Online Exhibit: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Online Exhibit: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Room Four

Room Four: Surviving a City in Ruins

Rain quenched the fires that weekend but caused misery. Tens of thousands were homeless, without food, or needed help of some kind in Northern California. The nation poured its heart and resources out to the many refugees. Money, food, and supplies arrived from all parts of the country and many foreign lands.

Not all responded similarly, for some denizens of San Francisco had a fearful reputation. "Several towns in the neighborhood of the Bay were terrorized by rumors that armed bodies of desperadoes were advancing on them," said Governor George C. Pardee, "and I was several times appealed to for military protection." The Army and a San Francisco citizens' committee, with the mayor as its titular head, organized the distribution of necessities and oversaw the construction of tent and wood-shack camps in parks, military reservations, and on vacant land. Refugee life was a combination of good spirits, adventure, and despair. The Chinese, who had fled Chinatown, were shunted about the city. Most eventually made their way to Oakland where they were lodged in a segregated camp on the shore of Lake Merritt.

Democracy disappeared during the emergency. The citizens' committee, composed mostly of prominent businessmen, took over the civic government and issued orders. James D. Phelan, a former mayor, had charge of the relief funds. The Red Cross and the Army worked with Phelan. The funds were used not only to relieve people's immediate needs but also to encourage them to get back to work to build a new city as soon as possible. The focus of relief efforts was to the north of Market Street, while the need was greatest South of the Slot and in the Mission District where the loss of residences had been greatest and the population was the poorest.

Less organized efforts aided the poor to some extent. Meat wagons from the slaughter houses near Potrero Hill dumped a few hundred pounds of beef on corners of streets. Neighborhood grocery stores that remained intact gave away food. Nearby coal yards donated fuel. Dairy owners on the Peninsula who brought milk to the city left cans for women and children. But hunger and cold, especially when it rained, were the predominant conditions.

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