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Life in Berkeley on the Day of the Great Quake By RICHARD SCHWARTZ Special to the Planet

Tuesday March 07, 2006

The following is an excerpt from Richard Schwartz’s Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees. The Daily Planet will run three more excerpts in the coming weeks. 


Berkeley was a peaceful small town before the 1906 earthquake. But as soon as the massive earthquake struck on April 18, that reality would change forever. Berkeley’s own newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Gazette, reported only a small portion of the total damage wrought upon the town. 

All neighborhoods were struck, though some suffered more damage than others. Stunned residents and horrified merchants soon discovered the town’s fate for themselves. A 13-year-old newspaper boy named Harold Yost, who lived with his mother at 2201 Hearst Ave., was an eyewittness to the events. 

News would be passed from one neighbor to another as all communications were knocked out of service, save for East Bay newspapers. No one was sure as to the extent of the disaster and a deep uneasiness blanketed the jumbled town. Let us join Harold as he begins his paper route just over an hour after the earthquake struck on that warm, fogless morning. 


Viewing the damage 

Despite the earthquake, Harold decided to deliver his papers. As he started his route around 6:30 a.m., Berkeley seemed about the same as always, except that people were outside their houses, milling around and talking. They were unaware of the damage beyond their neighborhood, yet deep down were worried.  

Harold passed his own house and saw his mother out on the porch. 

“I guess the house is all right,” she yelled to him, “but I’m going to stay out here for a while.” She promised him breakfast when he was done with his route. 

He continued up the hill to Le Conte Avenue. There he saw “the first of the great quake’s calling cards: bricks that had once been outside chimneys scattered across a front lawn, with people clustered around looking dazed and worried, chatting in subdued tones.” 

As he went up Euclid, he was sobered to discover much more of the same. From this point, he had a view across the bay. He was taken aback by what he saw—a growing cloud of black smoke rising over San Francisco. He didn’t connect the smoke with the earthquake and scurried home for breakfast. 

Afterward, he changed into his school clothes, picked up his report on Mt. Vesuvius, stuffed it into his bag, and headed to school. He was unaware that the water main from the nearby North Berkeley reservoir had broken, sending a huge geyser of water into the air. Many people living along his paper route had fled to the hills. 

School didn’t start until 9 a.m., but Harold always went earlier to play games in the schoolyard. By 8:30 he was on his way up Oxford Street, not far from his house, when he spotted a schoolmate running toward him, waving his arms and yelling “No school!”  

“They have got to see if the building’s safe before we go back,” Harold’s friend told him. “But they say somethin’s happened to Berkeley High. Let’s go down and see.” 

The high school at Allston Way and Grove Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) was Berkeley’s pride and joy. Built five years earlier at a cost of $87,000, it was an impressive, two-story brick structure, with two tall brick chimneys rising above the handsome slate roof. Harold and his buddy ran down Milvia Street, then stopped abruptly when they saw that the chimneys were gone. 

In their place were two great gaping holes in the roof. Two matching piles of brick rubble lay on the ground directly below them. 

“Plaster was broken from the walls of nearly every room,” the evening Oakland Tribune of April 18 reported, “and the great flues in the attic were torn down by falling bricks.” A huge structural crack marred the northwest wing. The boys were stunned. 

As it turned out, Berkeley schools—including Whittier, McKinley, Hillside, and San Pablo—suffered disproportionately to other buildings in the city. Hazel Skaggs, a student at the time, remembered, “Our brand new Washington School [Grove Street and Bancroft Way], a red brick building, toppled that morning. It had been completed only the day before.”  

Police officer W. H. McCoy, working his beat in the Oceanview, was standing at San Pablo and University avenues when the earthquake struck. The stone walls of the elegant West Berkeley Bank on the northwest corner shattered, the building shifted off its foundation, and the masonry cornices fell to the ground. One section weighing thousands of pounds flew past McCoy’s face and crashed at his feet. Dust blanketed his cup of coffee as he stood frozen and stunned. 

The bank, whose president was Berkeley’s Acting Mayor Francis Ferrier, had been a symbol of the financial importance of Oceanview. At the same time McCoy saw the walls of the D. H. Bruns General Merchandising store across the street buckle. His attention was suddenly drawn to an explosion at El Dorado Oil Works laboratory, at the northwest corner of University Avenue and Second Street. McCoy rushed to the nearest fire alarm box and then promptly pulled the alarm on a second box. 

Firemen from two stations arrived and extinguished the oil works fire, which could have quickly engulfed the entire west end of town. Sadly for the workingmen of Oceanview, Charles Hadlen’s and Dennis Landregren’s saloons, popular watering holes, displayed significant damage. Several blocks away, a large crack in the roadbed of University Avenue ran west all the way until the street ended. 

Downtown Berkeley, centered at Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way, was especially hard-hit. The Barker Block, on the northwest corner, had just been completed, and its owner, J. L. Barker, was about to place advertisements seeking tenants. The masonry cornice, shaken loose by the earthquake, lay shattered on the sidewalk. The building’s awning hung limply. Damage to the interior was particularly extensive. 

“The building still stands,” the April 18 Oakland Tribune reported, “but the upper story is little more than a pile of bricks. It is simply rent through and through.” 

Across the street on the northeast corner, all the structures behind the Foy Block building were destroyed, and their collapse crushed other sheds attached to the rear of the building. The owner feared that the cost of repairs would reach $5,000. 

An Oakland Tribune reporter wrote in the April 18 paper that downtown Berkeley was an “indescribable scene of confusion.” At stores and pharmacies such as Rolla Fuller’s on Dwight and Bowman’s on Center Street, merchants stood knee-deep in glass containers shattered on the floor and merchandise thrown off shelves. Downed electrical wires ignited a fire at Pond’s Pharmacy on Shattuck near Center. 

The proprietor of Sorenson’s crockery shop on Center arrived to find the store filled with the shards of once expensive merchandise. The French Laundry at 2241 Shattuck collapsed, and cracks opened up in the walls of the Carnegie Library at the southwest corner of Shattuck and Kittredge. 

Construction workers who could reach downtown showed up to assess the damage. Steel girders had recently been erected for the new Masonic Temple at Shattuck and Bancroft Way. When the quake hit, the girders had slowly toppled, two of them falling through the roof of the neighboring University Laundry and then striking the telephone company building at 2239 Shattuck Ave., just beyond the laundry. 

The two frightened switchboard operators on duty, Miss McGreer and Miss Young, remained at their stations, even though plaster was thrown from the bulging walls. Telephone service immediately went dead. An estimated 40 percent of the lines were down, and telephone poles all over town were toppled. 

The Lorin District, south of downtown, also sustained heavy damage. The Loughhead and Armstrong Hardware building at 3226 Adeline St. was “way out of plumb” and the walls “cracked and shattered.”