It was to be the musical event of 1906, and Professor George Hastings, conductor of his famous Santa Cruz orchestra, was certainly not going to miss it. The world’s greatest tenor of all time, Enrico Caruso, had traveled from Italy to San Francisco with members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Co., to perform a season of five operas. Tickets were expensive and “skiddoodling” quick, so the professor got tickets for himself, his wife, and his daughter. Incidentally, the word was named after a 1901-04 racing boat, the “Skidoo”, which became slang for a quick ride.
APRIL 17, 1906
The Hastings family took up residence at the Golden West Hotel at Ellis and Powell Street and walked the beautiful cityscape from their vantage point on the fifth floor. Union Square was a few blocks north, and JD Phelan’s building was a few blocks east, with the 300-foot-tall Call Building just beyond it, as the tallest building in the West. Its only rival was three blocks southwest with the 300-foot-tall dome of City Hall’s massive Civic Center. Down Powell Street, on the corner of Market Street, was the Flood Building to the east and the Columbia Theater to the west. This is where Victor Herbert’s operetta “Babes In Toyland” made its first appearance on the West Coast, known for its elaborate sets and effects brought on by the touring company.
Yet this was not the opera the Hastings had come to see. They were here for the opening night of Caruso on the West Coast of Bizet’s tragic opera, ‘Carmen’. It would be at the “Grand Opera House” on Mission Street between Third and Fourth Streets, in front of 2,000 spectators on the largest stage in the west measuring 100 feet by 120 feet. The esteemed talent stayed nearby at the opulent Palace Hotel. Hastings had to promise the ladies would do some shopping before heading home, with such a huge selection of goods in department stores like the Emporium across from the Flood Building and the City of Paris on Union Square.
“Carmen” is set in Seville, Spain, written in French and features an Italian impresario. This appealed to several communities of opera-goers in San Francisco, drawing a full-dress Easter parade among the attendees. Olive Fernstead was Carmen, the flirtatious cigarette maker, who plays with a soldier’s heart, corrupting it in little ways that add up. When she falls in love with a dashing toreador, his jealous soldier blames him for his decline and kills Carmen. The story was heartbreaking, the performances masterful and the evening an unparalleled night of elegance and high culture. The Hastings family fell asleep that night dreaming of the beautiful show, in the beautiful theater, in the beautiful city.
APRIL 18, 1906
At 5:12 a.m., that dream came to an abrupt end, when the Hastings woke up with a start. In the calm that followed, they wondered what had happened. Then came 45-60 seconds of shaking, during which they feared for their lives. When the shaking stopped, they looked out the window and saw the facade of the Columbia Theater lying on the street. They grabbed some clothes and walked down five flights of stairs to a hall full of people in nightgowns. Once safely outside, the professor returned to the fifth floor to collect the rest of their belongings. As they drove away from the hotel, it collapsed into a pile of debris.
But looking around, the general feeling was that San Francisco had escaped a major catastrophe. A few fires had broken out, but for three hours they seemed small and isolated. The professor decided to go see his sister, Maude Hohmann, noting that the town’s wood-frame residential neighborhood seemed to have withstood the earthquake with the least amount of damage.
Meanwhile, at the California Hotel on Bush Street, Watsonville architect Wm. Weeks had experienced the quake from the fourth floor. Fearing that the stone hotel would collapse, Weeks started out the window to the roof of the nearby fire station. But before he set foot on it, the side of the hotel collapsed onto the fire station, destroying it. Antlers came flying into Weeks’ room, filling the air with choking clouds of plaster and dust. He rushed into the street, where he saw men carrying dead firefighters. Weeks headed to the Flood Building, where he had just opened an architectural practice the year before. He would find it to be one of the few buildings to survive.
Hastings was dehydrated, but struggling to get water, as every fountain and pipe had been broken. And while firefighters bravely headed into the blazes, they couldn’t do anything without water. Soon soldiers were patrolling the streets to enforce Marshall Law, commandeering every buggy and automobile they could find to aid their efforts. The fire chief had been killed, and it was decided to use dynamite to clean out a firewall, and without jails the suspected looters would be shot. They blew up the art-filled Mark Hopkins Art Institute, which was like tearing down the Louvre.
As the Hastings family made their way to Miss Hohmann’s house, they encountered her fleeing the advancing fire. The professor instead went to his residence to collect blankets, handbags and coats, then had to berate the ladies for passing him and his heavy burden. They stopped at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Market and Van Ness, where his friend Milo Hopkins was staying, but it was now rubble. Her sister’s feet were killing her, so she stopped to sit down, only to see St. Ignatius Church, the second tallest in America with the tallest spiers in California, crumble into a heap. .
Rich and poor were in the same boat, and no rich man’s bank check would be honored, as most banks were a smoking ruin. Running out of food, Hastings bought two loaves of bread at 25 cents each, along with some crackers. The group rode to camp on Twin Peaks, where the full horror of the fires became apparent. Even Caruso watched the blaze from the hills, slept on the hard ground, and described a cop making a robber “Skiddoo.”
APRIL 19, 1906
In the morning, the professor woke up to find a layer of ash all over everyone. Most headed for the Ferry Building and were evacuated to Oakland, standing damaged but unburned, and doubling its population in three days. But the Hastings family began a long march south, Miss Hohmann with bleeding feet, having thrown away all but what she was wearing. Five kilometers from town they boarded the Southern Pacific train, filled to a capacity of 500 souls. The train passed waves of refugees and, in places, the trees in the orchard were seen to have sunk into the earth with only their upper branches above the ground.
Yet San Jose was also badly damaged, suffering death and destruction as desperate people at the station pleaded for news of their missing loved ones. The Hastings take refuge with Mrs. John R. Chace, the Santa Cruz trolleyman’s wife, and the professor’s exhausted wife, daughter, and sister go to bed. Milo Hopkins was also there, having gone to Oakland and taken the train via Niles. Hopkins had a Santa Cruz livery and ran the Hopkins Grove complex (now Henry Cowell State Park).
But when Hastings asked about Santa Cruz, Ms. Chace and Mr. Hopkins shook their heads gravely. They say he’s been wiped off the map, no contact inside or out, land or sea, telephone or telegraph, nothing. Hastings and Hopkins decided to leave the ladies in San Jose, to avoid any trauma the devastation in Santa Cruz might reveal. Hopkins found a buggy to take them to San Juan Bautista and arrived in Watsonville that evening.
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz County Supervisor James A. Linscott was in San Jose with his wife for a supervisors convention. Three supervisors in a hotel room were sleeping when the morning earthquake hit, dropping them with their beds from the second to the first floor. Their lives were spared as the roof did not collapse as well, although a man in the next room was killed. Linscott joined a rescue team at the county hospital, carrying patients through windows as all doors were blocked. Hoping to get home no matter what it looked like, Linscott learned that it was nearly impossible to find a vehicle to rent, but eventually they got a two-horse rig and headed for the Santa Cruz Mountains.
On April 19, they took the steep Mountain Charley route and discovered that the mountains, through which the San Andreas Fault runs, were worse than the Santa Clara Valley. It gave them an idea of what Santa Cruz had to endure. In some places the earthquake caused landslides and trees that filled in ravines, in other places the trees fell at crazy angles and still remained a living forest. At the top, Hi Morrell’s house was torn in two and fell on either side, along with other houses in a similar condition. Like the early pioneers, the Linscotts and their horses had to lift the platform over chasms and up slopes, and their efforts lasted until after sunset. The northern horizon was lit by the strange red glow of the distant hell of San Francisco.
At last they forded the last river. But halfway through, a reign broke and the horses became unmanageable. Mrs. Linscott descended into the river and walked on the ground soaked. We did not know if they had dry matches, and the cold was setting in. But they were so close that they weren’t going to stop for anything in the world. Ahead of them, they saw a light that first made their hearts sag. Was Santa Cruz on fire? But as they approached, it seemed to be something else, something they hadn’t expected. The city was flooded with electric lights! The electric trams were rolling! Little damage other than broken chimneys was noted. It was like waking up from a horrible dream.
Caruso’s performance was a bigger drama than even he knew, and as his audience skidded quickly toward the exits, the curtain fell on old San Francisco.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.