It was dumb luck that most of San Francisco was fast asleep when the city began shaking at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906. Had it been later in the morning, main arteries clogged with traffic, or midday, the city center humming, the carnage would have been worse. Instead, most people woke abruptly and took cover when the quake didn’t pass quickly enough to be mistaken for a bad dream. It lingered for nearly a minute, an eternity for terrified San Franciscans. In an instant, the ground in some parts of town liquefied; whole blocks of poorly constructed tenements slumped into piles of rubble, entombing those inside. Even monumental buildings, constructed to embody state power or Gilded Age prosperity–the US Post Office; the West’s most luxurious hotels and grandest office buildings; and the still-new City Hall, a Beaux-Arts monument that captured San Francisco’s ostentatious sense of itself at the dawn of a new century–all suffered significant structural damage. It was, without question, the worst disaster in a city whose short history had already been punctuated by earthquakes and fires. And the horror had just begun.
Then the shaking stopped. The city righted itself. The infamous San Andreas Fault, where two massive tectonic plates rub each other the wrong way for approximately 750 miles, along much of California’s length, had released some of its vast storehouse of energy. People crept from their hiding places, from beneath tables or beds, and began looking for loved ones, surveying the damage and considering how to rebuild shattered landscapes and lives. There were aftershocks, but nothing remotely as jarring as the initial event. As it turned out, people had felt the shaking throughout most of California and beyond: from Coos Bay in Oregon to Anaheim, just south of Los Angeles; from well into the Pacific Ocean all the way inland to Winnemucca, in northern Nevada’s arid interior. An area of roughly 400,000 miles had experienced some seismic activity. But San Francisco and its environs absorbed the brunt of the damage. The wounds were going to become far worse; the most severe would be self-inflicted. Blazes were just starting to burn around the city, born of urban life upended: cracked gas lines, scattered cooking fires, or candles and oil lamps toppled during the quake.
With the quake centennial recently passed and vast swaths of New Orleans still in ruins, the time has come to reappraise San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Philip Fradkin, Dennis Smith and Simon Winchester certainly think so. These authors couldn’t have known that New Orleans would drown as their books were published, hype not even the shrewd folks in marketing could concoct. That said, Hurricane Katrina, even if it provided a sales bump, did these books no favors. All three authors use the 9/11 attacks as their benchmark for urban disaster. Consequently, their books feel dated, victims of the truism that we’re all subject to the whims of unfolding history–even historians. And yet New Orleans’s ongoing travails remind readers that to understand disaster we must look beyond spectacle, no matter how dramatic or gruesome, and focus our gaze instead on politics. Fradkin, to his credit, understands this, while Smith and Winchester are concerned with other issues: for Smith, a historian of fire and firefighters, the conflagration that cropped up after the quake; for Winchester, who seems incapable of discarding even the most fleeting thoughts that pass through his head, whatever seems relevant at the moment. So it is that Fradkin’s work is the most illuminating in these seasons of catastrophe. His book demonstrates that the earthquake and fires created winners and losers, that the tragedy was manipulated for political gain–and, more broadly, that disasters, so often mislabeled “natural,” are really a horrible outgrowth of the most human of concerns: politics.
Fradkin cuts to the chase in the first line of his preface: “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.” The fires especially, he says, were a product of poor planning and negligence. After the quake ended, with the city in chaos, there was no way to communicate across town, much less the nation. Huge chasms had opened in some streets. A herd of longhorn cattle stampeded through town. San Francisco’s fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, lay dying from injuries sustained when a building collapsed around him. The Army’s Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, stationed at the time in San Francisco, stepped into the leadership gap and assumed command of firefighting efforts in the city. The city’s mayor, Eugene Schmitz, and former mayor, James Phelan, a banker who still dreamed of higher office, took nominal control of civil affairs–though “control” badly exaggerates their grip. With the city burning on the day of the quake, Funston decided to use explosives to create firebreaks intended to stop the blaze from spreading. It was a bad choice. The resulting explosions started more fires, creating a firestorm that ultimately charred five square miles, razed nearly 30,000 buildings and left tens of thousands homeless. San Francisco, Fradkin concludes, was destroyed by the people charged with saving it.