Yesterday's News

Henderson felt 1906 earthquake in San Francisco

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff writer
April 16, 2006

One of this nation's worst earthquakes hit the West Coast in 1906, but caused reverberations felt even in Henderson.

I'm talking about the earthquake that struck San Francisco at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. It was one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever seen. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that about 700 deaths is the toll normally used, but said that probably underestimates the true cost in lives by a factor or three or four.

Word reached Henderson relatively quickly, according to The Gleaner, which put out two "extra" editions to tell the story. "We do not think it out of place nor improper to state that in less than 30 minutes after the awful disaster newsboys were on the streets with an extra edition, which was practically the first news of this life- taking seismic disturbance," The Gleaner bragged.

About two hours later another batch of news came across the telegraph wire from the Associated Press, which prompted The Gleaner to stop the presses and prepare a new extra edition, "which was out on the streets about noon.

"The extras were gobbled up as fast as the boys could get them to the prospective readers, who were astonished by the magnitude of the terrible calamity. Large crowds gathered in front of the Gleaner office and read the bulletins as fast as they were posted."

San Francisco, which was sometimes called the "Paris of the West," was flattened. Worse, however, were the fires that swept the city.

One of the first things The Gleaner attempted to do was to localize this major news story. It printed lists of dozens of former Henderson residents who were then living in San Francisco, or people who were related to Henderson residents. It took a week for most local folks to have their fears relieved, because the telegraph lines were down in the Bay area.

W.A. Majors of Henderson and his wife sent the following telegram to Henderson on April 21: "Both safe," he told his brother in law Sherley Powell. "Will start home soon. Notify parents. Stranded."

W.A. Majors of Henderson and his wife sent the following telegram to Henderson on April 21: "Both safe," he told his brother in law Sherley Powell. "Will start home soon. Notify parents. Stranded."

Majors said he and his wife escaped the earthquake and fire, but were forced to sleep on boards for two nights before returning to their home. There, they found their home had been commandeered by a neighbor, who was busy brewing coffee for firefighters. "The building had been transformed into a temporary hotel for the men who were engaged in trying to save the remaining property from the ravages of the flames."

The Gleaner also quickly began a fund-raising drive to send relief to the stricken city, and started the drive by contributing $25 after Mayor S.D. Harris appointed a committee to raise funds locally. The newspaper agreed to collect the money and send it on its way.

"Thousands of people are destitute, wandering in the open without sufficient food or shelter. The people were short of food (the day after the earthquake) and the supply will diminish very rapidly."

Local businesses and individuals responded generously. The Gem theater agreed to donate the gate proceeds from one night's movies, while such businesses as Delker Bros., Marstall Furniture and Kleymeyer and Klutey passed a hat to raise money. The Gleaner ended up raising $188.85, which in 1906 was a lot more than it sounds like nowadays.

The most graphic description from a Henderson resident came from Wilbur E. Labry, the son of Capt. and Mrs. W.E. Labry, who wrote a lengthy and detailed letter to The Gleaner. Labrey noted that he had been perched atop the 14-story Merchant Exchange building at the height of the fire, so he was able to view about four-fifths of the city.

The quake shook him out of bed, he said, and lasted about five minutes. "When it quit shaking I dressed and went outside, where people were screaming and running out of their houses half-dressed.

One of the first things he did was run to a nearby fire that was just getting started, where about 100 people were trapped. "I assisted them for about 15 minutes and in that time we succeeded in saving about six people. The fire drove us away and then I went to another fire at Seventh and Howard streets."

That portion of town, which was built on fill dirt, had sunk about 10 feet. "It seemed there were about 20 different fires," he wrote.

Labry was employed by the Northwestern National Insurance Co., which was located in the Merchants Exchange building. He tried saving company records, but fire drove him back. He then paid a boy to retrieve "all of our maps and other valuable papers.

He then went up on the roof to get a better view, from which he saw San Francisco's biggest church "blazing from one end to the other like so much paper.

"Think of a wall of fire two and one-half miles long and you can imagine the view we had from the Merchants Exchange building."

Labry said he slept on the ground for two nights "and when last I found a bed to sleep in I felt like I was in Paradise."

He said the "saddest thing" about the quake and fire were the 200,000 people who had sought refuge in Golden Gate Park, who were threatened by smallpox.

Neighboring communities opened their doors to the refugees. "The hospitality of the people of Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley has never been equaled in the history of the world," he said. "They meet you on the street and ask you if you are properly cared for and, if not, they say, come with me, I have a home, etc."

Labry's boss was very impressed with his spunk, and sent a letter to Labry's parents praising him highly. "It seems he was the one man to get to our office and save a great many valuable records by placing them in the vaults before the fire overtook our building," Joseph Huebl wrote.

The earthquake also caused some nervousness among local residents. The Gleaner noted that a woman who lived near Elm and Jackson streets was so spooked that when she heard some workmen blasting out tree stumps she "was so badly frightened that she grabbed up her baby, called the cats and ran for her life."

75 years ago

Carmen Littlepage, manager of the Red Front grocery at 1000 Second St. was so anxious to make a sale of rat poison to a prospective customer that he ate some to prove it was harmless to humans, The Gleaner reported in 1931.

"To show the patron it was perfectly harmless for a person to eat, Carmen took a nice big bite." He suffered a bad stomach ache.

50 years ago

An editorial in The Gleaner in 1956 mused about what wonders the world would see in the exciting world of 1975.

Solar power would heat homes, atom-powered jets would provide cheap travel around the world and a "machine would record human voices and play them back in pure and flawless harmony." But the idea of satellites was just too far-fetched to come true within two decades, the editorial concluded.

25 years ago

More than 300 people showed up at the Spottsville school in 1981 to say a last good-bye to the 59-year-old building, The Gleaner reported.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS