Refugees of the great San Francisco earthquake stand outside their tents at the Presidio. (AP Photo)

Refugees of the great San Francisco earthquake stand outside their tents at the Presidio. (AP Photo)

Never-before-seen letter details life in SF after 1906 earthquake

Rising rents, a “fortune” to be made for architects and builders and the “best climate in the world.”

While such words could easily have been spoken of life in San Francisco today, they were actually written by a woman who survived the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire in a letter to another woman who was seeking advice on whether to move to San Francisco after the quake.

The letter, obtained by the San Francisco Examiner and apparently never before shown to the public, paints a grim yet hopeful picture of the state of The City and its residents less than two months following the catastrophic temblor on April 18, 1906.

As San Francisco strives to develop its strategy for resilience in the event of another disaster, the letter also offers a unique glimpse into the resilience that already existed 110 years ago.

“We went down with San Francisco, and we are satisfied to stay here and watch her grow,” wrote Esther A. Connolly on June 8, 1906.

Both the author and the letter’s recipient — believed to be a woman named Margaret Hughes who was living in Oakland at the time — were members of the fraternal organization Royal Neighbors of America, which discovered the eight-page typewritten letter in its historical archives.

“[The 1906 earthquake] was one of the first times that we actually went national,” said Rita Toalson, managing editor for Illinois-based Royal Neighbors of America. Toalson explained that after the earthquake, Royal Neighbors members sent money to San Francisco, prompting the organization to assist in other national disasters.

Now located in 43 states, Royal Neighbors was founded by nine women in 1895 to help empower their efforts with their lives, families and communities. It’s unknown how exactly the 1906 letter wound up in the group’s historical archives.

A name that’s handwritten on the back of the letter reads “Dr. Luck Byran,” who reportedly found the letter among his wife’s belongings, said Toalson. The letter is actually a copy; the whereabouts of the original are unknown.

Esther Connolly, the letter’s author, urges the recipient not to move to San Francisco because of the increased cost of living following the quake. She wrote that two months after the quake, 26 schools had been consumed by the fire, residents were forced to cook meals in the streets and many were still living in emergency tent shelters constructed in The City’s parks.

“Imagine 490 big square blocks of city property laid bare by fire, and 300,000 people homeless, and you will realize the immense work of rebuilding that is ahead of San Francisco,” Connolly wrote.

The author, however, emphasized that San Francisco’s climate allowed residents “all through winter” to wear “short sleeved, low necked vests and light underwear,” adding that The City earlier that year saw a 90 degree day in February.

“We never have snow, tornadoes, cyclones, or — oh yes, we do have earthquakes,” Connolly quipped. But, she noted, “nine tenths” of those who had moved to San Francisco from eastern states “positively refuse” to return east.

“We are distinctly proud of our climate, our ocean, our bay, and our city, if it is in ruins.”

Letter after 1906 earthquake
110th earthquake anniversary1906 earthquakeRoyal Neighbors of AmericaSan Francisco

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