The Great San Francisco Earthquake 18th April 1906
I do love an anniversary. But perhaps flying to San Franscisco for the centenary of North America's strongest recorded earthquake is taking things just a bit too far. Although, surely, this must be the safest possible time to be visiting, because there's absolutely no chance of the long-awaited seismic follow-up happening after an interval of precisely 100 years. Is there?
The great 1906 earthquake struck at 5:12am, just before dawn. A 250-mile stretch of the San Andreas Fault had slipped, suddenly and without warning, unleashing centuries of pent-up tectonic power. Fields cracked, streets undulated and wooden buildings crumpled. In poor areas built on reclaimed marshland the ground liquefied, causing overcrowded slums to collapse and trapping the inhabitants. Most people were asleep in bed at the time, including famous opera singer Enrico Caruso who was staying at the Palace Hotel after a particularly successful concert the night before.
Several died when chimneys dislodged by the violent shaking came crashing down on top of them, including the city's Chief Fire Officer. Not inconsequentially, most of the deaths in San Francisco that day were not from the quake itself but from the savage fires that followed. By late morning flames were jumping from building to building across the city, aided by the fact that almost all the city's water mains had fractured during the quake. This gold-painted hydrant (on the corner of 20th and Church) was one of the few found still to have a functioning water supply, but most areas were not so fortunate. Wealthy residents who had watched early developments with interest (and some amusement) started packing their bags as the fires approached the richer heights of town. By nightfall more than a quarter of San Francisco's inhabitants were homeless. Author Jack London observed the catastrophe at close hand.
The fire burned on for two more days, razing most of the city to the ground, finally halted only by a man-made firebreak and some very fortunate rain. At least 3000 people had been killed - that's about the same number as died on 9/11 and double the toll of Hurricane Katrina. These numbers may pale into insignificance against modern deaths from famine, disease and (ahem) American military intervention in the developing world, but a century ago they were cataclysmic. Perhaps surprisingly, 100 years on, millions of Americans still choose to live here along the fault lines of Western California, in the certain knowledge that one day another equally strong earthquake will wreak a similar terrible disaster. It may be incredibly beautiful in San Francisco, but is it really worth the risk? Hmm, what am I doing here?