The San Francisco Earthquake

Roundup: Talking About History

Carl Nolte, in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 18, 2004):

Today is the 98th anniversary of the earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco, a time to tell old stories about what writer Will Irwin called "The City That Was," a magical San Francisco that probably never existed except in memory.

The old San Francisco, Irwin wrote, was "the gayest, most lighthearted, most pleasure-loving city on the western continent ... a city of romance and the gateway to adventure."

The reality was much different. San Francisco on the eve of the great earthquake was smoggy, dirty and corrupt, a disaster waiting to happen.

The disaster on this day in 1906 was real enough. "The entire city was relentlessly shaken and twisted," in the words of Malcolm Barker, a historian. The sound was "like the roar of the sea," said police Officer Jesse Cook; "like thunder," said Officer Michael Brady; "the sound as of a snarl," said newspaper reporter James Hopper; "a chorus of terrifying noises," said William Cushing, a guest in a hotel.

When the quake was over, the city was badly damaged. Then it caught fire and burned for three days. When it was over, the heart of the city was a smoking ruin.

It was a terrible shock: San Francisco had 400,000 residents. It was the biggest city on the West Coast and eighth largest in the country, and now, it appeared to be dead. People like Irwin and others wrote the city's obituary, and there is a rule in such matters: De mortuis nil nisi bonum -- "Of the dead, say nothing but good."

And so the great myth sprung up -- the old city was a magical place, where the men were all gents and the women were beautiful and, said Irwin, "life was always gay." As time passed, the vanished city became even more mythical, until the reality of those days was paved over with a kind of happy nostalgia.

The day of the earthquake was clear with a crescent moon. The weather is not unusual for spring time, but in the winter especially, San Francisco was clothed in gray smoke. It was an industrial city, and most of the factories were steam-powered, and the steam was produced by burning coal; the many boats in the bay burned coal, and so did the city's furnaces and stoves. "Smoke," said John Leale, a ferry captain, "would hang from one end of the bay to the other."

The old city's air would never pass modern standards. Nor would the streets, covered as they were with the droppings of thousands of horses -- dray horses, horses that pulled carriages, horses that pulled some streetcars. Sewage went directly into the bay. China Basin, site of the Giants baseball park, was "an open sewer, a cesspool that emitted offensive odors, especially at low water," said Fred Klebingat, a ship's captain. The city's fabled reputation for tolerance was still to come. The largest racial minority, the Chinese, were crowded into a colorful slum that tourists found "an exotic adventure full of the mystery of the unknown," according to John Kuo Wei Tchen, who wrote a book about Chinatown.

However, it was not wise for the Chinese to venture into the rest of the city. Tchen quoted an old-timer: "The area around Union Square was a dangerous place for us, you see, especially at nighttime before the quake. Chinese were often attacked by thugs there ..." Chinatown was a world of its own, where the law was enforced by the Chinese tongs, who had their own hired thugs called "highbinders." "No white man, except the very lowest outcasts, lived in the quarter," wrote Irwin.

Chinese could not live outside Chinatown. Selling property to anyone but Caucasians was prohibited by racial covenants in property deeds. Racism was not only widespread, it also was city policy: "We favor the absolute exclusion of all Asiatics -- Japanese as well as Chinese," said the platform of the Workingman's Party, which controlled city government.

Every single elected official was white, and all were male. Women, of course, couldn't vote. Even the reformers had a racist bent. Ex-Mayor James Duval Phelan, who disdained the corrupt politicians, later was elected U.S. senator on an anti-Chinese platform. A street in San Francisco is named for him.

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