At this time every year I commemorate with you the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. I was there, you know, in case my contribution was neglected in your history books.
I understand many of you have lots of time on your hands these days. What better than honoring your city’s centennial of its most famous event by reading an account from someone who was there. For those of you unaware of my heroics in your fair city, I’ll share a few stories. Much of what I will describe was included in my biography that I commissioned. The author likes to say that at some point he realized my story was too remarkable to be wedged in some convoluted novel. He also sensed I was compelling him to change his focus. I did my best, subtle at first but then direct: “Drop what you’re doing; I want a full-book biography!” Look, women don’t get many biographies, not from my days at least. And women never got much without raising their voices, I sure found that. Let’s begin.
The night before the cataclysm, April 17, I attended a lecture in Portland by Oregon’s premiere suffragist and a good friend, Abigail Scott Duniway. It was a rousing declaration of why Oregon’s men should recognize the right of women to have the vote. These men…they were pretty damn slow to come around and it would take THREE more campaigns after 1906 to finally get a majority vote for women.
The next day I was up early starting my rounds at patients’ homes before starting office hours at 10 a.m. I heard a ruckus downtown, and a newsboy ran up panting and yelled “San Francisco nearly destroyed …earthquake … terrible fire.” I was shocked like everyone else. So many of us knew San Francisco well; some here were natives, or started their careers and businesses there. We had family and friends in the city. My mind raced to my first girlfriend, Bessie. We had lived in a homestead in Oregon before moving to San Francisco. That’s where I started medicine.
There were few phones then. Telegraph lines were swamped. There was no way to find out more till the next paper came out. By the next day, Portlanders got their wits about them and organized a relief train to provide anything San Francisco might need: medicines, bandages, clothing, blankets, and foodstuffs. Civic-minded women got Southern Pacific to donate a baggage car and the Pullman Company to lend a passenger car. The top doctor in the city organized a medical relief corps to rush with the supplies to your city engulfed in firestorms. In all what became known as the “doctor train” carried 20 tons of supplies along with 42 doctors and nurses.
I was the only woman doctor on the mission. Why was that? I volunteered for one thing. I was unmarried unlike most of the female doctors in the city. Maybe others were frightened. We were offered a two-month stint that would likely include hardship, exposure to disease, and civil unrest.
We started noticing the damage north of the city. We disembarked the train in Oakland and took a steamer to the Presidio which would be our base of operations. I was in charge of the Oregon nurses, and we moved into the Presidio Hospital and set up an obstetrics ward. It became the “Oregon ward,” and let me tell you we worked long days, often with only snatches of sleep, and rarely had time to enjoy the view of ships coursing through the Golden Gate. During our stay there were 23 healthy newborns delivered at the Oregon ward. The ward where I worked with nurses is still standing at the Presidio today.
The most frightening time at the hospital was when a fire broke out near the ward in the early morning. I raced to the patients with a wheelchair, wrapped each mother and infant with a blanket, eased them into the chair, and wheeled them out of danger. I was deeply moved by the quiet, stoic demeanor of the two dozen mothers. All the agonies and tortures they had suffered before they had been brought to the hospital had so deadened their senses, so numbed their minds, that they faced the fire horror with a spirit of calmest resignation and without fear. They had already suffered too much to suffer more.
I got along well on the base with the nurses, other doctors, and the military. I had company with a colleague, Ms. Gail Laughlin. She was an attorney who was working in New York City before she devoted herself full time to the woman suffrage campaigns, including Oregon’s. She had no medical training to merit a spot on the doctor train, but I think she finagled a ride so she could make sure her girlfriend, Dr. Mary Sperry, was ok. (She was).
I accompanied Dr. Laughlin to the Ferry Building depot when she arranged to leave the city early. We walked from the Presidio grounds and listened to the military band. The sky was dark with no city glow since gaslights were banned. We weren’t able to tread on the sidewalks because they were too hot from the fire. It seemed like we were walking among the ruins of some ancient city that had been dead for hundreds of years.
I was impressed with the orderliness in the city with people being so generous and helpful to one another. I think you’re all experiencing some of that goodness in people now during your current crisis. I knew for sure that San Francisco would recover once I witnessed the resilience, determination, and concern for one another. Thankfully, my former lover Bessie Holcomb and her husband and child survived the quake with their Divisadero Street home intact.
As I prepared to leave, I was happy to receive effusive praise from California Governor George C. Pardee, San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz, and the commanding officer at the Presidio General Hospital. I was even awarded a medal for my service.
I’ve got many more stories from that trip. I wish I had kept a journal then so they’d be more available. I imagine many of you are doing so now. How you endured the anxious and horrific days of your pandemic will be a valuable testament in the future.
Author’s note: based on excerpts from “Marie Equi, Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions,” Michael Helquist, 2015, Oregon State University Press. Available at bookstores and online outlets. Kindle version available through Amazon.