As he went to bed on the night of April 17, 1906 Napa Daily Register publisher G.M. Francis surely had no idea of the natural disaster Napa and the rest of Northern California would face by morning.
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit San Francisco, nearly destroying the city. While Napa seemed to have escaped the worst of the destruction, especially compared with the Bay Area metropolis and Santa Rosa, scores of local buildings would be damaged, some heavily.
Shaken awake that morning, newspaper owner Francis was nonetheless able to produce a daily edition of the newspaper that very afternoon.
“A FEARFUL EARTHQUAKE DISASTER” read the Register’s headline.
After the dramatic headline, a story written by an unnamed reporter from outside the area describes the damages to San Francisco and other North Bay cities. Not until page five was a local story written, again without a byline.
“The Earthquake at Napa,” read the headline.
“Buildings fall into the streets, chimneys are hurled from houses but fortunately no lives were lost,” the subhead continued.
“At 5:15 a.m. this morning, the most violent earthquake that ever visited Napa shook the city, doing great damage,” began the story. Even 107 years later, the description of the temblor sounds familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced one.
“The vibrations seemed to move from west to east and kept up a continuous twisting and jarring and grinding until people fled from their houses in terror,” the story read.
“Chimney tops fell from houses, plastering fell from ceilings, bric-a-brac was smashed into flinders,” the paper reported. “It will be impossible to give a detailed account of the damage done,” the reporter wrote, perhaps feeling overwhelmed in the aftermath of the disaster.
Unlike today’s news stories of such events, personal stories of injured residents are not included in these accounts. The majority of the coverage is given to reporting on damaged buildings in the downtown area.
The top wall of the Migliavacca building fell, “exposing the interior of the big structure down to the first floor.” The top of the south wall of the Opera House building fell into the annex of the Napa Hotel, “nearly killing the occupants.”
Quotes from Napa residents are not included, either. We have no idea of the terror these individuals felt, or the horrors they faced.
The earthquake account continued with more damage reports. “The brick wall of the building occupied by Kelly’s Candy Kitchen on Main Street fell upon the roof of the Gilt Edge saloon and passed clear through it to the ground, completely wrecking the place and filling it with a mass of debris,” the story read.
“The walls of the Revere House (in Napa) were partially dismantled,” it stated. With masonry buildings common in the area, fallen bricks became their own hazard in the quake. “Bricks from the back wall fell into the room of F.W. Hughes of St. Helena, and he narrowly escaped, leaving his bed filled with bricks.”
The communications systems of the time were also affected. “The entire front of the two story brick building occupied by Newman’s store fell into Main street taking telegraph, telephone and power lines and even the telegraph pole into the street,” said the Register report. “Fortunately no damage was done at the Napa State hospital.”
Both of the brick chimneys of F.G. Noyes’ residence on First Street fell to the lawns, and the chimney of J.C. Noyes’ residence fell into the attic.
Other structures had less severe damage, the Register noted. The front of the C.C. Carpy & Co. wine cellar on Main and Fourth streets was only “slightly demolished,” while City Hall and a business called Jack’s Cyclery, both old brick structures, were cracked in many places and “generally thrown out of gear.”
The offices of another daily newspaper in Napa, the Daily Journal, were severely damaged, and the paper was unable to produce an issue that day, it reported.
The Register offices fared better. “The new Register building at the corner of Coombs and First streets was slightly damaged,” the story reported. That building is now home to Sushi Mambo and legal offices.
The then-Hayes building at First and Coombs streets was one of the buildings that suffered the most damage, the Register reported. “Almost the entire west wall was demolished and a mass of bricks are lying on the sidewalk and street,” according to the story.
By the next day, the headlines were even more dramatic.
“SAN FRANCISCO IS DOOMED!” read the headline of the Thursday evening, April 19 edition.
“The great metropolis will be completely destroyed by flames, and the inhabitants are being transported to other parts of the state,” read the front page story.
Unlike today’s wire services, the Register had to rely on phone calls from those outside the area for news updates.
“Reports received in Napa at 2 o’clock this afternoon by Dr. E.E. Stone in Oakland state that the great conflagration in San Francisco is still raging,” read a story.
“San Francisco has been abandoned to the flames and the people have been ordered to leave the city. ... There is no hope of saving any of San Francisco.”
While the front page was devoted to the tragedy in San Francisco, smaller localized items appeared inside the Register.
“He met death at Santa Rosa,” read one headline. “W.H. Mallory ... who spent last summer in Napa was killed in the Occidental hotel at Santa Rosa during the earthquake. This shocking news will be greatly deplored in this city,” read the story.
Another item described local relief efforts.
“The Relief Committee returned from Santa Rosa this afternoon,” a story read. “They report finding the city completely ruined by the earthquake.”
An editorial on page four served as a pep talk to the community. “DON’T DESPAIR” read the headline.
“California is in the presence of a calamity such as comes to the world only once in centuries,” the editorial read. The state’s “chief city” is in ruins. “San Francisco is gone but it will come again.”
With Napa escaping the most serious damage, other stories focus on how residents of heavily damaged Santa Rosa were dealing with the emergency.
“THESE BOYS HAD A CLOSE CALL,” read a headline about two Napans who had moved to Santa Rosa.
Many Napa residents suffered financially due to the earthquake.
“G Migliavacca is doubtless the heaviest loser and his loss will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” one story read. Napan G.W. Young estimated his loss at $20,000, the equivalent of more than $450,000 in 2013.
John Van Baaren of Napa stated that he was “ruined by the terrible San Francisco fire.” Homes he owned in the city “were entirely destroyed and will cause a loss to him of $15,000.”
Another brief in the April 19 Register covered local Red Cross relief efforts for “distressed people of San Francisco.” Napans were “earnestly requested to leave all old wearing apparel that can be spared and that is still in condition to be of some use at the Turner Hall, where a committee of ladies will receive it, and forward it to those who need clothing.”
“A large influx of people from San Francisco would undoubtedly come to (the) city and some means should be taken to care for them,” a committee member recommended.
The National Guard’s Company H of Napa offered to patrol the city “as there were already a large number of strangers from San Francisco about town,” including “undesirable characters,” the story read.
Dr. Stone recommended “that Napa render assistance by shipping cooked or prepared food for immediate use to San Francisco.” Two steamers were chartered to carry 3,000 pounds of bread, beans and water to the city “and to return and bring as many of the destitute as they could be cared for here in Napa,” the story said.
A week later, on Saturday, April 28, Register stories continued to note the recovery efforts.
“Reports were made on the condition of a number of business houses and residences in Napa as to walls, chimneys and foundations,” said one story. “Some will have to be torn down and others will have to be repaired.”
“The Hayes Theatre building (located on the northeast corner of First and Coombs streets — now the Gordon Building), Christian Science Church, City Hall building and J.A. McClelland brick residence on Coombs Street (are) condemned as a whole.”
“In the Semorile building (currently home to the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar), in which are located the Journal (newspaper) office, and Levi Chapman’s grocery store, the upper story is declared unsafe.”
Advertisers tailored their advertisements to address local concerns about shortages or price hikes.
In one ad, Thompson, Beard & Sons, merchants on Brown and Second Streets, assured customers that prices remained the same after the earthquake. In addition, “we have plenty of groceries and all other merchandise,” the ad read.
Other advertisers addressed the renovations that many businesses were likely undergoing.
“While our stores are being remodeled, the entrance to the clothing and dry goods dept will be at the clothing door,” said an ad for Newman’s on Main Street. “We are equipped with plenty of goods and the prices are the same as always.”
Another ad touted an “earthquake proof” chimney top that could be made “on short notice” by H Shwarz Co. of Main Street.