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Today’s Alameda Treasure – Emilie Gibbons Cohen and the 1906 Earthquake, Part 2

In Part 1 of this story, we began exploring Emilie Gibbons Cohen’s letter to her daughter Edith, which vividly describes her experiences in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. This rare document gives us a local’s view of the quake, and how it affected not only San Francisco but Alameda as well. She also had an eerie premonition of the impending disaster.

Alameda Post - a portrait of Emilie Gibbons Cohen and a portrait of Edgar Andrew Cohen
Left: Photograph of Emilie Gibbons Cohen (1834-1924) reportedly taken by her photographer son Edgar, who had her dress in traditional Quaker clothing for this image. Emilie’s granddaughter Edith Emelita Cohen describes her as stately and reserved, as well as being extremely well read and with an active, inquiring mind. Edith remembers, “…there was a kindness in her eyes and she was always gentle with us.” Photo from Cohen Bray House collection. Right: Edgar Andrew Cohen (1859-1939), was the third son of Emilie Gibbons Cohen and Alfred Cohen. Edgar was a photographer, and we have him to thank for many of the pictures of Fernside, the San Francisco earthquake, and countless other subjects. Edgar, his wife Jessie Gray Booth, and children Alfred Booth Cohen and Beatrice Cohen lived across the street from the Fernside estate, on Versailles Avenue. Photo FindAGrave.com.

Pre-dawn premonition

At 4:20 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, almost an hour before the largest earthquake in recorded history to strike the San Francisco Bay Area (at 5:12 a.m.), Emilie Gibbons Cohen inexplicably woke up with a feeling of foreboding.

“Wakening suddenly with a start and a feeling of apprehension, I hastily threw a shawl over my shoulders and ran into my bath-room, for I am always fearing fire. The waning moon shone clear and bright; the house was silhouetted upon the blue black sky. All seemed quiet and safe. As I returned to bed the dim light of my night lamp enabled me to note the hour… it was 4:20. Self-assured, I soon fell asleep, but was rudely waked by a fearful earthquake shock.” — Emilie Gibbons Cohen, April 18, 1906



It has been said that some people and animals can sense an earthquake before it happens, but there is no available scientific explanation for this ability. What is understandable though, is that Emilie would be especially alert and fearful of earthquakes and fire, since she had vivid memories of the great Hayward earthquake of 1868, and the loss of her Fernside mansion to fire in 1897. A cruel irony is that items saved from the 1897 fire ended up being destroyed by the 1906 earthquake: “I remember wandering from room to room dazed and restless, pausing here and there to look at the wreckage of some of the few objects saved from the fire that destroyed our beautiful home in 1897.”

Remembering another great quake

Emilie went on to compare the 1868 earthquake with the 1906 temblor: “In my mind, I am constantly connecting the recent shock with that of 1868. I believe they both came from the same source; both moved from south to north; many of the results are similar. For instance, books, dishes and the contents of closets fell the same way.”

While Emilie later learned that the 1906 earthquake originated along the San Andreas fault, as opposed to the Hayward fault quake as in 1868, her observations of their similarities are interesting.

Alameda Post - an earthquake refugee camp with lots of white tents and people sitting around them
An earthquake refugee camp in San Francisco, perhaps similar to the camps that were set up in Alameda at the same time. A camp in Alameda was set up at the corner of San Antonio Avenue and Oak Street, as well as one located at a place called Brigg’s barn. Photo OpenSFHistory.org.

Refugee camps

One aspect of the earthquake I hadn’t been aware of was the presence of refugee camps in Alameda, which Emilie described in her letter: “Fisher, of Coombs and Fisher, my butchers, had charge of the refugee’s camp in Alameda, at San Antonio Ave. and Oak Street. 1500 homeless people, all well cared for in tents; also tents containing bath-tubs and closets, with hot and cold water, etc. set up by the Board of Health and all connected with the sewers. Other camps were formed in Alameda; one at Briggs barn where mothers and children were cared for. Clothes for newly born infants were wanted. I gathered all I could find and Edgar took them to Briggs barn.”

The location of Briggs barn is not known, but George Briggs was a gold-seeking ’49er who didn’t find success in mining, but found better luck with establishing fruit orchards. Around 1868 he acquired property in Alameda near what is today Briggs Avenue. Briggs died in 1885, but his name lives on in Alameda to this day. The corner of San Antonio Avenue and Oak Street today is fully occupied with homes, but in 1906 there was enough open land there for an earthquake refugee camp. Emilie’s description of these earthquake refugees in our island city adds depth to our knowledge of how the great quake affected the entire Bay Area, and how people pitched in to help.

As far as any casualties in Alameda caused by the quake, Emilie wrote, “There was neither loss of life nor casualties in Alameda resulting from the earthquake, unless the twenty-eight infants that were born in the refugee camp at Briggs barn in two days would come under the latter head.”

Cash crunch

In Part 1 of this story, Emilie wrote about feeling fortunate to have had twenty dollars in her purse at the time of the earthquake. Later, the need for cash would become more acute, but it turned out that she had more cash available than initially thought.

“Mr. Fisher, my butcher, called to know if it was possible for me to pay cash; ‘Do not misunderstand me, but the wholesalers have just refused to supply us with meat unless we pay cash.’” Emilie continued, “Fortunately, we had over one thousand dollars on hand the night of the 17th and we have been able to borrow a few hundreds. A few days later he told me the wholesalers had decided to supply them on credit.”

Alameda Post - men stand around the ruins of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and try to open a safe
This scene from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake shows what it might have been like when Willie and Alfred Cohen went into San Francisco to open the family safes to see what could be salvaged. These sorts of salvage operations were probably going on all over town. Emilie Gibbons Cohen wrote, “Our lives have been spared but our property losses are beyond estimation.” Photo OpenSFHistory.org.

Opening the family safes

“Friday April 27th, your brothers Willie and Alfred, with John Williams and Richardson, armed with heavy iron implements, went (to San Francisco) to open our two safes,” Emilie wrote. “Having obtained a permit from the Chief of Police, they proceeded to open them. The leather bindings of the large account books were in ashes, the leaves were as black as ebony, but intact. Some were brought home to be examined, but they were not decipherable. The papers in the safes were black and so charred that they went to pieces on handling; so everything is gone; valuable legal papers, documents and records of nearly sixty years. The fire reduced the building to a mass of bricks and ashes; we do not know whether it was dynamited. We have heard that after the earthquake some of the occupants of the building entered it, and from their offices secured some of their valuables.”

Oranges and lemons

Meanwhile, Edgar Cohen also was traveling to and from San Francisco after the disaster, not only to take photographs, but to bring relief to his relatives there as well.

Emilie wrote, “Edgar had gone to the city early in the morning, first filling his pockets with oranges and lemons; plodding miles and miles through burning streets, escaping falling walls and flying embers, by a circuitous route he had reached Morton Gibbons’ house. In a direct line up Washington Street from the ferry, the walk would be quite five miles, for Morton’s new house is No. 3979 Washington, just opposite the Presidio gates. They were grateful indeed for the juicy fruit; their water supply had been cut off. Finally, Edgar reached the Harrison house on Scott Street. They soon made ready, leaving their Chinese boy in charge. Walking to the Presidio Wharf, they almost fought their way through the crowd of refugees to reach the (military ship) Slocum; after many delays they were landed on the transport pier; from there they made their way to the ferry crossing to Oakland pier; thence on train to Park Street Station.”

The preceding account vividly illustrates the difficulty and effort involved with checking in on people in the city at the time, and the Cohen family’s dedication to looking after their relatives.

Alameda Post - the building that served as Emilie Gibbons Cohen's dwelling. It's a long low building that looks like a gathering space or church hall
The bowling alley at Fernside was converted into living quarters for Emilie after her three-story mansion burned down in 1897. Her son William and his wife Alice also had a room in this former bowling alley. This structure is where Emilie and her family rode out the great quake of 1906. Photo Alameda Museum.

Crushed by bricks

A particularly heartbreaking story from Emilie’s letter involves the death of a friend’s niece, who was visiting, perhaps from out of town, when the temblor struck. As tragic as this story is, it is but one story among the thousands of people who perished in similar ways during this disaster:

“Miss Jean Parker, whom I know quite well, lived on Washington St. Her niece visiting her was instantly killed in her bed by a falling chimney. Three times the body was moved as the fire advanced. The third time her brother wrapped it in a sheet, flung it over his shoulder, walked to the ferry and crossed with it to Oakland.”

Alameda Post - San Francisco with fires breaking out across the landscape
This photograph, taken from Mint Hill in San Francisco, shows the devastating fire that caused many people to flee, including many refugees who landed in Alameda. Photo OpenSFHistory.org.

Rising from the ashes

By early May some things were just beginning to return to normal. Emilie Gibbons Cohen wrote, “The Alameda school buildings have been repaired and school sessions resumed May 2nd.”

She continued, “Saloons in Alameda and Oakland were closed until May 11th. I am informed that since then both places have been full of drunken brawlers who fight and scrap in the streets; and it is the same in San Mateo.”

“The Alameda Post Office was closed for two days, also the telegraph office. On the morning of the 20th, the moment they were opened, I wrote and telegraphed to both of you. My telegrams were accepted and paid for, but the receiver said, ‘We will do our best to get them through for you, but it is very doubtful.’ Hundreds of telegrams and letters have never been forwarded or received.”

She added: “Today, May 23, the banks of San Francisco are again open and transacting their usual business. The Ferry drug store near the intersection of Market and Sacramento has put a shack on the old location bearing the inscription, ‘We never stop’, and is doing business.”

Finally, she noted: “When Alice and I were in the city May 11, the Ferry Building tower was being repaired, the stone having been loosened from the steel frame by the quake, and is being removed to be replaced by steel plates.”

These first-hand observations from an Alameda earthquake survivor give us a sense of the recovery efforts, and how long it took to get back some sense of normalcy. From Emilie’s account, for example, we learn that Alameda’s schools were opened just two weeks after the quake, while saloons didn’t open until May 11, three weeks after the event. While the post office opened just two days after the disaster, it and the telegraph office were so overwhelmed with letters and messages that many were not getting through. Emilie’s overall tone, though, describes a city and a region fully engaged in recovery efforts, with businesses opening in shacks and rented homes, and the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Alameda Post - a street damaged by an earthquake. The photo is marked "E. A. Cohen"
A recently discovered Edgar Cohen photograph, which he titled, “Where the surface shifted to the west, Ninth Street and Brannan Street.” The sign on a storefront at center advertises the Rainier Restaurant and Chop House. This image was created from one of Edgar Cohen’s original glass plate negatives. Note the E A Cohen watermark at lower right. Photo courtesy Cohen-Bray House collection.

Our beautiful city

My impression after living in Alameda for 24 years is that we tend to identify as a fully self-contained, independent city. But in 1906, the impression I get from Emilie Cohen is that they identified much more with San Francisco as “our city” in those days. Indeed, in the late 19th century, many of Alameda’s neighborhoods were filled with the homes of San Francisco businessmen who commuted into the city each day by train and ferry. The wealthy Cohen family maintained business offices in San Francisco, and did much of their banking there. In addition, they had a number of family members living in the city. And so, while the Cohens enjoyed their almost rural homestead on the east end of Alameda, they very much identified with San Francisco as their city, and deeply mourned its destruction.

“What a terrible sight met our eyes; desolation reigned supreme,” Emilie wrote. “I was dumb with suppressed emotion. Our beautiful San Francisco, our pride and joy; and now, what remains? Only fallen walls, broken bricks, ashes and twisted girders. Standing on the deck of the receding ferry boat, these tall skeletal buildings, outlined upon the sky, loomed in the fading daylight as sadly picturesque and grand as the ruins that grace the Forum Romanorum.”

Alameda Post - refugees stand with their luggage as they board a boat out of San Francisco
Refugees from the San Francisco earthquake get ready to board boats to the East Bay. Many refugees landed in Alameda, where they were cared for in at least two different camps equipped with tents, hot and cold running water, and meal service. Photo OpenSFHistory.org.

Recovery

Reconstruction was swift in San Francisco, and largely completed in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was built in what is now the Marina district. In Alameda, recovery was much quicker, due to the smaller scale of destruction. Alameda was forever changed by the great earthquake though, as many earthquake survivors from San Francisco rebuilt in Alameda, and the population of the island city increased in the post-quake years.

Emilie’s last word

In her letter, Emilie Gibbons Cohen quoted a friend who said, “I truly believe this is God’s punishment for the wickedness of San Francisco.” Emilie replied: “I questioned her; why then did God spare New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other wicked cities?”

Emilie got the last word on this when she closed her letter with the famous quote attributed to the poet Charles K. Field: “If as they say, God spanked the town for being over frisky, why did He burn the churches down and save Hotaling’s whiskey?”

Special thanks to the Cohen-Bray House in Oakland for assistance with this article, including access to their treasure trove of archives and photos related to the Cohen and Bray family history, along with that of Fernside. Special thanks also to Kate McAnaney for help procuring rare Edgar Cohen photographs of the earthquake aftermath.

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 AlamedaPost.com/Steve-Gorman.

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