1906: The First Phase of Reconstruction

April 27, 2017 | By | Reply More

The ruins of San Francisco had hardly cooled before the first phase of reconstruction, necessarily a negative one, began: this consisted in the removal of debris, ruined stone walls, and masses of twisted steel.

All this would have to be done before streets could be reopened and communication resumed between various areas. It was not long before temporary railroad tracks were laid on Market Street and other key streets; whereas, earlier, in the 1850, the ”Steam Paddies” had first removed sand hills to establish Market and other streets, now these earlier engines yielded to newer vehicles of reconstruction.

Steam shovels and mechanical cranes vied with the steady old horse and wagon, hundreds of each, to collect debris and haul it away as quickly as possible from areas that were to be restored. Estimates have it that about $20 million were spent in this first phase of the reconstruction of San Francisco.

(An interesting problem concerned the opening of some safes and bank vaults. Sad experience quickly proved that a considerable period of cooling off was necessary before these safes and vaults could be opened, because the contents would burst into flame on contact with outside oxygen. When necessary precautions were taken, however, it was found that, at least with properly built safes, the contents were in generally satisfactory condition; as expected, however, various degrees of charring of paper records was observed“)

It would be expected that Mayor Schmitz would again be heard from in his observations and hopes for the rebuilding of his beloved city.

Under the date of June 15, 1906, his office issued a statement; after reminding his fellow citizens that they had been party to one of the greatest scenes of destruction in history. Schmitz invoked the ”never-give-up” determination of the Pioneers who had founded San Francisco while expressing his complete confidence that a newer and better city would rise from its ashes.

Referring to the proposed plans for reconstruction, he went on to say:

We build not for today but for all the generations to come … in the burned districts new buildings will be erected, fire and earthquake proof, of modern architecture and construction, presenting to the view of those who visit San Francisco a city of magnificent edifices But all of this cannot be done without a great deal of sacrifice; our streets in any case must be widened, some must have the grades reduced and the plan of Mr. DH. Burnham should be the ideal for which we strive.’

After detailing at some length the Opposition that had been already expressed by certain vested interests in the city who wished little innovation to be introduced into its planning for the future, the Schmitz statement ended with these exhortatory words:

Let us therefore put aside all partisan feeling, all feeling of antagonism from whatever cause, and let us determine to lend what aid we can toward the rebuilding of the greater San Francisco, a city second to none and equal to any in the world. We can do this because, in the trying times of the past few months, the courage, perseverance and determination of the people have been proven beyond a doubt; with that courage, perseverance and determination properly directed, we cannot fail, but we must and will see the rebuilding of San Francisco greater, grander and more beautiful than ever-a city that will stand for generations to come as a standard for others to follow.

Obviously, although it was one thing (and a good and necessary thing too) to exhort, there were bound to be a multitude of problems that had to be faced in a resurgent city. Chief among these was that connected with the insurance angle of the disaster and reconstruction period and, even now, there are still some matters in controversy here. Writing in September 1906, Schmitz expressed his dissatisfaction with the efforts of certain insurance companies to satisfy their obligations to their clients in San Francisco: he wrote that

“… the property loss Was Worth fully a half billion dollars, of which amount $250,000,000 wits covered by insurance. The attempts of the insurance companies to avoid paying their losses have become a national scandal.”

He continued:

Of the hundreds of companies doing business here, those that at know ledged their liabilities and paid in full could be counted on one’s fingers. Merchants, householders and all classes of people have suffered greatly and are suffering today because they cannot get their insurance money. In thousands of cases, the amount represented by insurance policy is the sole capital left, and that is impaired but the people have taken up this question with the same spirit and determination they displayed throughout the catastrophe. Those companies that repudiated their just liabilities will be pursued through the courts and exposed to the world.

Despite his strictures on the insurance companies, Mayor Schmitz was quite enthusiastic, and it would seem with reason, over the picture presented to the world by San Francisco five months after the disaster. In an article that he wrote for a San Francisco periodical the Independent, he told of the positive factors as he saw them:

Notwithstanding the temporary Financial distress, the resumption of business as soon as the smoke cleared away was remarkable; buildings arose as if by magic upon foundations yet hot and new houses were raised.

During July, over 25,000 men were doing construction in the burned district; some 5,000 temporary buildings and 70 permanent structures were under way; permits for the erection of over 400 additional buildings at an expense of over $3,500,000 were issued. Bank clearings amounted to $160,631,793, an increase of 83.4% over those of July, 1905. By July, more than 200,000 people who had lost their homes and had gone temporarily to suburban towns had returned to the city.

Those receiving relief in the bread lines had been reduced from about 250,000 to 17,000; hotels had reopened with first class accommodations and labor was in demand in all quarters; building material was bought up before it reached port and dealers noticed a demand for high class goods; seven theatres were coining money and banks had so much cash on hand that they could now ship several millions to the eastern states.

With such conditions only eighty days after the fire, the city is ready, eager, and willing to take up the matter of rebuilding upon the scale pr0posed for the greater San Francisco. After what we have gone through, nothing is too great for us to undertake, nothing too difficult for us to accomplish.

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog, History

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