San Francisco Rebuilt
Five years ago today the newspapers of the world were issuing extras announcing that San Francisco had been shaken to its foundations by a great earthquake, and that a fire, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, was completing the ruin and devastation. On that day and the one which followed the most terrific blow which ever descended upon an American city fell upon the great metropolis of the Pacific coast.
Today nearly every scar left by that frightful fifty hours has been obliterated. A new and prouder San Francisco has arisen from the ashes of the old and greets the world as the highest example of civic greatness to which a community can rise in times when nothing is left to men but hope, and that hope is semi-despair. The fire destroyed 28,000 houses. 31,000 have taken their places. It demolished 514 city blocks, leaving them strewn with such a hopeless mass of debris that $20,000,000 had to be raised to reclaim the bare earth itself - no mean task for a ruined, desolated city. Today each of these city blocks is built up better and handsomer than before.
Yes, San Francisco is a better and more beautiful city than ever. Where before the fire there were twenty-seven buildings designated in insurance terms as class A buildings, there were 104 in 1909, and this has been added to since then. The same proportion holds with class B buildings. One department store alone spent $300,000 for furnishings and interior decorations. Everywhere the same strife for perfection has been in evidence, and today San Francisco is a metropolis of nearly 500,000 busy people, with a business section only five years old.
only have the physical scars of the great calamity been removed, but
the financial scars as well. Of course, thousands of families were
financially ruined by the catastrophe and will never recover from the
blow, but the community as a whole is in better financial condition
than before the calamity occurred. The assessed value of the city
before the fire amounted to $402,000,000; today these values aggregate
$433,000,000. The bank clearings before the fire were $1,800,000,000 a
year; now they amount to nearly $2,500,000,000. The savings bank
deposits in 1911 are greater than they were in 1906. All of this tells
the story of municipal victory and individual triumph, a story
unequaled in its completeness and magnificence in all the history of
But the end is not in sight. With its business and industry amply housed and its population properly sheltered, San Francisco is now turning to other considerations. It is building one of America's most modern opera houses. It is providing one of the world's most splendid municipal buildings. It is preparing to rescue itself from the domination of a privately owned water system. In short, it is now giving its attention to the larger problems of municipal life in a way that promises to make it exhibit No. 1 in the big show which will great the visitor to the Panama exposition.
the San Francisco people are enthusiastic about that fair. When the
question was put before them, although they had spent $200,000,000 in
repairing the damages of less than five years before and still face
vast expenditures, they voted $5,000,000 to the exposition by the
largest majority ever given to any proposition. Yet with all this, San
Francisco has the smallest debt in proportion to the assessed valuation
of its property than any large city in the United States. A year or two
ago it was only 18 per cent, as compared with 39 in New York, 33 in
Pittsburg and 32 in Boston.
One of the things confronting San Francisco is the question whether the city will be allowed to get a municipal water supply from the Hetch-Hetchy valley. This water, coming out of the very heart of the Sierras, is one of the finest supplies in the world. Cold and pure and abundant, it has everything to recommend it. But there are two forces at work against its utilization. The nature lovers of America assert that it will ruin one of the world's most beautiful spots. Then there is the Spring Valley Water company, which now supplies San Francisco's water. The federal courts have fixed the value of this company's holdings at $32,000,000 and San Francisco wants it as an auxiliary supply at that price. But the Spring Valley people want a higher figure and former Mayor Phelan declares they are financing the opposition to the Hetch-Hetchy project. It is said that Mr. Roosevelt, James R. Garfield and Gifford Pinchot all favor San Francisco's being permitted to use the waters of the Hetch-Hetchy valley. The matter is scheduled for determination in June, when President Taft and Secretary Fisher of the interior department will decide the issue.
The rate at which San Francisco has been rebuilt is the greatest exposition of pluck and courage the world has seen in many a century. When the city lay in ruins, with its millionaires homeless and its poor all but starving, the world said that in ten years San Francisco could not rally from her plight. But when three years had passed San Francisco had a celebration and invited the world to look. In those three short years it had done more than the greatest optimist thought could be accomplished in ten.
But there was work to do - really more work than to build a brand new city on a virgin site. Think of a pile of debris so large that it cost $20,000,000 to get down to the ground, so large that 15,000 horses died in its removal, brute heroes who were literally worked to death; so large that 40,000 workmen were engaged in the task! That was what stared the seemingly ruined San Francisco in the face when it began cleaning off its lots while the ruins were still smoking. The people were so quick to rally from the feeling of desolation and despair that within six days after the fire there was signed, sealed and delivered, a contract for a magnificent new fireproof building.
Many incidents tinged with humor occurred during the trying days of rebuilding. An enterprising saloon keeper decided to build a temporary drink dispensary directly after the fire. To this end he leased a site from an owner who thought he would never be able to rebuild. On this he erected a shanty. Later the owner decided his finances would permit rebuilding and sought to buy off the lease. But he was not successful. So he proceeded to build his big building anyway, and when he was through, the saloon building had to be carried piecemeal out of the main storeroom of the new building.
While San Francisco was engaged in the work of rebuilding it did not fail to provide for the stranger who might stay awhile within its gates. More than 1,200 modern and up-to-date hotels and lodging houses have been erected since the fire, offering 60,000 rooms to the traveling public. These will be added to within the next four years, although San Francisco was able to entertain 480,000 visitors at its Portola celebration two years ago.
The city has not failed to see that its transportation facilities should grow apace with the other improvements, and it is the proud boast of the native that the street car service of the Golden Gate city is unsurpassed. It intends to make the facilities from the exposition grounds to the heart of the city better than anything that has ever been planned in the history of world's fairs.
One association of the Americans is particularly delighted that San Francisco secured the exposition - the See America First club. Knowing that thousands, and even millions, of Americans travel abroad to see the sights of other lands, when they have not seen the wonderful things in their own country, the See America First people are delighted that the Panama exposition will turn the tide of travel toward the Golden Gate, and that through the diverse route privilege of the railroad excursion ticket to be sold by the transcontinental railroads the majority of those who go to San Francisco will become eligible to membership in a club made up of people who have seen America.
The masterful manner in which San Francisco has resurrected itself from ashes and smoldering embers surpasses anything the world has ever seen, and its people deserve the applause they receive. And yet its achievements are only in keeping with the American spirit of doing the greatest deed under the Greatest stress. Chelsea, Mass., was almost wiped off the map by its big fire. Yet, when three years had passed the assessed value of its property had almost regained its normal, and in two years the population grew as much as it had grown in the entire decade between the eleventh and twelfth censuses. Baltimore's great fire seemed to threaten industrial paralysis, and yet Baltimore is stronger and better today than before adversity struck her business district with such tremendous force. Even in the islands of the sea the spirit that has made the new San Francisco is often in evidence. Jamaica had its earthquake in January, 1907, and fire completed the damage which the earthquake did to Kingston. In January, 1911, Kingston had arisen from the ruins, a thoroughly modern tropical city. Galveston, Chicago, a dozen places tell the same story of men reaching their highest notch of greatness in the face of seemingly ruinous calamity.
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