1906: An Inconvenient Blessing | Ross Eric Gibson, Local History – Santa Cruz Sentinel

At 5:07 a.m. on April 18, 1906, Santa Cruz County awoke to a slight tremor, then a deep rumble, soon joined by a shaking that grew every second into a frightening melee, which cracked plaster and windows, cleared shelves, moved furniture and overturned fireplaces.

All the bells in the county rang spontaneously, from steeples, clock towers, schools and fire stations. In the village of Soquel, the bell tower of the Congregationalist church was broken from its frame. At the end of the tremor, as calm returned, people came out in their night clothes to inspect the damage.

For Watsonville, the silence was short-lived. The convent bell sounded a new alarm, soon echoed by the Watsonville fire bell. Moreland Notre Dame Academy was burning. Fire Chief George Tuttle led the response, only delayed because the back wall of City Hall had fallen on the machinery shed and buried their fire truck. As fast as they could, the firefighters dug up their engine and lit their soaker hoses on the fire, a miracle in itself, as most of the water pipes were broken and dry, and the Corralitos stream was cut off by a landslide. ground. While the wooden schoolhouse was not saved, firefighters parked their engine in the middle of the street to avoid further blockage.

In Santa Cruz, high water tables in downtown apartments caused several riverbank geysers to erupt, spouting water 20 to 30 feet into the air. South of Barson Street, the orchard at the Riverside Hotel had eruptions of sand and mud churning out of the ground like toothpaste.

The troughs at the new Brookdale hatchery produced small tidal waves that tossed the young trout to the ground. The workers quickly swept them up in dustpans and put them back in the troughs.

JJC Leonard was sleeping at his Sea Beach hotel in Beach Hill, when his baby boy woke him up. The boy said he didn’t like the noise and wanted to go back to the St. George Hotel. Leonard suddenly lunged, realizing the tops of the chimneys were falling and rumbling on the roof. He called the St. George and learned that the back wall of the hotel had collapsed. So he phoned for carpenters and masons. Not finding everything he wanted, he ordered a horse and, before 6 a.m., hired men to begin repairs. The kitchen fireplace was quickly functional enough to serve meals in the untouched Sea Beach dining room.

At 6 a.m., the Building Trades Council set up its headquarters in the unscathed Santa Cruz Carnegie Library, putting new projects on hold in favor of home repairs. Unreinforced masonry buildings were the main damage. Timber-framed structures resist earthquakes without problems, except when their chimneys have struck the roof or nearby brick walls have fallen on them.

Power went out when the Watsonville Power Plant’s boilers tipped over and its well filled with sediment. In Santa Cruz, workers risked electrocution to shut off a broken pipe that was spraying hot steam at a 2,500-volt generator. However, Santa Cruz’s power was restored at 3 p.m.

Miss Snedecor has worked tirelessly to provide uninterrupted telephone service in Santa Cruz. Yet those trying to reach Santa Cruz from neighboring counties were unaware that they had to bypass the Bay Area’s failing infrastructure by relaying their calls through Los Angeles. As a result, Santa Cruz seemed unresponsive. Trains attempting to leave the county had to return in the opposite direction, finding collapsed tunnels and damaged bridges. Even road bridges had 2-8 foot offsets, with roads blocked by rocks, trees, cracks and landslides.

As a giant plume of smoke rose north, fears grew that the disaster was not over. Henry Cowell wanted to join his family in San Francisco, so he rented John Perez’s electric speedboat. But the sea was so rough it threatened to flood the boat, so they headed back to Santa Cruz. This condition had even produced a tidal wave in San Francisco Bay that wiped out several East Bay docks. Perez said he would make another ocean attempt the next morning, and anyone else who wanted to go should be on the dock by 10 a.m. on April 19.


In San Jose, the Landon family home suffered $1,000 in damage. The destruction spread throughout San Jose, including a fire, as well as the choking smoke from the inferno of San Francisco. But the Landons learned they couldn’t reach their daughter in Santa Cruz because the county had been destroyed. So their teenage son Vernon got on his bike, hoping to cross the Santa Cruz Mountains and save his sister. He saw that the shaking was worse at the summit fault line, destroying the Redwood Hotel and many homes. Oakland Traction Co. president Ernest Heron and driver Morgan Miles attempted to reach Santa Cruz by car, but were turned away at Patchen Pass when warned the road was impassable. Vernon was undeterred, hiking and biking over or around every obstacle.

To his surprise, Vernon found that Santa Cruz showed little of the struggles that San Francisco and San Jose were experiencing. That evening, Heron and Miles arrived, having detoured through San Juan Bautista, entering Watsonville over the railroad bridge with planks for the ramps to overcome the approaches to the sunken bridge. Also that evening, County Supervisor Linscott and his wife traveled to Santa Cruz via the mountain road in a rented two-horse wagon. Linscott was relieved to be able to phone his daughter, Carrie, in Watsonville, and let her know that her mother and father were safe.

Compared to widespread destruction elsewhere, Santa Cruz had only five public-use buildings damaged: the county courthouse; the new Pilot Hose Fire Station (with pilots moving to Milo Hopkin’s “City Stables”), Chestnutwood’s Business College and Hihn Corner, both owned by FA Hihn; and the Farmers Union, which brought down walls on wooden structures housing the offices of the Electric Trolley on Soquel Aveenue and the Unique Theater on Pacific Avenue. All were unreinforced brick buildings; and it was found that the builder of the county courthouse had charged for rebar that had never been installed. Watsonville did worse, with damage to approximately nine unreinforced masonry buildings: City Hall, IOOF Building, Pajaro Valley Bank, Peck Building, Ford Department Store, Porter Building, Jefsen Block, Foresters Hall and $15,000 in damages to St. Patrick’s Church.

Linscott chastised the Santa Cruzans who complained about their plight, which in comparison had been a blessing, if only an inconvenience. Eyewitnesses told their horror stories in San Francisco and San Jose, but the masses of refugees did not panic, but were orderly and helpful. He inspired locals on April 20 to launch relief efforts and raise bedding, clothing and funds. Quilt-making machines were set up in the Sea Beach Ballroom, and the nearby Bay State Hotel produced free meals. Cottage City was expanded to accommodate refugees. Linscott spent the next day hard at work at the damaged county courthouse on Cooper Street, removing important county records and determining whether the building should be demolished or repaired. It has been rebuilt.


The Sentinel and Surf newspapers continued to publish, and the Pajaronian did not want Watsonville’s lack of electricity to quash the news. So a small pedal-operated printing press was connected by belt drive to their linotype machine, and, propelled by two burly boys, they took out the paper. But co-owner George Radcliff was concerned about his wife and others last seen in San Francisco. Hammond Weeks wanted to find his brother, architect Wm. Weeks; Judge Hiram Tuttle had offices in San Francisco; the other missing were Graniterock co-founder Warren R. Porter; Frederick Hihn of lumber, real estate and waterworks; Otto D. Stoesser visiting relatives; as well as Dr. Peter Watters and Dr. SC Rodgers. So a search party was assembled on April 20 to find 15 residents, with a letter signed and sealed by Watsonville Mayor WA Trafton, in hopes of getting them through the military barricades.

Yet Carl Christensen left Watsonville alone in an automobile on April 18, ferried people from San Jose to Oakland, then returned to San Jose to take people to San Francisco, where he entered at night, turning off his headlights and going down a hill. He returned to Watsonville on April 19, with Dr. Watters, Wm. Weeks, and WR Benteen. Weeks have been told of watching the fire from the Flood Building, watching the flames consume tall structures, all the while marveling at the resilience of the steel-framed structures.

FA Hihn arrived in Watsonville at 5 p.m. on April 20. After the earthquake, Hihn had been walking around San Francisco checking out his properties, which at first were safe, but when he returned the next day they had been completely destroyed. Around 1852, Hihn had already seen San Francisco repeatedly burned down by warring gangs. Yet for a man with great losses, Hihn was upbeat and optimistic, meeting with Wm. Weeks to plan the rebuilding of all that had been destroyed. All insurance was canceled for Santa Cruz County, covering no damages until two days after the earthquake, to ensure no one was tempted to burn down their properties for insurance.

For several weeks postage was free, delivering letters written on anything at hand, including chalk, and Mary Jane Hanly provided free medical assistance at her sanatorium. Refugees came to Santa Cruz to stay in their summer homes or rent tourist cabins. When a San Francisco orphanage was destroyed, 100 orphans were placed in the care of nuns at the Santa Maria Del Mar resort in Live Oak. As refugee cabins were later removed from San Francisco parks, a number were sent to Santa Cruz as ready-made summer cabins, which can still be found today.

San Francisco chose to rebuild in Santa Cruz using concrete, lime, and wood, with improved construction methods planned by Wm. Semaines.

Nobody wants a disaster. But learning from our mistakes can make difficulties an inconvenient blessing.

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