Thursday, April 19, 2018

So Long ‘Frisco! 1906 Quake and Fire Inspire Turgid Verse

Survivors pick through the still smouldering rubble of the San Francisco Earthquacke and Fire of 1906.

When the morning fog finally lifted over San Francisco on April 19, 1906, the air hardly cleared.  A haze of smoke hung over the rubble of the city.  Men, women, and children wandered the streets in shock.  Wagon and carriages of all types carefully picked their way through the debris carrying the wounded and the dead still being pulled from the ruins of the city.  Here and there exhausted fire horses pulled their engines to the hot spots still erupting across the city.  It was the day after the most devastating earthquake ever to hit a major American city and the fire fueled by broken gas lines, knocked over stoves, and spilled kerosene lanterns that swept the city.
Unlike the Great Chicago Fire thirty-five years earlier which was covered in the national press mostly with engraved illustrations and lithographs with a few photos of the destruction after, the San Francisco disaster was extensively photographed as it occurred, and motion pictures were soon being shown in nickelodeons across the country within days.  Paired with numerous first-hand accounts in the press, including the stories of celebrities like Enrico Caruso and literary luminaries like Jack London the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire instantly became a part of American folklore.

Residents watch to spreading fires.  The relatively undamaged from homes in this picture would soon be engulfed by the conflagration.
Also, even in 1906 San Francisco occupied a special place among American cities.  Not only was it the premier West Coast port and gateway to the Pacific and the Orient. The waterfront and its historic Barbary Coast was famed for it’ Shanghaied sailors, clip joints, whore houses, and eventually the original vigilantes who tried to clean it up. It was the historic boom town of the great Gold Rush and its Nob Hill mansions became the homes of the millionaires created.  Cheek to jowl with fabulous wealth were the opium dens of China Town, and the ramshackle slums teeming with Italian and other immigrants.  Yet it was also celebrated as the Paris of the West, aspiring to high culture in its opera houses, theatres, lecture halls, and art galleries.  It was the center of a blooming literary movement as well.
Then, of course, there was the scope of the devastation.  Striking at 4:12 am on April 18, the quake was estimated at a powerful 7.9 on Richter Scale and its after shocks continued for days.  Tremors were along a more than 500 mile stretch of the San Andreas Fault, but much of the effected area was rural. San Francisco and other communities on San Francisco Bay suffered the most.  80% of the buildings in the city were effectively destroyed by the quake and subsequent fire and more than 3,000 people were killed, most of them in the city with tens of thousands wounded.  It remains the deadliest earthquake in American history and the deadliest natural disaster in California history.

Clark Gable searches for Jeanette Mac Donald among the survivors in MGM's 1936 musical epic San Francisco.
The quake and fire inspired an instant spate of ballads and songs continued to be written about it for decades, including one by Woody Guthrie.  It figures in several novels and inspired the most popular movie of 1936, MGM’s San Francisco staring Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald, and Spencer Tracy.  It was famous both for its special effects of the quake and the usually operatic McDonald belting out the title song half a dozen times, several of them in tights on Gable’s gambling house stage.
The poet:  Eliza A. Pittsinger.
Aside from the magazine accounts of Jack London and other local writers, one of the first cultural artifacts of the Quake was a long memorial poem published on the first anniversary of the calamity by a local poetess, Eliza A. Pittsinger then 74 years old.  The lady was an example of a common figure of her day—the gentlewoman with literary aspirations.  Such poets could be found in every American town big enough to have a mansion on a hill.  Many published volumes of verse, mostly paid for by themselves or their families.  Ms. Pittsinger proudly boasted of her collection, The Soul Victorious.  While some of these genteel dabblers had genuine talent and a handful even earned deserved literary reputations, Pittsinger was among those who were, at best, earnest.  She wrote in what she imagined was elevated poetic language in a style that was already fifty years out of date.  The result was predictably turgid.
We share it today as an interesting cultural artifact.
San Francisco in ruins--a panorama taken from a baloon over the bay,

Poem of The Earthquake
Written on its First Anniversary 


Our Recent Earthquake was the Chief
Despoiler and Ungainly Thief
 That ever wrecked a city—
It was the Great Iconoclast
Whose deadly grip and fiery blast
 Awoke the World to pity.

San Francisco, drained the cup—
But she is bravely waking up;
 In riding past the ruin
I hear the Builder’s Hammer ring,
And rosy hope is on the wing,
And even the sidewalks seem to sing
 With many plans a brewing. 

San Francisco, stand thou up!
As thou hast drained the fiery cup
 So shalt thou taste the glory!
Thou rollest up thy rugged sleeves,
And with a heart that seldom grieves
 Thy people tell the story!

They tell us of the raging fire,
The Earthquake and the funeral pyre,
 With no hope for the morrow—
Of countless numbers that did fall
Beneath the black and grewsome pall,
 With none to cheer their sorrow. 

But God is good; He made them Homes
Amid the Temples and the Domes
 Around His Heavenly Mansion,
O, He is good, He took them in,
He lifted them above the din 
 By His Divine Compassion.
Thus passed that hopeless April day. 

That most intensely thrilling day,
 That day of Death and Horror—
Thus passed the Earthquake and the Fire,
The pageant of the funeral pyre,
 As they sped into the morrow. 

It was the darkest day of gloom,
It left the footprints of its doom
 Upon the sands of sorrow;
Its dawning was the black eclipse
That brought the poison to our lips
 That none of us could swallow. 

It was an agonizing scene,
No other like it yet hath been 
 Along the passing ages--a 
It brough the old Pompeii down,
Awoke the World and made a crown
 For new Historic pages.

It was the drama of the World;
Our treasures were to ruin hurled
 Despoiled of all their glory—
Like horses wild the fires lept
The people toiled and many wept
For those who 'mid the ruins slept,
 But who shall tell the story? 

Down came the buildings with a crash
And sudden as the lightning flash,
 Or Tempest on the Ocean;
Down came the palaces and domes
Entangled with the people's homes
 That were their chief devotion. 

Pianos, tables, chairs and all
Sped forth to the destructive call
 Of dynamite and powder;
And others followed close and fast
Along where the pianos passed
 With crash growing loud and louder. 

The din and clamor thundered on,
It seemed that everything was gone
 That made it worth living—
The dynamite had done its part,
It pierced our City’s tender heart
 That was so kind in giving. 

The old Pompeii’s fame is gone,
She’s nothing now to build upon,
 Her Laurels are not blooming—
The monster ruin is our own,
And San Francisco on her Throne
 Will set the land a booming. 

Whence came it, and what was it for?
The thinkers thought it out by Law,
By Evolution and its law,
 With others ‘twas a Warning—
O, did we need the Hand of God
To scourge us with His Chastening Rod
 Upon that April morning?

O, Evolution, mighty power,
If thou shouldst come some other hour
 We pray thee, hold thy horses!
If thou shouldst ever call again
We hope thy friendship to obtain
 To balance up our losses!

But whether this or that is right,
We made a most stupendous fight
 Against a Mighty Master;
Thousands of homes were soon destroyed,
And thousands of our men employed
 To check the great Disaster. 

They toiled and did the best they could.
It brought them hope, it brought them good,
It brought them higher brotherhood,
 And better plans persuing;
They took their burdens in their hands,
They bore them through the burning sands
The smothered hopes and fiery brands
 Of Death, and Doom and Ruin.

In dynamite we found a cure—
Through desperate, ‘twas quick and sure
 To bring the grand finale; (finally)
And when our Leaders learned the way,
And made the stubborn flames obey
 They made a mighty rally. 

And here the vials filled with wrath
That had been poured upon our path
 Were suddenly depleted;
The fires were broken in their force,
They blundered, took another course
 By which they were defeated. 

At last a fatal charge had riven
The battle's front, its signal given,
 Twas plain the strife was over—
I stood mid the broken glass,
I saw a tuft of withered grass
 Beside some fresh grown clover. 

“The fires are out, O, give us a rest,”
At last rang through the Golden West,
 Responses came still later—
Our Faithful Leaders raised their hands,
Their burnt and blistered, weary hands,
 And thanked their Great Creator.

A ringing sound went up the hills,
And even now its memory thrills
 My soul with deep devotion;
It was the sound of joy and peace,
And never may its music cease
 So long as ‘tis our portion. 

We leave the Subject now to Time,
To Fate and Fame and future Time
 We leave our cups of sorrow.
We leave our ruin by the way,
And that which lies a wreck to-day
 Shall bloom again tomorrow. 

Farewell to Earthquake and to fire!
Farewell to black and grewsome pyre,
 To Babel and its clamor!
Hail to our City built anew!
Hail to Her Loyal Sons, and True
 That speed the Builder's Hammer
Farewell to dangers lurking near!

A last good-bye to dread and fear,
 Good-bye to tragic story!
All hail to Life when clamors cease!
Our souls shall than be crowned with Peace,
 Our eyes behold its glory!
•     •    •    •
Amid the homes now lost and gone
That fate has placed her hands upon
Mine own was saved; I prize it more
Than ever home had I before;
Tis situated on a hill
Where all is quiet, calm and still,
 With charming scenes imblended—
It is not sumptous nor large,
But ‘tis my Castle and my Charge,
My port of safety in the storm,
And blessed heaven mid the calm,
WITH ALL ITS CHIMNEYS MENDED

Author of  The Soul Victorious
who resides at 57½ Prospect Ave., San Francisco