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Post War San Fransico Earthquake


Greely had hardly pinned on his second star when he was faced with a major challenge: the San Francisco earthquake during the early morning of 18 April 1906 and the subsequent fire that raged for four days. Learning of the disaster while on his way East for his daughter's wedding, Greely hurried back to the devastated city, arriving on the 22d. In his absence, troops under Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, commander of the Department of California, had assisted with the firefighting, helped to maintain law and order, and undertaken the administration of emergency relief services.


Amid the chaos, the maintenance of communications posed a difficult problem. The earthquake had knocked out the city's telephone system and destroyed virtually all of its telegraph lines. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster the only remaining communication with the outside world was provided by "one or two insecure wires to the East operated by the Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies from their shattered main offices.“Later in the day flames destroyed even these tenuous connections, and the city's half million residents found themselves isolated from the rest of the country. Fortunately, the Signal Corps could step in during the emergency. By 1000 on the 18th, about five hours after the earthquake occurred, Capt. Leonard D. Wildman, the departmental signal officer, had established a field telegraph line between the Presidio and the outskirts of the fire. With the aid of the Corps' operators, instruments, and material, the commercial telegraph companies gradually restored operations.


Luckily, due to the new stationing plan, the Signal Corps had storehouses and two companies (E and H) located at Benicia Barracks, only thirty-six miles away. Local National Guard units, to include the 2d Company Signal Corps, assisted in the relief efforts. This company laid telegraph lines connecting the city's Guard headquarters with subordinate units. On 1 May, Company A, Signal Corps, commanded by Capt. William Mitchell, arrived from Fort Leavenworth to provide additional men and material. They remained on duty in the city for a month. In the burned areas, military telegraph lines remained in use until 10 May. Citywide, Wildman set up a system of forty-two telegraph offices and seventy-nine telephone offices that connected all the military districts, federal buildings, railroad offices and depots, the offices of the mayor and governor, and other locations as needed. Because the cables in the harbor had been destroyed, the Signal Corps employed visual signals, including flags, heliographs, and acetylene lanterns, to communicate between Angel Island and Alcatraz. To restore the cables, the Corps called upon the Burnside, usually on duty in Alaska.


General Funston, in his report, commended Wildman for his proficiency and ability "in establishing and maintaining telegraph and telephone communication under the almost impossible conditions existing during the conflagration and immediately afterwards." Greely echoed Funston's praise.


Find out more in "Getting the Message Through" at



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