Tower Trouble

Much of the clean up after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was done with muscle, including pulling down part of the tower of St. Dominic's Church.

Tower Trouble
Much of the clean up after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was done with muscle.

In May 1906, San Francisco was still recovering from the great earthquake and fires that had destroyed most of the city a month earlier. In addition to caring for the refugees camping in parks in tents and shanties, the city needed to restore vital services and transportation links to rebuild the city. A massive clean-up job was underway.

Researcher Robert Bardell has written a comprehensive analysis of how the remains of thousands of buildings, twisted rails, and buckled streets were cleared away. He notes, “The unsung heroes of this story are men and animals, not machines.” With some limited use of derricks, steam engines, and explosives to demolish large building walls, it was muscle, sinew, picks, and shovels that did most of the work.

One big job, pulled off in the Western Addition 117 years ago this week, illustrated Bob’s point.

drawing of church
St. Dominic’s Catholic Church at the northwest corner of Bush and Steiner Streets, depicted at the time of its dedication in 1887. (San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 1887.)

St. Dominic’s Catholic Church at Bush and Steiner Streets, erected in 1887, suffered heavy damage from the earthquake. Its north tower was shaken away to the spire framework and surmounting cross, while the south tower had part of its dome still intact, precariously floating on a point 50 feet above the street.

St. Dominic’s church at the corner of Bush and Steiner Streets after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAC-2742)

While it’s difficult to find a good photograph of the church before April 18, 1906, there are many, many images of it in the two weeks after. The Examiner noted it “furnished one of the most picturesque ruins wrought by the earthquake.”

Children posing
Two girls pose on Steiner Street with the “picturesque ruins” of St. Dominic’s church after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. (UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, BANC PIC 1905.17500 v.9:70--ALB)

On May 14, 1906, a gang of wreckers was dispatched to pull down the southern tower using a wire cable pulled by a steam engine set up at Pine and Steiner Streets. The cable snapped. The workers tried repeatedly, but each time the cable broke or yanked free of its attachment to the stubborn tower.

Finally, three men—Gus Moore, Paul Abel, and Joseph Lewis—were dispatched to climb the tower and weaken the supports. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the next day “The scene was an impressive one and was viewed by considerably more than 1000 people.”

Crowd forms to watch the demolition of St Dominic’s south tower, May 14, 1906. (Miles Bros. photograph, OpenSFHistory/wnp37.00145)

“First these men used saws on the timber supports, cutting through until the merest strip of solid timber remained. Then they descended, and again the strain was put on the cable and again the cable snapped. Abandoning the saw, the men took their axes with them on their later trips and wielded them persistently, until those who stood far below, with necks craned, feared that the supports would collapse, and let the tower down on the fearless men, who smoked their pipes as they stolidly swung their axes.”

After four hours of labor, the men and the machine finally pulled the tower down. It crashed through the center section of the church and onto the entry steps.

Once the dust had settled, the crowd rushed upon the pile of ruins, along with the wreckers and police on duty, “for in its fall the tower had carried away the great, glimmering cross that surmounted the center of the front wall, and the cross was somewhere under the debris.”

St. Dominic’s south tower dome removed, May 14, 1906. (Miles Bros. photograph, OpenSFHistory/wnp37.00126)

The cross was unearthed from the debris intact. “As the crowd had looked at it before the fall it had seemed a small thing, possibly a foot high, but when it was taken out of the ruin it required the united strength of eight sturdy men to carry it to a place of safety.”

Lesson Learned?

It took more than 20 years to rebuild a permanent home for the St. Dominic’s parish. Beezer Brothers architects designed a massive Gothic church able to welcome more than 2,500 people to the dedication on February 19, 1928. The new church featured a two-part masonry tower with a forty-foot-tall octagonal “lantern” rising out of a square base.

The new St. Dominic's church, designed in Gothic style and dedicated in 1928, featured a tower with 40-foot "lantern" atop it.

Sixty-one years later, chunks of that upper tower crashed onto the street during the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. St. Dominic’s again became a post-earthquake problem and the ultimate decision to restore it wasn’t guaranteed. (The adjoining St. Rose High School building, historic and also damaged, was demolished in what seemed a political compromise between the archdiocese and the city.)

Pieces of the tower rubble were auctioned off to help raise funds for seismic strengthening and reconstruction. On August 1, 1992, when the archbishop rededicated the stabilized St. Dominic’s, the church had nine new flying buttresses and one shortened tower.

St. Dominic's church
After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, St. Dominic's lost its tower lantern but gained some flying buttresses (Cahill Contractors photograph).

Earthquake Shack Show Online

If you missed my sold out April show on 1906 earthquake refugee cottages and you missed David Gallagher and me doing an online reprise on May 1st, you are in luck. I have posted an edited version of the show for you to enjoy. So... enjoy?

Woody LaBounty and David Gallagher talk earthquake shacks on May 1, 2023.

Woody Beer and Coffee Fund

Woody and Dee
The 20-something-year-old workers at Toy Boat didn't believe Dee Dee F. and I had sat and drank coffee in the same booth 40 years previously. (Yes, we are old, but we are also still hella good-looking.)

Thanks to Aaron G. and Fred B. for their contributions to the Woody Beer and Coffee Fund this week. The money was put to good use purchasing both coffee and beer for me and my dear friend, Dee Dee. We hit Toy Boat and Max's 540 Club on Clement Street. Patronize your locals!

OK, Aaron, Fred, and all Friends of Woody, I owe you a drink. When are you free?

Encourage me to get out and be sociable by contributing to the not-a-nonprofit Woody Beverage Bank. You can reap the dividends!


“St. Dominic’s Tower Razed,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1906, pg. 10.

“St. Dominic’s Tower is Felled,” San Francisco Examiner, May 17, 1906, pg. 15.

“Thousands Attend Dedication of St. Dominic’s Church,” San Francisco Examiner, February 20, 1928, pg. 13.

Gerald D. Adams, “Church, city clash over historic buildings,” San Francisco Examiner, January 3, 1991, pg. A-13.