Friday, April 16, 2010

Only One Survivor of 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire to Attend 104th Anniversary

pictured, Bill Del Monte and Rose Cliver at 2009 anniversary 

At 104-years-old, Bill Del Monte is both one of the greatest survivors and greatest losers along the West Coast.

He survived San Francisco's 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, and as a young man lost the equivalent in today's money of about $24 million in the 1929 Wall Street crash.

This weekend, he will be feted in the city as the lone earthquake survivor who is able to attend the 104th anniversary events - and he is still day-trading!

'He was one of the biggest losers in the West Coast,' said Lee Houskeeper, press agent of San Francisco Stories who is the organizer of the anniversary commemoration. As a young man, Bill didn't go to college but began to dabble in stocks and shares, said Lee.

It was fortunate dabbling, for by his early twenties Bill had amassed a fortune of $1 million. He lost everything in the 1929 Wall Street crash and, to boot, had to spend the next few years paying taxes on non-existent earnings because he had invested in what is called 'selling short and buying futures,' Lee said.

Bill is undoubtedly an icon of disasters and survival, with the Wall Street crash still considered the greatest stock market disaster because of its far-reaching effects, the Great Quake, which remained the biggest natural disaster in America until Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that he is one of probably no more than 10 centenarians from the quake to still be alive.

And the only one that can cope with getting up at the crack of dawn to travel in the back of an open-topped vintage car for a ceremony at 5.12 am, the approximate time that the quake struck.

Lee has spent the last year scanning the nation and obituary columns to find out about survivors. He has been in direct contact with about six or seven, and said there are about ten in total whom he knows of. Given that the oldest person in America, a woman, died recently at the age of 114 years, he wouldn't be surprised if there were a few more that are simply not coming forward.

Last year, Bill was making his debut appearance at the San Franciscan ceremonies, although he had attended others in the Bay Area, together with survivor Rose Cliver, then 106-years-old. Rose, who will be 108 years in October, is still alive and living in Santa Rosa with her son and his wife. Last year, her niece, Gloria, described how Rose loved to gamble on slot machines, and despite hearing difficulties, had  a mind ' as sharp as a tack.'

After the quake, Rose, her parents and 11 brothers and sisters took refuge in the hills at Bernal Heights and then lived in a tent in their backyard.

Bill was born in January 1904 in the back of the Fior D'Italia restaurant founded by his father, Angelo Del Monte. Today, the Fior D'Italia is America's oldest Italian restaurant. At three-months old and the youngest of six children - one sister sadly died as a toddler - Bill couldn't possibly remember the quake and fire. But his older brothers did. Bill was bundled by his grandmother onto the back of a buckboard with the rest of his family, and his brothers could recall it being driven down to the Ferry Building through streets alight on both sides.

Once at the Ferry Building, they escaped to a house they owned across the Bay and stayed there until they could return.

To read more of Bill & Rose's stories:

Among other Bay Area survivors that Lee has been able to catch up with is Nancy Stoner Sage*, who was 105-years-old in February. Nancy's family lost everything. Her mother died soon after the quake and her impoverished, jobless father gave up Nancy and her older sister, Margaret, for adoption by their grandparents.

In those days, said Lee, it was not uncommon for orphaned children to be given up for adoption. Financial straits were so dire, babies born in hospital were kept there by the hospital until medical fees had been paid.

Nancy ended up living in a miners' camp in Idaho and became a librarian until she retired in the late '70s. Lee discovered her living in Littleleton, Colorado, still as bright as a button.

'She plays cribbage every Sunday with her son, Darrell, and beats him!' he said.

Another survivor is 108-year-old Ruth Newman, living in Pebble Beach, 120 miles south of San Francisco. She was raised on a ranch on a fault line in Healdsburg, Santa Cruz. She's 'sharp as a tack, they say,' said Lee. 'She remembers the earthquake and living on a ranch on a hill at a dry creek road.'

Jeanette Scarpa Trapani died in the New Year at the age of 107 years. Herbert Heimie Hamrol, who for many years was thought to be the last known survivor, died at the age of 106 in February last year. Herbert was a local personality, attending every anniversary gathering and continuing to work in Andronico's Market in the Inner Sunset until shortly before his death.

The wreath laying and commemoration ceremony is at Lotta's Fountain on Market Street at 5.12 am on Sunday, followed by repainting of a gold fire hydrant in the Mission District, a Bloody Mary breakfast at Lefty O'Douls on Geary near Union Square for a $20 donation, and a showing of the film '1906' at the Westin St. Francis Hotel.

There is also a free tour of the city's water supplies on Saturday and, for a $60 donation, a survivor dinner at 4 pm at John's Grill on Ellis Street, just off Market Street. All of which are open to the public.

This year's anniversary may turn out to be both poignant and historic. 'It maybe the last we can have with a survivor that's willing to get up that early,' said Lee.

'We have been planning for some time for what we will do when there are no survivors because there are a huge group of people who want this to continue and because, in the end, San Francisco is the survivor,' he said.

In the meantime, he intends to make the most of the opportunity of honouring the survivors.

'These are the people we know who rebuilt the city from ashes.'

*Nancy Stoner Sage died yesterday

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