That apocalyptic headline shouted the news to Salt Lake City residents on the morning of April 18, 1906, after an earthquake and fire nearly destroyed San Francisco. Considered one of the worst disasters ever to hit an American city, the Great San Francisco Earthquake was huge news in Salt Lake City.
It also became a major proving ground for the fledgling Commercial Club, then just over four years old. It would test the Commercial Club and its ability to pull the community together, and would unite interests as varied as churches, governments, and ordinary people.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the news of the San Francisco quake had on the country. The quake is estimated to have been about 8.0 on the Richter scale, and as many as three thousand people may have died in it. The city was under martial law, fires were eating at its heart, and there was talk of dynamiting whole blocks to stop them. Virtually all communication links had been severed.
Utahns gained their news from newspapers, which published extras almost hourly. The growing extent of the disaster stunned the city. Utahns, in particular, had strong commercial and social links with San Francisco. As one paper put it, “the town is full of people to whom San Francisco is as next door neighbor.” Hundreds of Salt Lakers were reported to be in the city at the time the quake hit, and anxious relatives crowded newspaper and wire offices for word of their fate.
The Commercial Club quickly recognized its role. Even before the full impact of the quake was realized, its president, Charles A. Quigley, moved quickly. “Bright and early” as soon as they heard of the disaster, executives of the Commercial Club discussed the situation and by 11 a.m. telegraphed
the mayor of San Francisco. “The Commercial Club of Salt Lake City proffers its sincere sympathy in the great misfortune that has befallen your beautiful city. Our people want to help you. All our resources are at your service. Let us know quickly what you need and how we can aid,” said the message.
Not waiting for a reply, the club called a mass meeting for that evening to discuss sending a relief train to the stricken city. It invited Utahns to begin bringing contributions and supplies to the club.
The Commercial Club’s board of governors met the day after the quake and decided to take prompt measures “to send foodstuffs to the hungry multitudes.” Funds were raised, with some individuals leading the way. E. A. Wall donated $500 ($10,000 in 2002 dollars). Mayor Thompson pledged $250 ($5,000 in 2002 dollars), and the Commercial Club’s president, C. A. Quigley, pledged $350 ($7,000 in 2002 dollars). Railroads and freight agents offered their services. Leon Sweet became treasurer of the Commercial Club’s California relief committee and began accepting donations of cash and goods.
The very next day, only two days after the quake, the Deseret News reported “A carload of cooked provisions left this morning at 10:30 for Oakland, Utah’s first offering for the suffering, from the Commercial Club, which guaranteed the cost of the provisions, the railroad hauling the same for free.” The carload contained cases of boiled ham, dried beef, bologna sausage, cooked hams, roast and corned beef, pork and beans, and was valued at about $3,000 ($60,000 in 2002 dollars).
“The Commercial Club will continue shipments as rapidly as they can be forwarded until from fifteen to twenty cars have been sent,” said the newspaper.
By April 21, only three days after the quake, the Commercial Club had raised enough for another two baggage cars, and on April 23, six more carloads left with bedding, flour, potatoes, and assorted goods. (People who were sending contributions of bread were cautioned to wrap the bread carefully “IN PAPER.”) Contributions were coming in from all around the city and coordinated through the Commercial Club, which had raised about $2,000 ($40,000 in 2002 dollars) within three days of the quake.
The Commercial Club wasn’t the only source of relief, of course. Utah’s governor, John C. Cutler, summoned all state officials to his office April 19 to discuss ways and means of raising funds to be sent by the state and notified the governor of California: “All Utah mourns the terrible calamity to the people of San Francisco…if there is anything we can do to help you, please command.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mounting its own relief efforts, immediately donated $10,000 (equal to $200,000) and transmitted it by telegraph to the governor of California on the day after the quake, even though the church was a year away from paying off its own debt.
But the Commercial Club, moving even before the state, was in the forefront of gathering contributions large and small from the community at large. Years later, The Salt Lake Tribune commented that “The Commercial Club was the first group in the entire U.S. to rush aid to San Francisco.”
President C. A. Quigley also moved quickly on a more practical matter of interest to the city. The National Educational Association chose San Francisco over Salt Lake City in a close-drawn battle for the site of its convention in the West that summer. The meeting would attract fifteen thousand teachers and was a considerable plum for any city to snare. Quigley wired the NEA’s president on April 19 that in view of the disaster in San Francisco, “The Commercial Club of Salt Lake City cordially and earnestly invites your executive committee to select this city as the place for holding the convention. Kindly wire answer collect.” (Whether they answered by collect telegram or not, the NEA out of deference to the disaster decided to skip its convention in 1906 and held it in Los Angeles in 1907. But it did come to Utah for the first time in 1913.)
The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake continued to impact Utah. On April 21, the Deseret News reported that five hundred refugees from California arrived in Ogden, and a thousand more were expected the following day. “Probably a majority of these will come on to Salt Lake. Other trains from the coast will bring hundreds, if not thousands, more daily.”
Clearly the San Francisco earthquake was a watershed event for the city, the state, and the Commercial Club. The Tribune later observed that it would use its skills to direct relief in the Castle Gate coal mine and Farmington-Willard flood disasters in 1923, and to the Bingham snow slide of 1926.
Just three days after the quake, the Commercial Club held a meeting in its parlors, where representatives of the club, the city, and the state met. It was estimated that not less than $75,000 would be raised to purchase food and clothing. In 2002 dollars that would be $1.5 million–an impressive amount for a city just emerging from its own schisms, but united in its concern for the City by the Bay.
ources: Deseret News.18,19, 20,21,23 April 1906. Don C. Woodward ed., Through Our Eyes (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1999) Author interview with National Education Association and Utah Education Association representatives.