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Today’s Alameda Treasure – Emilie Gibbons Cohen and the 1906 Earthquake, Part 1

“I instantly threw aside the bed-clothes and struggled to reach the floor; the undulations were so severe and rapid that it was a serious effort to do so. Some propelling and resisting force seemed to hold me in its clutches, while deafening sounds of crashing glass and picture frames against the walls assailed my ears. I gained the floor on my hands and knees, clinging to the furniture until I reached my bath-room door…” – Emilie Gibbons Cohen, April 18, 1906, Fernside.

Alameda Post - the ruins of a church after the 1906 earthquake and fire
Edgar Cohen’s photo of Grace Church on Nob Hill in San Francisco, which burned in the great earthquake and fire. It remained a picturesque ruin for months, before a temporary church was built in 1907. Today’s Grace Cathedral did not start to take form until the 1930s, and was not fully completed until 1964. Photo courtesy Paul T. Roberts collection, via the Cohen-Bay House.

A rare account

I recently had the opportunity to look through the archives at the Cohen-Bray House in Oakland, the former home of one of Emilie Gibbons Cohen’s sons, Alfred H. Cohen, and his wife Emma Bray Cohen. Since the Cohen mansion at Fernside burned down in 1897, and Emilie Cohen died in 1924, the Cohen-Bray house is the last remaining treasure trove of these families’ histories. Among the items in that collection is a 20-page letter written by Emilie Cohen shortly after the great earthquake, vividly describing its effects on her, her family, her home, the city of Alameda, as well as the city of San Francisco. While much has been written about the quake and its effects on San Francisco, less is known about how the disaster affected Alameda, which is why this letter to her daughter Edith is so illuminating.

Anniversary of a disaster

With the 118th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906 upon us, this is a good time to look back on how that cataclysmic event affected not only San Francisco, but also a much wider area, including Alameda. Emilie Gibbons Cohen’s letter helps us to do that in a way that brings the disaster home to our island city.

Alameda Post - old black and white portraits of Emilie Gibbons Cohen and Alfred Andrew Cohen
Emilie Gibbons Cohen (1834-1924) at left, and her husband Alfred Andrew Cohen (1829-1887) at right. Emilie came from an East Coast Quaker family, and her father was a prominent local doctor (Dr. Henry Gibbons). Alfred was born in London, and his father was a large landowner in England and in Jamaica, British West Indies. Alfred became wealthy through his ownership of railroads and ferries. Photos from Cohen-Bray House collection.

A brief Gibbons-Cohen history

Emilie Grace Gibbons (1834-1924) was the daughter of Dr. Henry Gibbons and Martha Poole Gibbons. She married Alfred A. Cohen (1829-1887) in 1854 when she was 20 years old. Alfred A. Cohen, a lawyer, became wealthy from his ownership and sale of railroads and ferries, and he also served as general counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad. He and Emilie resided on a large tract of land on the east end of Alameda known as Fernside, and in 1872 hired the prominent architectural firm Wright & Sanders to build a grand three-story Italianate mansion with more than 70 rooms. Their first house on the property was a Gothic revival structure built in 1856.

Alfred A. Cohen died in 1887 at just 58 years old. He was on his way home from a business trip to New York in his private railroad car, near Sidney, Nebraska, at the time of his passing. A special train was sent by the railroad to bring his widow, Emilie, to Nebraska to accompany her deceased husband back to Alameda. She was 53 years old at the time, and would not marry again.

Alameda Post - A.A. Cohen's Fernside Estate, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge, where Emilie Gibbons Cohen once lived
This view, part of an Eadweard Muybridge stereoscopic pair, shows the approach to Fernside’s porte-cochere from Versailles Avenue. The entrance to the estate was near the intersection of today’s Versailles and Buena Vista avenues.

Fernside burns

Just under 10 years after the loss of her husband, Emilie and the Cohen family suffered another loss. On the morning of March 23, 1897, a fire broke out in a defective flue at the Fernside mansion, which was destroyed in a massive conflagration. Fortunately, Emilie was not in the house at the time, and was staying nearby with her son Edgar, in his home at 1605 Versailles Avenue—the site of today’s Edison School. Some of the artwork and furnishings of the Fernside mansion were saved due to the valiant efforts of the firefighters and family members, but much treasure and history was lost. After the fire, Emilie resided on the Fernside property in a converted bowling alley. It was there that she rode out the 1906 earthquake.

Alameda Post - the Palace Hotel after the 1906 earthquake and a photo of Emilie Gibbons Cohen's handwritten letter
Left: Emilie’s son Edgar A. Cohen (1859-1939), a professional photographer, traveled to San Francisco to take these photos of the earthquake damage, on four days in April and May of 1906. Hand written notes by Edgar describe this image as the Chronicle building at left, and Palace Hotel at center. Photo Courtesy Paul T. Roberts collection, via the Cohen-Bay House. Contact prints made from Edgar’s original glass-plate negatives. Right: A letter written by Emilie Gibbons Cohen, signed and dated by her own hand on April 19, 1906 at 5:30 p.m., the day after the great earthquake. One of the lines in this letter reads, “…so far our lives have been spared but our property losses are beyond estimation.” Another sentence reads, “Will and Alfred went into the city this A. M. a little after six, returned at noon – the heat and smoke so intense they could see and learn little. All my property and office destroyed with reason that no human power can return or estimate.” Image Cohen-Bray House collection.

Chimneys down

“Edgar and Alfred (Emilie’s sons) were soon with us. Edgar’s chimneys are all down; the furnace chimney had crashed through the roof into the attic and the water in the tank had dashed out like the waves of the sea. Hardly a chimney remained standing in the cities of Alameda, Oakland and vicinity.” – Emilie Cohen

In fact, falling chimneys were perhaps the most common single point of failure during the earthquake. According to a report from F. H. Pratt, secretary of the Alameda Building Trades Council at the time, “In the cities of Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley, and the surrounding country, every brick building and many frame houses were seriously damaged. Walls had fallen, foundations had been displaced, every brick chimney had either been thrown down or broken, making it unsafe to build fires in houses…”

Emilie Gibbons Cohen next described a visit to her son Alfred Henry Cohen’s house in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, where he lived with his wife Emma and five children. It was a distance of about 1.6 miles from Fernside. That house still stands today, and is known as the Cohen-Bray house.

“No trains were running through Alameda on either the narrow gauge nor the broad; twisted rails and sunken tracks prevented. This was at 10 o’clock a.m. so off we started, Will, Alice (Emilie’s son and his wife) and I in the surrey, Mildred (Emilie’s granddaughter) and Bayard (likely a friend/classmate of Mildred) were out on their wheels. On we drove to Alfred Henry’s; are you all safe? Yes, but come in and see the wreck. The father, mother and children were removing furniture, bricks, mortar, lath, shingles and plaster from the smoking room. All their chimneys were down, doing much damage to the roofs; one chimney crashed through the attic, then through Emma’s bedroom (a brick from it grazing Alfred Henry’s face as his raised his head from the pillow) and then through the smoking room roof, making an opening as large as my dining table.” 

In-person visits to family and friends were the only way to learn of their fates, since, as Emilie wrote, “The shock had broken telephone and telegraph wires, so we were completely cut off.”

Alameda Post - a photo of the San Francisco waterfront during the disaster. It is full of a massive cloud of smoke and ash, and almost nothing is distinguishable
The view of the San Francisco waterfront that Emilie Gibbons Cohen and her family would have seen through their field glasses from their vantage point at the foot of Grand Street in the days after “The Great Quake.” The earthquake and fire together killed 3,000 people and left more than 200,000 homeless. The massive fire burned for four days. Photo

Horror across the Bay

“Later we drove to the foot of Grand Street,” Emilie continued. “From there with a field glass we could span the six miles of space and see the tower of the ferry building at times through the curling smoke, and the dull lurid blaze as it shot up through the thick clouds of smoke ascending over the doomed city; the whole waterfront seemed to be on fire. Time seemed to stand still; would this strange unreal day never pass? What terrible tragedies were being enacted?” 

Emilie Gibbons Cohen and her family, gathered at the foot of Grand Street near what today is the bridge crossing the lagoon, could scarcely imagine the scope of what was happening across the bay in San Francisco. The book San Francisco is Burning, by Dennis Smith, puts the disaster in stark perspective:

“In fact, outside of war, the San Francisco fire of 1906 is bigger than any metropolitan fire in history. The four-day event took more than 3,000 lives, burned through 28,188 buildings, flattened 522 blocks, destroyed tens of churches, nine libraries, 37 national banks, the Pacific Stock Exchange, three major newspaper buildings (The Call, Chronicle, and Bulletin), two opera houses, and the largest, most richly appointed imperial hotel in the era of turn-of-the-century opulence (The Palace). More than 200,000 people were burned out of their homes…”

Alameda Post - an old black and white photo of Sutter and Franklin streets
Edgar Cohen’s photo of the corner of Sutter and Franklin streets, probably looking northeast. He titled this photo, “Where the fire stopped.” The catastrophic fire raged for four days, but was finally stopped at Van Ness Avenue, with relatively few blocks burned west of that. Dynamite was used to destroy countless homes in an attempt to deny fuel to the fire. The E. A. Cohen watermark can be seen at lower left. Photo Courtesy Paul T. Roberts collection, via the Cohen-Bay House.

Waiting for Alfred

Meanwhile, Emilie’s son Alfred had managed to make his way over to San Francisco to check on family members there, although checking on the family business offices would have to wait. No non-essential travel was allowed into San Francisco in those early days after the quake, but Alfred must have used his influence and connections to board a boat into the burning city.

Emilie wrote: “We waited and waited for Alfred; would he never come? Had he perished amid flames and falling walls? It was I who sent the dear boy. His (late) father had assured me many times that Alfred was able to take care of himself. It was nearly 11 P. M. before Alfred returned, and I questioned him most apprehensively. He replied, ‘No one injured, houses badly wrecked by falling chimneys.’” 

Alfred went on to describe how his aunts and uncles had survived the quake, but their homes, for the most part, hadn’t fared as well. Alfred then told the common stories of fallen chimneys, wrecked houses, and evacuations prompted by approaching flames.

Emilie continued, “I feared to lock my doors lest another shock might wedge them so tightly that I could not get out. I slept lightly with one eye and both ears open, oftentimes going to my window to gaze across the bay upon the lurid clouds that hung over the city and to listen to the boom boom of the dynamite. And thus ended the first full day. Alas, the second day was more pitiful, more fearful, more devastating than the first.” 

Alameda Post - an old black and white photo of the corner of Clay and Franklin
Edgar Cohen photographed the corner of Clay and Franklin streets, probably looking east. This one was also titled, “Where the fire stopped.” It must have been an eerie sight for Edgar to look around the city he knew so well, and see only destruction and ashes. The E. A. Cohen watermark can be seen at lower right. Photo Courtesy Paul T. Roberts collection, via the Cohen-Bay House.

Searching for provisions

Thursday, April 19, 1906 was the day after the earthquake, and Emilie was thinking about provisions.

“Thursday morning, reflecting that provisions might become scarce, I went down town. The shops were crowded with eager purchasers. I had to wait a weary time for my turn. I bought flour, sugar and a few necessary articles for which I paid; fortunately, I had about twenty dollars on hand.”

Later in her letter, Emilie continued, “We are living on credit now. At the time of the quake I had about 20 dollars in my purse. The Island Creamery in Alameda said, ‘As long as we can get cream and eggs we will sell them and our butter at regular market prices.’ The evening of the day of the earthquake, the Alameda grocers called a meeting; it was proposed that the prices for food should be raised; a few indignantly rejected this and it was finally voted down.”

The fire rages

Though well-supplied in her own house, Emilie remained troubled by the disaster unfolding around her. She wrote, “What a terrible day was this Thursday. The fire still raged, devouring in its rapid course block after block of our prosperous city (San Francisco). The constant boom boom of the dynamite sounded and echoed in our ears; a black pall hung over the city; it spread far and wide and rolled up and around until the sun was obscured.” 

Alameda Post - a black and white photo of a summer house and other structure
A view of the summer house (left) and converted bowling alley (right) on the Fernside property, circa 1898. This is the building Emilie Cohen moved into after her Italianate mansion burned down in 1897, and it was where she rode out the earthquake of April 18, 1906. Photo from Cohen-Bray House collection.

Up next

In our next installment of Emilie Gibbons Cohen’s account of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, we’ll learn about the refugee camps that were set up in Alameda for earthquake survivors arriving by boat, and where they were located. We’ll also hear Emilie’s account of whether any deaths or casualties occurred in Alameda itself, how long it took the railroads, schools, and post offices to open again, and what her sons Willie and Alfred found when they finally managed to gain access to the Cohen family safes in San Francisco, prying them open with iron bars. There’s also a chilling tale of a family friend in San Francisco whose niece was visiting when the quake struck, causing the chimney to land on the bed she was sleeping in. All that and more, when our story continues.

Special thanks to the Cohen-Bray house in Oakland for access to their archives for this story. Thanks also to Kate McAnaney for her help finding rare archival photos taken by Edgar A. Cohen. 

Contributing writer Steve Gorman has been a resident of Alameda since 2000, when he fell in love with the history and architecture of this unique town. Contact him via [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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