The Great San Francisco Earthquake

First of all, it seems cavalier and irresponsible to bloat an earthquake’s ego with an adjective like ‘great.’ The Terrible San Francisco Earthquake, maybe, or Horrific, or Woeful. You know, out of respect for the dead.

The story of San Francisco’s deadly 1906 earthquake has rarely been reported accurately. Today we think of San Francisco as rather liberal, or more specifically: techy, leftist, flaky, homosexual wine snobs who love bikes and brunch. But it wasn’t always so: San Francisco came into its own during the gold rush, populated by gamblers, adventurers, and prospectors.

By 1906, San Francisco was a wealthy city, the economic capital of the west, but its wealth was a magnet for greed and corruption and nobody embodied that sentiment more than its mayor. San Francisco unfortunately is located not just on the San Andreas fault, but over 7 other earthquake faults as well. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Lots of people told the mayor how vulnerable San Francisco was, and that measures need to be in place in case of emergency, but the mayor was buys lining his own pockets. So when the earthquake hit, it was immediately devastating. And then fires broke out, and spread, nearly unchecked. Aftershocks hit fast and often, hampering rescue efforts. The mayor should have authorized a firebreak but didn’t want to sacrifice the homes of his wealthiest constituents/contributors. Instead he issued martial law, illegal for anyone but the president to do, and had “looters” shot on sight, even though many of the looters turned out to be victims trying to rescue their own meager possessions from the ruins of their own homes and businesses.

With the city a pile of ashes and ruins, efforts to rebuild began, and so did the mayor’s big cover-up. To maintain its status as an economic player, the mayor downplayed the death toll, staking it around 500 thought it is now believed to have been near 6000, or about a fifth of the city’s population. It was also rebranded as a devastating fire rather than an earthquake; fires were a familiar enemy, one that could be understood, and planned for. It was also covered by insurance, whereas earthquakes were not. Photos published in the papers were retouched to look more like fire damage, monetary damage estimates were manipulated. San Francisco was rebuilt by the same shady people who let it be destroyed in the first place. The film is imbued with a sense that its citizens today may soon pay a terrible price for the arrogance and greed of their ancestors.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake is a documentary, but it reenacts its events based on the many first-hand accounts left by survivors in heart breaking detail.

8 thoughts on “The Great San Francisco Earthquake

  1. leendadll

    Is “great” a reference to the scale of the devastation or to the magnitude class (8.0 and above are “great” quakes)?? Perhaps both (I’m too lazy to google the size.

    I took a walking tour of SF and we were told that shipping by land was so obscenely expensive that it was common practice to ship by sea and then abandon the ships after they were unloaded. Future loads had to be hauled over all the abandoned ships. Eventually, they were sunk or filled and that no flat area of SF is natural… it’s all man-made and why the devastation in those areas is especially bad (lots of liquifaction).

    I like to take comfort in the fact that my home survived the 1933 Long Beach quake… completely ignoring that it was 4yrs old then and now 90!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lara/Trace

    Jay, I remember one earthquake in the late 1980s and my friend Jackie living there. No ATM, no cash, no power, nothing. I know it’s only a matter of time when one hits again.


  3. Liz A.

    A friend of the family moved north to San Francisco about the time I graduated from high school (she was a couple years older than me, newly an over 21 adult). Then the ’89 quake happened. She didn’t stick around after that.


  4. selizabryangmailcom

    I grew up with earthquakes in Los Angeles. Lived in NYC for a while then came back to L.A. just in time for the Northridge earthquake. One of the worst things (for us, at least, which means we were lucky) was the 7-Eleven spiking the price of water. Who does that?
    But earthquakes are only part of the fun of living here.
    Neighborhoods and parks are regularly razed by wild fires. And don’t forget, when it finally does rain, the mudslides that destroy homes and lives.


  5. StephLove

    Could be “great” like The Great War (WWI), no?

    North had a summer reading book last summer about that earthquake, a novel from the point of view of a Chinese-American girl. It was called Outrun the Moon or something like that.



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