We all know about that morning 100 years ago Tuesday when the skin of the Earth decided to stretch, move around for a while, then settle back down with a whole new face.
But the ground wasn't the only thing that shifted and settled elsewhere back then. A lot of surviving residents did too. More than 200,000 immediately ferried over to Oakland, at least for starters, gaining some safe distance from the burning city.
Many returned to San Francisco after it began to recover and others moved on to other towns in the region.
But thousands stayed in Oakland possibly more than 40,000, historians say. People bought houses here, had kids, opened businesses, shopped in stores, paid local taxes, put down roots and gave Oakland a big leg up toward becoming the city it is today. At becoming a “there.”
One city's catastrophe, leads to another's serendipity
“The quake and the influx of people and businesses really boosted Oakland, kicking off about 10 years of unprecedented civic improvements,” said Stacey Zwald, curator of the Oakland Museum of California's exhibit “Oakland to the Rescue!” part of the museum's larger display on the 1906 quake. That was when Oakland passed millions of dollars in bonds that ultimately built Lakeside Park and the new highrise City Hall many of the upgrades that we still see today, he said.
“The social impact was enormous, and in the long run San Francisco's calamity proved to be one of the key events of Oakland's history,” writes local historian Beth Bagwell in her book, “Oakland: The Story of a City.”
“Whatever their reasons, tens of thousands decided to stay in Oakland.
Businesses came too, their temporary emergency quarters in Oakland became permanent,” Bagwell wrote.
Of course, San Francisco eventually bounced back and surpassed Oakland again in size and scope. Yet the quake was a defining moment for this East Bay city.
It was not an overnight success. But almost. Listings in the 1906 city directory had doubled by 1907, Zwald said.
Between 1900 and 1910, Oakland's population grew from 67,000 to 150,000. There were about 1,000 African Americans here in 1900, more than 3,000 in 1910. And the Asian population jumped from 1,000 to about 5,000, as people fled San Francisco's devastated Chinatown.
A business directory published in May 1906, now in the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library, lists hundreds of businesses and businessmen who had relocated in Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and Alameda.
Oakland's boom years after the quake saw the repaving of downtown streets, plans for new schools and the building of a “magnificent modern hotel” the Hotel Oakland at Harrison and 13th, now a senior housing complex, according to newspaper clippings from the era.
Citizens approved $8 million in bonds for upgrades. A park commission was formed in 1908, creating a system of parks and playgrounds such as Bushrod, Mosswood and Defemery. Lakeside Park at Lake Merritt was finally developed. The municipal boathouse. The colonnade.
Of course, earthquake and fire safety measures were required on all new construction.
The police force quickly grew from 65 men to 208. And the city's boundaries extended to annex 45 square miles, encompassing several unincorporated areas. Housing and new construction boomed and roared into the 20s.
This fervor wasn't all because of the quake. Before it struck, Oakland was growing anyway, as were many Bay Area towns during that era. Oakland had become quite the commuter city for people who worked in San Francisco and lived here, taking the ferries to work. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran through Oakland, and millionaire Borax Smith's Key System streetcar line contributed to general expansion in the area.
Also, a progressive was in office, Oakland Mayor Frank Mott, often considered a sort of Franklin D. Roosevelt of his day. He would later be called “the man who built Oakland.”
He had big plans for the city, and things were on the move.
Then the quake hit. There was immediate chaos, even in Oakland. Yet there were only about six casualties here, minimal damage and no fire so Oakland was able to serve as the hub of the relief effort, Zwald said. Some refugees later described it as a “paradise” compared to the destruction in San Francisco.
Crossing over for help Ferries were the first route of escape, and dazed, weak and injured people started arriving in droves. Local residents here opened their doors to help. So did churches and public buildings. There were at least 20 tent camps in city parks.
Even Idora Park a 17acre amusement park with a bandshell and carousel in North Oakland that had opened in 1903 near Telegraph and 56th street became a center for displaced San Francisco thespians. They ended up forming the Idora Park Theater Company right after the quake and entertaining some of the quake victims and performing there for the next four years.
Gov. George Pardee a lifelong Oaklander himself rushed by train from Sacramento and camped out in Mott's office at City Hall during the weeks following the disaster to help organize relief, until his wife came down and made him get a room at the Hotel Metropole. Pardee had a house here now the Pardee Home Museum but it had been rented out to another family, said Pardee museum director David Nicolai.
“Because San Francisco was effectively cut off from the rest of the nation, all the thousands of offers of aid came to Mayor Mott's office in Oakland, which became Gov. Pardee's office for the time,” Nicolai said. “For those six weeks, Oakland was the unofficial seat of the state government.”
And it became the center of many people's worlds.
The Oakland Chamber of Com merce set up the Oakland Relief Committee, with subcommittees for housing, provisions, employment and health, raising nearly $5,000 the first day.
Oakland quickly became one of the biggest havens for ChineseAmerican evacuees from San Francisco's demolished Chinatown, with businessman Lew Hing leading Chinese relief efforts here.
Lew lived in San Francisco's Chinatown and ran the Pacific Coast Canning Co. in West Oakland on Pine Street, said his greatgrandson, Bruce Quan Jr. Lew lost his house in the city, so he got on a ferry and came to the cannery, where he quickly noticed no relief was extended to the Chinese, who were mostly in segregated tents near Lake Merritt.
“He opened the grounds of his business, paid for cooks to cook Chinese foods and provided thousands with clothing and a place to stay at the company,” Quan said. Lew eventually moved back to San Francisco, but his company remained, grew and in 1911 was one of Oakland's largest employers.
Oakland's initial reaction to the Chinese migration was not a positive one.
“People didn't want them here at first,” Quan said. “That was the sentiment of the day. But the refugees and their families who stayed ended up helping Oakland's Chinatown grow and develop.”
Others also made Oakland their permanent residence.
Here to stay
Stephen De Windt's grandparents were quake survivors who made their way to Oakland.”My grandfather, Henry Johnson, had his own barbershop in San Francisco,” said De Windt, 60, who now lives in Pasadena. “They came to Oakland, where my great uncle lived on Manila Avenue. They soon bought a house of their own on 61st Street both are still standing.”
De Windt's grandfather reopened his shop in San Francisco, but the family stayed in Oakland. “They were a very traditional, very cosmopolitan couple and had been very much a part of the fabric of San Francisco. But they loved living here and became true Oaklanders,” he said.
Many evacuees got married here.
From April 18 to May 18, there were 166 marriages in Alameda County of couples from San Francisco, said Ron Filion, comanager of SFgeneaology.
com, which is currently working on the San Francisco 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project.
“Of the San Francisco residents who escaped to Oakland, many became married there. Oakland played a major role in the lives of many of those couples,” Filion said.
Some of the first businesses to benefit from San Francisco's disaster were insurance companies, going strong with immediate business after the quake. Importers and wholesalers set up shop in Oakland's port. Breuner's furniture store and the Moore shipbuilding company moved here and remained.
Oakland real estate companies were loving it too, promoting their city as a safer place to live than San Francisco.
“Many people killed in flats and rooming houses,” read one newspaper ad. “But not in the suburbs. I have several new cottages in East Oakland and Fruitvale from $950 to $3,000.”
An old song quoted in a newspaper clipping sang out the general optimism for Oakland's growth: “Where did all the people go when Frisco burned? They all went to Oakland, and they never returned.”
“They thought Oakland would become The City,' “ Zwald said. “It didn't quite materialize that way, but Oakland did do a lot of growing up during that time.”
Contact Angela Hill at email@example.com.