In the cool, sweet pre-dawn silence of April 18, 1906, clocks marked 5:00 am. Empty streets picked up the clip-clop of the milkman's horse. At the wholesale market, as men unloaded produce wagons, horses suddenly reared up, snorting and neighing. Police Sergeant Jesse Cook heard "Deep and terrible rumbling." Looking up Washington Street, Cook actually saw the earthquake coming: "The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me, and billowing as they came." At 12.5 minutes after 5, San Franciscans awake to the alarming jangle of church bells - not rung by human hand - but thrown against collapsing steeple walls. For many - Doomsday had arrived.
High Noon on April 18th, San Franciscans Hurry Down Market Street, Pell-Mell Towards the Ferry Building... Caught in the never-ending stream of buggies and wagons, refugees on foot carry birdcages and bag of valuables. Hand-in-hand, they step over cracks, dodge electric wires, and hurry past burnt-out walls - each home left behind in an agonizing decision. If the Ferry Tower stood, then ferries could carry them away from the city in flames.
In the Distant Haze the Reassuring Ferry Tower Became the Sole Symbol of Safe Escape... Only ferries could carry the continuing stream of refugees away from the city of flames. From Fort Mason, Brigadier General Fredrick Funston chose to save the Ferry Building with its functional slips as the most efficient way to get people out of the city and bring medical supplies and dynamite in. Salt water pumped by Navy launches kept the Ferry Building, the adjoining Post Office, and Harbor Emergency Hospital in operation.
Last View of San Francisco's Firestorm from the Ferry, April 18... Broken gas lines ignited fires at scattered points all over the city. By noon, acting Fire Chief Doherty reported fifty-odd fires put out by his men. Water mains were broken. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water stored in storm sewers and cisterns were drained during the first day of the fires that burned for four days. Finally, firemen could only help the military dynamite homes along Van Ness to stop the fire. From this time on, San Franciscans would bracket events in their lives with "Before the fire..." or "After the fire."
Sight-seers Took the Ferry Over to See What Was Left of San Francisco, May 1906... Tourists had to be quick to dodge lorries with lumber or debris, and wagons of bricks or beer. In this view from the tower, two tracks carry streetcars down Market Street - starting only only days after the great shake. By May, sidewalks are being planked; street corner vendors sell souvenirs of fused glass. Where Sacramento Street angles off to the right, workmen lay floors and hammer away at new walls. Decades of depression had ended: at last, everyone had a job.
The Corps of Engineers Edict: "Tear Down the Ferry Building..." Cooler heads prevailed. Port engineers wrapped 5000 feet of heavy steel cable around the loose stone facing on the tower until it could be replaced with cement. The clock stopped at 5:15 - two minutes fast - a dramatic symbol to everyone who had lived through that dawn, and a reminder to San Franciscans to pause and think of those who did not.