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History's Headlines: Allentown couple caught in 1906 earthquake

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 25 2014 10:04:50 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 28 2014 07:43:57 PM CDT

History's Headlines: A Trip to Remember

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Very few people in the Lehigh Valley in the early 20th century were lucky enough to afford a cross-country vacation. And 67 year old Joseph B. Lewis, retired manager of the Allentown Iron Company, and his wife, Ellenora, were far from Rockefeller wealthy.

But they had a comfortable income and in the winter of 1906 began looking over travel brochures. One particularly struck their interest: a luxury train trip to California, whose final destination was to be San Francisco, the fabled city of 400,000 known as the metropolis of the west.

For Lewis, who as a young man had panned for gold in California and traveled the cattle trails of Oklahoma, it would be something of a sentimental journey.

So on an early spring morning in 1906, with well-packed trunks piled high, they left their Victorian home at 31 S. 5th Street, currently the site of St John’s Lutheran Church (its carefully tended rose gardens were the Lewis’ pride and joy), and headed for the railroad station.

The couple had no way of knowing that their dream vacation would place them in the middle of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Although it shook the entire state of California, the earthquake’s near total destruction of the state’s largest city, and its massive death toll (3,000 lives were lost) were what made the event legendary. Here was a modern early 20th century city with tall buildings, electric lights and telephones that, in the space of minutes, tumbled to ruin. Moralists saw the hand of God in the “wicked” city’s destruction. But the survival of a distillery in the midst of the carnage caused some citizens to retort in verse:

 “If as some say, God spanked the town

   For being over frisky,

  Why did he burn the Churches down

  And save Hotaling’s Whisky?”

All this was in the future as the train carrying Joseph and Ellenora Lewis chugged its way westward. With them were some longtime friends from Catasauqua.            

Their train entered California from the south on April 17, 1906. Their friends took a side trip to Santa Barbara. They told the couple they would meet them in San Francisco on the 19th. With their many trunks the Lewises arrived in the city that afternoon at the Palace Hotel. 

Among the best hotels in the country, the Palace was hosting special guests that evening, the company of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company headed by tenor Enrico Caruso. Caruso was among the most famous performers in the world. It was a social coup that had the city’s high society buzzing. Diamonds were said to be everywhere that night. 

But the Lewises had long since gone to bed. They had what they thought would be a heavy day of sightseeing ahead of them. So the couple was at rest as the sky over San Francisco showed the first signs of sunlight around five a.m., suggesting April 18, 1906 would be a beautiful day.

At that moment a stableman told a passing reporter headed home from the night shift that something was wrong with the horses. “They seem restless tonight,” he said. “Don’t really know why.”

At the city’s produce market a policeman on duty was among the first to notice at 5:12 a.m. an unusual sound. At first he thought it was distant thunder.

But it was the earth and not the heavens that were unsettled. Cobblestoned streets began to rip, tear and split apart. “The whole street was undulating,” the officer later recalled. “It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, billowing as they came.”

No one had to tell the Lewises that they were in an earthquake. They were thrust out of their beds as the entire hotel shook around them. They found standing almost impossible. “I felt the floor and the ceiling cracking,” he later told a newspaper. “The floor jumped upward and bumped my feet. The door was wrenched from its hinges and nearly fell on me.”

Around them they could hear what sounded like every building in the city wrenching on its foundations. Some built in the poorer districts simply melted into the ground. Others piled high with ornamental stone cornices had them tumble to the street.

And then, as abruptly as the quake began, brief minutes later it was over. Overall the earthquake was estimated at 7.9 on the Richter scale. The Lewises ran to the balcony and saw a street full of running people.

But the real horror had just begun. Fires started to break out all over the city. And every water main was broken. At 8:a.m. the Palace Hotel told its guests that with the fire coming at it from two directions they would have to leave. The Lewises fled to another hotel only to be told when they got there that the Army wanted to dynamite it as a fire break.

Abandoning their trunks, the Allentown couple followed the throng four miles to Fort Mason, the Army outpost at the edge of the city. An officer there told them if they wanted to sleep, they could do so in barracks, as most of the men were off fighting the fire.

The Lewises slept soundly until the next morning. Then they walked down to the ferry docks surrounded by people with the same destination. Among them was Caruso, leading the opera company while holding up a large autographed photo of President Theodore Roosevelt.

A ferry carried the Lewises to Oakland, where they were taken in by a kindly doctor. It was May 1st when they arrived back in Allentown and gave the press their account of the horror they had witnessed.

Joseph Lewis lived on until 1919, his wife until 1922, tending their rose garden and with no further desire for distant travel.