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Charitable consistency

From San Francisco 1906 to New Orleans 2005

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

The cover date of this issue, April 15, is a date that lives in infamy for many taxpayers forced to pay what they would rather not-with the largest single cost being payment for federally mandated social services. But what if making contributions to help the needy became as customary as leaving tips at restaurants-something most people do without public grumbling even though it's not legally required?

That may be a farfetched notion, but we do see millions of people voluntarily offering to help when highly publicized disasters such as Hurricane Katrina strike. Next Tuesday brings the 100th anniversary of a disaster granddaddy, so I've been reading (particularly in Philip Fradkin's The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself) about charitable responses then.

Here's a sample: Oregonians immediately sent 49 train carloads of supplies and food, and pledged a daily trainload of bread and provisions. The New England Shoe Association contributed boots and shoes to replace those of poor San Franciscans whose footwear did not survive walking over cinders. New Yorkers sent about $180 million in today's dollars. John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and Andrew Carnegie wrote checks for $100,000 each, the equivalent of probably $6 million today. Railroads transported supplies for free: In nine days following the disaster, the Southern Pacific alone handled 1,409 freight cars of supplies, the equivalent of a train 10 miles long.

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Citizens, civic societies, and businesses sent tents, bedding, disinfectants, hospital materials, and much besides, in large and small amounts. The Women's Christian Temperance Union of Brawley, Calif., sent 464 loaves of bread, 42 biscuits, and one sack of doughnuts. Colville, Wash., sent 46,413 pounds of potatoes. Prescott, Ariz., sent 80 head of cattle. The mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo., sent gold that would be worth perhaps a quarter of a million dollars today. A debutante sold her trousseau, saying, "These fine things mock me."

Personal help also was common, with volunteer doctors and nurses flowing into San Francisco and the newly homeless flowing out. Some officials of other cities worried about the "worst elements" flowing their way, but Portland took in 3,500 refugees who received "meals, baths, clothing, lodgings, and employment, where wanted." San Jose volunteered to take San Francisco's prisoners, since the destroyed city no longer had a functioning jail, and a Washington, D.C., asylum offered to accept 200 to 300 "insane" patients.

All was not sweet, of course. Father Peter C. Yorke, chancellor to San Francisco's archbishop, raged about his inability to pry cots from the army for elderly women sleeping on a floor. Yorke wrote of "the serpent of red tape, which, like the serpent of Laocoon, appears to be strangling the giant of American Charity." After Katrina nearly a century later, mythological allusions were fewer and frustrations with paperocracy even greater-but the offers of material and personal help were similar.

University of Texas-Dallas professor Frederick Turner summarized in American Arts Quarterly the recent outpouring of help even as Katrina rains still poured down: "In hours whole organizations had sprung into being, anchored on churches and other moral institutions of civil society, and facilitated by the amazing virtuosity and inventiveness of ordinary people with the Internet."

Mr. Turner noted, "As voluntary relief workers, relatively unhampered by the legal requirements of government employees, encountered the local conditions and each other, they flexibly adapted to what the needs were. . . . There was a rapid dispersal of tens of thousands of tired, miserable, hungry, filthy, lost and traumatized people into the community where there were home-cooked meals, hot showers and telephones."

With all the ways that America has changed, it's both troubling and comforting to know that not only the poor but disaster-related charity will always be with us. We might even switch out the words about baseball that James Earl Jones memorably utters in Field of Dreams: "The one constant through all the years has been [the need to respond to catastrophe]. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again." But charity from San Francisco in 1906 to New Orleans in 2005 has helped to redeem the time.

When was the last time you felt good about paying taxes? When was the last time you felt bad about helping the needy?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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