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Earthquake surprised Madera’s sheriff

Madera County Historical Society

Sheriff John Jones, shown here, was caught in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.


Sheriff John Jones fought Madera County’s criminals with the best of them. He chased the killer of Jim Bethel. He caught Jack Sweet, the stagecoach bandit, and he put Madera County’s first treasurer, William Amer, in jail for embezzlement.

None of these cases, however, raised his blood pressure as much as that sheriffs’ convention in San Jose in 1906. As fate would have it, his attendance there put him right in the middle of the San Francisco earthquake at 5 o’clock on the morning of April 18.

Sheriff Jones traveled to the convention with Sheriff Swan of Merced County and Sheriff Graves of Calaveras County. The convention was held in the St. James Hotel, and the three lawmen were sharing a room there. On Wednesday morning at five o’clock, they were rolled out of their beds by waving walls. As Jones put it, “I saw the bricks falling, and I told Sheriff Swan that if we went outside we would be killed, and he advised that we stay where we were.”

After the first shock, however, the men managed to get dressed and tried to get out, but they were blocked by a wall which had fallen. The three sheriffs then began to dig frantically through the debris and managed to crawl through a space about a foot wide. Stumbling out of the building, they made their way across the street to St. James Park, where they found chaos. Several of the wives of some of the sheriffs were huddled together half clad, having fled the building without their clothes. Jones and Swan volunteered to go back into the building to retrieve the women’s clothing for them.

As the women were dressing, one of the sheriffs informed Jones that the nearby Vendome Hotel had collapsed, trapping dozens of people. Several of the lawmen rushed to the site and found that the roof had fallen in but the walls had been kept from falling by a huge oak tree. They dug through the building and rescued several of the trapped guests. While doing so, word came that the Agnews State Asylum had collapsed, so a number of the sheriffs hurried there to help and wound up rescuing over 150 people. Some, however, they were unable to save.

As Sheriff Jones told it when he returned to Madera, “nearly every brick and stone building in San Jose is a wreck. Spring and Tighe’s store is a ruin. The building stands, but the roof has fallen, breaking all the cases, and it looks as if the building might fall at any moment.”

Sheriffs Jones and Swan somehow got on a train and made their way to Tanforan, about 10 miles below San Francisco. Upon reaching that place, however, they came upon a bridge that had been damaged, so they were forced to walk. After a while, they hired a milk wagon to take them to South San Francisco and then hitched a ride to Potrero Hill. From there, Jones and Swan took in what has to have been the best vantage point of the 1906 earthquake ever gained by any resident of Madera County. They looked out across the city and saw the whole place on fire.

“It was indescribable,” said the Sheriff. “Flames shot up almost to the sky, it seemed. The Call Building (San Francisco Call newspaper) was afire and the city from the ferry to Tenth street was in flames. The wind lifted the smoke, and we had a fine view; it was terrible but fascinating. On the way into the city we met old and young people in droves fleeing from the City. Many were afoot, and every vehicle was put into use. Men dragging buggies in which (there) were goods and children, was a common sight, and many people were dragging trunks by ropes tied to them. One man was pushing a wheelbarrow, in which were three babies. Many old women, half-clad with bundles on their backs, were in the procession, and we met a party of orphan children in charge of Sisters of Mercy marching in columns of two’s over the bridge towards South San Francisco. Many of the people did not seem to know where they were going.”

“We made our way along the water front, but were stopped by soldiers. They let us go on, and we reached the ferry. All along East Street the ground was badly cracked and sunk two or three inches in some places. In some places the wharf had fallen into the bay, but for most part they stood well. Many fire engines were pumping water from the bay, and the wharves and ferries were saved. The soldiers would permit people to leave the city, but not to enter, and as I was trying to get to the Lick house (a San Francisco restaurant), was stopped and sent back.”

It took Sheriff Jones two days to make it back to Madera, but when he got here, he gave the local press its first and most thorough account of the San Francisco earthquake. Then he went back to work. He had a race for reelection to run. Sheriff John Jones couldn’t allow a little shaking in the Bay Area to stand in the way of him doing his job.

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