1906 Earthquake, San Jose, California

San Jose Cal. Friday

”My dears:

You have all read of the awful calamity that befell our city and surrounding towns.  I will leave all of that for you still to get from the papers, as I know you are more anxious to know about us and it would take a book to tell it.  We were sleeping soundly in our beds at 5:15 exactly. I felt the first shake very slightly.  I bounded out of bed, hoping for the instant, to be able to get some clothes and get out.  I was thrown back on the bed.  I snatched Aileen in my arms and shouted to Jack, who was holding on to the bed on the other side to get the other children.  I say shouted, for just as that time the roaring and rumbling were deafening.  I got to my feet again with Aileen like a ball in my arms. The little thing never made a sound and clung to me like mad.  I was thrown down on the bed again and pitched headlong to the foot of the bed, then the house timbers all cracking and splitting, lurched the other way and threw me back to the head of the bed.  I was then powerless to move only as I tossed about like a rubberball.  I was not speechless, however, for it seemed I must get my voice above that awful noise to reach God in prayer.  I screamed as did every other woman in this town.  Jack was trying to make his way to the children in the other room, through the bathroom, and they were trying to get to us.  I could see them from where I was on the bed.  I pled with them to get to me that we might all die together.  It seemed ages before they got to us.  They pitched on to the floor twice before they reached me, then with my arms about them all, I prayed God if one go take us all.  We could not get out and it was his goodness that kept the house from falling on us.  From the looks of most of the houses in the neighborhood, we fared well.  Our house is about a foot out of plumb, pitched forward and to the right, the underpinning broken off in the cellar even with the ground.  The front is broken loose from the main building.  We cannot tell how firm it is, but if it does fall it will only lurch forward and settle gently back, so they say.

But, we are camping in the back yard; have a stove out here and a tent stretched over the clothes line; and we all sleep under there three in a bed.  The children slept but not a wink did Bessie and I sleep.  That maddening sound of blasting in Frisco every few minutes sounded like the death knell of thousands.

In that awful stillness to lie there and listen to that in the distance on one side and the cracking and creaking or our house on the other, it was terrible.  Bessie and Lem got out of bed and got their clothes and made their way to the door with the children and fell out of the door.  The sights they saw were plenty, houses toppling over, screaming women and children.  When I got out, there was another shake that took us nearly off our feet and the rumbling down town was deafening.  We could hear the buildings falling in in all directions.  I can safely say there is not a building in the town that is not damaged more or less.

San Jose High School

photograph submitted by Frank Soule

When we were able to creep into the house, we got our clothes on, and this is what we saw: every picture that was hanging on the wall was twisted and turned almost upside down; every vase, ornament, and the top of my lamp were on the floor, wrecks; in Bessie’s room all the pictures came down with a crash and the mantle was cleared off as if it had been swept.  Soot, broken glass, and other debris covered the floor when the chimney fell.  Our china closet had glass doors on one side and wooden doors on the other.  These doors were opened first on one side and then on the other, and every dish was dumped on the floor first to one side and then to the other, broken to bits, of course, and then the doors were closed as if nothing had happened.  In the kitchen and pantry, there was broken crockery all over the floor, in the sink and everywhere, mixed with milk, butter, eggs and other provisions, and then a basketful of sprinkled clothes was scattered all about in the mixture; the cooking stove overturned, and a pall of soot, an inch or more in thickness covered the scene.  We cleaned it up and scrubbed the floor twice, but it still looks bad.  The chimney is down and we cannot have a fire in the kitchen.

The children are now out of school and will not go back again this term, and they will be set back again.  Isn’t that too bad?  We manage to keep them fed, so far.  The wholesale houses are putting up prices already, and with all the refuges in here from Fresno, numbering up in the thousands, and still coming, our supplies will soon be exhausted.  There is not a brick or stone business house standing, but what is cracked all to pieces.  The downtown district is a sorry sight.

The Menlo

The Menlo is six feet out of plumb in some places, and people stand by the hour and look to see it fall.  Poor Mrs. Calvert will loose everything, for they are not even allowed even to get out their clothes.  The back end of the house has fallen in, and so is St. James and hundreds of other places.

The Vendome Annex

The annex of the Vendome simply parted from the main building and went down, but a very large tree at the side caught the roof and supported it a bit, so that most of the people could crawl out.  When we got up there they were pulling the timbers off those who were pinned down and were able to talk.  The beautiful home of the Daughterty’s , opposite the Vendome, has about 14 room; it looks from the side as if it had run away and sat down.

I never saw such nervous people in by the thousands as one sees now, every time the houses quiver, but they fly to the street screaming.  From Mt. Hamilton, the word came there would be another shock in ten hours.  It was pretty true, for about 3:15 she came; and it was maddening to see the people take to the middle of the street, families all in each others arms, screaming and waiting to see all they had taken away.  But while that was a good shake, it was an infant in comparison to the other one.  Oh, I have read of such things and thought I could feel for other people in that fix, but never before in my life was I so sure of death and in such a way too.

Agnew Mental Hospital

Lem has a night job as patrol out at the insane asylum where 110 were killed and 500 injures.  He says it is awful.  They have the more violent corralled in a pen, and watch them day and night.  About 100 are loose roaming the woods.  The sick were laid out all over the grounds today.  They are getting up tents.  It is really too bad more were not killed.

I write for the crowd.  All send love and best wishes to you each.  How happy we were when first news got through that Los Angeles was all right.  I looked for message from Frank until I tired and found 500 ahead of me.  I am sure we are all nervous wrecks.


Note:  The previous letter was written by Lulu Jorgenson Ware, to her sister Nancy Emma Wolfe, after the 1906 earthquake.  (Mrs. Wolfe was the wife of the Editor of the Los Angeles Herald, Frank E. Wolfe.)  It details how the John (Jack) Ware family and the Lemuel Jorgenson family (Lulu’s brother and sister-in-law) survived that terrible experience.  My grandparents, had passed on before I was a small child, but I vividly remember the panic that would overcome my mother every time we felt a quake.

Additional information and photos can be found in this previous article. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906


1906 Earthquake, San Jose, California — 1 Comment

  1. What a terribel tragedy. One of America’s worst. Remarkable recovery and rebuilding has taken place, but the scars still remain.


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