Rupture and Rebirth: California’s Earthquakes

Earthquakes aren’t just a hazard in California, they’re events that Shannon Lee Dawdy (2016) describes as ruptures in everyday life, creating schisms in time, space and community, and with a revelatory power to uncover things hidden in the earth and in the habitus of living. Rupturing events can take many forms, but I will here be focusing on those caused by disasters which are of large scale or wide impact. National disasters typically fit both of those descriptors, and the Stafford Act, the legislation which created and authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides that the President may provide federal assistance in response to any natural catastrophe, fire, flood, or explosion. “Natural catastrophes” here include “any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, winddriven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought”; it is important to note that fire, flood and explosion may be of any cause, including human action – as we will see in a future post. National disasters, when viewed through Dawdy’s lens as a rupture, create a situation in which the values, priorities and vulnerabilities of a community are stripped to the bone. Earthquakes are a present danger, a premonition of an apocalyptic future, and a vision of the turbulent past – ruptures which have been entrenched into California’s essence and which, by their unpredictability and potential for devastation, loom large in our cultural imagination.

San Francisco’s turbulent past is illuminated by that most historic of California disasters, the Great Earthquake of 1906. Striking in the early hours of April 18, the quake roused sleeping communities and shook lands throughout the West Coast and into Nevada. The shaking lasted more than 40 seconds and ruptured 300 miles of the San Andreas Fault. Buildings crumbled and fell all over the city, with widespread devastation south of Market Street where land reclaimed from the marshes and the Bay held poorly constructed timber rooming houses and transient hotels. Dozens died in the initial moments of the cataclysm, hundreds more perished in the catastrophic fires that erupted immediately following. Firefighters were unable to put out fires as the water supply gushed uselessly out of broken mains. Modern engineering preserved some earthquake-proofed buildings, such as the Call Building, only to see flames destroy the structures. Henry Lafler, a writer for McClure’s Magazine, described the blazes: “All colors and shades were there. Here, for a moment, showed a pale, clear yellow, then again a fiery red. There were perfect blues, there was violet, green, and rose. Then would come dark, sinister, demonaic hues, hateful as hell.”


The “picturesque” ruins of City Hall and the Hall of Records, 1906. via The Virtual Museum of San Francisco.

Rains finally put out the blazes on the 21st of April, leaving behind a city of charred ruins. Then San Francisco began to rebuild.

Amadeo Pietro Gianni had been able to rescue the Bank of Italy’s cash reserves, allowing him to set up on the wharves and begin loaning funds for construction when all other banks in the city had been destroyed. Bank of Italy, incidentally, is now known as the much more familiar Bank of America. The city and state governments downplayed the death toll to solicit development funds from international sources. The city’s original street grid was restored while a far more stringent building code was put into place. The US Army built small, tightly packed “relief houses” to accommodate the 20,000 displaced residents. Chinese residents subverted the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law enacted in 1882 to prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers, by claiming citizenship – the proof of which happened to have burned down along with all the other records in City Hall. Historical documents from the time record one of the first scientifically observed events of this magnitude: seismographs and first person accounts were widely shared, leading to new developments in the theory and practice of geology, engineering, and city planning.  Throughout the rupture of daily life and out of the destruction and death of the earthquake and fires, the city maintained a spirit of perseverance, camaraderie and ingenuity.

Damaged building materials and rubble were used as infill to reclaim further lands from the swampy surroundings, increasing San Francisco’s

The Palace of Fine Arts, 1915. Historic American Buildings Survey, Available from the US Library of Congress.

The Palace of Fine Arts, 1915. Historic American Buildings Survey, Available from the US Library of Congress.

footprint and leaving behind a remarkable lens of destruction still visible during archaeological investigations. San Francisco was substantially restored by the time of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, one of the ever-popular World’s Fairs used by the city as an opportunity to demonstrate recovery. The last remaining structure from the fair is the Palace of Fine Arts, a domed pergola originally of temporary construction which was so beloved by the city’s residents that Pheobe Apperson Hearst founded the Palace Preservation League to preserve and permanently rebuild the structure.

The city still maintains a more cohesive aesthetic than others of its age and international import due to the coordinated rebuilding effort- while her roots may be in the Yerba Buena of the 18th century, her visual legacy is almost entirely 20th century, composed as it is of neo-classical, Art Deco and Modernist architecture. What the earthquake knocked down, the city used as an opportunity to improve, beautify, and elaborate, creating a cohesive identity out of the ashes.

A Street Scene in Chinatown, San Francisco. Circa 1906. From collection at Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

A Street Scene in Chinatown, San Francisco. Circa 1906. From collection at Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Below ground, the Great Quake has created a horizon which in some places starkly demarcates deposits “before” and “after” the disaster. The massive amounts of rubble and infill that comprise the horizon have also acted to preserve some elements of the city-as-it-was. Recent investigations have uncovered the foundations of the old City Hall, supposedly earthquake-proof and only 10 years old when the Great Quake demolished it. Construction of new subway lines have also uncovered sewing machines and other artifacts – an unprecedented discovery that sheds more light on the oldest Chinatown in the North America. At the same moment the city was destroyed, barely visible aspects of the day to day life were preserved. Without the protective cap of collapsed materials, archaeologists now would have little to no information on the lives of Chinese immigrants in the city – a tragic storm cloud with the merest hint of silver lining.

Past ruptures such as the Great San Francisco Earthquake are still every bit as present for people living in California today, though time has closed the wounds of disaster and healed the rupture. As a kid growing up in the Gold Country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, my friends and I were well versed in the folklore of natural disasters. Our imaginations were caught by earthquakes. We were certain the apocalypse of The Big One was imminent, threatening to split our state into pieces, drop coastline into the sea and turn the foothills surrounding the Central Valley into beachfront property. We gleefully pointed out doorways that would, according to common lore, keep you safe if you stood in them during an earthquake.* I remember sitting on the floor with my family to watch the 1989 World Series on TV – we were rooting for the Oakland A’s, of course. Moments after the cameras at the game at Candlestick Park began to shake and cut off, pictures on our walls a hundred miles away rattled as the sinuous waves of earth-shaking energy radiated across the valley from the epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

For weeks afterward, we compared stories of where-were-you, and did-you-knows, and so-and-so’s uncle was on the Oakland Bridge when the top deck collapsed. We made comparisons to the little tremblers we had all been through before, or the bigger quakes kids from the Bay Area or Southern California gleefully recounted. Whenever we talked about the Loma Prieta Earthquake, conversation invariably, ritualistically, invoked the 1906 quake that flattened San Francisco and helped cement California’s reputation as a wild, unpredictable place full of people who are skittish about bookcases that haven’t been bolted to the wall. As a native-born, third generation NorCal girl, the first thing people from elsewhere ask about growing up in California is, “Did you surf to school?” followed quickly by, “How many earthquakes have you been in?” It has become a part of the story we tell ourselves: that immense, unspeakably terrible disasters may strike, but we will not only survive, but thrive. Earthquakes may come and fires may rampage, but the heart of the city lives on in the spirit of perseverance and ingenuity.  Ultimately, the legacy, the heritage of the City of San Francisco and California as a whole is not cataclysm and horror, but rebirth and renewal. We can look to the earthquakes of the past to reaffirm our sense that when the worst happens, we can and will continue, better and stronger than before.


Modern San Francisco skyline seen from Twin Peaks, by Christian Mehlfuhrer, CC BYB 2.5

Modern San Francisco skyline seen from Twin Peaks, by Christian Mehlfuhrer, CC BYB 2.5


*Please do not stand in doorways during an earthquake; this piece of folklore has been made obsolete by very smart, very hardworking architects and engineers. For more information on earthquake safety, see FEMA’s publication on “What To Do Before, During, and After an Earthquake”.


Additional Sources

The Great 1906 Earthquake, US Geological Society. Accessed 1/25/2017.

1906 Earthquake, UC Berkeley Seismology Lab. Accessed 1/25/2017.

The Great Shake: San Francisco 1906. Faultline Virtual Exhibit, Exploratorium. Accessed 1/25/2017.


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