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The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, by Philip Fradkin


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The Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906

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

University of California Press
Title: The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself
Author: Philip Fradkin
Publisher: University of California Press


  • Journalistic presentation of contemporary material
  • Narrative loosely imposed on a welter of anecdote and background
  • Groundbreaking study gives 1906 a century of much-needed perspective
  • Sociopolitical dimensions given the same attention as geological facts


  • Sweeping, definitive survey of the iconic American disaster
  • Letters and published accounts show, not tell, the story
  • Accompanying Web site houses huge body of supporting content


  • Some streets and localities not on map
  • Photos are so good that 39 doesn't feel like enough

Book Review

The textbook account of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire is a cartoon: shaking and fires turned a city to ruins, but the efforts of a unified people swiftly rebuilt San Francisco — wharves, Victorian houses, Chinatown and all — better than before. A corrupt city government was transformed. Less than a decade later the splendid Panama-Pacific Exposition (of which the Palace of Fine Arts survives) celebrated the greatest project of urban rebirth ever conducted.

Veteran journalist Philip Fradkin, author of many books about California, exposes this facade from behind, starting with an ominous passage: "The seeds of trauma are scattered within individuals, and collectively within societies. All that is needed for them to sprout is a shake of our established worlds, and then, like black bulbs, they bloom again and again."

Just as earthquakes release long-accumulated tectonic energy, so did the tremors allow human and political forces, long frustrated, to seize the moment for action. The quake also opened a space for acts of panic and folly that took charge of the most responsible minds.

For James Phelan, a leading businessman with schemes to bulldoze and redevelop Chinatown, the quake was his chance to snatch political control with his Committee of Fifty and orders from President Teddy Roosevelt giving him sole power over relief funds. For Eugene Schmitz, the labor-supported mayor, the earthquake prompted his notorious shoot-to-kill order against all looters—overlooked in the rubble of Chinatown where citizens of the right ethnicity and class were doing the looting. Neither Phelan, the workaholic CEO, nor Schmitz, the former band conductor, could think beyond his reflexes.

There was no water, and the fire chief was dead. Schmitz could not stop Army troops, nominally under his control, from blowing up wide swaths of buildings as firebreaks, even when their only tool was ordinary gunpowder that quickly ignited the wreckage. In Fradkin's detailed recounting of the fire, we see how San Francisco nearly destroyed itself. Later it would do so again in the political sphere.

The mass of the people behaved admirably, as far as we can tell; Fradkin presents their accounts in abundance, many of them for the first time. Tales of corpses' rings cut off with their fingers, and worse, were centuries-old urban legends that still arise today. For the rest of their lives, survivors remembered the tremendous shaking, the days of smoke and dynamite, and the months of living as refugees in city parks. Their accounts also tell us another thing many people could never get out of their minds: the unending sound of the newly homeless, all silent, dragging behind them thousands of trunks.

San Francisco was rebuilt in blind haste. Phelan and the capitalists opposed all delay for engineering studies, site preparation or new building codes. Businessmen and the press told the Eastern banks, in loud chorus, that the earthquake was a trifle and that fire, a familiar danger for builders and insurers, was the true culprit. Some people even denied that an earthquake had occurred at all!

The Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906

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

University of California Press

The corruption of City Hall was not bad for the time and place, but Phelan's group leveraged it into a series of lurid trials against Mayor Schmitz and his right-hand man, Abraham Ruef. Between vicious anti-Semitism and a privately financed prosecutor who packed his juries and intimidated them with mobs, Ruef was lucky not to be lynched. But once he was jailed the madness began to evaporate, and some of the leaders of this criminal undertaking went on to distinguished political careers.

A few short years later the exposition of 1915 went forward, its glorious buildings erected precariously on earthquake rubble. (That same ground failed in the 1989 earthquake.) The publicity photos of the rebuilt city carefully avoided the wide stretches of ruin that still surrounded the new business district. But the myth had gone out: San Francisco was back from the dead.

Fradkin's research and careful presentation of these uncomfortable truths is a strong and welcome correction to the cartoon picture of the San Francisco quake. In the year of Hurricane Katrina, his work deserves a wide audience well outside earthquake country.

The Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 is the third book in Philip Fradkin's "earthquake trilogy"; Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault is the first and Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay is the second.

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