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Hearing Voices: The S.F. Quake Centennial, Part 2


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

One hundred years ago today, one of the worst disasters in American history hit the city of San Francisco: A massive earthquake that set off huge fires. They burned for three days. In the end, three-quarters of San Francisco's buildings were destroyed.

Now, in Part two of our anniversary coverage, independent producer Jesse Boggs has the story of how the city recovered from its greatest disaster.

(Soundbite of banjo playing)

Mr. JESSE BOGGS (Independent Producer): By 1906, San Francisco had a lot of practice rebuilding itself. In the years after the Gold Rush of 1849, it had burned down six times. During the 1860s, it was rocked by two sizeable earthquakes.

But every time disaster struck, they rebuilt the city a lot like it had been, only more so. The more it quaked and burned, the more people came. By 1906, San Franciscans had actually developed a kind of strategy for dealing with catastrophes.

Here's Kevin Starr. He's a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the State Librarian Emeritus.

Professor KEVIN STARR (Professor of History, University of Southern California): We go into a mode of suppression. It's part of our cultural construct to suppress those things. They are suppressed by us day by day. We're here in San Francisco now, right nearby a fault, and there's 800,000 people out there right now who aren't too worried about it.

Yet, at the same time, all the probabilities show us that the earthquake of significant magnitude will come. And I think that's what happened after April, 1906. We almost went into denial immediately. Even in the reports that were made just a few weeks later after the earthquake, things were suppressed. And by the time we got, say, a year or two or three out from the earthquake, we had--almost had suppressed the idea that earthquakes ever happened in California, much less the one of April, 1906.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOGGS: (Reading) "Today, you may not speak in San Francisco of the earthquake. You will be instantly corrected. It was the fire that did the damage, you will be told. Then, the citizen, with a Californian's pride and the many superlative possessions of his state, will probably inform you that it is the greatest disaster in history. But, he will add, in 10 years, he will not be able to find a trace of the ruins. San Francisco will be a better built, more prosperous, more beautiful city than it was. Instead of 400,000 population, we'll have 700,000." Mr. French Struther(ph). The Rebound of San Francisco in The World's Work magazine, July, 1906.

Mr. JAMES HAAS (Attorney, Author): If you go back to the early days, you know that the chamber of commerce and others tried to play down the nature of the disaster.

Mr. BOGGS: This is James Haas. He's a fifth-generation San Franciscan, a lawyer, and the author of a recent research paper on the rebuilding of the city.

Mr. HAAS: The orthodoxy of the earthquake was, it wasn't that big deal, and everybody got together and worked hard and solved all their problems and sang songs and so forth. But, you know, if you have a community that has lots of divisions, those divisions are going to transcend the disaster.

Mr. BOGGS: One of those divisions was Market Street, bordering the city's business district. South of Market was an area of cheap rooming houses and hotels where immigrants, transients, people looking for work, lived by the thousands. It was built on made ground--that is, landfill; and it turned to jelly in the earthquake. Block after block of three and four-story structures sank into the ground and trapped the occupants there.

Ms. GLADYS HANSEN: A lot of the people that were here were never found.

Mr. BOGGS: This is Gladys Hansen. She's the Curator of the Museum of the City of San Francisco, and co-author of the book, Denial of Disaster. She began looking for victims of the San Francisco catastrophe more than 40 years ago, when she was the city's archivist.

Ms. HANSEN: This whole thing started with a request by genealogists. Gladys, do you have a list of those that died in 1906? Because they were searching for lost family members that were here, and no, I couldn't find such a list, so I assumed it was going to be only 478 people, believing our supervisors, and that seemed easy to do from the newspapers.

Mr. BOGGS: Four hundred seventy-eight was the official death count announced by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. But on her first pass through the old newspapers, Gladys Hansen counted more than 500 reported deaths, and that sparked her curiosity. So, she notified some genealogical and historical societies that she was looking for victims of the 1906 disaster.

Ms. HANSEN: And then I kind of sat back and waited, hoping and hoping that somebody would see it and help me. Well, the mail came in. And it is still coming in.

Ms. KATHLEEN LAWTON (Radio Host, San Francisco): Part of it is the absolute anonymity of it. It always bothered me that there was nothing left. Everybody else; they have a grave; they have a marker; they have something.

Mr. BOGGS: That's Kathleen Lawton. She's a Bay area radio host. She wrote one of those letters to Gladys Hansen, looking for information about one of her relatives who was lost in the San Francisco disaster. His name was William Roberts. He was a recent immigrant from Ireland. He'd come to America with his parents and his sister, who was Kathleen Lawton's grandmother.

They had settled in Seattle, and William, then a young man in his early 20s, had gone to San Francisco looking for work. He was very likely staying in one of those south-of-Market rooming houses when the earthquake struck. No trace of him was ever found.

Ms. LAWTON: How did he die? Did it hurt? Was it quick? Was be badly burned? Did he lie in a hospital for three weeks and then perish or what happened to him? I can't visit San Francisco without thinking about him. I don't know if he's under the street somewhere south of Market. I don't know if he's buried somewhere, wherever they took the debris or whatever, the bones and whatever they could find.

Mr. BOGGS: Victims south of Market in San Francisco simply weren't counted in the city's death toll, and there were other areas overlooked as well.

Ms. ALICE SUE FUN(ph) (1906 San Francisco Earthquake Survivor): I had one sister and two brothers at the time of the earthquake, and my mother was pregnant (unintelligible).

Mr. BOGGS: Alice Sue Fun was 7 years old when the earthquake struck. She lived in Chinatown, which was totally destroyed. She and her family escaped injury, but her father soon became another uncounted earthquake fatality.

Ms. FUN: After three days, we came over to Oakland, and then I remember we went to live in a camp by McMerritt(ph), and then my father dug clams, and we ate the clams, but he got sick from digging the clams. He died from the Typhoid Fever, contaminated water. He died before my sister was born. My sister was born four days after my father died.

Mr. BOGGS: The true toll of the 1906 earthquake and fire will never be known. Gladys Hansen stopped counting some years ago. By her conservative estimate, something over 3,000 people died. The effects of the disaster were played down in its aftermath as part of the effort to rebuild the city, to reassure survivors that all was well, that business would soon thrive again, that nothing like this could ever happen again, but as historians and researchers clear away the debris in the old story of the catastrophe, new views are being revealed. Again, James Haas.

Mr. HAAS: The conflicted city is not a very good place to solve problems. We are as conflicted today as we were in 1906; that the city still has major public buildings that are not seismicly stable. There's a whole lot of work to do, and it would be great if we could use the 1906 experience to show people how a dysfunctional city is not a way to solve problems.

(Soundbite of banjo playing)

BRAND: Our story was narrated and produced by Jesse Boggs and comes to us from There's much more on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake at our web site, including oral histories, video and earthquake timeline. Go to our web site, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jesse Boggs
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