1906 San Francisco Earthquake: F. A. Hihn's First-hand Account

1906 San Francisco Earthquake — F. A. Hihn’s First-hand Account

A terrible earthquake has been upon us, to which has been added the fire fiend in San Francisco.

I went to the City Monday evening — everything looked fair. Next morning I went to the brick yard and Tuesday evening I attended to a great deal of business, expecting to return home next day. Retired 12:30 P. M. My room was on the first floor [of the Palace Hotel] nearly over the lobby. At 5:15 I awakened — I felt the earthquake coming — much harder than I had ever experienced. The plaster from all around the sides of the room fell in large pieces, while in the middle of the room where my bed was, only sand and dust came down. The quake seemed to continue more than five minutes though it really lasted less than two minutes. It seemed to try its best to shake me out of bed, but I succeeded in staying in. As soon as it subsided I arose and turned on the electric light. Its unsteadiness proved there was an interference which indicated danger to the house being set afire. I dressed quickly and went down stairs, no elevator running. Left my valise in the baggage room and there being no cars started to walk down Market Street, but there were two fires on the street near the ferry and I saw brick houses falling into the street. I went to Mission Street but there found it afire and blocked up the same as Market Street. I next went to Howard Street which was also on fire and blocked up to some extent, but I got down part of the way. Here I found about ten head of cattle and some horses laying dead along side one another with the stones from the top of a building opposite upon them.

By overcoming many difficulties and by changing over to Folsom Street, I managed finally to reach the water front where I found two of my wooden buildings burning. The value of these houses was say $4000.00 - no insurance. I came next to Flathman brick house on East Street near Mission. The building belongs to the lessee, the lot to the Coast Realty Company, which consists of the Eastland boys one-half and myself the other half. The building was closely attacked by fire and probably burnt on the inside but it remained standing.

I finally came to the Coast Realty Company three story wooden house on corner Market and East. This building and survived the earthquake splendidly and I hoped to save it from the fire, but a strong breeze started which made the fire run towards Market. I went up stairs and closed the windows, exposed to the fire, and in vain sought the firemen to turn on the hose from the opposite side of Stewart Street where the property could not be saved any more, onto our side, but they refused and I was driven away by a burly policeman whose heavy hand came down on my back repeatedly and quite severely - he saying: “Can’t you hear old man, get out from here, we have no place where to take care of you if you should get hurt.”

I finally succeeded in getting the hose turned our way but it was too late. I went once more to the upper story of our building and I heard the glass click and immediately after one pane broke and the ......... [balance of sentence obliterated] [end p.2]

from me. It was all up and I went down stairs, not any too soon as almost as soon as I reached the street the part of the building I was in broke off from the rest and pitched headlong into the flames. I then tried to get to my Kearny Street buildings by going North along the water front to the foot of Telegraph Hill, but I found every Street coming towards the front blocked by falling houses and fire. I finally returned the way I came down, along Folsom Street. Our office being in the Rialto Building on New Montgomery Street I sought to get there and from there to the Palace to get my valise, but in vain! so I kept going South, seeing the Rialto Building and the Claus Spreckels building afire — went as far as 5th Street without finding a way across Market Street and the outlook further South being very bad, and I being hungry, thirsty, fatigued and managing my lame leg as well as I could, I finally worked my way down to the water front again, and at two o’clock I took the ferry boat for Oakland, the boat being packed with people.

Arrived on the other side — sought a restaurant and enjoyed a good beefsteak very much. There being no cars I walked over to Telegraph Avenue where I found a team which carried me to the Key route where I took a car for Berkeley. I got off the car to take a College Street car, which I saw standing on the track, but found it an abandoned car. I walked on for sometime until a man in an old wagon drove past. I asked him for a ride to Dwight Way which he willingly gave - he refusing to take any pay, but I assured him that I would make good my debt by doing a good turn to someone else.

About 6:30 P. M. I reached Agnes’ house [Hihn’s youngest daughter, Agnes Hihn Younger]. She was overjoyed to see me. Mrs. and Miss Bannister and a Miss Cagle were there assembled to meet the final end together. I soon succeeded in driving away this unpleasant mood. Ruth and Donald [Agnes’ children] were very happy to see me and I enjoyed their loving caresses very much. That night I had a good sleep and the next morning Agnes and I went over to the City by the Key Route.

Such a sight! The place where Market Street was located was not recognizable, nothing but ashes with a few remnants of the buildings here and there. I wanted to go to see my buildings on Kearny Street. We asked an automobile man what he would charge to take us there and to Taylor and Pine Street where a brother of Miss Cagle was living. The chauffeur said “My charge is $50.00, but the buildings you describe are no more, they all burned up last night.”

I next inquired for news from Santa Cruz. The answer was — “All gone” — I did not believe it but I hastened to take the 11 o’clock boat for Niles hoping in that way to reach San Jose and from there either by narrow or broad gauge to Santa Cruz. It took over six hours to get to San Jose and there I was fortunate enough to find the train for Gilroy which brought us to Gilroy about half past six o’clock. Mr. Otto Stoesser and another gentleman from Watsonville were on the train. After supper we took a team for Watsonville via San Juan but did not get off until half past eight o’clock, after considerable difficulties — examination of bridges etc. which are supposed to be unsafe on account of the earthquake. We reached the old town of San Juan where we concluded to stay all night at the Placer Hotel — an old adobe building built over a century ago but yet in very good condition. The next morning I took a look at the town and to my surprise found in good condition an old adobe building which I inhabited in 1851. In the rear of the building was a fence which I also vividly recollected having used for hanging my blankets in the sun to kill the fleas which inhabited the house in numerous numbers. I managed to get the most of the fleas into the blankets for the purpose of making a grand attack on me, and then I quietly carried the blanket out doors in the night air which would keep the fleas in the blankets and the next day they were baked in the sun to a crisp, and thus I managed to get rid of most of the fleas in the house. I also recognized the buildings where others had lived during the time I was there but not one single individual could I see who had been there during my time.

From San Juan we went through the rolling hills to the Pajaro Valley and from there to Watsonville — a most pleasant ride after our hard experience in San Francisco.

At Watsonville I found the damage by the earthquake light comparative to San Francisco and San Jose. There I took another team which brought me to Santa Cruz about five o’clock where I was received with great pleasure by many of my friends and family, who had feared I was lost.

The loss by earthquake at Santa Cruz is comparatively light. Our office building suffered perhaps the most although it was the strongest building. The Court house seems to have been considerably injured and a few other places.

I felt very glad to be at home and the next day though not yet fully rested I went out to examine all of the damage worked by the earthquake — with a view of making preparations for repairing.

F. A. Hihn

“(Copy of a letter written by F. A. Hihn regarding the San Francisco earthquake and fire of Wednesday, April 18, 1906. Date, addressee, and salutation are not indicated on the copy. Copy, belonging to Ruth Younger Benner, apparently signed by F. A. Hihn.)” With thanks to Carolyn Swift.


Letter by Frederick Otto Hihn (F. A. Hihn’s son) to the Laurel Mill

1906 April 19

Source: Letters of F. A. Hihn & F. A. Hihn Company, volume 60, pp. 55-56

April 19, 1906

Mr. S. L. Gibson, Supt.,
Laurel Mill,
Laurel, California,

Dear Sir:-

Very heavy earthquake here. Court House badly damaged. Office building [of F. A. Hihn] — rear wall down above second story and side walls cracked. Other buildings of the Company were on lines injured. Two thirds of the chimneys in the entire town off. Might have been worse but bad enough. We suppose you have received reports from the Hinckley Mill. Nine lives being lost and two at Boulder Creek.

Watsonville badly shaken. San Jose, several buildings down. San Francisco reports the earthquake did not do much damage but the fire has burned from the Ferry to Seventeenth Street and Larkin Valley. Lick House reported burnt so the fire must have crossed Market as the report also says Battery Street building is on fire.

Fix up the water works first and clear creek of lumber. Do not think advisable to do more than necessary to place things in order until Mr. F. A. Hihn returns. Have sent four different parties to San Francisco but have not been able to receive any information in regard to Mr. Hihn. Party reports leaving Palace at 9 o’clock after earthquake and the Palace Hotel not injured a great deal, thus was greatly relieved in regard to Mr. Hihn being injured.

Can order meat sent to Glenwood if advisable. Think advisable not to build fire under boilers or run any portion of the Mill until F. A. Hihn returns as every portion should be inspected. Think advisable to stop all other operation to skid road and other work until we secure some information in regard to time it will take to clear tunnels for operation.

Instruct all tenants not to build fires in chimneys where broken below the roof. Do not delay in fixing water mains.

Yours truly,

FOH/MM Per __________