Historic Earthquakes

San Francisco, California
1906 04 18 13:12:21 UTC
Magnitude 7.8

A Look Back in Time:
An interview with a survivor of the
1906 San Francisco Earthquake

by Henry Spall
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia

Mr. Bert L. Smith, Jr., was born in Eureka, Nevada, and was in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, at the time of the great earthquake of 1906. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Emily, in Santa Rosa, California, 45 miles north of San Francisco. From 1926 to his retirement in 1966, he had various assignments in the field of agriculture with such organizations as the U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies and State and Federal farm and water agencies. For 18 years he was involved in activities of the Commmonwealth Club of California and has been a Regent of the University of California.

H.S.: What brought your family to San Francisco on April 18, 1906?
Smith: First let me back up a little. My mother's family founded Centennial, Wyoming. My father's family was in the woolen business in Massachusetts. My father decided to come out West with his brother, and he landed in Wyoming long enough to work in the bank and marry my mother. After a short time in Mexico, my parents followed the mining boom into Nevada. You have to understand that in those days mining was either boom or bust.

H.S.: Where were you living in 1906?
Smith: Eureka, Nevada. My father was in banking and had various interests in the mining business. The year 1906 was a good one, and my family was enjoying a period of temporary affluence. So we decided to visit San Francisco for the shopping, but largely so my parents could go to the Opera and hear the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso.

Keys to Room 802, Palace Hotel, San Francisco.
Keys to Room 802, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, where the Smith family was staying at the time of the 1906 earthquake.

H.S.: And you stayed at the Palace Hotel?
Smith: Of course. That was what you did in those days if you were affluent. Caruso stayed there too - although we didn't see him. We brought 1 or 2 trunks with us, rather more modest than the 200 trunks we were told that Caruso had brought with him.

H.S.: Did your parents take you along to the Opera?
Smith: No, my sister and I were with a nurse in the hotel. But I remember the family talking about how wonderful it was to see Caruso in person, a great privilege. It was evidently a delightful highlight of the early life.

H.S.: What happened at 5:18 a.m. the next morning?
Smith: Well, of course, it was dark at the time. I remember distinctly being awakened by the earthquake - and the shock, the terror of it all. And the efforts of my mother to calm us children as best she could. Then we heard the panic from the room next door where out friends, the George Bartletts, were staying. They couldn't get to their children in an adjoining room because the earthquake had jammed the door shut.

H.S.: What did your family do then?
Smith: Well, you must remember that I was a small child at the time, and at that age you don't recall all the minute details. But several distinct memories have stuck in my mind. I recall being dressed on the bottom steps of the magnificent stairway in the lobby of the hotel. There was fallen plaster from the ceiling all around us, and I couldn't help wondering if the chandeliers were going to fall, too.

One of my most vivid memories is of my mother with her hair uncombed and not braided around her head as she usually had it. That made a distinct impression on me.

I recall the discussions about if the Palace would burn and when it would burn. As you know, it survived the earthquake rather well, but it burned down later as the fire swept through the city. The answer from the hotel manager was that despite the very latest fire-prevention measures in the hotel, he thought it was probably going to burn. Perhaps because of this he gave us all our room keys as mementos.

H.S.: What then?
Smith: We moved out of the hotel, and I recall our family riding on a wagon to Golen Gate Park. Here we lived for a few days in the tents that the Army had provided. We didn't have anything. All we had were the clothes we had walked out of the hotel with. At Golden Gate Park, I recall seeing the soldiers and the discussion about whether they were going to dynamite to try to check the fire.

Eventually the family was able to get on a train (at the station at Third and Townsend) to San Jose and then go up the east side of the Bay to Berkeley. Here we stayed with the Dewey Powell family for a few days until we were back on our feet and could return to Nevada.

In those days it used to be up over the hill on Southern Pacific, then back to Eureka over a narrow gauge railroad from Palisade (near Elko), which was just a wide place in the track.

H.S.: Did the earthquake have any long-lasting effects on your family?
Smith: I don't think my mother ever recovered from the shock of going through something like that. From that day on she always wanted to have a light on at night or a candle with matches. She was never going to be caught in the dark again. She always had a money belt with money in it of course. When you think about it, these were very sensible precautions.

H.S.: What about your father?
Smith: My father took it almost routinely. After the ups and downs of the mining business, he was used to commotions. We moved back to Eureka and then to Rhyolite. The next year, 1907, was very bad in mining, and our affluence was gone. We moved to Tonopah, then to Elko. My father just moved around according to the changing fortunes of the mining ventures in Nevada.

Smith family picture, Rhyolite, Nevada.
Bert L. Smith, Jr., (second from right) with his mother and sister, flanked by this aunt and uncle on the porch of their house in Rhyolite, Nevada, some time after the 1906 earthquake.

H.S.: But eventually you moved back to California.
Smith: Yes. After a short period in Dallas, I graduated from the University of California at Davis in 1926 and have been in California ever since.

H.S.: Have you been through many other earthquakes?
Smith: I would guess that my wife and I have been through 15 to 20 earthquakes since we were married. Curiously one of the first ones I experienced after the 1906 earthquake occurred while my family was living in Oakland for a short while from 1910 to 1911. We had all gone to the Curran Theater in San Francisco. As we approached the balcony, we got a rather severe shake. There was an incipient panic. Don't forget that this was only a few years after the 1906 earthquake, so you didn't know what was going to happen. We got seated, and the manager told the audience not to be alarmed. Everything was in order. He said that we were safer in the theater than anywhere else. Just to relax and the show would go on. And we did! And it did! Things like that stick in my mind.

H.S.: Any other memorable earthquakes?
Smith: Yes, quite a few. While we were fishing off the pier on holiday at Long Beach in 1918, we had a little earthquake which rattled the whole pier and rippled the water. My aunt lost her precious heirlooms in the 1933 earthquake at Long Beach when a corner china cabinet tipped over. Ever since then we've always buckled our cabinets to the wall.

I recall my wife's first earthquake experience. We were living in Berkeley at the time. She was getting breakfast, and suddenly the silverware began dancing around on the table. "Something is happening," she called out to me. "It's just an earthquake," I replied, "don't worry." So she went on frying the eggs.

Then there was 1958. My office was on the 9th floor of 821 Market Street in San Francisco. My partner in the olive business came into the office and propped his chair back up against the wall. Suddenly, he said "I'm having a heart attack." And I said "No, you're not. We're having an earthquake." The building just shook a little, and that was that.

H.S.: Others?
Smith: Yes. The first time our three children experienced an earthquake was in Berkeley once in the middle of the night, and they all dived into bed with us. We were at Santa Barbara during the summer of 1952 relaxing in front of a motel when we felt a severe shake. I said to my wife that somewhere, someone was getting a devil of an earthquake. That was the Tehachapi (Kern County) earthquake. Later on that summer we had ranching friends who went through the Bakersfield earthquake. The only thing that happened to them was that their liquor came out of a closet, and the husband cut his foot on the broken glass as he was running out of the door.

H.S.: Any earthquakes while you've lived in Santa Rosa?
Smith: Yes - the big earthquake in 1969. It was about 10 o'clock at night. We had no damage, but the chandelier rocked back and forth. We went out into the street and said hello to the neighbors. That's what you do afterwards: Check on everyone else.

Bert Smith, 1977
"Earthquakes are something we have to live with. You can take a few simple precautions. You can do certain things. If we get another big one, then so be it. That's life."

H.S.: Your were in the 1906 earthquake. Does it bother you that 70 years later you are now retired in the same general area?
Smith: Not at all. Earthquakes are a fact of life. It's just something you have to live with. You remember what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do. You can take some precautions, like buckling down the cabinets, having a stock of food for a week or two, putting some money away. We have a wrench handy to shut off the gas. We live in a wood frame house, bolted to the concrete foundation. You don't need to increase the hazard if you can avoid it.

H.S.: What are your views on earthquake prediction?
Smith: I think it's intensely interesting. I'm very concerned over the economic impact if the scientists were to say that within a stated period there would be a severe earthquake.

H.S.: How would a prediction affect your life style?
Smith: I'm reminded of what my uncle, Sheridan Downey, once said. He was a U.S. Senator from California, and, after he retired in 1952, he was asked what he would do if he knew that an atom bomb might be dropped. He replied, "As far as I am concerned I will go to my apartment and conduct my life as normally as I can. I am not going to panic.' I know earthquake prediction is somewhat different - but that would be my reaction, too. Earthquake are something we have to live with. You can take a few simple precautions. You can do certain things. If we get another big one, then so be it. That's life.

Abridged from Earthquake Information Bulletin, May - June 1977, Volume 9, Number 3.