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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A letter from the quake zone: "Soon a new San Francisco will begin to arise ... "

Dorothy M. Sale, of Seattle, inherited a letter written just after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The writers, Belle and Ambrose Partridge, were living across San Francisco Bay with their son Lyle. Here are excerpts:

May 5, 1906

Dear Uncle and Aunt,

... We were awakened at a quarter past 5 Wednesday morning April 18 by such a shaking of the house to make one begin to think the last day had come.

Belle ran into the street in her nightdress and I ran into the next room to get Lyle and all the time I could hardly keep on my feet. And such a noise the chimneys made as they fell over the side of the house. I finally got out in the street. When it was all over, we went back in the house to see what damage had been done. The parlor lamp lay on the floor and the oil was running all over the carpet. The stovepipe was broken apart and soot covered everything, so you can imagine what kind of a mess we had.

We hadn't been in the house long before another shake came, but this did no damage. On the two-story house across the street from us the chimney broke through the roof into the kitchen. Not knowing how much damage, if any, had been done in the city (San Francisco), I started one boat later than usual to go over but found the Key Route (transportation system) chimney down and the works disabled so the cars could not run, so I walked downtown (Oakland) to the broad gage train and on my way gathered some idea of the force of the earth's disturbance. Chimneys were down everywhere and brick buildings were all more or less wrecked. Five people were crushed in one building.

Taking the train for the city, I began to hear all sorts of rumors of the damage done to San Francisco, but hardly realized it until we got out in the Bay and met a sight enough to thrill anyone. San Francisco appeared to be one mass of flames. When I got off the boat and went into the street a sight greeted my eyes that I shall never forget.

On every hand for blocks in every direction huge buildings roared like immense furnaces, the flames from them shooting 50 to 100 feet above them in the air. The firemen were powerless. The force of the earthquake had broken the water mains and no water could be got.

I walked around to our factory and found part of one of the walls down and a couple of holes in the roof where bricks from the building next door had fallen through, but it was not on fire and strange to say it was one of the very few that escaped the holocaust.

For the past three days I have been working again.

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Today we felt another shake which made the brick building wobble but did no damage. It is a sight worth remembering to look through the windows of our factory at the tumbled ruins of brick and steel for miles in every direction.

But I failed to finish telling you of that morning of the earthquake and fire when I was in the city.

After going into the building and noting the damage, I came to the conclusion the best thing to do was to get back to Oakland as quick as I could before the fire stopped me.

In front of the works, the street had sunk about a foot and a half and the heavy concrete sidewalks were broken all to pieces. The steel car tracks were bent and broken and around the corner from our place another brick building owned by our firm had sunk down in front looking as if it would topple over at any moment.

... Thousands of people whose homes were all right slept outside the night after the earthquake, fearing another. We have had about 50 small earthquakes since the heavy one. But the pitiable part of it was the thousands of people who escaped with nothing but the few clothes on their backs, many with only night clothes. After the fire, we fed some 200 people at our church and housed them there, too. After that I went on the Oakland relief committee and for over a week worked like a Trojan helping hand out supplies to the thousands of people passing in line that had no money and nothing to eat.

It was estimated that from 300,000 to 350,000 people were rendered homeless. Thousands have been shipped away to other places for free by the railroads and there are probably a hundred thousand of them in Oakland located in homes, churches, halls, public parks. Tomorrow I understand the military are to take charge of feeding the people ... I could ride on the carts free and pass along anywhere, but it is conditions I hope I may never see again.

For the next two nights after the earthquake, we could see the dull red glare in the sky above the doomed city (San Francisco) and every little while hear the deafening report of the dynamite explosions as men blew up buildings in the path of the fire in their effort to save the entire city from destruction. In this they were finally successful as a portion of the residents district was saved.

But to stand upon Nob Hill where the palatial mansions of San Francisco's millionaires a short time ago stood as monuments to the wealth and affluence of their owners and gaze upon the miles and miles of ruined structures and awake to the realization that there was now no San Francisco — nothing but building ruins of brick and stone with many of its inhabitants dead and hundreds of thousands homeless and destitute huddled in parks or anywhere they could get for safety. It was enough to sadden the heart and awaken one to the fact of how puny is the strength of man when nature deigns to operate her mighty forces.

Men are now busy clearing the debris. They have strung wires and one electric car line is running, but most of the transportation is done in wagons. No liquor or beer is allowed to be sold in the city and all lights must be out by 10 o'clock and no fires can be lighted in homes. People must do their cooking outdoors.

Men sell sandwiches for 5 cents a piece and milk, coffee or soda water in temporary booths and stands upon the streets. These supplies come from Oakland.

Stores right after the catastrophe began raising their prices, but the city officials stopped that right away. Anyone found doing that had their store taken away from them.

I expect everything will be more or less demoralized for a while, but soon a new San Francisco will begin to arise and her people will go ahead with their work with renewed courage.

Belle and Ambrose Partridge

(Dorothy Sale's mother and her family lived in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake. They escaped injury, and although their house survived intact, it was later dynamited in a bid to stop the fires that raged through the city, Sale said.)

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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