The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris

Author: Eyewitnesses

Chapter VI.

Facing Famine and Praying for Relief.

Frightful was the emergency of the vast host of fugitives who fled in terror from the blazing city of San Francisco to the open gates of Golden Gate Park and the military reservation of the Presidio. Food was wanting, scarcely any water was to be had, death by hunger and thirst threatened more than a quarter million of souls thus driven without warning from their comfortable and happy homes and left without food or shelter. Provisions, shelter tents, means of relief of various kinds were being hurried forward in all haste, but for several days the host of fugitives had no beds but the bare ground, no shelter but the open heavens, scarcely a crumb of bread to eat, scarcely a gill of water to drink. Those first days that followed the disaster were days of horror and dread. Rich and poor were mingled together, the delicately reared with the rough sons of toil to whom privation was no new experience.

Those who had food to sell sought to take advantage of the necessities of the suffering by charging famine prices for their supplies, but the soldiers put a quick stop to this. When Thursday morning broke, lines of buyers formed before the stores whose supplies had not been commandeered. In one of these, the first man was charged 75 cents for a loaf of bread. The corporal in charge at that point brought his gun down with a slam.

"Bread is 10 cents a loaf in this shop," he said.

It went. The soldier fixed the schedule of prices a little higher than in ordinary times, and to make up for that he forced the storekeeper to give free food to several hungry people in line who had no money to pay. In several other places the soldiers used the same brand of horse sense.

A man with a loaf of bread in his hand ran up to a policeman on Washington Street. "Here," he said, "this man is trying to charge me a dollar for this loaf of bread. Is that fair?"

"Give it to me," said the policeman. He broke off one end of it and stuck it in his mouth. "I am hungry myself," he said when he had his mouth clear. "Take the rest of it. It’s appropriated."

As an example of the prices charged for food and service by the unscrupulous, we may quote the experience of a Los Angeles millionaire named John Singleton, who had been staying a day or two at the Palace Hotel. On Wednesday he had to pay $25 for an express wagon to carry himself, his wife and her sister to the Casino, near Golden Gate Park, and on Thursday was charged a dollar apiece for eggs and a dollar for a loaf of bread. Others tell of having to pay $50 for a ride to the ferry.

One of the refugees on the shores of Lake Herced Thursday morning spied a flock of ducks and swans which the city maintained there for the decoration of the lake. He plunged into the lake, swam out to them and captured a fat drake. Other men and boys saw the point and followed. The municipal ducks were all cooking in five minutes.

The soldiers were prompt to take charge of the famine situation, acting on their own responsibility in clearing out the supplies of the little grocery stores left standing and distributing them among the people in need. The principal food of those who remained in the city was composed of canned goods and crackers. The refugees who succeeded in getting out of San Francisco were met as soon as they entered the neighboring towns by representatives of bakers who had made large supplies of bread, and who immediately dealt them out to the hungry people.


But the needs of the three hundred thousand homeless and hungry people in the city could not be met in this way, and immediate supplies in large quantities were necessary to prevent a reign of famine from succeeding the ravages of the fire. Danger from thirst was still more insistent than that from hunger. There was some food to be had, bakeries were quickly built within the military reservation there, and General Funston announced that rations would soon reach the city and the people would be supplied from the Presidio. But there was scarcely any water to relieve the thirst of the suffering. Water became the incessant cry of firemen and people alike, the one wanting it to fight the fire, the other to drink, but even for the latter the supply was very scant. There was water in plenty in the reservoirs, but they were distant and difficult to reach, and all night of the day succeeding the earth shock wagons mounted with barrels and guarded by soldiers drove through the park doling out water. There was a steady crush around these wagons, but only one drink was allowed to a person.

Toward midnight a black, staggering body of men began to weave through the entrance. They were volunteer fire-fighters, looking for a place to throw themselves down and sleep. These men dropped out all along the line, and were rolled out of the driveways by the troops. There was much splendid unselfishness here. Women gave up their blankets and sat up or walked about all night to cover the exhausted men who had fought fire until there was no more fight in them.

The common destitution and suffering had, as we have said, wiped out all social, financial and racial distinctions. The man who last Tuesday was a prosperous merchant was obliged to occupy with his family a little plot of ground that adjoined the open-air home of a laborer. The white man of California forgot his antipathy to the Asiatic race, and maintained friendly relations with his new Chinese and Japanese neighbors. The society belle who Tuesday night was a butterfly of fashion at the grand opera performance now assisted some factory girl in the preparation of humble daily meals. Money had little value. The family that had had foresight to lay in the largest stock of foodstuffs on the first day of disaster was rated highest in the scale of wealth.

A few of the families that could secure wagons were possessors of cook stoves, but over 95 per cent. of the refugees did their cooking on little campfires made of brick or stone. Battered kitchen utensils that the week before would have been regarded as useless had become articles of high value. In fact, man had come back to nature and all lines of caste had been obliterated, while the very thought of luxury had disappeared. It was, in the exigency of the moment, considered good fortune to have a scant supply of the barest necessaries of life.

As for clothing, it was in many cases of the scantiest, while numbers of the people had brought comfortable clothing and bedding. Many others had fled in their night garbs, and comparatively few of these had had the self-possession to return and don their daytime clothes. As a result there had been much improvisation of garments suitable for life in the open air, and as the days went on many of the women arrayed themselves in home-made bloomer costumes, a sensible innovation under the circumstances and in view of the active outdoor work they were obliged to perform.

The grave question to be faced at this early stage was: How soon would an adequate supply of food arrive from outside points to avert famine? Little remained in San Francisco beyond the area swept by the fire, and the available supply could not last more than a few days. Fresh meat disappeared early on Wednesday and only canned foods and breadstuffs were left. All the foodstuffs coming in on the cars were at once seized by order of the Mayor and added to the scanty supply, the names of the consignees being taken that this material might eventually be paid for. The bakers agreed to work their plants to their utmost capacity and to send all their surplus output to the relief committee. By working night and day thousands of loaves could be provided daily. A big bakery in the saved district started its ovens and arranged to bake 50,000 loaves before night. The provisions were taken charge of by a committee and sent to the various depots from which the people were being fed. Instructions were issued by Mayor Schmitz on Thursday to break open every store containing provisions and to distribute them to the thousands under police supervision. A policeman reported that two grocery stores in the neighborhood were closed, although the clerks were present. "Smash the stores open," ordered the Mayor, "and guard them." In towns across the bay the master bakers have met and fixed the price of bread at 5 cents the loaf, with the understanding that they will refuse to sell to retailers who attempt to charge famine prices. The committee of citizens in charge of the situation in the stricken city proposed to use every effort to keep food down to the ordinary price and check the efforts of speculators, who in one instance charged as much as $3.50 for two loaves of bread and a can of sardines. Orders were issued by the War Department to army officers to purchase at Los Angeles immediately 200,000 rations and at Seattle 300,000 rations and hurry them to San Francisco. The department was informed that there were 120,000 rations at the Presidio, that thousands of refugees were being sheltered there and that the army was feeding them. One million rations already had been started to San Francisco by the department. But in view of the fact that there were 300,000 fugitives to be fed the supply available was likely to be soon exhausted.


Such was the state of affairs at the end of the second day of the great disaster. But meanwhile the entire country had been aroused by the tidings of the awful calamity, the sympathetic instinct of Americans everywhere was awakened, and it was quickly made evident that the people of the stricken city would not be allowed to suffer for the necessaries of life. On all sides money was contributed in large sums, the United States Government setting the example by an immediate appropriation of $1,000,000, and in the briefest possible interval relief trains were speeding toward the stricken city from all quarters, carrying supplies of food, shelter tents and other necessaries of a kind that could not await deliberate action.

Shelter was needed almost as badly as food, for a host of the refugees had nothing but their thin clothing to cover them, and, though the weather at first was fine and mild, a storm might come at any time. In fact, a rain did come, a severe one, early in the week after the disaster, pouring nearly all night long on the shivering campers in the parks, wetting them to the skin and soaking through the rudely improvised shelters which many of the refugees had put up. A few days afterward came a second shower, rendering still more evident the need of haste in providing suitable shelter.

All this was foreseen by those in charge, and the most strenuous efforts were made to provide the absolute necessities of life. Huge quantities of supplies were poured into the city. From all parts of California trainloads of food were rushed there in all haste. A steamer from the Orient laden with food reached the city in its hour of need; another was dispatched in all haste from Tacoma bearing $25,000 worth of food and medical supplies, ordered by Mayor Weaver, of Philadelphia, as a first installment of that city’s contribution. Money was telegraphed from all quarters to the Governor of California, to be expended for food and other supplies, and so prompt was the response to the insistent demand that by Saturday all danger of famine was at an end; the people were being fed.


The broken waterpipes were also repaired with all possible haste, the Spring Valley Water Company putting about one thousand men at work upon their shattered mains, and in a very brief time water began to flow freely in many parts of the residence section and the great difficulty of obtaining food and water was practically at an end. Never in the history of the country has there been a more rapid and complete demonstration of the resourcefulness of Americans than in the way this frightful disaster was met.

Food, water and shelter were not the only urgent needs. At first there was absolutely no sanitary provision, and the danger of an epidemic was great. This was a peril which the Board of Health addressed itself vigorously to meet, and steps for improving the sanitary conditions were hastily taken. Quick provision for sheltering the unfortunates was also made. Eight temporary structures, 150 feet in length by 28 feet wide and 13 feet high, were erected in Golden Gate Park, and in these sheds thousands found reasonably comfortable quarters. This was but a beginning. More of these buildings were rapidly erected, and by their aid the question of shelter was in part solved. The buildings were divided into compartments large enough to house a family, each compartment having an entrance from the outside. This work was done under the control of the engineering department of the United States army, which had taken steps to obtain a full supply of lumber and had put 135 carpenters to work. Those of the refugees who were without tents were the first to be provided for in these temporary buildings.


To those who made an inspection of the situation a few days after the earthquake, the hills and beaches of San Francisco looked like an immense tented city. For miles through the park and along the beaches from Ingleside to the sea wall at North Beach the homeless were camped in tents—makeshifts rigged up from a few sticks of wood and a blanket or sheet. Some few of the more fortunate secured vehicles on which they loaded regulation tents and were, therefore, more comfortably housed than the great majority. Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle looked like one vast campaign ground. It is said that fully 100,000 persons, rich and poor alike, sought refuge in Golden Gate Park alone, and 200,000 more homeless ones located at the other places of refuge.

At the Presidio military reservation, where probably 50,000 persons were camped, affairs were conducted with military precision. Water was plentiful and rations were dealt out all day long. The refugees stood patiently in line and there was not a murmur. This characteristic was observable all over the city. The people were brave and patient, and the wonderful order preserved by them proved of great assistance. In Golden Gate Park a huge supply station had been established and provisions were dealt out.

Six hundred men from the Ocean Shore Railway arrived on Saturday night with wagons and implements to work on the sewer system. Inspectors were kept going from house to house, examining chimneys and issuing permits to build fires. In fact, activity manifested itself in all quarters in the attempt to bring order out of confusion, and in an astonishingly short time the tented city was converted from a scene of wretched disorder into one of order and system.

At Jefferson Park were camped thousands of people of every class in life. On the western edge of this park is the old Scott house, where Mrs. McKinley lay sick for two weeks in 1901. Three times a day the people all gathered in line before the provision wagons for their little handouts. "Yesterday," says an observer, "I saw, in order before the wagons, a Lascar sailor in his turban, about as low a Chinatown bum as I ever set eyes on, a woman of refined appearance, a barefooted child, two Chinamen, and a pretty girl. They were squeezed up together by the line, which extended for a quarter of a mile. It is civilization in the bare bones.

"The great and rich are on a level with the poor in the struggle for bare existence, and over them all is the perfect, unbroken discipline of the soldiery. They came into the city and took charge on an hour’s notice, they saved the city from itself in the three days of hell, and but for them the city, even with enough provisions to feed them in the stores and warehouses, must have gone hungry for lack of distributive organization."


At one of the parks on Tuesday morning a handsomely dressed woman with two children at her skirts stood in a line of many hundreds where supplies were being given out. She took some uncooked bacon, and as she reached for it jewels sparkled on her fingers. One of the tots took a can of condensed milk, the other a bag of cakes.

"I have money," she said, "’if I could get it and use it. I have property, if I could realize on it. I have friends, if I could get to them. Meantime I am going to cook this piece of bacon on bricks and be happy."

She was only one of thousands like her.

In a walk through the city this note of cheerfulness of the people in the face of an almost incredible week of horror was to a correspondent the mitigating element to the awfulness of disaster.

In the streets of the residential district in the western addition, which the fire did not reach, women of the houses were cooking meals on the pavement. In most cases they had moved out the family ranges, and were preparing the food which they had secured from the Relief Committee.

Out on Broderick street, near the Panhandle, a piano sounded. It was nigh ten o’clock and the stars were shining after the rain. Fires gleamed up and down through the shrubbery and the refugees sat huddled together about the flames, with their blankets about their heads, Apache-like, in an effort to dry out after the wetting of the afternoon. The piano, dripping with moisture, stood on the curb, near the front of a cottage which had been wrecked by the earthquake.

A youth with a shock of red hair sat on a cracker box and pecked at the ivories. "Home Ain’t Nothing Like This" was thrummed from the rusting wires with true vaudeville dash and syncopation. "Bill Bailey," "Good Old Summer Time," "Dixie" and "In Toyland" followed. Three young men with handkerchiefs wrapped about their throats in lieu of collars stood near the pianist and with him lifted up their voices in melody. The harmony was execrable, the time without excuse, but the songs ran through the trees of the Panhandle, and the crows, forgetting their misery for a time, joined the strange chorus.

The people had their tales of comedy, one being that on the morning of the fire a richly dressed woman who lived in one of the aristocratic Sutter Street apartments came hurrying down the street, faultlessly gowned as to silks and sables, save that one dainty foot was shod with a high-heeled French slipper and the other was incased in a laborer’s brogan. They say that as she walked she careened like a bark-rigged ship before a typhoon.

An hour spent behind the counter of the food supply depot in the park tennis court yielded rich reward to the seeker after the outlandish. The tennis court was piled high with the plunder of several grocery stores and the cargoes of many relief cars. A square cut in the wire screen permitted of the insertion of a counter, behind which stood members of the militia acting as food dispensers. Before the improvised window passed the line of refugees, a line which stretched back fully 300 yards to Speedway track.

"I want a can of condensed cream, so I can feed my baby and my dog," said a large, florid-faced woman in a gaudy kimono, "and I don’t care for crackers, but you can throw in some potted chicken if you have it."

"What’s in that bottle over there?" queried the next applicant. "Tomato ketchup? Well, of all the luck! Say, young man, just give me three."

A little gray-haired woman in an India shawl peered timorously through the window. "Just a little bit of anything you may have handy, please," she whispered, and she cast a careful eye about to see of any of her neighbors had recognized her standing there in the "bread line."

"Yesterday, at the Western Union office," says one writer, "I saw a woman drive up in a large motor car and beg that the telegram on which a boy had asked a delivery fee of twenty-five cents be handed to her. She said she had not a penny and did not know when she would have any money, but that as soon as she had any she would pay for the message. It was given to her, and the manager told me that there were hundreds of similar cases."

Many weddings resulted from the disaster. Women driven out of their homes and left destitute, appealed to the men to whom they were engaged, and immediate marriages took place. After the first day of the disaster an increase in the marriage licenses issued was noticed by County Clerk Cook. This increase grew until seven marriage licenses were issued in an hour.

"I don’t live anywhere," was the answer given in many cases when the applicant for a license was asked the locality of his residence. "I used to live in San Francisco."

Births seem to have been about as common as marriages, in one night five children being born in Golden Gate Park. In Buena Vista Park eight births were recorded and others elsewhere, the population being thus increased at a rate hardly in accordance with the exigencies of the situation.


We have spoken only of the camps of refugees within the municipal limits of San Francisco. But in addition to these was the multitude of fugitives who made all haste to escape from that city. This was with the full consent of the authorities, who felt that every one gone lessened the immediate weight upon themselves, and who issued a strict edict that those who went must stay, that there could be no return until a counter edict should be made public.

From the start this was one of the features of the situation. Down Market Street, once San Francisco’s pride, now leading through piles of tottering walls, piles of still hot bricks and twisted iron and heaps of smouldering debris, poured a huge stream of pedestrians. Men bending under the weight of great bundles pushed baby carriages loaded with bric-a-brac and children. Women toiled along with their arms full, but a large proportion were able to ride, for the relief corps had been thoroughly organized and wagons were being pressed into service from all sides.

In constant procession they moved toward the ferry, whence the Southern Pacific was transporting them with baggage free wherever they wished to go. Automobiles meanwhile shot in all directions, carrying the Red Cross flag and usually with a soldier carrying a rifle in the front seat. They had the right of way everywhere, carrying messages and transporting the ill to temporary hospitals and bearing succor to those in distress.

Oakland, the nearest place of resort, on the bay shore opposite San Francisco, soon became a great city of refuge, fugitives gathering there until 50,000 or more were sheltered within its charitable limits. Having suffered very slightly from the earthquake that had wrecked the great city across the bay, it was in condition to offer shelter to the unfortunate. All day Wednesday and Thursday a stream of humanity poured from the ferries, every one carrying personal baggage and articles saved from the conflagration. Hundreds of Chinese men, women and children, all carrying baggage to the limit of their strength, made their way into the limited Chinatown of Oakland.

Multitudes of persons besieged the telegraph offices, and the crush became so great that soldiers were stationed at the doors to keep them in line and allow as many as possible to find standing room at the counters. Messages were stacked yards high in the offices waiting to be sent throughout the world. Every boat from San Francisco brought hundreds of refugees, carrying luggage and bedding in large quantities. Many women were bareheaded and all showed fatigue as the result of sleeplessness and exposure to the chill air. Hundreds of these persons lined the streets of Oakland, waiting for some one to provide them with shelter, for which the utmost possible provision was quickly made. No one was allowed to go hungry in Oakland and few lacked shelter. At the Oakland First Presbyterian Church 1,800 were fed and 1,000 people were provided with sleeping accommodations. Pews were turned into beds. Cots stood in the aisles, in the gallery and in the Sunday school room. Every available inch of space was occupied by some substitute for a bed.

As the days wore on the number of refugees somewhat decreased. Although they still came in large numbers, many left on every train for different points. Requests for free transportation were investigated as closely as possible and all the deserving were sent away. Women and children and married men who wished to join their families in different parts of the State were given preference. The transportation bureau was on a street corner, where a man stood on a box and called the names of those entitled to passes.

Along the principal streets of Oakland there was a picturesque pilgrimage of former householders, who dragged or carried the meagre effects they had been able to save. The refugees who could not be cared for in Oakland made an exodus to Berkeley and other surrounding cities, where relief committees were actively at work. Utter despair was pictured on many faces, which showed the effects of sleepless days and nights, and the want of proper food.

Oakland was only one of the outside camps of refuge. At Berkeley over 6,000 refugees sought quarters, the big gymnasium of the State University being turned into a lodging house, while hundreds were provided with blankets to sleep in the open air under the University oaks. The students and professors of the University did all they could for their relief, and the Citizens’ Relief Committee supplied them with food.

The same benevolent sympathy was manifested at all the places near the ruined city which had escaped disaster, this aid materially reducing that needed within San Francisco itself.


Sunday dawned in San Francisco; Sunday in the camp of the refugees. On a green knoll in Golden Gate Park, between the conservatory and the tennis courts, a white-haired minister of the Gospel gathered his flock. It was the Sabbath day and in the turmoil and confusion the minister did not forget his duty. Two upright stakes and a cross-piece gave him a rude pulpit, and beside him stood a young man with a battered brass cornet. Far over the park stole a melody that drew hundreds of men and women from their tents. Of all denominations and all creeds, they gathered on that green knoll, and the men uncovered while the solemn voice repeated the words of a grand old hymn, known wherever men and women meet to worship the Lord:

"Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee; Leave, oh, leave me not alone, still support and comfort me!"

A moment before there had been shouting and confusion in the driveway where some red-striped artillerymen were herding a squad of gesticulating Chinamen as men herd sheep. The shouting died away as the minister’s voice rose and fell and out of the stillness came the sobs of women. One little woman in blue was making no sound, but the tears were streaming down her cheeks. Her husband, a sturdy young fellow in his shirt sleeves, put his arm about her shoulders and tried to comfort her as the reading went on.

"All my trust on Thee is stayed; all my help from Thee I bring; Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing."

Then the cornet took up the air again and those helpless persons followed it in quivering tones, the white-haired man of God leading them with closed eyes. When the last verse was over, the minister raised his hands.

"Let us pray," said he, and his congregation sank down in the grass before him. It was a simple prayer, such a prayer as might be offered by a man without a home or a shelter over his head—and nothing left to him but an unshaken faith in his Creator.

"Oh, Lord, Thy ways are past finding out, but we still have faith in Thee. We know not why Thou hast visited these people and left them homeless. Thou knowest the reason of this desolation and of our utter helplessness. We call on Thee for help in the hour of our great need. Bless the people of this city, the sorrowing ones, the bereaved, gather them under Thy mighty wing and soothe aching hearts this day."

The women were crying again, and one big man dug his knuckles into his eyes without shame. The man who could have listened to such a prayer unmoved was not in Golden Gate Park that day.


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Chicago: Eyewitnesses, "Chapter VI.," The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris Original Sources, accessed June 6, 2023,

MLA: Eyewitnesses. "Chapter VI." The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris, Original Sources. 6 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Eyewitnesses, 'Chapter VI.' in The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris, ed. . cited in , The San Francisco Calamity, Charles Morris. Original Sources, retrieved 6 June 2023, from