[TIMELINE] Gin Chow - "Weather Prophet" & Celebrity Predicted 1925 Earthquake
- Farmer Grew Claim to Fame as 'Weather Prophet'
By Cecilia Rasmussen, Times Staff Writer
Stories of Other Success Chinese Entrepeneurs in Idaho during the
1900s can be found at
Gin Chow was a strawberry farmer and "weather prophet" whose reputed
prediction of the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake went unheeded. But
everything he said thereafter was recorded by the scribes of the
period, who considered him a kind of seismic Nostradamus.
Southern California has had boatloads of seers, from cricket-
listeners and stargazers to rainmakers and palm readers.
But stories about Chow's predictions caught the attention of the
press, which helped make a California legend of the man who once
sold strawberries and casaba melons on the streets of Santa Barbara.
All the accounts came after the fact, but the gist of them is this:
Two days before Christmas in 1920 or 1923, depending on the source,
Chow supposedly posted a notice in the Santa Barbara post office
stating that the city would be flattened by an earthquake on June
Sure enough, the biggest and deadliest temblor since the 1906 San
Francisco earthquake and fire struck at 6:44 a.m. that day. The
ground shuddered for 19 seconds, about the time it takes to draw
three or four slow, deep breaths.
When it stopped, nearly a dozen people were dead and hundreds
Almost every stone and brick chimney was shaken loose by the 6.3-
magnitude temblor, and 70 buildings in the commercial district were
Part of the 1797 Spanish presidio was destroyed, and one of the
Santa Barbara Mission's two famous bell towers crumbled.
Parts of the luxurious Arlington Hotel collapsed, injuring Capt.
George Allan Hancock and killing his 22-year-old son, Bertram, who
was asleep in an adjoining room. (Nine years earlier, Hancock had
donated 23 acres of Hancock Park's La Brea Tar Pits to the citizens
of Los Angeles.)
The capriciousness of the disaster was sobering: A maid who ran to a
doorway in answer to her rich employer's screams saw the elderly
woman plunge several floors to her death as the floor gave way
beneath her bed.
In the midst of the chaos, a Times reporter filed his story via
telegraph from a table set up in the middle of the street.
But it was Santa Barbara newspaper publisher Thomas More Storke and
Times columnist Harry Carr who fashioned Gin Chow's reputation.
Beginning six years after the earthquake, in books and eventually
hundreds of newspaper articles, the two praised Chow as a "weather
In late 1931, Carr encouraged Chow, an immigrant from Canton, China,
to write a book of forecasts: "Gin Chow's First Annual Almanac,"
with a foreword written by Carr.
Storke, a son of the man who founded the 19th century Los Angeles
Daily Herald, wrote in his 1958 book "California Editor" that Chow's
record for accuracy on disasters, wars and weather was uncanny.
"He predicted the 1923 earthquake in Yokohama, which killed 143,000
Japanese," Storke wrote. "His most remarkable prophecy, however,"
was forecasting the date of the Santa Barbara quake at least two
years before it happened.
Storke wrote that Chow "hit it right on the nose, to the undying
puzzlement of the seismologists who had ridiculed his audacity.
Scientists still have no idea how he did it."
Storke also cited a 1932 prediction of a U.S. war with Japan that
would end in 1946 a year later than World War II actually ended
and his long-term weather predictions. Chow wrote that it would rain
on March 19, 1939. It did.
It took a few years after the Santa Barbara earthquake for the world
to hear about Chow's "prediction."
The skepticism about his forecasting was overwhelmed by the
celebrity buzz of the moment.
But there were doubters.
Santa Maria Rotary Club members called him "crazy." A pair of
scientists at Scripps Research Institute chided him on a few errors
he had made.
But Storke wrote that Chow's "batting average in the meteorological
department was far better than that of the U.S. Weather Bureau."
Chow was born in 1857, the son and grandson of teachers, whom Chow
At age 16, he sailed into San Francisco with an uncle. His first job
was washing dishes in a French restaurant.
By 1890, he had moved south and become renowned in the Santa Barbara
area for his fruit and vegetables. He grew them on his small farm in
the Lompoc Valley, where he lived with his wife and three children.
Chow's predictions derided though they were made him a celebrity
in a state that loved its oddballs.
At Carr's suggestion, Chow put his past predictions and some future
prognostications into the little book.
In February 1932, wearing traditional Chinese robes and hat,
the "Prophet of Lompoc" signed more than 2,500 of his books at J.W.
Robinson's posh downtown Los Angeles department store.
Chow said he used a mystic "key" handed down from his ancestors to
make his "calculations." Critics derided it as magic in the guise of
Chow kept 60 journals from decades of his predictions, according to
a Times story in 1931, which described them as "bound in red paper,
the shade of firecrackers. The thin tissue-like pages Gin Chow
fingered with expertness revealing familiarity. The characters on
the pages were in red and black ink . "
Of course, the reporter could not read Chinese and therefore could
not know what Chow had written.
But Chow had his believers, including the Times' Carr, who used
Chow's weather forecasts in his daily column.
Readers began betting on Chow's predictions and lost money as his
forecasts became more erratic. Then readers lambasted Carr for
having printed the predictions.
Chow himself made his weather forecasts over KHJ radio, sometimes
weeks and months ahead. For a time, he was a popular guest speaker
at clubs and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Chow needed the income from his book, which was published in two
editions, to help save his farm from bankruptcy.
His other travails included a lawsuit against the city of Santa
Barbara, which had dammed a river flowing through his property. The
suit, filed in 1928, was settled a few months before he died, but
not in his favor.
The case set a precedent for the state to build more dams, according
to Santa Barbara Historical Society curator David Bisol.
Chow's last known prophecy proved correct, at least in part.
In mid-1932, he was seriously gored by a neighbor's bull. Doctors
held out no hope, but Chow was sanguine.
"My time still one year off yet," he told the nurses at Santa
Barbara Cottage Hospital, saying he would die in August 1933.
He was right about the year but not the month.
In June 1933, as Chow walked along State Street in Santa Barbara, he
was struck by a farmer's truck. He died the next day, at 76.
The 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake: Gin Chow's Earthquake Prediction
His record for accuracy was uncanny. He predicted the 1923
earthquake in Yokohama, which killed 143,000 Japanese. His most
remarkable prophecy, however, came in 1923 when he announced that on
June 29, two years later, Santa Barbara would be visited by a major
earthquake. He hit it "right on the nose," to the undying puzzlement
of the seismologists who had ridiculed his audacity. Scientists
still have no idea how he did it.
-T. M. Storke, from California Editor, Westernlore Press, 1958, Los
Actually, what baffles seismologists is that so many people believe
the story of Gin Chow's earthquake prediction, which is regularly
repeated in print to this day. The story apparently derives from a
claim Gin Chow made in Gin Chow's First Annual Almanac, published in
1932, in which Gin Chow says that he posted a notice in the Santa
Barbara Post Office on December, 23, 1920, saying an earthquake
would strike the area on June 29, 1925.
Gin Chow was a successful Chinese immigrant who was well-known in
the Santa Barbara area for making weather predictions that were
supposedly better than government weather forecasts. Thomas Storke,
who is quoted above, was editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press for
many years, including during the 1925 earthquake, and was a direct
descendent of the first commander of the Santa Barbara Presidio,
José Francisco De Ortega.
Despite Storke's belief in Gin Chow's earthquake prediction, and
despite the numerous times the story of the prediction has been
repeated, there is no evidence that Gin Chow's "prediction" is
anything but a bogus claim made after the fact.
He reported in the 1930s that after his arrival in southern
California he first washed dishes in a French restaurant, and then
went into domestic service for six years. Following that period he
became a gardener. Eventually he bought land and became a farmer.
(Gin Chow. Gin Chow's First Annual Almanac. Los Angeles: Wetzel
Publishing, 1932. p. 29.)
Price became a nationally recognized expert in water law several
years later after winning the famous case of Gin Chow vs. City of
Santa Barbara. In that case, Gin Chow, a Chinese-born fortune teller
who had accurately predicted the 1925 earthquake five years before,
alleged that Santa Barbara and Montecito didn't have the right to
divert flood waters from the Santa Ynez River. Price represented
Santa Barbara and Montecito in the case that took more than a year
to try, with the court finally ruling in their favor.