and ruined walls and blackened streets,” found employment, began rebuilding their homes, and gradually during the next months were able to resume most of their branch meetings.

When President Robinson finally found time to reflect upon the experience of the Saints during the earthquake and holocaust, two things impressed him. First, a notable calmness characterized the faithful all during 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 are secure in the promises of the Father.”

Equally striking were the responses the tragedy elicited from thousands of people, both within and beyond the ruined city. Noting innumerable individual acts of heroism, courage, and unselfishness, the mission president concluded that “the Divine in men ran true to the call of suffering and distressed humanity.”

In total the San Francisco earthquake and fires destroyed nearly five hundred blocks, or five square miles, including 28,000 buildings. Estimates of physical damage approach $500,000,000. Thousands lost homes and more than 450 people died. But, as President Robinson observed, amid smoke and terror and destruction, while nature ripped and burned the famous city, the Lord’s Spirit was not absent; quietly it had been operating on the hearts of many of His children during their time of great trial.

Sources: “Elder Leo L. Gardner and the San Francisco Earthquake,” and “A Brief Story of the Life of Joseph Eldridge Robinson,” both typescript memoirs on file at the LDS Church Historical Department; Joseph E. Robinson Papers, and various record books of the California Mission and of the San Francisco Branch for 1906, same location; Improvement Era articles for May and June 1906, and Deseret Evening News articles during the same year.

[photo] Photo courtesy California Historical Society, San Francisco

[photo] San Francisco Branch members who posed for a photograph in 1902 had little idea that four years later the earth beneath them would buckle and roll and the city erupt in flames. In the midst of that disaster, President Joseph E. Robinson’s calm action would help keep the tragedy from tearing their lives apart