The Sunset City by Isabel Ambler Gilman


Turn back the leaves of history. On yon Pacific shore
A world-known city’s fall and rise shall thrill your hearts once more.
‘Twas April; nineteen-six the year; old San Francisco lay
Effulgent in the splendor of the dying orb of day
That bathed in flood of crimson light Mount Tamalpais’ lonely height
And kissed the sister towns “goodnight” across the misty bay.

It burst in glory on the hills, lit up the princely homes,
And gleamed from lofty towers and spires and flashed from gilded domes;
It glorified the massive blocks caught in its widening flow,
Engulfed the maze of streets and parks that stretched away below,
Till marble white and foliage green and vales of gray, and silvery sheen
Of ocean’s surface vast, serene, were tinted by its glow.

The tranquil murmurs of the deep were borne on balmy air
All odorous with lily breath and roses sweet and rare.
The zephyrs sang a lullaby as the slow, fiery ball
Ended its trail of gorgeousness behind horizon’s wall.
Then gray absorbed each rainbow hue and dark the beauteous landscape grew
As shadowy Evening softly drew her curtain over all.


That night around the festal board, ‘mid incandescence gay,
Sat Pomp and Pride and Wealth and Power, in sumptuous array,
That night the happy, careless throng were all on pleasure bent,
And Beauty in her jewelled robes to ball and opera went.
‘Mid feasting, laughter, song and jest; by music’s soothing tones caressed;
The Sunset City sank to rest in peace, secure, content.


Unconscious of approaching doom, old San Francisco sleeps
While from the east, all smilingly, the April morning creeps.
See! Playful sunbeams tinge with gold the mountains in the sky,
And hazy clouds of gray unfold—but, hark! What means that cry?
The ground vibrates with sadden shock. The buildings tremble, groan and rock.
Wild fears the waking senses mock, and some wake but to die.

A frightful subterranean force the earth’s foundation shakes;
The city quivers in the throes of fierce, successive quakes,
And massive structures thrill like giant oaks before the blast;
Into the streets with deafening crash the frailer ones are cast.
Half garbed, the multitude rush out in frantic haste, with prayer and shout,
To join the panic stricken rout. Ho! DEATH is marching past.

A rumbling noise! The streets upheave, and sink again, like waves;
And shattered piles and shapeless wrecks are strewn with human graves.
Danger at every corner lurks. Destruction fills the air.
Death-laden showers of mortar, bricks, are falling everywhere.


“Fire! Fire!” And lo! the dread fiend starts. Mothers with babes clasped to their hearts
Are struggling for the open parts in frenzy of despair.

A hundred tiny tongues of flame forth from the ruins burst.
No water! God! what shall we do to slake their quenchless thirst?
The shocks have broken all the mains! “Use wine!” the people cry.
The red flames laugh like drunken fiends; they stagger as to die,
Then up again in fury spring, on high their crimson draperies fling;
From block to block they leap and swing, and smoke clouds hide the sky.

Ha! from the famed Presidio that guards the Golden Gate
Come Funston and his regulars to match their strength with Fate.
The soldiers and the citizens are fighting side by side
To check that onslaught of red wrath, to stem destruction’s tide.
With roar, and boom, and blare, and blast, an open space is cleared at last.
The fiends of fury gallop past with flanks outstretched and wide;

Around the city’s storehouses they wreathe and twine and dance,
And wealth and splendor shrivel up before their swift advance.
Before their devastating breath the stricken people flee.
“Mine, mine your treasures are!” cried Death, and laughs in fiendish glee.
Into that vortex of red hell sink church and theatre, store, hotel.
With thunderous roar and hissing yell on sweeps the crimson sea.

Again with charge of dynamite the lurid clouds are riven;
Again with heat and sulphur smoke the troops are backward driven.
All day, all night, all day again, with that infernal host
They strive in vain for mastery. Each vantage gained is lost,—
On comes the bellowing flood of flame in furious wrath its own to claim;
Resistless in its awful aim each space is bridged and crossed.

Ah God! the miles and miles of waste! One half the city gone!
And westward now—toward Van Ness—the roaring flames roll on.
“Blow up that mile of palaces!” It is the last command,
And there, at broad Van Ness, the troops make their heroic stand.
The fight is now for life—sweet life, for helpless babe and homeless wife—
The culmination of the strife spectacularly grand.

On sweeps the hurricane of fire. The fatal touch is given.
The detonation of the blast goes shrieking up to heaven.
The mansions of bonanza kings are tottering to their doom;
That swirling tide of fiery fate halts at the gaping tomb.
Beyond the cataclysm’s brink, the multitude, too dazed to think,
Behold the red waves rise and—sink into the smoldering gloom.


The fire has swept the waterfront and burned the Mission down,
The business section—swallowed up, and wiped out Chinatown—
Full thirty thousand homes destroyed, Nob Hill in ashes lies,
And ghastly skeletons of steel on Market Street arise.
A gruesome picture everywhere! ‘Tis desolation grim and bare
Waits artisan and millionaire beneath rank sulphurous skies.

To-night, within the city parks, famished, benumbed and mute,
Two hundred thousand refugees, homeless and destitute!
Upon the hard, cold ground they crouch—the wrecks of Pomp and Pride;
Milady and the city waifs are huddled side by side.
And there, ‘neath shelter rude and frail, we hear the new-born infants wail,
While’ nations read the tragic tale—how San Francisco died.



Not dead! Though maimed, her Soul yet lives—indomitable will—
The Faith, the Hope, the Spirit bold nor quake nor fire can kill.
To-morrow hearts shall throb again with western enterprise,
And from the ruins of to-day a city shall arise—
A monument of beauty great reared by the Conquerors of Fate—
The City of the Golden Gate and matchless sunset skies!



Reborn, rebuilt, she rose again, far vaster in expanse—
A radiant city smiling from the ashes of romance!
A San Francisco glorified, more beauteous than of yore,
Enthroned upon her splendid hills, queen of the sunset shore;
Her flags of industry unfurled, her portals open to the world!
Thus, in the Book of Destiny, she lives for evermore.