The Willis Family and the San Francisco Earthquake

John C. Willis, 1916, visit to family in Goldendale, Washington

On Wednesday morning, on the 18th of April in 1906, the earth erupted, slid, cracked, and quaked. Dawn was barely peeking at 5:13 A.M. Most of San Francisco’s multitudes, about 400,000 people, were dozing.

 John and Margaret Willis dwelled on Nob Hill, in the 2100 block of Leavenworth Avenue.  They had been there since moving from 1227 Pacific Avenue in 1893. Daughter Grace and husband Michael Winter and their six young children lived next door. Two of the Willis sons had homes nearby: James and Elizabeth lived at 1307 Green Street, about 1/3 of a mile distant; Walter, still single at age 35, lived at 1648 Pacific Avenue, within 2/3 of a mile of his parents’ home. Only the oldest son, Robert, had abandoned San Francisco. He and his second wife, Elizabeth McKanna, newly married, were beginning their family in Treadwell, Alaska Territory, on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Strait from Juneau.

 In 1906 John Willis, son James, and son-in-law Michael distributed papers for the Morning Call, probably by owning their own routes. Robert was managing the company store for the Alaska-Treadwell Gold Mining Company. John would continue in his newspaper occupation till his death in 1921, as would Michael Winter till he retired. After the rebuilding of San Francisco, James would become a streetcar conductor. Walter, fatefully or not, had been serving as a San Francisco fireman since 1900. He would three years after tackling the San Francisco tragedy, still a fireman attached to Engine #31, commit suicide. He would live only 39 years.

 Most of the Willis and Caldwell families of John and Margaret’s generation had died.  Jeremiah Willis in 1904, age 78, had succumbed to old age in a home maintained by the San Francisco County; his wife, Frances, had expired in 1880, only 57. Brother Robert Willis had drowned in the Russian River, Forestville, Napa County, in 1901, at the age of 78; wife Charlotte pre-deceased him by seven years. Their sister, Grace Dowdell Willis, had died in San Francisco in 1878, just 65 years old; her husband, William Dowdell, had passed away in 1864 in New York City. As for Margaret’s siblings, Andrew and his wife, Martha Aiken Caldwell, had both succumbed to some disease within months of each other in San Francisco in 1869. James Caldwell had followed them in 1879 while wife Martha Wilson Caldwell continued on until 1904. Margaret’s Civil War veteran brother, John Moffit Caldwell, would spend his retirement days in a veterans’ home in Yountville, Napa County. He drowned in 1900, age 66, in the nearby Napa River. Only two of the Caldwell sisters were still living in 1906: Jane Caldwell Wignall (b. 1839) in San Francisco, and Betty Ann Caldwell Cantley (b. 1833) in County Down, Ireland.

 In 1906 John Willis, though still healthy and walking daily in his work, had reached the age of 71; his wife, Margaret, was 76. In the face of a disaster like the impending earthquake and subsequent fire, they would need assistance. It must come from their children.

 The John Willis home and the Winter home next door fronted on Leavenworth Avenue, facing westward, as the thoroughfare made its way down Nob Hill toward the waterfront. These were constructed of wood, probably redwood. The dwellings stood contiguously, with no yards around them and no spaces between them. Up above, on the brow of the hill soared the brick, individual homes of the wealthy.

 Brick buildings downtown and the shanty dwellings of the poor along the Embracadero, in the Mission District, and throughout Chinatown felt first the crushing impact of the quake.  Walls fell, buildings collapsed, and fires started, ignited by severed electric lines and spurred on by gases spouting through ruptured mains. The flames spread, primarily because of shattered water pipes which made fire-fighting almost useless, and secondarily, by the decision to set up firewalls by demolishing buildings in the fire’s path with gunpowder charges. This latter maneuver did not work and it contributed to the inferno’s rage. By Wednesday evening much of the business and financial districts were ablaze and destroyed; by early Thursday wildfires were creeping through the residential districts perched above. This advance was aided by winds coming upon the City from the northeast, instead of from the more usual southwest and west.

 In order to prevent the total destruction of their community, authorities determined that the advancing conflagration must be halted at the north-south division of Van Ness Avenue. (Current visitors know this street as Highway #101 that runs from down the Peninsula through the town and exits northward by Lombard Street over the Golden Gate Bridge.)  This would leave about 80% destroyed, from the waterfronts on the north and east, through the business and financial districts adjacent to them, and across the residential areas of Russian, Telegraph and Nob hills. It would, however, spare the vast area between Van Ness Avenue and the Pacific Ocean. This would include Ft. Mason and Golden Gate Park near the city’s waterfront and the Praesidio stretching to the ocean shores. As it would eventually turn out, San Francisco lost nearly five square miles of itself to the combination of earthquake and fire in this very area.

 Sadly for them, the Willis and Winter families lived on Nob Hill east of Van Ness Avenue. The properties of John Willis and Michael Winter were located highest up the  hill in the 2100 block of Leavenworth Avenue, between Filbert and Greenwich. Leavenworth, however, ran parallel to Van Ness, four city blocks or about 2/5 mile east of it. Walter Willis dwelt in the 1600 block of Pacific Avenue, about three city blocks down the hill toward the waterfront from his parents. Unfortunately, his place sat right between Polk Avenue and Van Ness, about ½ block within the fire zone. Another three blocks down the slope the house of James and Elizabeth Willis sat near the corner of Green Street and Larkin. Larkin ran parallel to Polk, one block farther east of it, and thus one further yet from Van Ness.

 The Willis/Winter complex did not survive the earthquake and fire. I suspect that fire ultimately took the homes. I say this because most insurance would cover fire but not earthquakes—acts of God; these homes were not rebuilt until 1908 because the insurance on them had been taken out in Germany. Moreover, from accounts of the devastation of San Francisco, it is almost universally agreed that most residential damage in the hills above the downtown came from the out-of-control fires. I also know that the First Methodist Church at 1601 Larkin burned down. As it had the home of James and Elizabeth Willis as neighbors (Green Street intersects with Larkin about five blocks north of the church) it seems most likely their home burned down also. As for the residence of Walter Willis, it stood right at the last-ditch fire line east of Van Ness. It makes one wonder if Walter, a fireman, took part in blowing up his own place as these fighters struggled to stop the inferno’s ruthless march.

Destruction Reaching to Van Ness Avenue

(National Archives and Records Administration)

 Presuming that the earthquake early on Wednesday did not level or make uninhabitable the Willis/Winter complex, I suspect like most of their neighbors this family surveyed the effects on their property and then gazed out in wonder at the city below. As it turned out, the second session of the 52nd annual convention of the Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons met that morning at the Masonic Temple located at Montgomery and Post streets. John Willis, a lifelong Mason, might well have attended. Given the destruction of the business district and the burgeoning fires, the session was gaveled to a close before noon. Good thing: the Masonic Temple went up in flames that afternoon.

 John and Margaret Willis had joined the First Methodist Church early in its life: John in 1857 and Margaret after they married in 1860. In the initial years of the 20th Century, John served the Church as one of its trustees, Michael Winter as a member of its board of stewards. It takes scant imagining to envision them with their pastor and other concerned parishioners as the fires moved up the slopes toward the church buildings. Parish records, books, church vessels, any treasures must have been hurriedly carted away toward the west and safety.

 In times of personal tragedy, families often rely on their parish for support. Members of groups like the Masons are known to offer assistance and solidarity in moments of severe stress. But what happens when both Church and Temple burn down? Add to that the incineration of the Call building at 3rd and Market. By 2:00 P.M. on Wednesday flames were devouring it. Thursday’s paper would be brought out as the Call-Chronicle-Examiner; it would be published on the presses of the Oakland Herald. This family no longer had a business either.

Third and Market Streets: 1. Call Building, 2. Examiner Building, 3. Monodonock Building 4. Mutual Bank Building. 5. Chronicle Building.

(National Archives and Records Admiistration)

 Help did come to San Francisco’s population when the local government appeared overwhelmed. Soldiers marched from the Praesidio to assist the firefighters, to patrol the streets, and to exact speedy justice upon looters. The Praesidio itself became an instant tent city giving shelter and decent living arrangements to upwards of 30,000 refugees. The United States Navy evacuated 20,000 huddled citizens from the bottom of Lombard Street, shuttling them out to the U.S.S.Chicago and on to Sausalito. During the frantic periods of earthquake, fire, destruction, and putting life back together, the Southern Pacific Railroad supplied free tickets to over 225,000 escapees from San Francisco.

 We know what Walter Willis did during these days. He fought the fire. He pulled people, dead and alive, from collapsed buildings. He guided frightened people to safety. He joined in a desperate effort to contain the destruction. He did his duty.

Rescuing People from the Ruins

(National Archives and Records Administration)

 The rest of the family looked to its security. They probably stayed close to home that horrible Wednesday; they would sleep fitfully but in their own beds that first night. But the fires were coming. Some time on Thursday authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation. It would have been difficult to get to the ferry docks on the Embarcadero. The Ferry Building had burned down and fires still burned out of control throughout the area. Escape that way would be dangerous, if allowed. During the period of Wednesday morning till Sunday evening, the Southern Pacific ran 129 trains with a total of 900 cars out from San Francisco, primarily to the east, across San Francisco Bay. Train travel down the Bay had all but halted; Palo Alto and San Jose being in ruins, and many tracks uprooted. To the north, the quake had leveled Santa Rosa. Indeed, the quake’s disruption ran in a north-south direction for up to 296 miles.

 The family eventually made it out of the City, across the Bay, and up past Sacramento. That most likely happened by train. If they could make it to boarding locations (Union Square was destroyed), they would have left, optimally, on Thursday; otherwise they would have had to find shelter at the Golden Gate Park or at the Praesidio until train passage was available to them.

Refugee Station, Praesidio

(National Archives and Records Administration)

 When the Winter family came to the United States from Neuhausen, District of Urach, Wuerttemberg, Germany in 1867, it settled in Amador County, to the east of Sacramento. They became farmers there and in Yolo County to the northwest. Much of the family still dwelt in that area in 1906. Naturally, the San Francisco Winters and Willis family headed there for family, safety, and home. They found habitation in the nearby community of Antelope.

Helen, Viola, Grace, and Florence Winter--Oakland, 1907

 We have only scanty information about what happened next. John and Margaret spent the summer months with their son Robert and his family in Treadwell and Douglas, on Douglas Island, in the Alaska Territory. By early in 1907 the families had relocated to Oakland where they lived until their homes were rebuilt in 1908. By 1909 they were  resettled in their new homes, at their old addresses, in San Francisco. All would live out their remaining days in that rebuilt and increasingly vital community.

Willis/Winter Family Rebuilt Homes On Leavenworth Avenue


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