Chimney Sweep

1906: An inconvenient blessing | Ross Eric Gibson, Native Historical past – Santa Cruz Sentinel

San Francisco Refugee Cottages were built in San Francisco parks after the 1906 earthquake. Some were later moved to Santa Cruz as summer homes and guest cottages. (Contributed)

At 5:07 a.m. April 18, 1906, Santa Cruz County awoke to a slight tremble, then a deep rumble, soon joined by shaking that increased each second into a frightening melee, that cracked plaster and windows, cleared shelves, moved furniture, and toppled chimneys.

Every bell in the county rang spontaneously, from steeples, clock towers, schools and fire stations. In Soquel Village, the bell in the Congregational Church tower was broken from its armature. At the conclusion of the shaking, as quiet returned, people came outside in their night clothes to inspect the damage.

For Watsonville, the silence was short lived. The convent bell rang a new alarm, soon echoed by the Watsonville fire bell. The Moreland Notre Dame Academy was burning. Fire Chief George Tuttle led the response, only delayed because the back wall of City Hall had fallen on the engine house and buried their fire engine. As quick as possible, the firemen unearthed their engine, and turned their soaking hoses on the fire, a miracle in itself, as most water mains were broken and dry, and Corralitos Creek was cut-off by a landslide. While the wooden school was not saved, the fire company parked their engine in the middle of the street to prevent any further blockage.

In Santa Cruz, the high water table of the downtown flats resulted in several geysers erupting from the riverbank, shooting water 20-30 feet in the air. South of Barson Street, the Riverside Hotel’s orchard had eruptions of sand and mud squeezed out of the ground like toothpaste.

The troughs at Brookdale’s new fish hatchery produced small tidal waves that sloshed young trout onto the floor.  Workmen quickly swept them up in dust pans and returned them to the troughs.

J.J.C. Leonard was asleep at his Sea Beach Hotel on Beach Hill, when his little boy woke him.  The boy said he didn’t like the noise, and wanted to go back to the St. George Hotel. Leonard suddenly bolted up, realizing the chimney tops were falling, and rumbling off the roof. He called the St. George, and learned that hotel’s back wall had collapsed. So he telephoned for carpenters and masons. Failing to find all he wanted, he ordered a horse, and before 6 a.m. had men engaged to begin repairs. The kitchen chimney was quickly made functional enough to serve meals in the undamaged Sea Beach dining hall.

By 6 a.m., the Building Trades Council set up headquarters in the unharmed Santa Cruz Carnegie Library, suspending new projects in favor of residential repairs. Unreinforced masonry buildings were the bulk of the damage. Woodframe structures road out the quake with little problem, except when their chimneys crashed through the roof, or nearby brick walls dropped on them.

The electricity went off when Watsonville’s power plant boilers tipped over, and its well filled-up with sediment. In Santa Cruz, workmen risked electrocution to shut off a broken pipe gushing scalding hot steam onto a 2,500-volt generator. Yet Santa Cruz’s electric power was restored by 3 p.m.

Miss Snedecor worked tirelessly to give Santa Cruz uninterrupted phone service. Yet those trying to reach Santa Cruz from neighboring counties, didn’t know they had to bypass broken Bay Area infrastructure by relaying their calls through Los Angeles. As a result, Santa Cruz seemed unresponsive. Trains attempting to leave the county, had to return in reverse, finding tunnels collapsed, and bridges damaged. Even the highway bridges had offsets of 2-8 feet, with roads blocked by boulders, trees, fissures and landslides.

As a giant plumb of smoke arose to the north, fears grew that the disaster was not over. Henry Cowell wanted to reach his family in San Francisco, so he hired the electric speedboat of John Perez. But the sea was so rough, it threatened to swamp the boat, so they returned to Santa Cruz. This condition had even produced a tidal wave in San Francisco Bay that wiped out several East Bay wharves. Perez said he’d make another ocean attempt the next morning, and anyone else who wished to go should be on the wharf at 10 a.m. April 19.


In San Jose, the Landon family home experienced $1,000 in damages. Destruction extended throughout San Jose, including a fire, along with choking smoke from the San Francisco inferno.  But the Landons were told they couldn’t reach their daughter in Santa Cruz because the county had been destroyed. So their teenage son Vernon got on his bicycle, hoping to cross the Santa Cruz Mountains and rescue his sister. He saw the shaking had been worse at the summit fault line, destroying the Hotel de Redwood, and many homes. Oakland Traction Co. president Ernest Heron and driver Morgan Miles attempted to reach Santa Cruz by auto, but were turned back at Patchen Pass when warned the road ahead was impassible. Vernon was undeterred, hiking and biking his way over or around all obstacle.

To his surprise, Vernon discovered Santa Cruz showed little of the hardships San Francisco and San Jose were experiencing. That evening, Heron and Miles arrived, having detoured through San Juan Bautista, entering Watsonville via the railroad bridge with planks for ramps to overcome the sunken bridge approaches. Likewise that evening, County Supervisor Linscott and his wife struggled into Santa Cruz by the mountain-route in a rented two-horse wagon. Linscott was relieved he could phone his daughter, Carrie, in Watsonville, and let her know her mother and father were safe.

Compared to the widespread destruction elsewhere, Santa Cruz had only five public use buildings damaged: the County Court House; the new Pilot Hose firehouse (with the Pilots relocating to Milo Hopkin’s barn-like “City Stables”), Chestnutwood’s Business College and Hihn Corner, both owned by F.A. Hihn; and the Farmers Union, which dropped walls on wooden structures housing the Electric Trolley offices on Soquel Aveenue and the Unique Theater on Pacific Avenue.  All were unreinforced brick buildings; and the County Court House builder was found to have charged for rebar that was never installed. Watsonville fared worse, with damage to about nine unreinforced masonry buildings: the City Hall, I.O.O.F. Building, Pajaro Valley Bank, Peck Building, Ford’s Department Store, Porter Building, Jefsen Block, Foresters Hall, and $15,000 in damage for St. Patrick’s Church.

Linscott rebuked Santa Cruzans who complained of their fate, which in comparison had been a blessing, if only an inconvenient one. Eye witnesses told their stories of horror in San Francisco and San Jose, yet the masses of refugees did not panic, but were orderly and helpful. It inspired locals on April 20, to start relief efforts and collect bedding, clothing and funds. Quilt-making machines were set up in the Sea Beach Ballroom, and the nearby Bay State Hotel produced free meals. Cottage City was expanded for refugee housing. Linscott spent the next day hard at work at the damaged County Court House on Cooper Street, removing important county records, and determining if the building should be demolished, or repaired.  It was rebuilt.


The Sentinel and Surf newspapers kept publishing, and the Pajaronian didn’t want Watsonville’s lack of electricity to cancel the news. So a small printing press with treadles was hooked up by a belt-drive to their linotype machine, and, powered by a couple of strong boys, they got the paper out. But co-owner George Radcliff was concerned about his wife and others last seen in San Francisco. Hammond Weeks wanted to find his brother, architect Wm. Weeks; Judge Hiram Tuttle had offices in San Francisco; other missing there were Graniterock co-founder Warren R. Porter; Frederick Hihn of lumber, realty and waterworks; Otto D. Stoesser visiting relatives; plus Dr. Peter Watters, and Dr. S.C. Rodgers.  So a search party was assembled April 20, to find 15 residents, with a letter signed and sealed by Watsonville mayor W.A. Trafton hoping to allow them through the military barricades.

Yet Carl Christensen left Watsonville alone in an automobile on April 18, transported people from San Jose to Oakland, then returned to San Jose to take people to San Francisco, which he entered at night by turning off his headlights, and coasting down a hill. He returned to Watsonville on April 19, with Dr. Watters, Wm. Weeks, and W.R. Benteen. Weeks recounted viewing the fire from the Flood Building, watching flames consume great structures, yet at the same time, marveled at the resilience of the steel-frame structures.

F.A. Hihn arrived in Watsonville at 5 p.m. on April 20. After the quake, Hihn had walked around San Francisco to check on his properties, which at first were safe, but when he returned the next day, had been completely destroyed. Around 1852, Hihn had already seen San Francisco burned down several times by warring gangs. Yet for a man with great losses, Hihn was upbeat and optimistic, meeting with Wm. Weeks to plan for rebuilding whatever had been ruined.  All insurance was canceled for Santa Cruz County, covering no damages  up to two days after the quake, to make sure no one was tempted to burn their properties for the insurance.

For several weeks, Postage was free, delivering letters written on anything at hand, including with chalk, and Mary Jane Hanly provided free medical assistance at her Sanitarium. Refugees came to Santa Cruz to stay in their summer homes, or rent tourist cottages. When a San Francisco orphanage was destroyed, 100 orphans were put in the care of nuns at the Santa Maria Del Mar resort in Live Oak. As refugee cabins were later removed from San Francisco parks, a number were sent to Santa Cruz as ready-made summer cottages, still found today.

San Francisco chose to rebuild in Santa Cruz concrete, lime and lumber, with improved construction methods foreseen by Wm. Weeks.

No one wants a disaster. But learning from our mistakes can make hardship an inconvenient blessing.

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