Sunday April 18, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
On this Day:
The great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 killed over 3,000 while 80% of the city was destroyed.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, with an estimated moment magnitude of 7.9 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). High-intensity shaking was felt from Eureka on the North Coast to the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region to the south of the San Francisco Bay Area. Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days. More than 3,000 people died. Over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. The events are remembered as one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in the history of the United States. The death toll remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history and high on the lists of American disasters.
The San Andreas Fault is a continental transform fault that forms part of the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. The strike-slip fault is characterized by mainly lateral motion in a dextral sense, where the western (Pacific) plate moves northward relative to the eastern (North American) plate. This fault runs the length of California from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north, a distance of about 810 miles (1,300 km). The maximum observed surface displacement was about 20 feet (6 m); geodetic measurements show displacements of up to 28 feet (8.5 m).
The 1906 earthquake preceded the development of the Richter magnitude scale by three decades. The most widely accepted estimate for the magnitude of the quake on the modern moment magnitude scale is 7.9; values from 7.7 to as high as 8.3 have been proposed. According to findings published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, severe deformations in the earth’s crust took place both before and after the earthquake’s impact. Accumulated strain on the faults in the system was relieved during the earthquake, which is the supposed cause of the damage along the 450-kilometre-long (280 mi) segment of the San Andreas plate boundary. The 1906 rupture propagated both northward and southward for a total of 296 miles (476 km). Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and as far inland as central Nevada.
A strong foreshock preceded the main shock by about 20 to 25 seconds. The strong shaking of the main shock lasted about 42 seconds. There were decades of minor earthquakes – more than at any other time in the historical record for northern California – before the 1906 quake. Previously interpreted as precursory activity to the 1906 earthquake, they have been found to have a strong seasonal pattern and are now believed to be due to large seasonal sediment loads in coastal bays that overlie faults as a result of the erosion caused by hydraulic mining in the later years of the California Gold Rush.
For years, the epicenter of the quake was assumed to be near the town of Olema, in the Point Reyes area of Marin County, due to local earth displacement measurements. In the 1960s, a seismologist at UC Berkeley proposed that the epicenter was more likely offshore of San Francisco, to the northwest of the Golden Gate. The most recent analyses support an offshore location for the epicenter, although significant uncertainty remains. An offshore epicenter is supported by the occurrence of a local tsunami recorded by a tide gauge at the San Francisco Presidio; the wave had an amplitude of approximately 3 inches (7.6 cm) and an approximate period of 40–45 minutes.
Analysis of triangulation data before and after the earthquake strongly suggests that the rupture along the San Andreas Fault was about 500 kilometres (310 mi) in length, in agreement with observed intensity data. The available seismological data support a significantly shorter rupture length, but these observations can be reconciled by allowing propagation at speeds above the S-wave velocity (supershear). Supershear propagation has now been recognized for many earthquakes associated with strike-slip faulting.
Recently, using old photographs and eyewitness accounts, researchers were able to estimate the location of the hypocenter of the earthquake as offshore from San Francisco or near the city of San Juan Bautista, confirming previous estimates.
Early death counts ranged from 375 to over 500. However, hundreds of fatalities in Chinatown went ignored and unrecorded. The total number of deaths is still uncertain, but various reports presented a range of 700–3,000+. In 2005, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in support of a resolution written by novelist James Dalessandro (“1906”) and city historian Gladys Hansen (“Denial of Disaster”) to recognize the figure of 3,000 plus as the official total. Most of the deaths occurred in San Francisco itself, but 189 were reported elsewhere in the Bay Area; nearby cities, such as Santa Rosa and San Jose, also suffered severe damage. In Monterey County, the earthquake permanently shifted the course of the Salinas River near its mouth. Where previously the river emptied into Monterey Bay between Moss Landing and Watsonville, it was diverted 6 miles (9.7 km) south to a new channel just north of Marina.
Between 227,000 and 300,000 people were left homeless out of a population of about 410,000; half of those who evacuated fled across the bay to Oakland and Berkeley. Newspapers described Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, the Panhandle and the beaches between Ingleside and North Beach as covered with makeshift tents. More than two years later, many of these refugee camps were still in operation.
The earthquake and fire left long-standing and significant pressures on the development of California. At the time of the disaster, San Francisco had been the ninth-largest city in the United States and the largest on the West Coast, with a population of about 410,000. Over a period of 60 years, the city had become the financial, trade, and cultural center of the West; operated the busiest port on the West Coast; and was the “gateway to the Pacific”, through which growing U.S. economic and military power was projected into the Pacific and Asia. Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire. Though San Francisco rebuilt quickly, the disaster diverted trade, industry, and population growth south to Los Angeles, which during the 20th century became the largest and most important urban area in the West. Many of the city’s leading poets and writers retreated to Carmel-by-the-Sea where, as “The Barness”, they established the arts colony reputation that continues today.
The 1908 Lawson Report, a study of the 1906 quake led and edited by Professor Andrew Lawson of the University of California, showed that the same San Andreas Fault which had caused the disaster in San Francisco ran close to Los Angeles as well. The earthquake was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be documented by photography and motion picture footage and occurred at a time when the science of seismology was blossoming.
As damaging as the earthquake and its aftershocks were, the fires that burned out of control afterward were even more destructive. It has been estimated that up to 90% of the total destruction was the result of the subsequent fires. Within three days, over 30 fires, caused by ruptured gas mains, destroyed approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks. Some were started when San Francisco Fire Department firefighters, untrained in the use of dynamite, attempted to demolish buildings to create firebreaks. The dynamited buildings themselves often caught fire. The city’s fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, who would have been responsible for coordinating firefighting efforts, had died from injuries sustained in the initial quake. In total, the fires burned for four days and nights.
Due to a widespread practice by insurers to indemnify San Francisco properties from fire, but not earthquake damage, most of the destruction in the city was blamed on the fires. Some property owners deliberately set fire to damaged properties, to claim them on their insurance. Capt. Leonard D. Wildman of the U.S. Army Signal Corps reported that he “was stopped by a fireman who told me that people in that neighborhood were firing their houses…they were told that they would not get their insurance on buildings damaged by the earthquake unless they were damaged by fire”.
One landmark building lost in the fire was the Palace Hotel, subsequently rebuilt, which had many famous visitors, including royalty and celebrated performers. It was constructed in 1875 primarily financed by Bank of California co-founder William Ralston, the “man who built San Francisco”. In April 1906, the tenor Enrico Caruso and members of the Metropolitan Opera Company came to San Francisco to give a series of performances at the Grand Opera House. 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.
Some of the greatest losses from fire were in scientific laboratories. Alice Eastwood, the curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is credited with saving nearly 1,500 specimens, including the entire type specimen collection for a newly discovered and extremely rare species, before the remainder of the largest botanical collection in the western United States was destroyed in the fire. The entire laboratory and all the records of Benjamin R. Jacobs, a biochemist who was researching the nutrition of everyday foods, was destroyed. The original California flag used in the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma, which at the time was being stored in a state building in San Francisco, was also destroyed in the fire.
The fire following the earthquake in San Francisco cost an estimated $350 million at the time (equivalent to $7.67 billion in 2019). The devastating quake leveled about 80% of the city.
During the first few days after news of the disaster reached the rest of the world, relief efforts reached over $5,000,000. London raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Individual citizens and businesses donated large sums of money for the relief effort: Standard Oil gave $100,000; Andrew Carnegie gave $100,000; the Dominion of Canada made a special appropriation of $100,000 and even the Bank of Canada in Ottawa gave $25,000. The U.S. government quickly voted for one million dollars in relief supplies which were immediately rushed to the area, including supplies for food kitchens and many thousands of tents that city dwellers would occupy the next several years. These relief efforts were not enough to get families on their feet again, and consequently the burden was placed on wealthier members of the city, who were reluctant to assist in the rebuilding of homes they were not responsible for. All residents were eligible for daily meals served from a number of communal soup kitchens and citizens as far away as Idaho and Utah were known to send daily loaves of bread to San Francisco as relief supplies were coordinated by the railroads.
Insurance companies, faced with staggering claims of $250 million, paid out between $235 million and $265 million on policyholders’ claims, often for fire damage only, since shake damage from earthquakes was excluded from coverage under most policies. At least 137 insurance companies were directly involved and another 17 as reinsurers. Twenty companies went bankrupt, and most excluded shake damage claims. Lloyd’s of London reports having paid all claims in full, thanks to the leadership of Cuthbert Heath, more than $50 million and the insurance companies in Hartford, Connecticut, report also paying every claim in full, with the Hartford Fire Insurance Company paying over $11 million and Aetna Insurance Company almost $3 million.
After the 1906 earthquake, global discussion arose concerning a legally flawless exclusion of the earthquake hazard from fire insurance contracts. It was pressed ahead mainly by re-insurers. Their aim: a uniform solution to insurance payouts resulting from fires caused by earthquakes. Until 1910, a few countries, especially in Europe, followed the call for an exclusion of the earthquake hazard from all fire insurance contracts. In the U.S., the question was discussed differently. But the traumatized public reacted with fierce opposition. On August 1, 1909, the California Senate enacted the California Standard Form of Fire Insurance Policy, which did not contain any earthquake clause. Thus the state decided that insurers would have to pay again if another earthquake was followed by fires. Other earthquake-endangered countries followed the California example. The insurance payments heavily affected the international financial system. Gold transfers from European insurance companies to policyholders in San Francisco led to a rise in interest rates, subsequently to a lack of available loans and finally to the Knickerbocker Trust Company crisis of October 1907 which led to the Panic of 1907 (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
After buying groceries, I sat on the end of the San Francisco pier and pondered life. A small earthquake hit and my grocery bags tipped over. My laundry detergent fell.. now, I’m Sittin on the dock of the Bay, watching my Tide roll away…
Second, a Song:
San Francisco is a 1936 musical-drama disaster film directed by Woody Van Dyke, based on the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The film stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. The very popular singing of MacDonald helped make this film a major hit, coming on the heels of her other 1936 blockbuster, Rose Marie. Famous silent film directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim worked on the film without credit. Griffith directed some of the mob scenes while von Stroheim contributed to the screenplay.
The earthquake montage sequence was created by 2nd unit director and montage expert John Hoffman. The Barbary Coast barroom set was built on a special platform that rocked and shook to simulate the historical temblor. (Similar sets were built for the 1974 disaster film Earthquake.)
There are two versions of the ending. The original release features a stylish montage of then-current (1936) scenes of a bustling San Francisco, including Market Street and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. When the film was re-released in 1948, it was thought these scenes were dated and the film fades out on a single long shot of the modern business district. However, the TV and 16mm versions of the film seen in the 1950s and 60s were struck from the original version which includes the montage. The current DVD and cable version features the shorter, 1948 version.
Gable and Tracy also made two other films together, Test Pilot and Boom Town, before Tracy eventually insisted on the same top billing clause in his MGM contract that Gable had enjoyed, effectively ending one of the American cinema’s most famous screen teams.
The title song may be the best-remembered part of the film. It was composed by Bronisław Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It is sung by Jeanette MacDonald a half-dozen times in the film, and becomes an anthem for the survivors of the earthquake. It has now become a popular sentimental sing-along at public events such as the city’s annual earthquake commemoration, as well as one of two official city songs; the other being “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. At San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre, the pre-film organ performance always ends with the song as the organ console is lowered down before the film starts (per Wikipedia).
Here is Jeanette MacDonald singing “San Francisco” to start the earthquake sequence of the film. I hope you enjoy this.
Thought for the Day:
“I used to sleep nude – until the earthquake.” – Alyssa Milano
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky