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The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself

by Philip L. Fradkin; University of California Press, 2005

After the Ruins 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

by Mark Klett with Michael Lundgren; Essays by Philip L. Fradkin and Rebecca Solnit University of California Press, 2006

In the aftermath of the spate of natural disasters that recently devastated Florida and the Gulf Coast, it is informative, intriguing and, at times, upsetting to remember how Americans have prepared for, survived and reacted to previous catastrophes. For those interested in such reflection, two unique and very different works revisit the massive April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake and fires.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and historian Philip L. Fradkin reexamines those days in The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. This well-researched, highly readable account, supported by copious eyewitness reports, many of them previously unpublished, puts the reader in the rolling streets and among the toppling buildings as the tremors rip the city apart. One can almost feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke of the resulting conflagration. Chaos abounds as citizens, firefighters, police and military men—some nobly, others not so nobly—flee or fight the forces wreaking havoc.

By placing the events in the context of what happened before, during and after that 1906 disaster, Fradkin points out eerily echoed parallels with what happened before, during and after hurricanes hit the Southeast United States in 2005. Just as that region had suffered from terrible storms before, San Francisco of 100 years ago had already suffered through several major quakes and fires. Like the people of the Southeast, as Fradkin points out, San Franciscans “were dismissive of the past and failed to prepare for the future.” In both areas, reconstruction had quickly resumed and expanded, rarely incorporating anything from the lessons that should have been learned. As the disasters unfolded, emergency aid was slow to arrive; communications, transportation and water-providing infrastructure failed; central command and control was fractured; law enforcement authorities were often sent to protect property and prevent looting rather than aid in relief and rescue operations; and treatment of the rich and white apparently differed from that meted out to poorer racial minorities.

In the case of San Francisco at least, some of the efforts to control the damage actually contributed mightily to its scale, and, therefore, Fradkin claims, “San Franciscans, not the inanimate forces of nature, were primarily responsible for the extensive chaos, damage, injuries, and deaths in the great earthquake and firestorms of 1906.” Implicit in his history is the question of whether or not we have learned anything from those events, or the hurricane season of 2005, that will make us better prepared to deal with the next “Big One,” whatever it might be.

In After the Ruins, Arizona State University professor of art and photographer Mark Klett has taken a very different tack to bring together past and present views of the great earthquake and fires in San Francisco. Choosing 48 of the most compelling photographs of the disaster’s destruction of the city, Klett literally revisited the sites where the historic photos were taken, setting up his camera to duplicate the original points of view. The remarkable juxtaposition of old and new photographs, beautifully reproduced, provides a sense of just how much our cities may, or may not, change through time. In some cases the paired views are incredibly similar, the newer appearing as nothing more than rubble-cleared versions of the older. In others, they are only somewhat recognizable as being of the same scene and in still others, the two images show no apparent resemblance at all. Comparisons are easily made since the old and new photographs face each other on opposing pages.

To enhance our understanding of these images, the book includes an extensive interview with Klett about why and how he produced them. In addition, Philip L. Fradkin outlines the events surrounding and following the 1906 earthquake and fires, and a thoughtful essay by writer Rebecca Solnit raises philosophical questions about the importance of these before and after images and what they can tell us about ourselves. “The panoramic photographs taken after the 1906 earthquakes show that the old city is gone,” she writes, “replaced by jagged, smoldering spires and piles of ruins.”

The photographs made a century later demonstrate that the ruins are likewise gone, erased more definitively than the earthquake erased the 19th-century city. Ruins represent the physical decay of what preceded them, but their removal erases meaning and memory. “Ruins are monuments,” Solnit continues, “but while intentional monuments articulate desire for permanence, even immortality, ruins memorialize the fleeting nature of all things and the limited powers of humankind.”

Philip Fradkin’s The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 and Mark Klett’s After the Ruins use two very different approaches to a series of events whose present illuminates our past and whose past may indicate our future. See photos from After the Ruins 1906 and 2006 at www.TheHistoryNet. com/ah/photogallery.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.