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'All, All Is Destruction'

Displaced students, crumbled buildings, a fear of famine. A member of the Class of 1907 explains how the great quake devastated Stanford— and how the University’s spirit would survive.

Courtesy Stanford University Archives

THE SKIES FELL: The University's centerpiece sustained extensive damage, and did not reopen until 1913.

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Stanford students were shaken from their beds at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, by a major earthquake with a magnitude now estimated at 7.9 on the Richter scale. The Bay Area death toll from the earthquake and resulting San Francisco fire is thought to be more than 2,000. On campus, two died: sophomore Junius Hanna, who was crushed by the collapse of a chimney at Encina Hall, and staff member Otto Gerdes, who was killed by a falling smokestack shortly after he shut off the electricity to University buildings. Stanford President David Starr Jordan lamented the deaths and observed, “Had the earthquake taken place in the daytime, the loss of life would have been appalling.” By noon that day, Georgina Lyman, a junior English major who lived at the Kappa Alpha Theta house on Lasuen Street, was writing to her family in Fort Smith, Ark. In that and another letter three days later, Lyman captures the feelings of many on campus: anxiety, hope, resolve, the urge to help those less fortunate and the desire to return to normality. Lyman’s letters appear below in slightly abridged form. Stanford Historical Society member Karen Bartholomew, ’71, who writes the Century at Stanford column for this magazine, provides additional context.

Stanford University, April 18, 1906
My Dear Family—

It is all so terrible I can hardly collect my senses to write. It’s so strange to be sitting out on the lawn waiting for the reaction shock. I don’t much believe it is coming, for it was foretold for 11 o’clock and now it is about 12.

I suppose by the time this letter reaches you you will have heard all sorts of reports about the earthquake; I hope they have been true. All wires are down, no communications save to San Jose by train. The trains to the city go up, but none come down. So we ourselves don’t know how general the shock was. Here it was frightful, and millions of dollars worth of damage has been done. I’ll try to tell you how it was, but my thoughts are confused as yet.

About five this morning I was awakened and just as I turned over to go to sleep again, a trembling began that grew into jerks. I knew immediately what it meant and wasn’t a bit surprised when my bed began hopping across the room. About that time the pictures began to come down and the desk toppled over, I was going for Polly’s bed. After two falls I reached her and we sat and waited—never thought it might be better to leave the house!

From Polly’s bed we could see out of the windows the Memorial Church tower, the chimney, or rather we did not see them—just clouds and clouds of dust around them. Out of the other window we saw the Chi Psi house collapsed inward. Oh! it was frightful. We were shaking so we could not see other things shake. Pretty soon Mrs. Greer and some of the other girls came tumbling in. After what seemed an hour or so, the shaking stopped. I decided afterwards I knew how jelly felt when someone had cooked it. We were all struck dumb for a time, and then rushed down stairs to see the damage. We suffered less than most people. But our down stairs plastering will all have to come off.

Well, as soon as we had seen the damage done to the house we dressed and went forth to see the damage elsewhere. Oh, dear, dear people if ever there was such a destruction of the beautiful. You can’t imagine it unless you have seen Roman ruins and the like. Words are beyond me. At first the destruction didn’t impress me for I was so thankful there had been no great loss of life (only two lives, as we know now, one a hall man, the other a fireman at the quad.) But after we had walked around the buildings and fully saw the church. It is too dreadful to describe. I can’t dwell on it. I could not stand it longer when I turned from the Memorial church and looked out through the memorial court. For there was the statue of the Stanford family, the only thing that was left intact. Everything is twisted and wrecked. The top grill from the arch—all, all is destruction. Even if I had the power of the greatest writer on earth, I could not describe it.

April 21, 1906
Dear Family—

I have tried to write but things have happened so fast, and all has been so upset, I just couldn’t.

That first day I started to describe seems less and less real. Everyone sat out on the lawns, with sunshades and their most valuable possessions. Every now and then there came small shocks that sent the daring ones out of the houses like a shot. People came and went with wild reports, for we did not know how the outside world had fared. At noon Carol Fowle [Class of 1906], Ellen Stadtmuller [Class of 1907] and Molly Baker [Class of 1908] could stand it no longer. Their parents were in the city (Molly’s on a visit and the others live there.) They took a carriage and the driver said that if they couldn’t get a train he would drive them. Of course we didn’t realize how horrible the city would be or we would have kept them here by main force. We had others to worry about too, for Ruth’s [Robertson, Class of 1909] sister had gone to the city the day before with some Eastern friends. She did not know where they were to stay over night, so we were anxious to get news from the city. Little by little it came and we knew the horrible stories of destruction and fires must be true, for towards evening the sun became a blood red ball and there was the same intense suffocating heat we had had at the time of the forest fires a year ago. We knew the city was burning. There was no water. About five o’clock an express wagon, temporarily rigged up for passengers, drew up before our house and Ruth’s sister and her friends fairly fell into our arms, completely exhausted and horror stricken. Their stories of the panic and misery in the city were appalling. Then we had some hall men on our hands. They came to be cheered up, poor fellows. For Mr. [Hanna], the man who was killed, had been a good friend of theirs and they had helped dig him out. The Encina fall must have been frightful. Four floors in the front part fell into the basement. It is perfectly miraculous more lives were not lost and that the stampede was not worse.

No one was hurt at Roble Hall. The third floor slid into the parlors, the girls with them, and no one was hurt.

Towards evening we were daring enough to pull our mattresses and bedding onto the porch. We put up our dance canvas and were never more thankful for a big porch before. I hadn’t been nervous or worried all day, but when the sun began to go down, and there were only candles and a lantern between us and utter darkness—well, we tried to jolly up. Bonfires were built up and down the road. Ruth got out her mandolin and played with some Polos who came over. There were other men over, so we did not lack for company. About 11 o’clock all were gone save the three boys who were to stay with us, Hal Daily [Class of 1907], John Ward [Class of 1907, jd 1909] and Dane Greer [Class of 1907]. To us there seemed more real danger from sneak thieves and loosed lunatics (there is an asylum near San Jose). We were glad to see three strong men with guns and pistols. Twenty-five girls, including Ruth’s family and friends, and Roble girls, went to bed on the porch, with the three boys before the porch steps, but no one slept a wink. All night we could hear the booming from the city which announced that some great fine building had been blasted to the ground to prevent the spread of fire.

At daybreak we were a hollow-eyed lot. We were up to celebrate the 24th hour after the disaster and everyone else too. We were even hysterically funny. But don’t think we showed how we felt. Everyone was quiet, save Ruth’s sister. Her city experience had unstrung her. The rest of us had to be calm for her sake.

Another dense smoke cloud, and hot, we walked down to the post. There was no Eastern mail. No telegrams had been sent nor will they be for some time to come. However, I guess you have heard through Dr. Cate that all the Fort Smith people are safe.

Prof. [Rufus] Green and a friend and a telegraph operator started out in an auto at noon [Thursday] with some thousand telegrams and said they would go until they could get to a station from which they could send them. They are back this morning.

It seems they went to Oakland, but not being able to send them from there they took on some five thousand telegrams and went on to Sacramento. When they reached there they found the operators nearly dead, they had had no rest whatever for twenty-four hours, so Prof. Green put his operator to work. You must have heard soon after the news of the earthquake reached you for it seems Prof. Green’s report was the first the Associated Press had accepted. Before that there had been so much hearsay that they would only send East the news that there had been a bad earthquake, nothing more. My individual telegram will come later.

In the afternoon of Thursday we all tried to sleep a little, but it was a poor attempt. Elsie [Branner, Class of 1908] had an afternoon tea at her house to jolly things up. We all dressed up in white and other light colored dresses and felt more normal human beings.

To be sure we had to go easy on the sugar. A famine is threatened. All day the grocery stores had been scenes of “get as get can.” Women had no chance, everyone was laying in two weeks’ stock of provisions, of course, most of our supplies come from the city and that is all gone. I think though, there will be no famine with all the relief trains from Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, etc. Thursday night was a mass meeting in Palo Alto to discuss ways and means in helping the San Francisco people. Then Friday morning there was a mass meeting on the campus and the students were organized into relief companies, twelve to a squad, each with its captain. The girls were detailed for assistance in sewing for the destitute people in San Francisco, for nursing of any patients brought to Palo Alto or if they were needed in the city. A collection of old clothes was made, everyone contributed until there was nearly a train load.

Friday afternoon—all got at packing so as to be ready to start at an hour’s notice. The plan is we all go together over the Santa Fe [Railway]. We all start as soon as we can get hold of money. Just now all banks are closed and will be until they know how the vaults in the San Francisco banks stood the disaster. I know in time we will be able to get money out, for they say the vaults are intact. Even if they are not money will be shipped from Los Angeles and the East. We hope by Tuesday the bank in Palo will be running and we can start. I suppose it will be a one-way ticket. Of course I have my heart set on finishing here, but I could not bear to think of anyone seeing our university now. It will all be so different. The church will be in ruins for years, and when it is restored it will never be the same. It is a terrible blow and Dr. [David Starr] Jordan and all the other men who have struggled through so much will have to begin at the bottom again. But they say they will stand by the ship.

The university has lived through financial crises, typhoid epidemics, dyphtheria and the loss of Mrs. Stanford. It will live through the earthquake—even though the earthquake has caused us to return to the stone age again, and I only hope that the old steadfast friends will stand by the university. Yet so many will not be able to afford college after this. There are a great many whose fathers have lost everything, property, home, business.

Saturday there were a thousand things to straighten out. In Carol’s absence I went to the Pan Hellenic board meeting to decide on the contract for finishing next year. Then to see the professors about my credits. So far 13 hours are safe. The three in Shakespeare will be safe when I have handed in my paper on Hamlet’s soliloquies. It is half written. Saturday morning Hal Daily left us for the city on relief duty, again this morning a hundred more Stanford men left, John Ward among them. That leaves Sam our only protector, he is on day duty watching the quad. I hope we won’t lose him too.

Last night we moved into the house and all slept on the second floor; the boys and their guns down stairs, and we all slept well in spite of a slight shock at about five this morning. But we have gotten quite used to slight shocks, they come every now and then.

We feel quite normal now if only we don’t see the church tower etc. all gone. Out of my window I can see the Chi Psi house, a complete ruin. The men have put up a big tent in their tennis court and moved in. On the house is a big sign, “For Rent, Inquire within.” No one inquires, for the house may fall entirely any minute.

This earthquake has taught more than one thing. It has taught how very foolish are man’s inventions. After all, the only thing that can be depended on are primeval things. I must except the automobile. When tracks were too crooked to run train or street cars on, when telephone and telegraph wires were down, the automobile carried on the work with the aid of the old horse.

We have water, which is more than most people have. None has electric lights, lamps and candles are in demand. So we are living. Most people are not fortunate enough to possess a three burner coal oil stove. Everywhere are little ovens built out of the bricks of some fallen chimney. People cook, eat and sleep out of doors.

The San Diego people leave Monday. I hope we will get off soon. I am getting quite homesick. I will telegraph you when we start. If I can’t reach you from here, I will wait and wire you from the first station I can on my way home.

I have written this in scraps and hope you have read it the same way and not tried to make much sense out of it. There is so much happening all the while it is hard to write in a formal sort of manner.

Give my love to all and expect me soon. I hope before the first of May at most. I hope you haven’t had many hours of worry. Mother’s letter with the $50 check in it came yesterday late. Just now I don’t think I could get two cents for it—but later!

Always yours,

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