Greely was en route to his daughter's wedding on the morning of April 18, 1906, when the infamous San Francisco earthquake occurred. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, Greely’s second in command, immediately mobilized Presidio troops. When General Greely returned to the city on April 23, he found that 4,000 of his troops were in the city and authorized by Mayor Eugene Schmitz to shoot looters. Alarmed at the progression towards martial law, Greely assumed command and made it clear that the Army was subordinate to civil authorities.
Greely was reluctant in having the army involved in relief activities. His hesitancy may have stemmed from his broad political scope, as it may not have been the Army's organizational skills that the civilian leaders sought, but rather someone else to take the blame if relief efforts went awry. Discussing the civilian relief authorities, Greely wrote that they "look to me for final decisions and full responsibility which I am regularly assuming thus obviating embarrassments which surround men in civil life and subject to political and personal criticism." Aware of political implications, Greely nevertheless retained his integrity. When a woman complained that she was "forced to eat at the same table with a Negro" in a relief kitchen, the former commander of 81st Colored Troops gave no consolation. "Doubtless they are hungry. The Negro who sat next to me as I took my luncheon yesterday ate enormously," he replied.
In 1908, at the age of sixty-four, Greely retired from active military service. In retirement, however, he continued his adventures and took his family on a yearlong trip around the world. Eventually settling in Washington, D.C., Greely took up bookbinding and wrote hundreds of articles for popular magazines as well as several books--the last of which was published when he was eighty-four. He also helped found the National Geographic Society and accepted an unsalaried Chair of Geography at George Washington University. On March 27, 1935—his ninety-first birthday—Greely was awarded a special Medal of Honor for "his life of splendid public service." He died later that year and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Greely, Adolphus W. Three Years of Arctic Service: An Account of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881-1884 and the Attainment of the Farthest North. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894, iv.
Mitchell, General William. General Greely: The Story of a Great American, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1936.
Strobridge, William. "Soldiers in the Streets, 1906." The Pacific Historian, Spring 1978, vol. 22, no. 1.
Thompson, Erwin N. Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco, A History from 1846 to 1995, National Park Service, 1995.
Greely telegram to the Military Secretary, 11 May 1906, file 1121191, Record Group, 94, NA
"The Situation in San Francisco," Charities 16, 1906.
"Evolution of the National Weather Service," http://www.nws.noaa.gov/er/gyx/timeline.html 1 June 2001.
Last updated: February 28, 2015