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[TIMELINE] Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906

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  • madchinaman
    Nature not entirely at fault The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself Philip L. Fradkin University of California
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2005
      Nature not entirely at fault
      The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 How San Francisco Nearly
      Destroyed Itself Philip L. Fradkin University of California Press:
      432 pp. $27.50
      By Jonathan Kirsch, Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the
      Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods:
      The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

      Amid the recent flurry of quakes up and down the West Coast, it is
      strangely soothing to read Philip L. Fradkin's tense and terror-
      filled saga of the San Francisco earthquake of '06 — "the Big One
      that lurks in the back of the American mind" — and not only because
      San Francisco is, after all, still here. Even more reassuring is the
      author's insistence that "San Franciscans, not the inanimate forces
      of nature, were primarily responsible for the extensive chaos,
      damage, injuries and deaths in the great earthquake and firestorms
      of 1906."

      Fradkin, a former reporter for The Times, offers "The Great
      Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906" as the final volume in a trilogy
      that also includes "Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San
      Andreas Fault" and "Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in
      Lituya Bay." But according to Fradkin, it was fire rather than quake
      that resulted in what he calls America's "greatest urban
      catastrophe," not excluding the attack on the World Trade Center in

      Tremors were familiar enough to the Forty-Niners who settled in
      California, but Fradkin argues that they did not pay enough
      attention to fire. On six separate occasions during the Gold Rush,
      San Francisco was ravaged by fire, and when water ran out,
      firefighters were reduced to blowing up buildings in the path of the
      flames. But the boom-and-bust ethos of the age prompted the
      citizenry to regard a fire as nothing more than an opportunity to
      build an even bigger and better city. "Nil Desperandum" ("Never
      despair") was the slogan that one optimistic landowner carved on the
      facade of his house after rebuilding for the fourth or fifth time.

      What they failed to understand was the special ferocity of fire in
      the confined spaces of a city, the so-called synergistic phenomenon
      of extreme burning, as fire historian Stephen J. Pyne puts it. When
      many small fires converge and convective winds of more than 100
      miles per hour are generated, an urban fire is a holocaust: "Given
      the intensity of the toxic gasses and the radiant heat, people die
      from asphyxiation, burns, and the inhalation of poison gasses such
      as carbon monoxide."

      Then, too, San Francisco was especially vulnerable to fire on the
      eve of the 1906 quake. Ninety percent of its buildings were wood-
      framed. The highly congested urban center, with its tall buildings
      and narrow streets, was surrounded by farmland and near-wilderness.
      The peninsula was swept by strong winds from the sea. Yet the
      burghers of turn-of-the-century San Francisco neglected to install
      such modern fire-prevention measures as sprinklers. A commission of
      the National Board of Fire Underwriters reported in 1905 that "San
      Francisco has violated all underwriting traditions and precedent by
      not burning up."

      Not until April 18, 1906, that is. At 5:12 a.m., a quake lasting
      between 40 and 65 seconds, the first of several strong tremors,
      rumbled just off the northern San Mateo County coastline. The
      captain of an inbound steamer thought he had struck a rock: "The
      ship seemed to jump clear out of the water," his chief engineer
      reported. And yet the earthquake was "not a truly great or
      megaquake," as Fradkin puts it. "Larger temblors had occurred in
      California during historic times, namely in rural southern
      California in 1857 and the distant Owens Valley in 1872."

      Rather, the real crisis began when the fires began to break out and
      the firefighting resources of San Francisco were found to be
      nonfunctional. Alarms and telephones had been knocked out. No water
      ran through pipes, hydrants or hoses. In this respect, the damage
      the earthquake had done hardly mattered: "[E]ven without disablement
      of the supply," the underwriters' postquake report insisted, "the
      Fire Department would have found itself hampered for lack of water
      in the presence of even half a dozen simultaneous fires." And as it
      turned out, more than 50 fires were already threatening San

      "Within half an hour after the earthquake shock," reported a mining
      journal 10 days after the quake, "a hump of dark smoke appeared over
      the City, growing during the succeeding hours until it rose through
      the quiet air like the clouds made by a volcano. When night came,
      the whole front of San Francisco was ablaze…. "

      Fradkin conjures up a nightmarish yet strangely compelling scene. A
      fireworks factory ignited and ornamented the conflagration with a
      pyrotechnic show. Cattle that had been on its way to the stockyards
      ran wild through the streets, and a cowboy calmly picked them off
      with a Springfield rifle. An off-duty reporter who had been playing
      cards and drinking beer in the Valencia Street Hotel watched as the
      building lurched off its foundation and "telescoped down on itself
      like a concertina" only moments after he had reached the
      street. "The margin between a charmed life, a crippling injury, and
      death was infinitesimal," writes Fradkin. "Who slept in which
      adjoining bed could make the difference. The owner of the Valencia
      was never found; his wife was uninjured."

      If human nature contributed to San Francisco's vulnerability, it
      also played a role in the carnage that followed. Panic-stricken at
      the prospect of looting (which would turn out to be "minor or
      nonexistent"), the acting commander of the Presidio put the city
      under martial law on his own initiative, and the mayor took
      responsibility for issuing a bloodthirsty order to the troops: "[W]e
      would not take any prisoners; we must stop looting, and therefore …
      shoot anyone caught looting." Fradkin writes that these "infamous
      and illegal orders" amounted to "one of the principal tragedies of
      the disaster."

      No aspect of the catastrophe escapes Fradkin's attention — and no
      aspect of San Francisco was untouched by the catastrophe. Race,
      religion, politics, architecture, science, journalism and much else
      come under the author's gaze. Perhaps the most surprising episode
      in "The Great Earthquake" is Fradkin's account of the prosecution of
      Abe Ruef, a Jewish lawyer and political operator who was convicted
      (after "questionable investigative techniques" and the third degree)
      of graft in the aftermath of the quake. In an extended coda, Fradkin
      shows how "[t]he traumatic disaster of the earthquake and fire,"
      along with anti-Semitism and raw politics, turned Ruef into a
      scapegoat: "San Francisco," he concludes, "was truly gripped by

      Yet Fradkin also uncovers moments of comedy and courage. One Amadeo
      Peter Giannini, founder of a tiny bank that would one day become the
      Bank of America, transferred $80,000 in gold and silver from the
      vault to a couple of wagons from his produce business, concealed the
      money under crates of oranges and headed out of San Francisco to his
      home in San Mateo. When he returned to the city two days later,
      Giannini put a bag of gold "on a plank laid over two barrels on the
      Washington Street wharf" and started making rebuilding loans. "For
      weeks afterward," writes Fradkin, "the money smelled of orange

      Indeed, for all its horrific incident, "The Great Earthquake" proves
      an inspiring, even endearing book, full of colorful anecdotes and
      charming details, encyclopedic in scope and powerfully evocative of
      San Francisco in its golden age. The panorama Fradkin offers the
      reader is so sweeping and so vivid that one might be tempted to call
      his book cinematic, were it not for the fact that all those disaster
      movies seem so bland by comparison. •
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