The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself

Along with researching and writing this book, I participated in three other 1906 related events. I was the consultant who selected the 12,000 images and 7,000 pages of text for the Bancroft Library's 1906 website. My book is the first such work whose documentation is fully available on one web site. I was also responsible for initiating the Mark Klett After the Ruins rephotography book and the corresponding exhibit at the California Legion of Honor, and I discovered the Jack London photographs in a state park archive and curated the Jack London and the Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 exhibit at the California Historical Society.

The forty seconds of shaking and the three days of firestorms are considered the best example of what great disasters in this country——including acts of war and terrorism——can do to landscape, physical structures, and the social, economic, and political fabric of a large American city. In the end, three-fourths of San Francisco was ashes and skeletal ruins that resembled the scenes of firebombed cities in World War II. The physical destruction was matched by the subsequent moral decay. The effects were long lasting and deeper than anyone imagined.

The publisher's description follows:

"The first indication of the prolonged terror that followed the 1906 earthquake occurred when a ship steaming off San Francisco's Golden Gate "seemed to jump clear out of the water." This gripping account of the earthquake, the devastating firestorms that followed, and the city's subsequent reconstruction vividly shows how, after the shaking stopped, humans, not the forces of nature, nearly destroyed San Francisco in a remarkable display of simple ineptitude and power politics. Bolstered by previously unpublished eyewitness accounts and photographs, this definitive history of a fascinating city caught in the grip of the country's greatest urban disaster will forever change conventional understanding of an event one historian called "the very epitome of bigness." Philip Fradkin takes us onto the city's ruptured streets and into its exclusive clubs, teeming hospitals and refugee camps, and its Chinatown. He introduces the people--both famous and infamous--who experienced these events, such as Jack and Charmian London, Enrico Caruso, James Phelan, and Abraham Ruef. He traces the horrifying results of the mayor's illegal order to shoot-to-kill anyone suspected of a crime, and he uncovers the ugliness of racism that almost led to war with Japan. He reveals how an elite oligarchy failed to serve the needs of ordinary people, the heroic efforts of obscure citizens, the long-lasting psychological effects, and how all these events ushered in a period of unparalleled civic upheaval. This compelling look at how people and institutions function in great catastrophes demonstrates just how deeply earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, hurricanes, floods, wars, droughts, or acts of terrorism can shape us."

Once again, as I had since writing The Seven States of California, I was interested in how landscape determined history and destiny rather than how humans impacted nature, the standard theme of environmental writing. To prove the impact of nature on humans, I documented how political and economic power suddenly shifted along with the jolts from below. I was also interested in demonstrating to Americans, by using 1906 San Francisco as my model, the devastating effects of warfare that we have inflicted on others and what such mass destruction might resemble here. But I did not want to get in the way of a rousing good story.

Backstories of Earlier Works

The definitive life of the West's outstanding writer, teacher of writers, and conservationist.
The use and abuse of the West's lifeblood, water.
Radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site caused innocent people to die.
How landscape has determined the history and destiny of California
Giant waves, five hundred feet higher than the Empire State Building, sweep a remote Alaska Bay.

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