Shock waves

From Winnemucca to Rhyolite, Nevadans felt the ripples of the great quake

When San Francisco fell, it landed on Nevada’s economy.

When San Francisco fell, it landed on Nevada’s economy.

Courtesy Of California Geological Survey

“It was awful. Everything in my room fell. Down the wall cracked and I expected every minute to be crushed.”

Mrs. H.D. Edwards of Carson City—history does not tell us her first name—was describing her experience when the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit, 100 years ago this week. She was in Oakland, where she had taken her son, whose name or nickname was apparently Bunn, for medical care. After the quake, she quickly wrote a letter to her husband back in Nevada’s capital to reassure him that they were safe. Incredibly, the letter arrived in Carson City the day after the quake.

“Thank God, Bunn and I are alive. We tried to send you a telegram to that effect but all communication with the outside world is cut off. … A few blocks away, five people were crushed in their beds. … There is no water, and gas is escaping everywhere. We can get no word from San Francisco, but we can see the smoke pouring up into the sky. … Really everything passes description, and I am so nervous I can hardly hold my pencil. … We cannot use our stove, and we haven’t any water, so we are without food. … Everybody is staying out of doors—all afraid to stay inside. Crowds of people are wandering aimlessly about.”

In fact, communication was far from broken. A steady stream of messages reached Nevadans in the week after the quake.

The earthquake was local news in Nevada. Many of the state’s founders had arrived in Nevada from California. During the 20-year depression after the decline of the Comstock Lode boom, many Nevadans had departed for California. Now that the state was in its second mining boom, many Californians were back. There was overlapping family, social and trade intercourse between San Francisco and Nevada. When the quake hit, the Bay Area was full of visiting Nevadans. And Nevadans depended on the Bay Area for the goods of life. The Carson City News put it simply: “San Francisco is, or was, our mart.”

The overlap was illustrated by the Nevada Press Company. The quake and ensuing fire destroyed several thousand dollars worth of machinery awaiting shipment to the company. The company’s Will Bray departed Carson City for San Francisco as soon as he heard about the quake to see if his wife’s sister and mother survived.

“I tried to find where my people lived,” he said. “But all I could see was block after block of smoking ruins, all that showed up being an occasional chimney or brick wall. … I made my way to the city hall. The statue was still there on the dome, but below all the stone work had fallen away and only the skeleton steel work remained.” When he returned to Carson, he didn’t report finding his family members.

Carson City had something most towns of its size didn’t—a seismology lab. Charles Friend’s seismograph recorded the temblor at 5:12 a.m. on April 18. At the state capitol, the building was unharmed, but the clocks stopped at 5:12.

The News posted bulletins outside its offices as they came in, and a huge crowd gathered. Traveling San Francisco salespeople, who were in Carson at the time of the quake, were reported to be “almost insane” with worry. The Carson postmaster’s family was staying on Larkin Street near San Francisco’s city hall, which was all but demolished.

Three leading Carson City figures discussed the tragedy. S.L. Lee was a physician whose bearded face was familiar to Carsonites. (After Lee’s death, fellow capital doctor E.E. Hamer grew whiskers to emulate him.)

George Meyers was a businessperson. James Sweeney was attorney general of Nevada. The day before the quake, Sweeney had been telling people about the gold quartz he had just received from his claim in in the new boomtown of Cooney Springs.

The Rockefellers had just sent money to San Francisco. Chatting with Meyers and Sweeney, Lee said, “The people of San Francisco don’t want money. They want potatoes. I’ll go good for a carload.”

Meyers said, “I’ll put in with you, Doctor.” Sweeney ponied up a hundred dollars for the food shipment. Soon they had formed themselves up into a local relief committee. Carson’s mayor called a public meeting at the courthouse on the 20th.

All across Nevada, the same thing was happening. San Francisco had helped Nevadans many times. After the Yellow Jacket mine fire of 1869, the great Virginia City fire of ‘75, and Reno fires in ‘73 and ‘79, San Franciscans had sent help.

So now, people gathered in Nevada courthouses and other halls to plan relief.

Nevada business owner Will Bray returned home and told Carson citizens about the striking sight of San Francisco’s intact city hall dome held upby a ruined steel framework.

Some of the efforts to help San Franciscans seem poignant even at a remove of a century. In Elko, the Rathbone Sisters—a women’s group—held an ice cream social at the Knights of Pythias hall (ice cream, cake and coffee for 25 cents). Benefit ball games were held in Elko and Carson City. The senior high school class in Gold Hill donated $20. Fifty thousand sandwiches were sent from Reno. Virginia and Truckee Railroad manager Henry Yerington said people returning home to Nevada from the stricken city could ride for free, and food and other goods could be shipped without charge.

After Searchlight held a fund-raising ball, a message was sent to San Francisco’s mayor: “Searchlight, ‘the camp without a failure,’ is expressing you today … a cash contribution of $1,085.”

Virginia City had long had a love/hate relationship with the city by the bay. San Francisco bankers and mining executives had drained the Comstock Lode and invested the money in California. But the earthquake brought the love to the fore. The Eagles lodge donated $250; a women’s relief group and an Eastern Star chapter gathered food. The Virginia Miners Union provided $1,000. By April 27, the Comstock’s cash contributions were up to $3,650 (including $100 from local Industrial Workers of the World).

The Territorial Enterprise reported that “only” one Comstocker died in the earthquake—but neglected to say who it was.

In Nevada’s new boomtown of Tonopah, citizens sent not just money—more than $5,000 in two days—but also themselves. A group of locals went to San Francisco and set up a large tent on City Hall Plaza, where Nevada refugees were served.

Word was received from Goldfield’s unprincipled mine owner George Wingfield (he would frame two men for murder the next year), who was at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco when the quake hit.

“When the first shock came I was still in bed and was awakened by having plaster fall on me. … I rushed into the street and only had time to partly dress. I had to go this way the whole day, and had a very hard time in getting anything to eat.”

Word on the fate of Nevadans kept arriving, and in many cases, we don’t know the outcome. Douglas County’s Clarence Dangberg arrived back in Nevada from San Francisco on April 23. He said he had not washed his face since the quake, and he arrived in Reno with 10 cents and no necktie. A local relief committee fed him.

In Winnemucca, David Giroux’s wife and daughter were in the Bay Area; no word came, and he was “nearly frantic with anxiety.” Tonopah’s Tom Kendall received a letter from his sister Helen: “There was not a person who expected to escape from death this morning. … I can’t write another word, I am so frightened.”

The wife and small daughter of Nevada Secretary of State William Douglass became separated in the ruined city. The hysterical mother was sent to Reno, and Douglass rushed to San Francisco to search for his daughter.

Abe Cohn, who marketed basket weaver Dat So La Lee’s famed goods, learned that his brother and sister were safe but had no word from his daughter. A woman known to us only as Miss Deady wrote, “I was rooming at the San Francisco Girl’s Union hotel. … I was almost thrown out of bed, bricks and plastering was falling, furniture tossed about the room. … People seemed to be crazy with fright, screaming and running in all directions.”

Stella Colcord, daughter of former Nevada governor Roswell Colcord, sent a letter: “This is Thursday and I have just arrived in Oakland, safe and unharmed. … Saw Mrs. Belknap and the girls but none of us felt like visiting much. Will be home as soon as the shaken tracks and roadbeds are in better shape.”

Nevada’s governor, John Sparks, was out of state—Lt. Gov. Lemuel Allen was acting governor—but he was in contact with his capitol. From Georgetown, Texas, Sparks wired a call to Nevadans to pitch in and help. “I would suggest a meeting of the state officers be held at the capitol building. I leave tonight for home by way of San Francisco.”

If there was any doubt that Nevada had a stake in what had happened, it vanished after the jarring news that the mines shut down in Virginia City, and the acting governor closed the state’s banks. Allen said he took the action because “the business and social interests [of California and Nevada] have been so intermingled for the past 50 years that the material interests of the two states are practically identical” with the result that the Nevada domino was endangered. The banks were closed for six days. The Carson City News predicted that much of the California capital that had been fueling mining in Nevada would be diverted to rebuilding San Francisco. About a hundred Comstock miners were laid off from their jobs.

In New York, steel magnate Charles Schwab, a leading investor in Nevada mines, moved to protect his interests. In Rhyolite, a wire was received from a firm representing him. It said he would “lend any reasonable amount of money on approved Nevada stocks at 50 per cent margin kept good. Wire your needs however large.”

All over the state, functions were cancelled or postponed, including a housewarming for the new high school and a Sunday school convention in Carson City. However, a circus in Carson City went ahead, and Raymond, a magician and “king of handcuffs” put on his show on schedule in Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. Reno contractors had to delay street paving because some of their equipment was destroyed in San Francisco.

On the 23rd, a sharp change in direction in news coverage appeared in the Carson City News: “Stop it at once. Do not send another pound of provisions to the sufferers of California. Dozens of carloads of bread and other provisions will be dumped into the bay. … If you continue, you will create a famine in Nevada. … Reno’s supply of canned goods has been exhausted. Other supplies with the exception of flour and meat are running low [in Nevada]. … There is an abundance of food in San Francisco.” No authority was given for this advice, and other newspapers did not follow its lead, nor did it appear to interrupt the flow of assistance. Community leaders around the state expressed pride in their towns’ responses to the tragedy.

When it was all over, Nevada’s historical record was discovered to have suffered a loss. The University of Nevada yearbook was at the printer in San Francisco when the quake hit. The photographs, copy and mock-ups were all destroyed, and the book was never published.