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1906 quake 'schoolmaster' to saints — disaster was severe trial, but fortified testimonies

Early Wednesday morning on April 18, 1906, former Utahns Wally Young and Race Whitney had just left their offices at the San Francisco Chronicle, when suddenly the earth began to move.

At 5:13 a.m., recorded LDS historian William G. Hartley, "they heard a deep rumbling. . . buildings started to move and shudder, and power lines and cable car tracks jerked and swayed. Brick chimneys and walls crashed through roofs and tumbled to sidewalks."The earthquake, estimated at 8.3 on the Richter scale, proved to be the most devastating in American history, killing more than 700 people. The two men were among some 125 Latter-day Saints living in the Bay Area, all of whom survived.

Joseph E. Robinson, president of the California Mission, noted in his journal that the three-story mission home rocked as though shoved by "a giant's mighty hand." The home survived the quake with little damage, but was later destroyed by one of the many fires that immediately swept the city.

"As I noted the havoc," Pres. Robinson wrote, "I thought what poor, impotent things we are compared with the powers of the Infinite One. Here I could see how mountains shall rise and sink as He wills."

It was a time of not only severe trials, but also of great testimony-building, noted Hartley. Five missionaries found to their astonishment that the two hotel rooms in which they slept were the only ones left intact in the entire building. Another two elders escaped damage as well, and were told by their proprietor, "You Mormons got off easy."

Many quietly heroic acts by Latter-day Saints were also documented during the catastrophe. Medical student Parley Pratt Musser, his wife Martha and their baby, lived in a four-story apartment house in the South-of-Market district, and averted what could have been another tragedy.

"The tenants deserted the building after the initial quake," recorded Hartley, "but Martha handed the baby to Parley and said she would join them outside. Smelling gas, she found a wrench and bravely descended into the dark basement where, riding out three aftershocks, she turned off about 30 gas meters."

Another member, 17-year-old Harold Jenson, described in his journal the devastating experience of his family leaving their home. While hurriedly pulling a hand truck loaded with tools and clothes, Harold's father became exhausted trying to escape the burning fires, and could go no further.

The boy's journal records: "At that moment . . . I was gifted with the strength of a Sampson. . . . I picked him up as though he were but a mere child and sat him in the truck. . . . I got hold of the handles again and the big load seemed light as I wheeled it across the street for half a block, while mother was close behind me wheeling the sewing machine."

That night, many saints were forced to spend a cold night in Jefferson Park. There was no water, no sewage system, and fires lit up the horizon for miles.

Within 24 hours of the quake, however, Church leaders in Salt Lake City were receiving information about the welfare of the members in the area, and took immediate steps to send relief supplies. By Thursday afternoon, April 19, the First Presidency had met and agreed to send $10,000 for general assistance, while Relief Society sisters throughout the Salt Lake Valley immediately began making quilts. One stake finished 93 quilts in a day and a night and sent them to the quake area; one ward baked and shipped off 500 loaves of bread.

The San Francisco Branch's rented meetinghouse was destroyed, and a great number of members faced severe personal property losses. Many decided to move to Utah, while others took refuge in Oakland, across the Bay. Only a small number remained in the city, and at Church services held outdoors on the first few Sundays following the quake, just a few dozen members were present. Meetings were discontinued that summer, as the demise of the public transport system made commuting difficult, and were not resumed until August.

The earthquake, as all disasters, proved to be a great learning experience for the saints. President Joseph F. Smith said afterward, "Disasters areT schoolmasters to teach the people to prepare themselves, by righteous living, for the coming of the Savior."

Despite the crisis, Pres. Robinson noted a calmness that seemed to envelop the faithful saints. "There was no hysteria, abandonment to grief, despair or complaint manifest," he wrote in a letter to apostle Heber J. Grant. "All seemed to possess that peace of mind that surpasseth understanding' which comes only to those whosehopes were secure in the promises of the Father.' "