Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Portland to the Rescue: The Rose City's Response to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Portland to the Rescue: The Rose City's Response to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Article excerpt

APRIL 18 BEGAN IN PORTLAND much the same as other days. In copies of the Morning Oregonian that landed on front porches and lay stacked at newsstands, readers found stories about the state primary, in which candidates sought nominations for U.S. senator, representative, governor, and state treasurer, and an account of the previous evening's meeting during which the intrepid Abigail Scott Duniway had rallied volunteers for the ongoing woman suffrage campaign. (1) And then the day changed completely.

The night operator of the Postal Telegraph Company, F.W. Wegner, first suspected trouble at 5:12 a.m. He was on the San Francisco wire when the connection went dead. Eighteen minutes later, the Sacramento office relayed a report by way of Chicago: San Francisco had been struck by the worst earthquake in California history, causing "a raging hell of fire, ruin and death." (2) During the next several hours, word of San Francisco's fate traveled person-to-person, because few businesses or individuals owned telephones. Anxious Portlanders crowded outside the telegraph offices and pleaded to send messages to loved ones in the Bay City. None were accepted; too few lines were open. (3) During the first hours of the disaster, the only contact with San Francisco was via one military telephone line, two commercial lines based in Oakland, and the trans-Pacifi c cable to Manila. (4)

Although the Oregonian missed the biggest story of the new century with its early edition, the afternoon papers--the Portland Evening Telegram and the Oregon Daily Journal--published harrowing accounts of the disaster. "San Francisco in Ruins; 2,000 Dead in Earthquake; Flames Following Shocks Threaten to Destroy the Entire City" headlined the Oregon Daily Journal. That day, the Portland Evening Telegram sold 60,000 extra copies, distributing them still wet from the presses. (5) Based on the first reports alone, the California disaster would require a degree of relief organizing never before attempted in Portland.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 remained the greatest natural disaster in the United States for nearly one hundred years. The tragedy caused 3,000 fatalities, leveled much of the nation's ninth largest city, and left more than 200,000 people homeless. (6) San Franciscans required immediate and massive aid, including food, clothing, medications, treatment, and housing; but there was no federal agency or national Red Cross experienced with providing relief of that magnitude. (7) As firestorms raged across the Bay City, communities beyond the disaster zone rallied to help earthquake sufferers. The people of Portland, Oregon, were among the first to organize a comprehensive relief campaign.

Public reaction to the calamity virtually halted Portland's business and social life. Shock and worry distracted voters from a primary election and disrupted the campaign for woman suffrage. Portlanders roused themselves to help San Francisco with a degree of compassion and commitment unparalleled in the city's first fifty-five years. This chapter in Portland's history has been overshadowed by larger events of the time, including a surge in the city's population, significant commercial expansion, and a push for political reform. Yet an examination of the episode reveals not only the impressive performance of relief operations but also the degree of community groups' preparedness for such an emergency. Women's organizations, already active in what social reformer Jane Addams described as "civic housekeeping," were especially primed for the challenge. (8)

Portland's response to earlier calamities was modest compared to the earthquake relief undertaken in 1906. On September 8, 1900, a terrifying hurricane with winds reaching 130 miles per hour struck Galveston, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. A fifteen-foot storm surge inundated what the winds had not flattened. Eight thousand people died. The Portland Chamber of Commerce sent five hundred dollars. …

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