San Francisco Quake, The Big One

In the fall of 1905 San Francisco experienced a series of twenty-five or thirty minor earthquake shocks, but nobody was terribly surprised. San Franciscans liked to brag about living in Earthquake Country, and nobody gave much account to these rolling lesser quakes; and by the time Christmas passed and 1906 was rung in, the fall flurry was a distant memory.

Enrico Caruso was in town on Tuesday, April 17, 1906, appearing in “Carmen” at the Mission Opera House and Lulu wanted to see this young operatic phenomenon, however it was considered inappropriate for a woman heavy with child to appear in any public place; certainly not be seen at social soirees.  Lulu understood this, yet she pouted and cried herself to sleep in her second floor bedroom that evening.  Lulu’s real name was Lou May, but she preferred the turn of the century diminutive “Lulu”.

Her two children, Cecil, three years old, and Dorothy, not quite a year and half, were tucked in their cribs in a downstairs bedroom across the hall from Lulu’s older sister Georgie, and her brother-in-law Edgar Bernard.  

Lulu had sought refuge in Georgie and Edgar’s home by telling them a bit of a fib. Her husband, Amos Earl Rodman was a business professor, heading up the Cal Berkeley Business School. Lulu confided to Georgie that Rod had tired of her, calling her a fat donkey. He said she was generally useless. He berated and mistreated her, even knowing she was with child!  He nearly drove her to taking her own life!

She did not share that Rod suspected  she had been with another man, and one of his own staff, at that. .

Actually, Lulu could not be certain which man really was the father, as occasionally Rod had put demands on her. But she told Georgie and Bernard that Rod was tired of her. With all the mess of three pregnancies in as many years, he said she’d lost her looks. There was no hesitation on Georgie’s part in giving her younger sister and  babies a home. They must stay out of the reach of such a heartless man.

Lulu kept it to her self that Rod was convinced that she had been seeing one of his own teachers on the sly. She didn’t mention Rod had moved out of their bungalow near the University, abandoning all three, knowing she was in the family way. Her sister and brother-in-law, bless them, gave Lulu and her children a place to stay until she could get back on her feet.

And so, she rested comfortably in the upstairs bedroom, gathering her strength to deliver this third, surely the last child. As she reached term, Georgie took to bringing her meals, changing her linens and tending Lulu’s babies, as Lulu said, she was unsteady and the stairs were so steep.

On April 18th, 1906 a.m. Lulu slept soundly in her second story bed, floating in that warm,dreamy, creamy liquid state that precedes any noticeable need to open an eye, to greet a new day.

And as she slept, disaster silently gained momentum deep in the earth beneath the hills of San Francisco.  The North American and the Pacific tectonic plates, which gently shifted and shoved past each other, moving the city North at pace of two inches per annum, began an infamous battle that lurched the city of San Francisco North by a full fifteen feet in less than a minute and half..

The earth first moved at 5:12 a.m. Lulu jerked awake, then lay frozen for the forty long seconds of the first tremor. Confused and frightened by screams and shouts from unseen people punctuated with crashing of glass and china all around her, she rolled her heavy body to the side of the bed and sat with  feet dangling, while several big chunks of ceiling plaster broke loose and splattered white powder on her long black braids.

She watched in disbelief as her mirrored dresser waddled from the opposite wall across the room toward her.  Just before it  crashed into the foot of her bed Lulu pulled the quilted spread up and tucked her face under it to protect her from the raining shards of mirror glass. She thought she felt them in her hair, pricking her scalp, poking through the quilt.  And she felt thin wet lines of blood running down her face.

Frozen with terror, she watched  the bay window overlooking Fillmore Street sway inward, then, buckle, and collapse, spilling  broken glass on the velvet pillows of her window seat, where she’d sat yesterday taking in the afternoon sun, sipping tea and reading.her novella.

The screams intensified and Lulu realized she had to get out of this room, away from the house, or she might die.

She carefuolly rolled back her bedspread, keeping broken glass safely bundled away from her. Then she heaved her body out of bed. Barefoot and afraid for her life, she held her belly with one hand, and reached for the wall with the other.  She could no longer see in the dark as she felt her way to the hall door. She almost made it.

The second tremor, the lesser one, was clocked at 26 seconds.  It now rippled the weak wooden floor and the walls jumped even more violently. Lulu wobbled to and fro, then  side to side, finally falling backward and landed full force on her buttocks.  She was a big framed woman, even bigger now in advanced pregnancy, and the floorboards were were severely weakened by the quake.  Lulu fell screaming through the floor into the center of the front parlor, just as Edgar was helping his wife and the babies down the shaking porch steps and into the safety of the street.

“Oh Good God! It’s Lulu, Georgie! Take the babies! Go! Take the babies! I’ll find you”

Edgar pointed to a series of horse drawn wagons with large flatbeds picking up those unable to make the walk to Golden Gate Park.  A young boy sped past shouting “Medical wagon’s coming with doctors! Medical wagon’s coming!! It’s going to Watsonville!”

Edgar leaned down and kissed his wife, whispering, “I love you, Georgie, be brave, I will find you in the park,” Georgie patted his cheek.

Men reached down from the flatbed, and handed little Cecil and Dorothy to the women then came back for Georgie. Edgar had disappeared into the house for Lulu.He smelled fire, and in the distance he saw clouds of grey smoke against the still dark sky.

Edgar pulled Lulu up from the parlor floor, asking if she could walk and she said she seemed okay. He went to the bedroom across the hall, shouting indelicate questions about Lulu’s pregnancy as he grabbed a blanket. “Are you bleeding? Do you feel any pains?”

He lifted her from the floor and wrapped her in the blanket..

“I only have scratches from the fall, Edgar, I feel the baby moving. There is broken glass in my hair so I’m bleeding a little from that.”

Lulu leaned heavily against her brother-in-law as he escorted her to the front porch, now without any steps. He jumped down and lifted her massive body off the porch.

“I’ll wait with you until you are picked up, Lu. A medical facility is set up in Watsonville. A wagon with doctors and nurses is on it’s way. You’ll be safe there. Be sure to explain all that happened with your fall through the floor. “

Edgar paused for a moment waiting for an inquiry about her children. It did not come.

“Well, don’t worry any about little Cecil and the baby. They are just scared. Georgie and some of the neighbors are with them, taking them to  the park. Shelters are being put up. I’ll join them when I can.”

“You are leaving me Edgar?  What am I to do? I don’t have proper clothes Edgar! You can’t just leave me!”

Edgar looked down at her. Lulu and her nightgown were now wrapped inside a blanket as were most women on the street. He slowly shook his head.

“You’ll manage, Lou, you always do.”

He left her waiting in the street. and rushed back into the house, collected family valuables in a Belgian Lace pillow case and stuffed it in the belly of an old cast iron stove in the basement, hoping fire would not get to it..

Lulu and other at risk-patients were taken to Watsonville. A week later she delivered her third and last child, Helen, a healthy little girl with a gentle spirit.  Helen remained with Lulu until she was adult, She was the only child Lulu reared and became The Chosen Child in her siblings eyes.  As an innocent, she had no way to change their feelings.

Cecil, barely three and a half, was sent his father’s parents in Nevada. Dorothy, the middle baby, was sent to the maternal grandparents in San Jose.

Lulu kept Helen with her, setting up an impossible situation that none of her three children were unable to reconcile. Throughout the lives of Cecil and Dorothy, Helen was viewed by her siblings as the chosen child. And, the father of Cecil and Dorothy declared to all that Helen could not possibly be his.

Lulu and Helen visited Dorothy and the grandparents in San Jose every Christmas without fail.  The next time she saw her son  he was a grown man, attending her mother’s funeral,.Cecil refused to speak to her. He sat away from his mother, with his sister Dorothy and her young family, 


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2 thoughts on “San Francisco Quake, The Big One

  1. Melanie, this story is awesome! Sad, but awesomely told. I loved it and look forward to many more.Unfortunately, sometimes these poignant tales hold a readers attention even better than the happy ones, but they often shed a lot of light on matters; providing possible reasons for the questions that come up generations down the line. I’m happy to see that you’re at least as curious as I am!

    Love ya, Kathie


    • Thanks, Kathie for your comments. It means a lot. It also meant a lot when I first got on ancestry and “bumped into” you and Peggy! Yes, I’m telling true stories, some provided by distant cousins who have noticed me “scratching around”. There are worse days ahead and they just made me more determined to find the people who have been my guides in my life. The story of Elisabeth and Miss Lillie honors two monumental people in my early life,especially juxtaposed against my poor mom’s narrow view.

      But it all started with two quakes: the divorce, then the actual SF Quake. None of Lulu’s kids stood a chance at becoming siblings. Poor everyone. I wish everybody could have the life I was handed..

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