The San Francisco Earthquake: A Minute-by-Minute Account of the 1906 Disaster – Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

quakeOn October 17, 1989, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics were preparing to start game three of the 1989 World Series. At 5:04 p.m., an earthquake struck near the Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And once again, scientists focused on the San Andreas Fault System which continues to serve as a source of concern for seismologists constantly watching the earth’s movements. As my family watched the news broadcast that October evening, we were shocked at the destruction and loss of life. However, in school and through the media, we had learned previously that California was always under the threat of an earthquake. In January 2018 I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and was able to experience the earthquake simulator that allows visitors to experience the fear and uncertainty those who have lived through earthquakes would have felt as the earthquake struck. Regarding the history of earthquakes in California, the disaster of 1906 is still remembered as the one that nearly destroyed San Francisco entirely. I was curious about the disaster and found this book on Amazon which explores the tragedy from start to finish. And what I found is a thorough play-by-play account of the disaster as it unfolded and struck fear in the hearts of San Franciscans and the nation.

Today, the “City by the Bay” attracts thousands of tourists, me included. There are few places like San Francisco. The locals might say that there is no city like San Francisco. The sights, sounds and experiences one can have on Market Street, Fisherman’s Wharf or even walking the Golden Gate Bridge are unique in the United States. But what exactly did happen when one of the worst disasters in American history struck slightly after 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906? Before the disaster, the city was buzzing with activity and had seen the arrival of Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). His actions and movements are revisited in the days before the disaster. Not far away, politics in San Francisco were playing out as usual with mayor Eugene Schmitz (1864-1928) and lawyer Abraham Ruef (1864-1936) shoring up defenses as the mayor continued to maintain control over the city. Famous banker and founder of the Bank of Italy, Amadeo Pietro Giannini (1870-1949) was busy with his efforts to convince Italian immigrants to have trust in his bank. None of them could have imagined the horror and magnitude of the destruction that lay head.

Initially the story is typical of most major cities, but it is not long before the earthquake strikes, and all hell breaks loose. The quake struck quickly and moved fast. To give readers an idea of the power behind it, the authors explain that:

“With an energy greater than all the explosives used in World War II, it had started its journey by smashing through the coastline of Humboldt County, two hundred miles north of San Francisco, demolishing whole forests of redwoods, bleak mountain spurs, and black shale bluffs.”

The suspense in the book builds quickly and nearly immediately after the earthquake struck, fires started but the damage to water mains was too extensive. Officials knew they needed to act quick, and their choice of fire suppression might surprise readers today. However, it highlights how dire and urgent the situation became as time progressed. San Francisco was in trouble and those who could, leapt in action such as Brigadier General Frederick Funston (1865-1917), who is credited as the man who saved San Francisco. Others might feel he was a renegade. The truth is somewhere in between. His decision to use the military certainly made a difference but there was more to come than even Funston could have imagined. The earthquake revealed much about San Francisco, both good and bad.

As the book moves forward, the tragedy continues to unfold exponentially with casualties mounting and fires raging across San Francisco. The destruction is so alarming that even President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) lends his assistance. However, the reaction by locals is both understandable and regrettable. Despite the local attitude towards Washington, the government does lend its hand and the Marines come through showing why they are held in high regard. In comparison, the arrival of National Guardsmen and other troops added a darker aspect to the story. The looting and widescale use of violence by troops assigned to “assist” will leave readers in shock and astounded. I could not believe the actions conducted by emergency personnel who were dispatched to help the people of San Francisco. This part of the book, in which the authors pull no punches, highlights the dark side that comes with natural disasters, often swept under the rug. As officials continue to assess the situation, the reality that neighborhoods have been destroyed settles in and a new problem arises of where to place those who have lost everything. The attitude towards the Chinese and other minorities are a reminder of America’s dark past of overt and legal racial discrimination. Today such actions would be unthinkable but in 1906, they were common with or without a natural disaster.

Eventually the authorities make progress in controlling the fires and assessing the damage. And ironically, the recovery effort helped produce the iconic parts of San Francisco’s current layout. When I return to visit, I will have a new understanding and appreciation of how San Francisco recovered from the earthquake and evolved into the city beloved by millions of people. I will also remember the fallout from the earthquake and the arrest of multiple figures, revealing the corruption that had been plaguing the city. Sadly, pivotal figures in the story do not fare so well in later years. Their fates prove that there is always a comeuppance to our actions. Schmitz and Ruef learn this firsthand in later years. Actor John Barrymore (1882-1942) makes an appearance in the story and provides a source of bewilderment for readers. A.P. Giannini not only survives but makes a crucial decision that changed banking in America for years to come. For millions of Americans, we continue to give him our money to secure to this day. San Francisco is one of America’s most beautiful cities, but the threat of another earthquake is always present. And if history is an indicator, it is not a matter of if but when. And when there is another earthquake, I hope that the city is ready and that all hands will be on deck. The authors pointed out this observation that should remind everyone of the dangers that are never far away:

“On the average, one thousand people settle on or near the San Andreas Fault each day. Nowhere in the United States is the density of population greater than in San Francisco and its environs. Nowhere is disregard of the danger more apparent.” 

If you are curious about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, this is the place to start.


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