San Francisco, American Phoenix

1906 SF earthquake
April 18, 1906 San Francisco, photo from wikipedia

Today marks the 112th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Watching the news of the commemoration this morning, I am struck by how the city has throughout its history managed to stand for both old and new. The more I poked around the ashes of the story of this most famous disaster, the more I realized how much it stands for rebuilding and the spirit of renewal.

Perhaps the 50th Largest Earthquake

The 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12 am and lasted for 42 seconds, less than a full minute.  The estimated Richter magnitude is 7.9, which makes it the tenth largest quake recorded in the United States. However, the frequency and size of earthquakes around the Pacific Ocean–from Sumatra to Alaska–means that the SF quake doesn’t even make the list of top forty largest earthquakes in world history.

Earthquakes were not particularly frequent or known occurrences in the fledgling California at the time. The Richter scale wasn’t to be invented for another thirty years and scientists, looking back, don’t think there was a tremendous amount of seismic activity beforehand. But, of course, that is how pressure builds up and the quake is the mechanism that allows the faults relieve themselves when they are crushed too closely together. Pressure must escape and, like a genie released from a bottle, the impact of releasing a giant force from a tiny space is hugely felt.

The quake leveled buildings, but the bigger disaster was the ensuing fire, which destroyed roughly 80% of the city. The fire chief at the time, Dennis Sullivan, was mortally injured by the quake. The interim fire chief and the mayor requested help from the army at the Presidio to establish order and help with the fire. Water mains broke, so few hydrants were operational, except one famous one in the Mission District which now forms a part of the annual celebration as the Golden Hydrant.

SF Golden Fire Hydrant
San Francisco’s Golden Hydrant, photo by Ryan Gessner, Creative Commons

Not So Much the Aftershocks, but the Dynamite

The army used dynamite to create firebreaks. However, many of the troops were untrained in its use, and many of the firebreak/buildings quickly caught fire themselves, causing the blazes to spread more quickly. In addition, as many homeowners saw their walls crumble and knew their insurance would not cover an earthquake loss, they set their own houses on fire. In total, the fire burned for four days.

The fire was not simply raging at this section but had crossed Market below Shreve’s and was spreading down Kearny toward the Hall of Justice and Telegraph Hill. That is, it was moving in two directions at right angles and was already half a mile in length. I saw a pathetic sight at this point. A woman was trying to push a sewing machine over the rough pavements with one hand, and with the other her little boy’s velocipede. No doubt the machine was her only means of livelihood, and her mother’s love was so strong she could not leave the toy, useless as it would be. The boy was not in evidence; perhaps he had been dead for years and she wished to save from the flames some remembrance of her child.
–Account from Arthur C. Poore,

Of course, the quake and fire from 1906 always reminds contemporary Bay Area residents like me of Loma Prieta. There are such strong similarities. Loma Prieta struck at 5:04 pm on October 17, 1989,  just about 12 hours after its 1906 ancestor.  The most famous damage came from the collapse of the Nimitz freeway and a section of the Bay Bridge, but the most widespread destruction was from fires in the Marina caused by ruptured gas mains.

1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damage
Marina Damage from Loma Prieta, photo from SF Chronicle

I have felt perhaps a dozen quakes in my 40 years here in the Bay Area, but Loma Prieta was distinct. It was long–most quakes last just long enough for you to wonder, Was that an earthquake? By the time you look up the details, the shock has long passed. Geologists estimated it to be 15 seconds, which seems too short for my memory. I was standing in a Thrifty Drug store in Berkeley, choosing some snacks for World Series’ viewing, when the Oreos started falling off the shelves. I remember hearing crashes as plates and shovels were also dislodged, and there was time to walk around to the front of the store and discuss what to do. It seemed to me to take at least two minutes. So, if that was, in reality, 15 seconds, I can only imagine what the 42 seconds in 1906 seconds must have been like.

His Not-so-Honorable, the Mayor

The mayor in 1906, Eugene Schmitz, was noted for a variety of activities aside from presiding during the disaster. Schmitz was a reform candidate in 1902, which meant he was infamous for accepting protection money to allow criminals and brothels to operate freely. During the disaster, when he brought in the army, he ordered them to “shoot to kill anyone found looting or committing any crime.” In 1907, he was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to San Quentin, but the verdict was nullified. He was again tried in 1912 on charges of bribery, but key witnesses fled before the trial could be completed. He ran for mayor again in 1912, but somehow didn’t win, although he was elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Other colorful mayors followed Schmitz, from Willie Brown who spearheaded building the ballpark to Ed Lee, who championed immmigration and affordable housing but also allowed the tax break to Twitter that both revitalized and gentrified the city. Most notable of all was Dianne Feinstein, whose rise to political prominence embodies the spirit of the phoenix more than anyone. She became mayor when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated and later was elected to the U.S. Senate. Last year, while presiding over senatorial committee activities, she took a day off to have a pacemaker installed, then returned the following day to grill presidential appointees.

Dianne Feinstein @1980
DiFi on California street, @ 1980, photo from Wikipedia
Rebuilding after 1906 earthquake
California & Market rebuilding in 1907, photo from Bob Bergman

The cable car turnaround at California and Market has been refurbished dozens of times since it was pictured in 1907, one of many eras of rebuilding. The site sits in front of the Hyatt Regency, a gleaming showpiece of a hotel when it went up in 1973, though it feels ancient now compared to the Salesforce and other high tech buildings springing up around the foot of the Embarcadero.

Rebuilding from the 1906 quake was partly hampered by the fact that many of the major banks, located in San Francisco because of its crucial role in west coast trade, burned down as part of the disaster. Their fire-proof vaults needed more than a week to cool down enough before depositors could  retrieve their money. One crucial exception was the Bank of Italy which had immediately evacuated its funds and so had ready cash. The Bank of Italy also immediately dispatched orders to the northwest for lumber and rebuilding materials. This pivotal role helped the bank grow into one of the largest financial institutions in the country, renamed as Bank of America in 1929 (and later employing me for 30 years for which it became even more famous, I am sure).

The Spirit of Survivors

During the 1906 earthquake, at least one politician attempted to use the incident to deport the Chinese while others argued that Chinatown should be moved to the outskirts of town. Instead, the Chinese-American population spearheaded the rebuilding of Chinatown into more modern structures, and some politically-savvy immigrants used the destruction of City Hall to claim residency and citizenship, allowing them to bring additional relatives over from China.

Mark Twain and H. G. Wells wrote movingly of the earthquake and its  aftermath, especially of the spirit of its survivors. William James, noted psychologist, was astounded by the ability of citizens to bounce back and rebuild, and authored a chapter in one of his well-known books “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake.” Some of the out-of-towners were not quite as resilient. The great tenor Enrico Caruso was in town that week in April to perform.

The night after Caruso’s performance in Carmen, the tenor was awakened in the early morning in his Palace Hotel suite by a strong jolt. Clutching an autographed photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, Caruso made an effort to get out of the city, first by boat and then by train, and vowed never to return to San Francisco. Caruso died in 1921, having remained true to his word. The Metropolitan Opera Company lost all of its traveling sets and costumes in the earthquake and ensuing fires.

The opera company resettled and built the first municipally owned opera house in America, the War Memorial Opera House in 1932. City Hall rose up once more as well; its golden dome substantially refurbished by none other than another famous local, Da Mayor, Willie Brown. Lotta’s Fountain became well known as the place where survivors had gathered in the days after April 18, 1906, and every year since 1919, the commemoration has marked that spirit of renewal.

SF Lotta's Fountain
Lotta’s Fountain, San Francisco, photo by wikipedia

Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, San Francisco recreated itself and continues to do so every day.

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