Thursday, September 4, 2014

California's Trembling Hills

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte's column in the September 4, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

In 1984, an earthquake hit Northern California on April 24. The Morgan Hill quake was situated on a less famous fault than the San Andreas, the Calaveras Fault, which runs along the San Jose area (south of San Francisco and a bit to the west).  It registered 6.2 on the Richter scale and  resulted in damages in several communities, San Jose among them.

At that time, my daughters and I lived further north in the East Bay area of San Francisco, near the American Canyon. We might have felt a jolt, but it wasn’t particularly memorable.

In the fall of 1984, we moved south to the foothills of Mt. Hamilton, near the epicenter of that very Morgan Hill quake. Later, in the spring of 1985, I distinctly remember an earthquake that rocked my house with enough force that I ran for the doorway of my sleeping daughters’ bedroom. That quake is not even mentioned on any significant earthquake list except the United States Geological Survey, which lists hundreds of quakes between 2.0 and 6.0 in both 1984 and 1985.
In 1986, we left California permanently for the less-shaky lands of New England and I hadn’t experienced an earthquake in 29 years.  Last week, Gerry and I traveled to California to visit with my childhood friends in the East Bay and attend the wedding of my niece in Carmel Valley. Sunday, August 24 at 3:20 in the morning we were sound asleep miles from the epicenter of the earthquake in Napa. We were awakened hours later to frantic texts of friends who knew my hometown of Pinole was just south of the American Canyon, the epicenter. We sighed with relief that morning although breakfast was abuzz with reports from friends and family told us of the terrifying 15 second roller-coaster ride 130 miles to the north. It was the first major earthquake in the area in 25 years.

Relief had come too soon.  Four earthquakes (or euphemistically, aftershocks), the largest 3.9, rocked us early on the morning that we scheduled to leave. Not lost on me, of course, was our timely purchase of a case of Michael David wines from the winery in Lodi, including several bottles of Earthquake Cabernet and Petite Sirah.

Growing up in the Bay Area in the 1960s, I listened to stories of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire from many residents of the Bay Area in California had actually experienced the tragedy only decades before.  The quake and fires devastated over 80% of San Francisco and other cities across the bay.  In the 50s and 60s, young teenage girls across the country read Phyllis Whitney’s popular historical novel, “These Trembling Hills” (1956) – a book with what might be called tame romance.

The 1906 earthquake registered somewhere near 8.25 on the Richter scale (a scale that was not actually developed until 1936). Buildings of every type crumbled, yet it was the wooden structures across the city that collapsed and then later burned in the devastating fires that lasted three days.  The largest city in California (and center of the Gold Rush bonanza), San Francisco had burned many times in the 1800s and the city prided itself on their well-funded department with over 580 men. However, over fifty fires started within a few hours. Water mains broke, the city’s fire chief was hospitalized after being injured in his home by falling debris (he died several days later), and the magnitude of the tragedy added to the destruction. Homeowners torched their own homes to collect on insurance (earthquakes were not covered) and demolition of entire blocks to try to stop the fires contributed to the devastation.

Our library has three outstanding books about the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 including one by William Bronson published in 1959.  “The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned” is both a pictorial and prose record of the city before, during, and after the quake. The black and white photographs of the day, (many by American photographer Arnold Genthe), were taken shortly after the earthquake and throughout the reconstruction in 1906-1908.  Author Bronson includes in his record the controversies  of the day – insurance companies who refused to pay (some closed up shop instead), immigration issues (including the burning of Chinatown), the tension between big business and unions during the reconstruction, and the greed of City Hall. Famed architect and urban planner, Daniel Burnam, had great plans for the city.  However, only a few of his designs were eventually implemented. The city’s prominence suffered after the 1906 event, however, and Los Angeles was to take over as the West’s biggest and most influential city.

Two books were published in 2001 and 2005 by well-known journalists.  Dan Kurzman (author of “Fatal Voyage: the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis”) wrote “Disaster!: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906,” including the eyewitness accounts of San Franciscans – Chinese schoolboys, a young couple soon to be married, San Francisco Mayor Schmitz, actor (and philanderer) John Barrymore, and opera star, Enrico Caruso. Caruso, who performed Carmen hours before the early dawn earthquake, vowed never to return to San Francisco and he never did.

Simon Winchester (author of “The Professor and the Madman,” and most recently, “The Men Who United the States”), wrote “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.”  His meticulously-researched and comprehensive work includes illustrations of major tectonic plates and maps of the continents from the Permian period 225 million years ago to present day. He, too, follows the stories of those who experienced the earthquake. His quintet includes five men who were sleeping, swimming, walking, chatting and drowsing as the earthquake hit. 

No one knows, although it is predicted, if the big one will hit in California before 2030. Californians do not choose where they will live according to earthquakes. The reality for them (and many other people the world over) is that earthquakes travel up and down the faults that surround our Earth. Californians bravely state that they would much rather deal with earthquakes than tornadoes and hurricanes, ice storms and blizzards. What we do know is that story of the “big one” in 1906 is legendary even more than a century later.