The destruction of the libraries, with their valuable collections of books, was also a very serious loss to the city and its people. Of these there were nine of some prominence, the Sutro Library containing many rare books among its 200,000 volumes, while that of the Mechanics Institute possessed property valued at $2,000,000. The Public Library occupied a part of the City Hall, the new building proposed by the city, with aid to the extent of $750,000 by Andrew Carnegie, being fortunately still in embryo.
In the burning of the banks the losses were limited to the buildings, their money and other valuables being securely locked in fireproof vaults. But these became so heated by the flames that it was necessary to leave them to a gradual cooling for days, during which their treasures were unavailable, and those with deposits, small or large, were obliged to depend on the benevolence of the nation for food, such wealth as was left to them being locked up beyond their reach. It was the same with the United States Sub-Treasury, which was entirely destroyed by fire, its vaults, which contained all the cash on hand, being alone preserved. Guards were put over these to protect their contents against possible loss by theft.
One serious effect of the conflagration was the general disorganization of the telegraph system. News items were sent over the wires, but private messages inquiring about missing friends for days failed to reach the parties concerned or to bring any return.
That the world received news of the San Francisco disaster during the dread day after the earthquake is due in part to the courage of the telegraph operators, who stuck to their posts and, continued to send news and other messages in spite of great personal danger.
The operators and officials of the Postal Telegraph Company remained in the main office of the company, at the corner of Market and Montgomery Streets, opposite the Palace Hotel, until they were ordered out of it because of the danger of the dynamite explosions in the immediate vicinity. The men proceeded to Oakland, across the bay, and took possession of the office there. That night the company operated seven wires from Oakland, all messages from the city being taken across the bay in boats. As the days passed on the service gradually improved, but a week or more passed away before the general service of the company became satisfactory.
Such news as came from the city was full of tales of horror. For a number of days one of the chief sources of trouble was from thirst. Although the earthquake shocks had broken water mains in probably hundreds of places, strange to say, no water, or very little at least, appeared on the surface of the ground. Public fountains on Market Street gave out no relief to the thirsty thousands. At Powell and Market Streets a small stream of water spurted up through the cobblestones and formed a muddy pool, at which the thirsty were glad enough to drink. The soldiers, disregarding the order not to let people move about, permitted bucket brigades to go forth and bring back water to relieve the women and the crying children. To reach the water it was necessary sometimes to go a mile to one of the four reservoirs which top the hills.