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After the Earthquake -- A New Beginning

Read Capt. Duke's Report on the 1906 Earthquake

As with all disasters, the aftermath brings restructuring on all levels of life. The 1906 earthquake was a prime example. Individuals as well as city government were given the opportunity to start anew. The police department began all new procedures in staffing officers and administrators. The first written civil service tests were held shortly after the earthquake in 1906. The department was strengthened to 700 men and, for the first time, new officers were hired on the basis of impartial test scores. This frustrated the attempts of corrupt politicians to stack the department in their favor. Reform administrations were elected to replace the previous regimes, and the police force began to leave its tarnished image behind.

The period from 1906 through 1912 was marked by a massive rebuilding effort throughout the city and the police department. The Board of Supervisors began to authorize the purchase and construction of buildings for the police force, and several new stations were completed. Architect Emil de Neuf was commissioned to design both the Park Station, at Stanyan Street, and the Ingleside Station at Balboa Park. De Neuf created two fine examples of the "Mission style" then popular throughout California, with red tile roofs and stucco walls. Park Station... was finished with oak wainscoting and richly-paneled offices. Mission Station at 3215-17th Street, was built in 1902, then severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt. [It was damaged again by the 1989 earthquake.] Richmond Station, at Sixth Ave. and Geary Blvd., was also built during this period.

More important to the department was the completion, in 1912, of the new Hall of Justice on the site of the previous Hall at Kearny and Washington streets. While not as graceful as its predecessor, the new Hall was sturdier, built around a steel frame to withstand an earthquake at least as strong as the tremor of 1906. The new Hall served as department headquarters until the high-rise boom of the 60's. A new Hall of Justice was built on Bryant Street, and the old Hall replaced by a 20-story Holiday Inn.

The four men who served as chief between 1907 and 1911, William Biggy, Jesse Cook, John B. Martin and John Seymour, had long careers as San Francisco police officers prior to their appointments. However, Mayor Patrick McCarthy broke with tradition in June 1911, when he went outside the department and appointed David Augustine White to lead the force. The appointment was greeted initially by the force with skepticism because White had never even been a police officer. In fact, he had spent his entire working life as an employee of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The grumbling intensified when the new chief transferred six ranking captains and replaced them with junior officers. However, White's intentions soon became clear. Because of old scandals, still fresh in the minds of citizens, the new chief shook up the department to demonstrate his independence of the mayor and the city's political power structure. By replacing older officers with younger ones, any of whom had come into the department since the institution of the civil service system, White succeeded in putting distance between the old graft-ridden department and the new one.

White emphasized the change within the next few years when he began the systematic cleanup of the city's Barbary Coast. Notorious Morton Street (now Maiden Lane) finally was shuttered once and for all, and many brothels, as old as the city itself, closed their doors for good. Using the Red Light Abatement Act of 1913, for which he had lobbied aggressively, White also closed such well-known gambling and drinking clubs as Purcell's, Spider Kelly's, Thalia's and the Hippodrome. Almost all of those clubs were on Pacific Street between Battery and Montgomery streets.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were a time of innovation for the city's police department. The arrival of the automobile at the turn of the century might have changed the face of America, but it also posed new problems for law enforcement officers. In San Francisco, motorcars were originally regarded as playthings for the rich. In fact, the first automobile licenses were issued by the Recreation and Parks Department. But as auto makers improved technology it became clear that police departments would have to adapt.

The forerunner of the modern traffic division was initiated in 1909 when the force purchased its first two cars. By 1915, the department had begun buying Ford Model T's and building wooden "cells" on the back for use as makeshift patrol wagons. Other Fords were pressed into service for use as pursuit and patrol vehicles and, following the example of departments in New York and Chicago. San Francisco police began equipping their cars with hand-cranked sirens.

While the traffic division, quartered at Central Station, patrolled the city's streets, the bulk of police work was accomplished on foot. Well into the 1920's each police station had just one vehicle; a patrol wagon the officers called a "jitney."

Go to Police Work in the 1920's, or Return to the SFPD Main Exhibit Page
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