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The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906:…

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly… (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Philip L. Fradkin

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843220,999 (3.75)3
"The prolonged terror that would follow the 1906 earthquake began when a ship steaming off San Francisco's Golden Gate "seemed to jump clear out of the water" with the first temblor. This account of the earthquake, the devastating firestorms that followed, and the city's subsequent reconstruction shows how, after the shaking stopped, humans - not the forces of nature - nearly destroyed San Francisco in a remarkable display of power politics and simple ineptitude ." "Philip Fradkin takes us onto the city's ruptured streets and into its exclusive clubs, its 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 an elite oligarchy that failed to serve the needs of ordinary people, the heroic efforts of obscure citizens, the long-lasting psychological effects of the disaster, and how all these events ushered in a period of unparalleled civic upheaval." "This 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
Title:The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself
Authors:Philip L. Fradkin
Info:University of California Press (2006), Edition: 1, Paperback, 448 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:History, Read in 2009, Non-Fiction

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The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 by Philip L. Fradkin (2005)


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Well, that’s sometimes the way Philip Fradkin’s The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 sometimes reads. Fradkin is a journalist of the “Everything bad is somebody’s fault” school, and “somebody” apparently doesn’t include Saint Andreas, as the subtitle is “How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself”, implying that tectonics had nothing to do with it.

It is perhaps a little annoying that there’s a lot to like about the book. The introduction got me riled; Fradkin, as implied above, makes a bunch of snide comparisons to 9/11 and Katrina; then notes how horribly undemocratic the reconstruction of San Francisco was, with local politicians, businessmen and the military in an unholy alliance to restore the city to some sort of function without waiting for input from women, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Afro-Americans, Native Americans, Italian-Americans, environmentalists, religious minorities, citizen’s groups, and sea otters; and finally comments that he has examined the science of seismology and “found it wanting”. Once he actually gets going on describing the earthquake and fire, however, he does a good job; he reviewed a lot of first person reports and tells a gripping story. Fradkin doesn’t go into a lot of detail on earthquake geology, rupture traces, etc.; he does criticize contemporary geologists for not realizing San Francisco was vulnerable – while also noting that current geological theory at the time linked earthquakes to volcanoes. The earthquake itself probably didn’t cause all that many casualties; some buildings collapsed but survivors could have been dug out – except broken gas lines, overturned lamps and stove, and severed water lines set everything on fire. In most cases the fire department was helpless (the fire chief was one of the earthquake fatalities); the only water available was near the waterfront where ships could pump sea water as far as hoses stretched. Unfortunately, the city was a supply base for mines, and that meant there was plenty of explosive on hand. Fire fighters, soldiers, and ordinary citizens got enthusiastic about blowing things up to create firebreaks and tended to use way too much explosive, scattering little bits of the targeted buildings all over – and generally starting more fires.

To be fair, the earthquake and aftermath did hit women and minorities pretty hard, at least by 2012 standards; Fradkin reports a soldier shooting a “Negro man … who was bending over something on the ground” and who didn’t respond to a challenge. The body was thrown into the flames; there’s no report on what the man was looking at. Upper-class San Francisco citizens bragged about looting Chinatown, and extracting ornamental bronzes from the runs – unmolested by the same soldiers. Contemporary accounts, of course, we not exactly prejudice-free; numerous rumors circulated about “(insert favorite race here) were found with their pockets full of severed fingers and ears, still with rings and earrings in place”. No actual evidence of this sort of thing was found, of course. San Franciscans were just a little touchy about the “yellow peril”. A Japanese professor visited shortly after the quake, bringing the world’s most advanced seismograph as a gift; he was stoned in the street.

Fradkin gets a little testy again describing the rebuilding; as mentioned, he grouses about the fact that the reconstruction campaign was handled by the city’s politicians and businessmen. He does not, of course, have any suggestions on how it should have been done. To be fair, what happened was various special committees were set up that bypassed the normal political processes; I assume Fradkin would have been happier if the city’s elected officials had handled things – despite the fact that the last third of the book implies that all the elected officials were corrupt, or at least questionable. Once again, though, the actual description of the committees and their actions is pretty well handled.

There was a lot of post-earthquake scientific study – the San Andreas Fault passes right through the Stanford campus – but here Fradkin may have a case for collusion among business and politicians. It was thought that mentioning the earthquake would have an adverse effect on capital needed for rebuilding, and although the studies were not suppressed the print run was very limited. Fradkin notes that the first geologic map of the whole state of California, published in 1916, did not denote any faults – even though the 1906 fault trace was still plainly visible. The official story was that it was the Great San Francisco Fire, not the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

The last third of the book is perhaps a little out of place. Fradkin describes a vendetta by political boss and businessman James Phelan against political boss and businessman Abraham Ruef. Although this happened in the years after the earthquake – Ruef was convicted in 1911 – it doesn’t seem related to it; Ruef and his associates were not charged with any corruption in connection to the earthquake or reconstruction efforts. The only charge that held against Ruef was bribery in connection with issuing liquor licenses to “French restaurants” – apparently a contemporary euphemism for brothels – and all the reported bribery took place before the earthquake. Once again, Fradkin’s account is pretty interesting – during the trial, a prosecuting attorney was shot in the courtroom and the San Francisco Chief of Police apparently committed suicide by jumping into the bay from a police launch – but it doesn’t really have much to do with seismology.

Thus, if you can get past the political snarkiness, this is fairly interesting. A spate of books were published for the 100th anniversary of the earthquake; I’ve got some more to read and review. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 23, 2017 |
A gift from Adam. Thanks Adam! This history is crazy crazy - San Francisco actually blew itself up. You'd think they'd be smarter than that, but the answer is no. They were trying to create some sort of break in the buildings to stop the fire from spreading, but they used incendiary explosives, and just wound up creating more fires. Also has a short snippet about how Bank of America started out. Awesome-possum book. ( )
  AmberTheHuman | Aug 30, 2013 |
4091 The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, by Philip L. Fradkin (read 11 Nov 2005) This account of the 1906 event is not too well organized, but it still tells the story well. It was a devastating event, tho Hurricane Katrina kind of lessens it. This is not a bad book, and it was easy to keep reading, but it was not extremely noteworthy. ( )
  Schmerguls | Oct 18, 2007 |
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