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Contemporary Accounts of the 1906 Chilean Earthquake

Chile lies above two convergent plates (around Valparaiso the rate of convergence is about 70 mm/yr), one moving above the other. It is, therefore, always at risk of experiencing earthquakes and has suffered many, one of the worst being in August 1906.

At that time, Mary Peers Jones (née Owen) was already settled in Chile with her family and would have been in mourning for her eldest daughter, who had died, aged 15, three months earlier. In January of that year, Mary's brother and sister, John (aka Jack) Lowry Morgan Owen and Susan Ellen (aka Sally) Owen had set sail from London, bound for Valparaiso. Their sister, Lizzie Wilde (née Owen), and her family, would have arrived soon after the 'quake, having left England on 2 August, bound for Talcahuano; almost certainly they would have seen some of the devastation, may have experienced the aftershocks but it is to be hoped they avoided the plague that ensued. I know nothing of what became of that family.

The Cheshire Observer, 20 October 1906 provided an eye-witness account of events:


A Connah's Quay man, writing to his brother in the Flintshire town where many of his relatives reside, sends a vivid narrative of the great Chilian earthquake, and tells how he himself narrowly escaped with his life. The letter is addressed from the Pacific Steam Navigation Co.'s R.M.S. Guatemala, Coronel, South America, and is dated the 28th August. It says: We are now at sea going to Coronel for coals. We left "Valpo" last Sunday with refugees for Concepcion, and having landed there to-day are away again, as we are short of coal. The ship was full of folks in "Valpo," as there is scarcely a house tenantable left. I unfortunately was ashore on that particular night, and just barely escaped with my life, but many had the same experience, and many were killed, but you will read of it more fully in the papers. If they say that "Valpo" is a heap of ruins you may quite believe it. I never wish to see anything like it again. Great, wide beautiful streets are gone, in fact you cannot find the streets at all in one part of it. It is simply a mass of wreckage. We are now full of cargo which should have been transhipped at "Valpo" into the Orissa, but it could not be done, so had to stay where it is in our hold. None of the shipping suffered. Only a few anchors disappeared, no one knows where to. The only thing that we were afraid of was a tidal wave, but it did not come. There was a ship named the Warda lying in the tier next to us in "Valpo." It was in the "Frisco" shakes, but it was nothing (so they said) compared to this.

The earth seemed to bounce and drop in a different place. Two of us were sitting in a house talking when it came on, and the bally house rocked like a ship at sea. I thought my last moment had at last arrived. Houses were falling in all directions. One fell in front of me, and one behind, but I scraped through all right, and the rain pitilessly poured down all the time, and we had neither coats nor hats. The town took fire immediately, and the sight of it I shall never forget. It is still burning. I will not describe our journey down to the Bay; it is too terrible to recall. Even now, after twelve days, it makes me tremble to think of it; and how we managed to get down is still a mystery. We spent the night on a Chilian man-of-war, helping the doctors to dress wounds. Next morning we got on board here, and the cabins were all full of people of all classes, and they were kept from the 16th until the 26th free of charge, with the best of everything obtainable. Then most of them came south with us, but they had to pay for their passage.

Of course we have had plenty of fun in spite of it all, and I am afraid too much to drink too. Well you know it was a very trying time, and you have to take something to give you that "don't care a what happens" sort of feeling. Well, it's all over this time, and all that are found standing will have to be pulled down and built again. They have been using dynamite all the time, blowing the unsafe places down, and also to try to stop the fires, but they will soon burn out now. How the people are living is best known to themselves and those who have seen them. They are in the streets with scarcely anything on them, and it is very cold at this time of year, and raining too, and they are just like pigs, caring for nothing; and with no sanitation they will die of some epidemic.

[NB: As expected, plague did follow.]


Messages from the scene of the great earthquake state that only now can the seriousness of last week's catastrophe begin to be appreciated. The Governor of Valparaiso, in an official report fully confirms the accounts of the practically total destruction of the city. The minimum number of the killed in Valparaiso, he states, is 300, and of the injured 800. But this is in Valparaiso alone, and we still have no account of the number of the victims in other places.

In addition to Santiago, at least sixteen towns and villages have been either partially or wholly destroyed. These are Quillota. Limache. where the loss of life appears to haye been considerable. Vino del Mar, Llaillai, Los Andes, Petorca, Nogales, Quilim, Hierro Viejo, Melon, Casablanca, Supaliar, Felipe, Talca, Concepcion, and Talacahuana. In most of these the loss of life, if any, is not yet known.

According to a correspondent of the New York Herald at Lima, Peru, the important town of Quillota, twenty-six miles from Valparaiso, was completely destroyed. Its entire population of 12,000 perished, says the report - no doubt a greatly exaggerated one.

Despatches from various quarters received on Tuesday leave little room for hope that the earlier despatches relating to the earthquake were mucn overdrawn, particularly with respect to Valparaiso and Santiago. The telegraph line to the latter city has been restored, and brought the news that a slight shock was experienced the evening before which caused further damage, and rendered unsafe the position of buildings which had sustained the more severe shocks without serious results. The people of Santiago have practically camped en masse in the open spaces in and around the city, and on Monday night they were in miserable plight, as the rain fell heavily and vivid lightning flashed from time to time.

Another despatch from Valparaiso, received by way of Santiago, declares that there must be quite 1,000 bodies buried beneath the ruins of the devastated town. Martial law is being strictly enforced, and twenty-five men caught in the act of pillaging among the ruins had been summarily shot. A slight shock was felt at Lima on Tuesday morning, and Huacho was shaken by an earthquake the day before.


At last temporary telephonic communication with Valparaiso and Santiago de Chile has been established. The Mercurio says that 2,500 persons have been killed at Valparaiso. Telegraphic communication with Chili and Peru has been restored via the South African cables. Communication via Galveston with offices beyond Valparaiso, Chili, is interrupted. Communication with Valparaiso, Peru, and offices north of Valparaiso via Galveston are not affected. The fires at Valparaiso have been finally suppressed, largely by the use of dynamite. The streets are being constantly patrolled by military and other forces. The telegraph wires are still down. The railways are not yet working, and most of the communication is on horseback. Meat is distributed in the streets by order of the authorities. Trainloads of provisions have started for Valparaiso from Santiago, but cannot get through. The steamer Seni has left for Talcahuano to fetch provisions.

The offices of the Mercurio, a five-storey building, are practically undamaged. The Mercurio is the only paper which is getting out daily editions. It is firmly believed that the Valparaiso earthquake is more severe than that at San Francisco, but estimates of losses of life and property are even now premature. The earthquake was not felt severely at Concepcion, Iquique, or Antofagasta.


A graphic despatch from Santiago, dated Monday, runs as follows: Only now can the seriousness of the catastrophe begin to be appreciated. The greater part of the modern houses at Santiago are unsafe for habitation, and a special service has been formed to pull down buildings. In most of the streets it is unsafe to walk on the pavements owing to the falling debris. Santiago resembles an encampment. The public squares and the principal avenues are crowded with people sleeping in the open. All kinds of carriages and carts are requisitioned for sleeping in, on, and under. The night of the 16th was rendered dreadful by lightning and pouring rain, by electric cables and wires snapping with the constant strong shocks which occurred all night, and by the booming of the fire bell, announcing fires in various quarters. Each shock was followed by the wails and prayers of people kneeling in the rain and mud.

The first great shock lasted four minutes and fifty seconds. Such a long duration is unknown to memory. The outlook for Santiago is serious, since many homeless people will arrive from Valparaiso. There are not enough houses for us, and there is a scarcity of eatables, but the light question is still more serious, since no coal can be brought owing to the railway being damaged north and south. The uncertainty of not knowing what is occurring elsewhere, combined with the shocks which still continue, is terribly trying, and renders one nearly desperate.

As I finish this telegram a further small shock makes the house tremble.

Bells rang in steeples, and pictures swung out from walls owing to the heaving motion. Experts state that the only thing which saved Santiago from complete ruin was the fact that the motion was circular.


The principal shock was from Valparaiso to Santiago and Melipilla, with its centre at Limache. There two latter towns were completely destroyed, as were also Quillota and Llaillai. The Lancers Barracks at Limache collapsed, two officers being crushed to death in the ruins. Hundreds of dead bodies lie unburied there, and only 200 could be interred up to the present.


Senor Larrain, Governor of Valparaiso, spoke with Santiago for half an hour. President Riesco authorised him to requisition cattle for food and asked him the number of dead. Senor Larrain replied that up to the present sixty dead bodies had been recovered. The clearing away of the debris would be hurried on. The number of wounded is very high. and the military ambulances are insufficient to give them proper attention. The Mayor has taken the necessary steps to punish abuses and will establish meat depots. At present the supply of meat and other articles of primary necessity is very small.


The police are in possession of food and rations, and committees have been appointed by the Government to distribute public relief. The financial measures to be taken in view of the disaster are being much discussed, and a period of grace for many Bourse transactions is proposed. At a meeting of the relief committee held at Santiago it was decided to receive subscriptions at all the banks and at other places, and to canvass the whole city for money, victuals, and clothes to be sent to Valparaiso and other stricken towns.


Travellers from Valparaiso to Santiago confirm the magnitude of the disaster. They say that the authorities took energetic measures to prevent pillage, and twenty-five persons caught in the act have been shot after summary trial. Over 100 prisoners were killed at the gaol. The Chief of Police at Valparaiso says that the second shock caused the disaster. He estimates that 90 per cent, of the buildings have been destroyed by earthquake or fire. All the churches but two, and all the theatres, the hospital, the workhouse, and the local Government offices of Santiago are in ruins.


The Argentina Council of Ministers has decided to send immediately the cruiser 25 de Mayo and the transport Guardia Nacional to take provisions and other supplies to Valparaiso. Congress has voted for this purpose a sum of 250,000 paper dollars.


The Californian Relief Committee, which was appointed after the earthquake at San Francisco last April, has telegraphed 10,000dol. to the President of Chili as a contribution to the fund in aid of the sufferers from the Chilian earthquake.

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