Home & Garden Columns

Berkeley Rushed to Help 1906 Quake Survivors By Richard Schwartz Special to the Planet

Friday March 31, 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 two more excerpts in the coming weeks. 


The Great Earthquake of 1906 struck a little after 5 a.m. on the warm Wednsday morning of April 18. Hundreds of miles of California coastal towns were monstrously shaken and many suffered major destruction.  

Some cities actually feared the refugees from San Francisco and citizens suggested efforts to stop them from arriving. At a meeting called by San Jose’s Chamber of Commerce, someone suggested that they ask the Southern Pacific Railroad to help them keep refugees away from San Jose. One man insisted that San Jose must look after itself and was not in a position to help others. Another warned, “If they come here, they will eat us out of house and home in three days.” An anxious supervisor reported that 30,000 shaken San Franciscans were walking towards San Jose. 

Though Berkeley was more damaged than its citizens were initially told by their own newspaper, this did not slow down the amazingly rapid response of Berkeley residents, knowing that San Franciscans would surely be arriving as refugees to assess, organize and implement a relief effort. News trickled in from those who had come over on early ferries. People told in hushed voices of the calamity quickly spreading over the city that was burning across the bay. Many Berkeley residents had friends and family over in the stricken city and many others commuted there to work.  

These Berkeley citizens didn’t wait for the government, they didn't wait for money, and they didn't wait for instructions. They assessed the situation, decided on what needed to be done and appointed themselves to do it. This is a remarkable story of generosity and competency. Though injured itself, the Berkeley community thought first of helping those most in need. This is a legacy the city can be proud of one hundred years later and one that was somehow lost to us until this 100th anniversary commemoration.  


The Relief Effort  

Berkeley responded with remarkable speed to help the San Franciscans streaming into town. F. W. Foss, president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, called for a town meeting to decide what could be done to assist the victims. 

The meeting, held the morning of April 18 at the chamber offices in the First National Bank at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, was packed with concerned Berkeleyans. The attendees quickly set up a citizen relief committee, to be housed at the Mason McDuffie Real Estate office at Shattuck and Center, near the downtown train station. 

This convenient location allowed relief workers to meet the refugees as they stepped off the trains and to provide them with shelter, food, and clothing, along with any medical attention they might need. The Reverend E. L. Parsons, rector at St. Mark’s Church, was made chairman of the Relief Committee. 

Many subcommittees, called departments, were formed to handle health, housing and other tasks. Berkeley residents from all walks of life—church leaders, university professors, veterans, and leaders from the business community, as well as city officials—came forward to head the departments. 

Duncan McDuffie, of Mason McDuffie Real Estate, took charge of the Office Department, which organized a clearing center responsible for receiving the refugees and transporting them to their designated housing. He was also responsible for disseminating information, such as posting notices about the need for housing in Oakland newspapers. Frank Wilson, chairman of the Finance Department, began accepting contributions in cash and provisions. He proceeded to collect approximately $3,000 in the hours just after the earthquake.  

The purpose of the Oriental Department was to care for segregated groups of Chinese and Japanese refugees. This was an era when anti-Asian sentiments ran high, fueled by fear that white citizens would lose their jobs or that Asians would spread contagious diseases. There was even an Anti-Asian League whose presence in Berkeley was condoned. As word arrived that the San Francisco jails had been emptied of prisoners (as it turned out, they were being transferred as the fires devoured the city), a Protection Department was formed to deal with what was described as a “tendency toward lawlessness that follows such great confusion, excitement and disease.” 

Acting Mayor Francis Ferrier, in one of the few other official acts the Berkeley government took, appointed a “committee of safety” to do whatever necessary to maintain order, enforce sanitary regulations (posted in English, German, Spanish, Italian, and other languages), and generally guard the public welfare. 

The heads of the departments formed an executive committee that met twice daily in the first few days after the earthquake. To oversee the citywide effort, the Relief Committee took on the job of supervising the work of local organizations such as churches and fraternal groups. The Relief Committee, in turn, coordinated its tasks with the city and the university through a Town and University Committee (formed by appointment of the mayor). 

All important questions involving the relief efforts were referred to this committee. Its members included UC Berkeley President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Reverend Parsons, Frank Wilson, and UC history professor Bernard Moses. Little time had been wasted in creating a well-organized relief machinery that did not hesitate to make its own laws and enforce them. Within a week of the quake, Wheeler described, almost jocularly, the situation in Berkeley to President Theodore Roosevelt as “practically a government by vigilance committee.” 

Before the initial Relief Committee meeting on April 18 adjourned, thirty-one households offered to shelter refugees, whether in a spare room or on a shared couch. Guy Chick, a former Berkeley building inspector, volunteered a ten-room house. By 2 a.m. on the morning of April 19, more than three hundred homes were prepared for the displaced San Francisco residents, along with damaged Stiles Hall and the Native Sons’ Hall at 2108 Shattuck Ave. 

With accommodations found for eight hundred refugees, the Housing Department was just reaching its stride. Local real estate firms provided men and rigs to transport refugees to their assigned housing. 

Hundreds of frightened San Francisco refugees spent the first night after the earthquake in the Berkeley hills, suffering through the chilly night without enough provisions rather than take shelter in Berkeley buildings that might be damaged by aftershocks. 

Eleven women reportedly gave birth in the hills that night, with no medical assistance. Nine of them were said to have died. As the sun rose on April 19 over the hills and illuminated the clouds of smoke that had blown east across the bay, the hungry, sleepless refugees staggered down in search of assistance. 

Starting late that morning, a torrent of refugees flooded the town, most of them arriving by train from Oakland. This pace continued all day, making the night of April 19 particularly hectic for relief workers trying to place and feed an estimated seven thousand refugees. Vacant rooms became impossible to find. 

The need was so great that almost every Berkeley household provided accommodations to friends or strangers from San Francisco. UC professors took in homeless San Franciscans, and even fraternity and sorority members gave up their lodging for use by the refugees. Everyone was instructed to keep the refugees inside rather than let them loiter in front of houses and other buildings.  


On April 18 at City Council Chambers, the public is invited to a 3:30 p.m. ceremony at which Richard Schwartz will present Mayor Bates with a Certificate of Honor to the citizens of Berkeley from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Also, following the ceremony, BAHA will sponsor a lecture on the 1906 Berkeley Earthquake Relief effort and the book at the Berkeley City Club at 7:30 that night. Contact BAHA for tickets, at 841-2242. 


Photo from the book Earthquake Exodus, 1906 

with permission from the author, Richard Schwartz. (Blue and Gold, 1908.) 


The main refugee camp at UC Berkeley’s California Field, now the site of the Hearst Gymnasium.