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New book features little-told story of 1906 earthquake

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Most people know about the great earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco on April 18, 1906. But until now, nobody has told the story of what happened to 15,000 victims of the disaster who fled across the Bay to Berkeley, a town with only 26,000 residents at the time.

"It's a story of incredible generosity," said Richard Schwartz, author of the new book, "Earthquake Exodus 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees."

Within hours of the quake, residents held a town meeting and formed the Berkeley Relief Committee, which coordinated a mammoth relief effort over the next 10 weeks. "They didn't wait for the government, they didn't wait for money, they didn't wait for directions," said Schwartz.

"One guy started taking up donations of cash. Another got donations of bedding. A third found families willing to house refugees. A fourth collected clothing, because many people arrived with only the nightgowns they were wearing when the earthquake struck."

The book contains more than 200 photographs, many of which have never been seen by the public before. Some show female refugees dressed in men's clothing.

"The reason was that much more men's clothing was donated than women's," says Schwartz, "and they didn't have enough women's clothing to go around."

Even more compelling than the photos are the hundreds of stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Such as the woman who sent hundreds of loaves of bread from Oregon to feed the refugees. Each one contained a note inserted in an imperceptible slit in the bread, written in ink on fine stationery, with impeccable penmanship: "I pray you will do all you can to find May and Alphonse Saubiron of 323 Jessie St., San Francisco. He was a florist for Frank & Parodi Co., 109 Geary St., is dark, age 27, and French. Has 3 gold teeth in front of mouth. May is fair, age 25. Please telegram at once if you find them. I will pay for same. From an anxious sister. Mrs. Harry Jullan Lents, Mult Co., Oregon. God help you all."

One immediate effect of the disaster was a sharp rise in marriages in Berkeley within weeks of the earthquake.

"Considering all the flirtation and lovemaking that the open air life in the parks and on the curbstones gave rise to," commented the October 1906 Sunset Magazine, "it is really a wonder that there were not even more of these celebrated earthquake weddings, of which we have heard so much."

Among the many colorful characters in the book is Police Marshall August Vollmer, the man who founded the Berkeley Police Department. He'd been on the job exactly a year and a week when the quake struck.

He immediately issued a call for volunteers to deal with the large number of "questionable characters" arriving in Berkeley. More than a thousand citizens answered the call, patrolling the relief camps to protect innocent refugees from pickpockets and thieves.

"One person caught stealing relief supplies was Honora Bently of 2429 Ninth St., a wealthy Berkeley woman in her 60s with property and cash assets valued at more than $60,000, which was a lot of money in those days," said Schwartz. "Vollmer spotted her at the YMCA posing as a refugee under the alias Mary Smith and taking food and clothing intended for the refugees. He arrested her himself. The story made front-page headlines."

The problem of stealing relief supplies got so bad, Vollmer finally had his deputies bring several of the thieves into his office. Pretending to be angrier than he actually was, he sternly told them, "There's a word for what you did -- 'looting.' And for that, there's only one penalty."

He turned his head so they couldn't see him and winked at one of his deputies. Then he whipped his head back around and shouted, "Death!"

Then he told the deputies to release them. Word of his threat quickly spread around town, and the pilfering subsided.

Other memorable characters include the members of a religious sect who were sure the earthquake signified the end of the world. So they donned white robes, went into the hills, and chanted and sang while they waited for Armageddon.

"They were sure they were going to be the only ones saved," said Schwartz.

"After three days, they came down and sheepishly admitted they were wrong."

A long chapter is devoted to the ROTC cadets from UC Berkeley, who played a key role in keeping order in San Francisco.

"The ROTC had fallen out of favor in recent years as a reaction to the Spanish-American War, our first imperialist adventure," said Schwartz. "But after the earthquake, everyone treated them like heroes."

The book also deals with the large number of refugees who flocked to Albany and contributed to the growth of that city.

Schwartz is not a professional historian. His day job is building contractor. But he's always been fascinated by history -- especially social history, the history of everyday life.

Five years ago, he happened to walk into the Berkeley Historical Society on the day it was about to throw away a half-foot stack of 100-year-old Berkeley Gazette newspapers.

"I said, 'I'll take them,' and took them home without really knowing what I was going to do with them," he said. "I made the mistake of reading an article, and then another one, and the next thing I knew it was three days later. I felt like that guy in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' who was unconsciously driven, building this mound of newspaper articles."

The result was a book called "Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century," published in 2000 to raves from scholars and general readers alike.

Schwartz believes Berkeley was transformed by the 1906 quake as much as San Francisco, albeit in a subtler way.

"Many people never went back," he said. "After the quake, Berkeley was no longer a little town. Before the quake, most people only had one-way telephones; you could call the grocer, but he couldn't call you. After the quake, people recognized the importance of communication, and the telephone system got rewired to two-way. It ushered in the modern world."

One person who has recognized Berkeley's unsung role in the quake is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

A few months ago, Schwartz called Newsom's office and said, "No mayor has ever thanked the citizens of Berkeley for saving the lives of 15,000 earthquake refugees through great effort and generosity."

"How do you know?" they asked.

"Well, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, the mayor before and after the quake, was under indictment for corruption, and he was very busy defending himself and didn't have time to thank the citizens of Berkeley," said Schwartz. "And after that, life just moved on."

Result: a proclamation reading, "Whereas on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco, I am pleased to recognize and honor the selfless contributions of the citizens of Berkeley on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Great Earthquake of 1906. The relief and assistance the Berkeley community gave to San Franciscans after the earthquake was invaluable in the reconstruction of our city. Thank you."

"That wording is very significant," said Schwartz, "because it was the citizens of Berkeley, and not the government, who really performed this miracle."

Reach Martin Snapp at 510-262-2768 or e-mail


TITLE: Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees.

AUTHOR: Richard Schwartz



PRICE: $24,95

AVAILABLE AT THE FOLLOWING LOCATIONS: Berkeley: Alko Office Supply, Alta Bates Hospital Gift Store, Arlington Pharmacy, Ashby Lumber, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society, Berkeley Ace Hardware, Berkeley Horticulture, Berkeley Natural Grocery, Black Oak Books, Builders Booksource, Codys 4th St., Codys Teleraph, Country Cheese, East Bay Nursery, Ecology Center, Fiddlesticks, Mrs. Dallaways, Oakland Museum of California, Pegasis, Pharmica, Sunny Side Cafe, Truitt and White Lumber Co., UC Student Store. El Cerrito: El Cerrito Natural Foods. Oakland: Diesel Books, Laurel Bookstore, Pendragon Books, Reed Brothers Security, Spectator Books, Walden Books. Alameda: Spellbound Books, Books Inc. Alameda.

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