When San Francisco gathers at Lotta’s Fountain this coming Monday morning to remember the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, it will mark 110 ten years since the devastating event. But perhaps most remarkably, it will represent the first April 18 since the actual quake where there is no longer anyone alive who felt it.
The death of Bill Del Monte earlier this year at age 109, marked the end of the last 1906 survivor — an inevitable page turning in the long tale of the Bay Area’s most famous catastrophe.
“We knew the day would come when we wouldn’t have a survivor,” said Lee Housekeeper, organizer of the city’s 1906 annual gathering. “So we are going to celebrate San Francisco and those folks who built the city from the ashes.”
The annual springtime gathering at Lotta’s Fountain at 5:12 a.m. is a rite for those nostalgic for the city that died in the earthquake and fire — and the one that arose from it. For decades the aged survivors were treated as celebrities as they retold their stories — most of them recounting tales told to them by their parents, since they were too young to remember.
Their stories formed a living link to a San Francisco that now only exists in flickering black and white films of the devastation.
“The thing was they were alive then,” said San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte, “and more importantly they rebuilt the city after the earthquake.”
Del Monte often recited his tale of the morning of the quake — his mother wrapping him in a bed sheet and his father whisking the family away in a horse-pulled cart bound for Oakland— riding past flaming embers along the way.
But Del Monte grew most animated when he talked about seeing electric lights for the first time, or wandering past construction sites as new buildings sprouted up around the city.
“It will be a little bittersweet not having any of them around this year,” said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. “But we will raise a glass and toast them.”
Nolte, a native San Franciscan who grew up hearing 1906 stories from his father and grandparents — said the stories of 1906 are now imbrued in the succeeding generations like the passing of a flaming baton.
“In that sense we’re all kind of survivors,” Nolte said, “because we inherited the city from those people.”
As to whether the city should continue to rise every April 18th before dawn to gather on Market Street and remember a disaster no one living actually experienced, Nolte thought for a second.
“It’s like the 4th of July,” Nolte said. “We don’t have any signers of the Declaration of Independence anymore do we? But we still celebrate it.”