Image: Grant Avenue after the earthquake in San Francisco.
by Chris Frantz
At 5:12 a.m. on 18 April, 1906, the people of San Francisco were awakened by an earthquake that would devastate the city.
The main tremor, having a 7.7–7.9 magnitude, lasted about one minute and was the result of the rupturing of the northernmost 296 miles of the 800-mile San Andreas fault.
But when calculating destruction, the earthquake took second place to the great fire that followed.
The fire, lasting four days, most likely started with broken gas lines (and, in some cases, was helped along by people hoping to collect insurance for their property—they were covered for fire, but not earthquake).
With water mains broken, fighting the fires was almost impossible, and about 500 city blocks were destroyed.
The damages were estimated at about $400,000,000 in 1906 dollars, which would translate to about $8.2 billion today.
Uncertain Death Toll
In 1906 San Francisco was the ninth largest U.S. city with a population of 400,000, and over 225,000 were left homeless by the disaster. The death toll is uncertain.
City officials estimated the casualties at 700 but more modern calculations say about 3,000 lost their lives.
The lowballing city figures may have been a public relations ploy to downplay the disaster with an eye on rebuilding the city.
On 20 April, the U.S.S. Chicago rescued 20,000 victims, one of the largest sea evacuations in history, rivalling Dunkirk in World War II.
Martial law was not declared, but some 500 looters were shot by police and the military.
A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. Photo credit: George E. Marsh
The early European explorers thought the Great Plains was unsuitable for agriculture. The land is semi-arid and is prone to extended drought, alternating with periods of unusual wetness.
But the federal government was eager to see the land settled and cultivated. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, a series of federal land acts were passed granting settlers hundreds of acres of land. These acts led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.
A stretch of unusually wet weather in the beginning of the 20th century confirmed the belief that the Plains could be tamed after all, leading to increased settlement and cultivation.
Farmers ploughed through the land eliminating the native grasses that held the fine soil in place. When crops began to fail with the onset of drought in 1930, the bare soil became exposed to the wind, and it began to blow away in massive dust storms that blackened the sky.
These choking billows of dust, named “black blizzards”, travelled across the country, reaching as far as the East Coast and striking such cities as New York City and Washington, D.C.
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”
The term “dust bowl” was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press. Originally it referred to the geographical area affected by the dust, but today the entire event is referred to as the Dust Bowl.
After the winds passed and the dust settled, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated a huge project to plant hundreds of millions of trees across the Great Plains to create a giant windbreak. Known as a shelterbelt, it consisted of 220 million trees stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from wind erosion.
On May 1, 1915, the ship departed New York City bound for Liverpool. Unknown to her passengers but probably no secret to the Germans, almost all her hidden cargo consisted of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort.
As the fastest ship afloat, the luxurious liner felt secure in the belief she could easily outdistance any submarine. Nonetheless, the menace of submarine attack reduced her passenger list to only half her capacity.
On May 7, the ship neared the coast of Ireland. At 2:10 in the afternoon a torpedo fired by the German submarine U 20 slammed into her side. A mysterious second explosion ripped the liner apart. Chaos reigned.
The ship listed so badly and quickly that lifeboats crashed into passengers crowded on deck, or dumped their loads into the water. Most passengers never had a chance. Within 18 minutes the giant ship slipped beneath the sea. One thousand one hundred nineteen of the 1,924 aboard died. The dead included 114 Americans.
Walter Schwieger was captain of the U-Boat that sank the Lusitania. He watched through his periscope as the torpedo exploded and noted the result in his log, “The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow.
It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. In connection therewith great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately.”
In the ship’s nursery Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the world’s richest men, and playwright Carl Frohman tied life jackets to wicker “Moses baskets” holding infants in an attempt to save them from going down with the ship.
The rising water carried the baskets off the ship but none survived the turbulence created as the ship sank to the bottom. The sea also claimed Vanderbilt and Frohman.
The sinking enraged American public opinion. The political fallout was immediate. President Wilson protested strongly to the Germans. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist, resigned.
In September, the Germans announced that passenger ships would be sunk only with prior warning and appropriate safeguards for passengers.
However, the seeds of American animosity towards Germany were sown.
This Tale is about the night I saved the lives of Chris Smith, Trevor Smart and Ian Bailey.
And, myself of course.
The four of us had a little green mini-minor that we car pooled to work. Trevor normally drove to work and I usually drove home.
Ian Bailey was quite content to sit in the back staring blankly out of the window, Chris Smith sat next to Ian rubbishing everyone he could think of, but especially Ashley Williams, Russell Wight and Rod Parham.
Trevor would tell anyone who would listen about the wackas and gossip that came out of the front office that day.
He banged on boring everyone shitless!
I would drive ever watchful of the road ahead. But with Chris and Trevor droning on in the background it was difficult to concentrate.
I would not put shit on any person and would not back-stab any of my workmates all of whom I held in the highest regard.
We were at the top of Marion Road waiting to turn right into Main South Road. The lights changed and as I went to turn, suddenly, a car flew in front of us cutting across our path.
I calmly pulled the wheel neatly avoiding a fatal accident.
But we were now heading up Flagstaff Hill Road.
After our near death experience, everyone patted me on the back.
As we headed up Flagstaff Hill Road, Chris wanted to celebrate by getting on the piss (this was no surprise).
Trevor wanted to buy a X-Lotto Ticket, meanwhile Ian Bailey kept staring blankly out of the window…