Many books have been written about the1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Simon Winchester’s page-turner takes the longest view and places the Bay Area’s now century-old catastrophe in a truly global perspective. An Oxford-trained geologist, he finds his rightful niche in capturing the grandeur of Gaia as she toys with humans who have the temerity to live on active fault zones.
As a long-time San Francisco resident, I’m not a disinterested reader when it comes to evaluating the odds of a future disaster. Winchester pulls no punches when it comes to reminding us who holds the trump card—that would be Gaia—and of our hubris in choosing to drink our pinot noir in a region where there is a 62 percent probability of a major quake along one of the San Andreas fault clusters before 2032.
Before telling the story of 1906, he pulls the reader up by the bootstraps to a reasonable lay understanding of what’s going on down there in the mantle. He describes the excitement among geologists in the mid-1960s over emerging theories of plate tectonics, “the marvelous dance of the plates,” when geology came into its own as a science. He discusses the Gaia theory and how it relates to geology. Winchester even chattily travels the length of the North American plate from Iceland to California, and then describes the northward-moving Pacific plate lurking on or near the coast, along with the rest of the Western fault system. Now I try to sleep at night knowing that the San Andreas fault line between these two massive plates, which slipped 21 feet in 1906, is currently 17 feet out of kilter.
In San Francisco alone, the 1906 disaster left over 225,000 people homeless—more than half of the city’s population of 400,000. The following three-day fire, and the lack of water to fight it, utterly destroyed 490 city blocks and caused the majority of the damage. Surrounding areas suffered great destruction as well.
In his most speculative chapter, Winchester meditates on what he calls “ripples on the surface of the pond,” the historical aftershocks of the quake. Its occurrence at an uneasy moment when industry and technology were overcoming an older order, and in a city known for sinful living, added fuel to the then-new Pentecostal movement busily expanding in Los Angeles. This is a movement to which we owe some of the national political zeitgeist of today.
The loss of government records at City Hall in the fire helped many Chinese citizens hampered by xenophobic laws immigrate to the US via San Francisco. The lengthy and painful process that individuals still had to undergo to prove that they already had relatives in Gold Mountain is memorialized in beautiful poetry carved on the walls of the immigration station on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay.
Building standards improved in industrialized nations around the world; San Francisco considered but, in its hurry to rebuild, ultimately passed on an opportunity to remake its image after the quake and fire with a Daniel Burnham-designed city plan.
Will Rogers, referring to the initial rapid growth rate of San Francisco in the Gold Rush days, once remarked that it was “the city that was never a town.” San Francisco’s pre-eminent position as the superior power among Western cities was bound to fade eventually for other reasons, but the loss of its dominance was hastened after 1906 as investors quickly realized that there was less cost and less risk in building in Los Angeles than in rebuilding in a city astride a major fault line.
Winchester’s book was completed before the events of Hurricane Katrina. While serious mistakes were made in 1906, a case could be made from reading his account that government response was faster and more effective then than in 2005.
Reviewed by Laura Lent