Out of the Past
History Lessons

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Arnold Genthe's 1906 picture from Sacramento StreetIt happend at 12 minutes past 5 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. Most of San Francisco's residents were at home asleep and the streets were virtually empty. That's when the earth began to shudder, buildings began to crumble, clouds of dust rose up with flying timbers, and a storm cloud of masonry fell upon the streets.

The magnitude of the earthquake has been estimated at a moment magnitude (Mw) of  7.7 to as high as 8.25. The main shock epicenter occurred offshore about 2 miles (3 km) from San Francisco's city center, near Mussel Rock. It ruptured along the San Andreas Fault both northward and southward for a total length of 296 miles (477 km).

Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada. The earthquake and resulting fire was one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. The death toll from the earthquake and resulting fire, estimated to be above 3,000, represents the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California's history. The economic impact was comparable to the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.

Savoring the Calamity

"Many men and women in San Francisco savored thier experiences of the calamity," write Kevin Rozario in The Culture of Calamity. "They had various motives. Some viewed the disaster as a bearer of life One man, having lost everything, later wrote happily to his sister about the benign influence of the crisis. 'The fresh air and out door roughing it' had made him feel fitter than ever; in the three weeks since the fire, he had been 'free from asthma, my direst enemy.'

"Most of those who reflected on the restorative powers of the calamity, however, were more impress by its invigorating emotional impact. The disaster brought a touch of drama, excitement, and intensity into colorless lives. The earthquake and fire carried people out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, opening them to intense, barely recognizable, emotions."

Prior Tremors

"Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings," wrote the young journalist Mark Twain in his description of an 1865 quake in San Francisco. "Thousands of people were made so sea-sick by the rolling and pitching of floors and streets that they were weak and bed-ridden for hours, and some for ever days afterward. Hardly an individual escaped nausea entirely."

Three years later - on October 21, 1868 - San Francisco was hit by an even larger tremor which tore down buildings and killed 30 people, the first recorded earthquake deaths in the city's history.

"The 1868 disaster would rival 1906 for sheer violence in the memories of older residents, though no fires ensued to complete the work of destruction," writes Deborah R. Coen in The Earthquake Observers:
Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter.

"The dominant tone of the city's press remained vigorous optimism... The paper reported that only buildings on 'made ground' were damaged, 'and nine-tenths of it was to old structures.' The report concluded that 'this earthquake demonstrates the proposition that, with proper care in the constructions of our buildings, San Franciso is as safe a place to live as any on the Continent.'"

The Culture of Calamity Disaster and the Making of Modern America by Kevin Rozario
The Earthquake Observers Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter by Deborah R. Coen

 The Culture of Calamity
The Culture of Calamity
Disaster and the Making of Modern America
by Kevin Rozario

University of Chicago Press, 2007 

From a 1638 earthquake in New England to the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco and, finally, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this study examines the curious role of disasters in the development of the United States.

Kevin Rozario, an assistant professor of American Studies, examines how our fascination with calamity has shaped our outlook and often inspired creative reactions.

"Disasters, and discourses of disaster, have played a long and influential role in the construction of American identities, power relations, economic systems, and environmental practices. It is conventional, and by no means inappropriate, to think of disasters in strictly negative terms, but calamities have also often presented opportunities. The most potent philosophies of the last two centuries have insisted that improvement or "progress" unavoidably moves through catastrophic rhythms of destruction and reconstruction, ruin and renewal."

Book Search

The Earthquake Observers
The Earthquake Observers
Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter
by Deborah R. Coen
University of Chicago Press, 2012

Like the amateur astronomers who track comets and help keep an eye out for asteroids, ordinary citizens also contribute to our understanding of the earth sciences. This book recounts how the stories of people experiencing earthquakes, especially in the 19th century, helped shape seismology.

Seismographs alone cannot explain the how and why and whether of earthquakes any more
than it can expose what's really beneath the surface at archaeological sites. There is still a need for hands in the ground, shoes on the streets.

Historian Deborah Coen became intrigued with the widespread use of earthquake metaphors for violent upheavels and catastrophes of all kinds in 19th century literature, leading her to this book-length examination of how the accounts of earthquake witnesses helped science explain the disasters and, ultimately, figure out ways to adapt to them.

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