San Francisco History

One Year Later


Today—and This Day a Year Ago

AFTER a year of tremendous toil with shovel and sledge, hammer and nails and mortar and trowel, San Francisco takes her pencil to figure out what she has done. Item by item she puts everything down. Her swift flying fingers fill sheet after sheet with brief notations and Arabic signs that tell of progress, and when the tale of the twelvemonth is told she turns and smiles approval on her vast army of builders.

From the blackened waste that marked the track of the great fire of one year ago has risen a new city, yet unfinished, but far nearer completion than the optimists of the dark days ever dared to dream. Four hundred and ninety-seven blocks of stone and brick and wood, covering four square miles of territory—one-tenth of the city's total area—fell prey to the flaming octopus. Today, if all the new structures already in use stood side by side, with the usual allowance for streets and alleys, a third of the immense burned area would be covered. Include the buildings in course of construction and almost half of San Francisco's herculean task is accomplished.

Another work as important as that of the builders is in progress. Not content with adorning herself outwardly, the city is transforming her morals. For eleven months she devoted herself solely to material things, but now material rehabilitation, and moral regeneration go hand in hand. The fire came at a time when thieves, disguised as public officials, found her city hall a looters' paradise. Their castle crumbled, but while the ruins still glowed they gathered behind wooden walls and sold themselves anew. Pity was an unknown sentiment; patriotism they never knew; in disaster they saw only opportunity for greater plunder. While San Francisco, scarred and grimy and ragged, stood in the bread lines they sold her jewels and hid the clinking price of treachery in plush-lined caskets. San Francisco did not know them then, but greed o'erreached itself and at last her eyes were opeened. Now the campaign of regenration is on and the day of bribers and brib takers is over. Justice balances the scale while the builders work their miracles. The next anniversary of the new city will find honest men controlling every epartment of her government.

And now for the tale of wonderful material achievement. San Francisco never knew what she could do in a year until she was put to the test. Not only has she astonished herself, but she has astounded the world. During the two years following the Baltimore fire the building permits issued in that city aggregated $28,000,000. That was a record of which Baltimore was proud. But San Francisco's building permits for a single year, the time that has elapsed since the unparalleled calamity of last April, exceed the amazing sum of $50,000,000. In one year—eleven months, in fact, for practically nothing was done in the first month after the fire—San Francisco gathered more than twice as much money for rebuilding as Baltimore managed to scrape together in double the time.

The amount of money expended for reconstruction in the year of miracles that has just passed is estimated at $75,000,000. Of this amount about $25,000,000 was furnished by savings banks, the only kind of banking institutions permitted by law to lend money on real estate. Many more millions came from capitalists, who never for a moment lost faith in the future of the city. Insurance money was applied to rebuilding as fast as it could be coaxed or wrested from the insurance companies. Structure by structure and block by block the new city rose from its ashes. Rapidly improvised business thoroughfares temporarily took the place of ruin-lined streets once given over to shoppers, and then the real work of rehabilitation began. Fifty-nine miles of streets made impassable by debris were cleared. More than 200 miles of street railways, rendered inoperative because of warped rails and falling walls, were restored to use. Millions and millions of tons of stone and brick and twisted steel were removed. This was only preliminary work, but the cost was great. One instance will suffice. The bill for the removal of the debris of the Palace hotel, one of the many big buildings destroyed by the flames, calls for $90,000. Still this is nothing compared to the gain that will follow. The new Palace hotel will represent an outlay of $3,500,000.

Labor has profited greatly during the last year. Of the $75,000,000 paid out for rehabilitation, 40 per cent, which means $30,000,000, has gone to the workers. At present 50,000 men are engaged in the building industry in San Francisco. Before the fire the entire number of workers in the building trades did not exceed 20,000. Now twice and a half that number of men are employed, at an average wage higher than ever before paid in San Francisco—higher than is paid in any other city in the world. Even though the average be estimated as low as $4 a day, these men, in the aggregate, receive $200,000 every working day—surely enough to insure the prosperity of the keeps of shops, for most of these men live well and believe in keeping money in circulation.

Now, as to the details of the work accomplished or in hand. A recent compilation—it is six weeks old, and San Francisco hs made great strides in the last six weeks—divides the building permits as follows: Twenty-seven class A buildings, $5,664,000; 62 class B buildings, $4,755,300; 752 class C buildings, $20,475,577; 448 frame buildings, $21,557,326; alterations, $5,066,405. These figures prove that San Francisco has done with temporary construction and is building for the future. Frame structures sometimes replace their kind, but more often skyscrapers are growing where none grew before. All the class A permits are for new buildings. The expenditures for the restoration of big structures like the Claus Spreckels building, which were only damaged by the fire, are inlucded in the permits for alterations. The repairing of these bildings, more than a dozen in number, will soon be completed, and thousands of artisans will be added to the army now engaged in restoring blocks that disappeared in the fire. The magnificent Fairmont hotel opens today, and in a few months the rejuvenated St. Francis will takes its place as one of the palaces of comfort of the new era.

That the business of San Francisco is greater than ever before is evidenced by her bank clearings. The total for March, 1906, the month preceding the disaster, was $185,417,224.93. March, 1907, comes to the front with $187,870,476.70, a gain of $2,463,251.77 over the corresponding month of last year—a year which up to the time of the calamity was the most prosperous in the history of the city.

Population figures also afford fine proof of San Francisco's progress. On the morning of April 18, 1906, the city held half a million persons, about 50,000 of whom were not permanent residents. Within two weeks the population was reduced by departures until the total stood at 175,000, a loss of 325,000. This was the lowest mark. The tide changed and the flow cityward began, slowly at first, but soon swelling into a flood that kept up until the residence portion of the city would hold no more. The number of persons now in San Francisco is 435,000, only 65,000 less than the highest estimate at the time of the fire. This is not a guess. It is so close to the truth that a census would not show a difference of 5000 either way. The calculation is made by the superintendent of carriers of the local postoffice, a man who estimates population for the United States government. His figures work out thus: There are 37,000 houses in San Francisco. Under the present crowded conditions the average of residents is seven to a house. This gives 259,000. In addition there are 125,000 persons living in basements that were not occupied before the disaser, and 54,000 persons who make their home in tents, shacks and stables. Such are the figures gathered by the men who carry the mail, and their experience makes them good judges of the growth with the present rate of house building, good authorities predict that before the year ends San Francisco will not only reach but pass the half million mark. An interesting fact, relevant at this stage of the recital, is that the four cities on San Francisco bay—namely, Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley and San Francisco—have at the present moment an aggregate population of 675,000, or 55,000 more inhabitants than the four cities claimed the day before the calamity. Many thousands of persons who live within a radius of fifty miles still call this city their home, and will return to it as soon as the extension of the residence district now under way gives them opportunity to obtain suitable places of abode.

Meanwhile, San Francisco prepares for the future. What she has done in various parts of the burned district is a guarantee that she will fulfill her promises. The fire laid waste Telegraph hill, the valley to the west, climbed Russian hill and swept North beach, leaving nothing but ruin in its track. Today this same district is practically rebuilt. The work of restoration began as soon as the flames were subdued. Temproary structures sufficed for the moment, but as fast as a home or a store arose amid the ashes a temproary structure came down. Month by month the work went on without cessation. Zeal aided ambition, and now the whole territory mentioned presents a better condition than before the fire, for its homes are not only new but more substantial. A similar state of activity was early manifested in the devastated portion of the Mission district, with the result that it has been almost entirely restored. While this work was going on the builders labored busily on Market and Mission streets, from the ferries to Eleventh and out McAllister street, Golden Gate avenue, Turk, Eddy, Ellis, O'Farrell, Geary, Post and Sutter streets toward Van Ness avenue. Wherever they moved the genie of Aladdin did their bidding, and buildings, big and little, took form, as though the dear old lamp of childhood had never lost its power.

A year has passed. Until now San Francisco never thought to reckon the days. Her time was taken up with looking after the wants of her people. Pessimists sneered and detractors laughed at her, but her mind was fixed on the moving of the mountain of difficulties and she did not heed. With brave heart and willing hands she toiled to regain the treasures of half a century. Day by day the mountain dwindled and day by day something of her own came back to her. After all, it seemed that her treasures were not lost, but only hidden by the envious fire god. Even now she is rich again. Hope is not here, but faith. The pessimist kneels repentant at her feet and she bids him rise and partake of the blessing. She smiles on her detractors. There is work still to be done, and scorn never yet built a city. She showers her money upon the builders. In the year to come a hundred millions more will flow from her coffers in a golden stream. Other hundreds of millions will follow.

Then let this be no day of mourning and lamentation, but of gratitude and thanksgiving. Between April 18, 1906, and today has been written upon the hills of San Francisco, enduringly and large enough for all the world to read, a record that might make any city, any people proud—a record of faith and strength and courage the like of which is not in all human history. And in that record shines magnificent promise for the future. The essence of the greatness of San Francisco, her matchless, quenchless spirit, earthquake proved and fire tested, is and every will be her best and biggest asset. It will make her—is this day making her—bigger, better, richer and cleaner than ever she had dreamed of being. Today let us remember and rejoice.


Source: San Francisco Call, 18 April 1907, page 8.

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