Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On This Day in 1856 & 1906

The event of April 18th, 1906 is pretty easy to figure out. That was the day of the biggest natural disaster to ever hit the US. It was, of course, The Great San Francisco Earthquake. The city was first shaken apart and then it burned out of control for 2 weeks. The death toll was put at more than 3000 people but you just know they didn’t bother to count the Chinese immigrant deaths in China Town, so it was probably much higher.

San Francisco Burns

City Hall Afterwards

The quake is estimated to have been at 7.8 on the Richter Scale and shook for 60 seconds. The one major earthquake I’ve been in was the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was only about a half mile from the epicenter for that one. That was the one where the Cypress Structure freeway collapsed and it happened during one of the games of the World Series. That was a 7.1 and shook for 15 seconds. I couldn’t imagine 60 seconds of shaking. Picture yourself in an old VW with bad shocks and there are 6 big football players standing around the car shaking it as hard as they can. Now imagine if that car was your house and it went on for 60 seconds.

The Richter Scale is a very irritating thing to try and wrap your mind around. You would think that a 7.1 quake and a 7.8 quake were sort of close together in the amount of energy released, but it doesn’t work that way. I don’t fully understand it but it is sort of like each full point increase of the scale increases the amount of energy 10 fold. So a 5.0 earthquake is not 20% greater than a 4.0 quake, it is ten times greater. They should really change the whole system if you ask me.

Regardless of what it was on the Richter Scale the 1906 quake released the energy equivalent of 6,000 of the A-Bombs dropped on Hiroshima, and then the so called “Ham & Eggs” fire burned just about everything else to the ground. It is said that someone was trying to cook breakfast a few hours after the earthquake on a stove that was vented through a cracked chimney. That supposedly started the fire and because all the water mains were broken no one could stop it. I believe that about as much as I believe that Mrs. O'Leary's Cow was the cause of The Chicago Fire of 1871.

To stop the fire they tried to create fire breaks by dynamiting a lot of buildings, including many of the homes featured in Artistic Homes of California, but nothing stopped the raging inferno. It took on a life of it’s own sort of like the firestorm that incinerated Dresden during WWII. San Francisco was basically abandon until the fire burned itself out.

What is even more remarkable than the destruction was the pace of cleanup and rebuilding. The city was largely rebuilt in about 3 years. That is something you couldn’t do today with all the bureaucratic red-tape of building codes and design review. Nine years after the quake San Francisco hosted the Worlds Fair with the Panama Pacific Exposition. Anyone think New Orleans will be hosting a Worlds Fair 8 years from now? The rebuilding didn’t come without a cost, though. It is estimated that 15,000 horses were worked to death in the first few months of the clean up operation. The Army was brought in and many people were put to work at gun point.

The quake did a lot more destruction than just wiping SF off the map. The cities of Santa Clara and San Jose also suffered a lot of damage, and even Ferndale, a little town just down the road from me took a beating. Here are a few shots of Ferndale from the 1906 earthquake.

Close-up of the building above

Eureka, suffered some damage but it was relatively minor. The only thing I’ve heard of was a dock that collapsed and the statue on top of the old courthouse was leaning at a about a 45 degree angle after the quake. Below is a picture of the old courthouse. It was later damaged beyond repair (or so they say) in a 1952 earthquake. I think they razed it in the name of progress. In it’s place was built the ugliest concrete courthouse you have ever seen in your life.

Anyway, I also said that something happened on this day in 1856, and while not as momentous as the 1906 Earthquake, it is note worthy all the same. It was on April 18th, 1856 that Eureka, CA officially became a city. So, happy birthday Eureka, and may there be many more to come. You can keep the earthquakes coming but let’s try and keep them below the 6.0 level. You know, just the little ones every now and then to release stress on the fault lines.

The 1906 quake was on The San Andreas fault. That is the type of fault where two plates slide past each other. Up here in Eureka we have the Cascadia subduction zone. That is where one plate dives under the other plate. This is the same type of fault that created the Tsunami in the Indian ocean in 2004. I bet everyone wished they lived here now!


elise said...

Great entry. And don't forget about Paul Revere's ride!

Joyce said...

Tnanks for the memories. Just spent my whole morning browsing thru your links, especially the artistic homes. Fabulous posting -- earthquakes and all. As a former San Franciscan I sort of miss being tossed around once in a while. Love your blog -- read it every morning with my coffee.

Greg said...


I can’t believe I didn’t know about Paul Revere's ride. People back then were larger than life. It seems that people in public service have been in a steady down fall ever since.


I’m glad you like it. I too enjoy a little earthquake now and then. The small ones are kind of fun. Really gets the heart racing.