Feeling Effects of the Great Quake, 100 Years Later A hundred years ago, much of San Francisco lay shattered, and much of the rest was ablaze. Hundreds of thousands struggled with shock and grief and the urgent business of survival. The great quake and fire are still the defining events of the city's history.
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Feeling Effects of the Great Quake, 100 Years Later

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Feeling Effects of the Great Quake, 100 Years Later

Feeling Effects of the Great Quake, 100 Years Later

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From NPR News in San Francisco, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

On an April Sunday in 1906, a flamboyant preacher in Los Angeles told a small congregation that the licentiousness of San Francisco offended the Almighty. Author Simon Winchester:

Mr. SIMON WINCHESTER (Author, “A Crack in the Edge of the World”): Believe you me, there will be a sign from God. That was Sunday. Come Wednesday, San Francisco was leveled. The next week, thousands attended the service and the Pentecostalist movement, which is still tremendously important in America today, essentially was born as a result of the San Francisco earthquake.

CONAN: The cultural repercussions of the destruction of San Francisco a hundred years ago today. Plus, an artist solves the problem of a scale model of the city that jiggles, built it in Jell-O. It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting today from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California.

(Soundbite of audience applause and cheers)

A hundred years ago today, much of San Francisco lay shattered, much of the rest was already ablaze. Hundreds of thousands struggled with shock and grief and the urgent business of survival.

(Soundbite of sirens)

Early this morning, these sirens memorialized the moment when the earthquake struck. It's been impossible to be here the last few days and fail to understand that the great earthquake and fire are still the defining events of this city's history, the end of the old, the beginning of the new.

But just as Katrina's floods affected so much more than the Gulf Coast, the destruction of San Francisco reverberated across the continent. Some of its effects were obvious—seismology suddenly seemed a more interesting science; others, unexpected—the explosive growth of Pentecostalism.

Today we've gathered historians and writers to explore the effects of the great quake on San Francisco, the region, and the country. Later on in the program, an artist molds San Francisco in the appropriately jiggly medium of Jell-O. But first, the great earthquake and fire.

What can disaster teach us about a place and its people? What are your questions about the great earthquake and its aftermath? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and the e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We're also gonna be taking questions from the audience here in San Francisco.

We'll begin the conversation, though, with Kevin Starr. He's the California State Librarian Emeritus and author of Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor KEVIN STARR (California State Librarian Emeritus): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: You said that catastrophes reveal within the strengths and weaknesses that exist before the catastrophe happens. Tell us a little bit about the strengths and weaknesses of San Francisco before the 1906 quake.

Professor STARR: Well, I think that San Francisco was, in one sense, no better, in another sense, no worse than any other city in the United States at the time, but it was a very distinct city. And that's because, it didn't have the slow, patient development of a frontier city. It's was a maritime colony.

It sprung instantly into existence, into its American existence, from 1847 forward with, especially by the Gold Rush. And like all sorts of maritime colonies—Sydney, Australia, comes to mind; or Melbourne, Australia; Valparaiso, Chili—it replicated the forms of a host culture. In this case, the host culture being the American Atlantic East and also Europe but also strong elements of Latin America. Therefore, despite its isolation in its first 50 years...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Professor STARR: ...it was a fully developed expression of high urbanism, and in the decade and a half before the earthquake and fire of April 1906, it had finally gotten serious about itself in terms of its architecture, in terms of building itself up and making the transition from a regional capital into a national capital and possibly, as is Asia Pacific Basin trade developed, into an international capital.

So it was a city, as the earthquake came, it was a city in a tremendous flux of development; and with that came political dissention, came the possibilities of corruption—the same way they were there in Chicago and Pittsburgh and New York and Boston—and political division. So the earthquake came—you suggested in your earlier remarks, there was a dividing point—it came just as San Francisco had said we're taking ourself seriously; we're gonna clothe ourself architecturally--in distinguished architecture. We're gonna grow up and become an important American port and international city; and then pow. It got hit.

CONAN: Hmm. Yeah. Now let's get a question from the audience here in San Francisco. Go ahead, please.

Unidentified Woman: What was the population before the earthquake?

CONAN: What was the population before the earthquake, Kevin Starr?

Professor STARR: Well, I'd like to rattle it right off, but approaching 400,000.

CONAN: Compared to today?

Professor STARR: Today is slightly over 700,000.


Professor STARR: It's a city which the travel, English travel writer Jan Morris says could use another 300,000 people, but I don't think local San Franciscans would agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Now, the strengths and weaknesses you were talking about. I mean, this, there was obviously considerable resiliency, but also impatience.

Professor STARR: Well, yes, there was impatience because the West, itself, was being, was coming into organization, and San Francisco--San Franciscans wanted to maintain a certain premier relationship to the Far West, and there was impatience, also, with the political process.

There'd been enormous amount of contracts, and you think of telephones and underground electricity and streetcar lines, and the opportunities for, shall we say, incentive payments, unofficial incentive payments, sometimes called graft, those opportunities were very dramatic, and San Franciscans were deeply divided about this.

Now, on the one hand, you had a group, James Duval Phelan, who was born here, born to great money. His father had sent two boats full of freight out during the Gold Rush. One reached here. Phelan was raised to take authority in San Francisco as a youngster. Finishing up his work here in the Hastings College of the Law, he went on a trip to Europe to see the great cities of Europe.

Before he was 30 years old, he was mayor of San Francisco, and then he was clobbered, politically, in the great maritime strike of 1900 into 1901. And I think he was sort of in a state of shock; and he, around him, gathered forces. He called it, initially, the Committee for the Adornment and Beautification of San Francisco that had as its goal, they brought out Daniel Hudson Burnham from Chicago to do a site(ph) plan...

CONAN: Famous architect.

Professor STARR: ...yes, had as its goal the reform of San Francisco politically and the creation of a physical fabric, a fabric adaechita(ph), worthy of San Francisco.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Historian Philip Fradkin says the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 had a profound affect, not just on the politics of the region, but on the politics of the country. That's in his book The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself. Mr. Fradkin is with us here today. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. PHILIP FRADKIN (Historian): Nice to be here.

CONAN: Now, what was the political scene like in San Francisco back in 1906 before the earthquake, and how did that event fold into this development, well, we see the progressive movement existed before 1906?

Mr. FRADKIN: As Kevin just said, Phelan was in office. He went out of office. Mayor Eugene Schmitz came in on a pro-labor government, and just before the earthquake struck, there had been, there was some move by the progressives to, in fact, dethrone Schmitz through graft prosecution charges. That hadn't gotten underway.

And then, again, as Kevin says, the fabric was torn apart. It wasn't only the tear in the earth, it was in the social, political, and economic fabric of the city, and I would maintain it remains torn apart to this very day. When the ceremonies that took part at Lotta's Fountain were more an orgy of self-congratulations than a dealing with reality.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

So what happens after the earthquake is that the progressives use this as a chance to gain power, and they do gain political power. Now the Chinese have a long history of earthquakes—13 million people killed over some 3,000 years—and they know, in fact, that when there's a large natural disaster, there's a regime change, and they're very careful during those times. And this was a regime change on a local, civic level. And it was a fascinating thread to watch, the affect of landscape, meaning nature, on human history, destiny, character and culture.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, and by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, and this is Paul, Paul calling from Wilsonville in Oregon.

PAUL (Caller): Hello, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: The speaker was speaking about the maritime origins of the city of San Francisco, and I was wondering if he'd like to consider the evolution of the relationship of trade with the Pacific Northwest, the Maritime regions, Puget Sound and as far north as Sitka, Alaska, insofar as it's my understanding that the trade name for Sitka spruce, a tree that grows in that region, evolved as a result of the spike in demand for building materials after the earthquake. And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, thanks for the call. Kevin Starr, I mean --

Professor STARR: Well, I think he's mentioned something very important, and that's the establishment in the early 1800s of Astoria, on the cost of Oregon, that would be a trade for the Asia-Pacific basin. There was always the belief too, that there was some river, it was called Son Bella Ventura(ph), it didn't exist. A river that would flow from the Rocky Mountains westward into the Pacific. And so there was that sense that if you could connect that, you'd --

CONAN: Navigable river.

Professor STARR: Navigable river. You'd create that kind of trade, too. And also he mentioned Sitka. As early as 1807, the Russians, under Count Rezanov came down and established the Russian-American Fur Company, established relations with the Spanish and opened up a trading post at Fort Ross, some 100 plus miles north of here. So the maritime origins were there from the beginning. The first Americans to come to California, came on the Lady Washington, the Otter, that was the sea trade that came around the Horn to California and then went across the Asia-Pacific Basin. And if you go back even further, to the Spanish Era, California is brought into being in part because of the Pacific ambitions of the Spanish Empire. The crossing of New Spain into the Philippines, in the 1560s and 70s. So at the core of this sort of DNA code of San Francisco, to this, well, not to this day, because our maritime excellence is shared with Oakland and other places, now. But up until certainly well into the 20th century, San Francisco was a port, and as a port city, was a maritime colony, and as such had a very high level of civic development civic institutions, and an almost narcissistic self-esteem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Can't imagine where that's gone away to.

Mr. Fradkin, let me ask you, though, this development of progressivism. How did San Francisco, the events here, propel progressivism around the country?

Mr. PHILIP FRADKIN (Historian and Author): Well you talked earlier about a local effect and an international effect. In terms of a local effect, there was a graft prosecution, which I think of more as a graft persecution afterwards. It was aimed at economic rivals, it was undertaken by Rudolph Spreckels, by James Phelan, by Fremont Older and a number of other progressives. It's somewhat in league with President Theodore Roosevelt. And it was aimed at getting economic and social and ethnic rivals out of the way. So what happens is that they take advantage of this dramatic event. And, in fact, the civic government is turned over to progressives and Phelan boasts, in fact, that he determines policy in his office. And James Phelan and Hiram Johnson, who was in fact one of the prosecutor/persecutors, go on to become United States Senators. So that's the local and national legacy.

The international legacy is the racism that takes part afterwards. Not so much aimed at the Chinese, but at the Japanese, which is really virulent and physical, endangers this country's security. And Theodore Roosevelt says, what are those damn fools doing out there? My friends are progressives. They're running us into a war with Japan. We'd just come off a, very successfully, a war with Russia.

So you had a ruling West Coast port and you had a great vulnerability.

CONAN: We're going to have more on the lingering and the amazing effects of the San Francisco earthquake after a short break. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, live from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of cheering and clapping)

CONAN: All across this city, today, people are marking the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. The actual quake, itself, lasted about a minute. It's reverberations are still being felt today. What does a disaster and it's aftermath tell us about a city, a country, and it's people?

You're invited to join the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Our guests are Kevin Starr, professor of history at The University of Southern California, and Philip Fradkin, author of The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Leigh(ph), and Lee is calling us from Oakland, California.

Leigh(Caller): Yes, I am wondering about the demographs of African Americans living in San Francisco before the quake and what happened after, and if there are any books that I could find on that subject.

CONAN: Philip Fradkin, in your book, you say that there obviously were some, but records are hard to find.

Mr. FRADKIN: Records are hard to find, and those kind of records weren't kept. There's a, in the back of the book, there's an author's note, A Number of Things That You'll Never Know, and that is, you know, what did the minorities suffer? What were their stories? What were their numbers? And archivists and, don't record that material, and it's not made available to them, and it's not generally published. I combed through approximately 15,000 photographs, as part of a huge on-line archive for the Bancroft Library, and I think the African American story, as far as I can determine, best emerges in photographs. There are, and particularly on Sacramento Street, in a photograph taken by Arnold Genthe, some very well-clothed African Americans along with the Anglos watching the approach of the fire. Both very foolish moves because they should be getting ready to leave the city. There is very little on African Americans. I think they were really a minority within a minority within a minority at that time. They were servants. They had a few businesses. But the Chinese, the Italians, and the Japanese, I think, constituted much larger minorities.

CONAN: Hmm. This seems -- Thanks very much for the call, by the way.

LEIGH: Thank you.

CONAN: And this seems an appropriate moment to introduce our next guest. Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, who's been gathering information on what happened to the Chinese community after the 1906 earthquake, and thanks very much for being with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SUE LEE (Executive Director, Chinese Historical Society of America): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: What was life like for San Francisco's Chinese population in the early 1900s?

Ms. LEE: Well by 1906, the Chinese had been in San Francisco for over 50 years. And initially they had been welcomed in the city and could go and live anywhere. And as racism and discrimination increased, the Chinese converged on the area around Portsmouth Square, and what we know today as Chinatown grew up around Portsmouth Square. And in '06, it was a vibrant, vital community made up of residences, businesses, and it was a mixed neighborhood. There were African Americans in the neighborhood, there were Japanese in the neighborhood, as well as Chinese. And so while the Chinese endured the discrimination, they were able to find a safe haven inside Chinatown.

CONAN: And then when the earthquake and particularly the fire in terms of Chinatown's history hit, the place was devastated.

Ms. LEE: Burnt to ashes.

CONAN: What happened to the people?

Ms. LEE: Well the people dispersed. You've got to remember in '06 that there were Chinese families in Chinatown and many of the women of the merchants had bound feet. So as they were fleeing Chinatown, it was very difficult to get these women out of Chinatown into safety. They could barely walk on flat land, let alone up and down the hills of San Francisco. And as the fires approached Chinatown, they came from the east, uphill, and so you had to flee uphill to get around the fires. So what to us would take, you know, a few minutes to walk up a hill, it took them almost the entire day to get up to safety.

CONAN: One other question, and then we'll get to questions from the people in the audience.

But, that is that the fire destroyed so many records of Chinese immigrants, and this was a time when it was extremely difficult to get into the country. You needed some sort of paper documentation saying one of your relatives was already here. And all of a sudden, anybody who could say, well of course, the records that burned up showed that I'm perfectly legitimate.

Ms. LEE: That's right. Well it didn't happen right away. The records of City Hall burned to a crisp, and what happened was, over time, people realized that they could claim citizenship without having to prove anything. They could say, well, the burden is on you to prove that my records weren't burned in City Hall. So I think that's a more lasting repercussion of the earthquake. It wasn't an immediate, you know, you didn't have automatic citizens the day after the quake.

CONAN: Right. This dawned on people a little bit later. Anyway, let's, I got another question from here in the audience in the audience in San Francisco.

NANCY (audience member): Hi, I'm Nancy, and my question is, how much did graft and corruption contribute to the inability to stop the fire?

CONAN: Hmm. Philip Fradkin?

Mr. FRADKIN: Not at all. It was just a matter of inefficiency and bad judgment. The third factor, there's fire, there's earthquake, first of all, then there's fire, and then there's dynamiting. Indiscriminate. Using the wrong explosives. Unfortunately there wasn't water and the natural response to that is to do something.

So there was a great deal of explosives stored in the Bay area, because we had just come off the Spanish American War and the Philippine Campaign, and there was a lot of mining going on in the Sierra Nevada, and they grabbed--everyone grabbed, firemen, army soldiers, civilians, whomever, just grabbed as much explosives as they could lay their hands on and use it indiscriminately and in the wrong way and just spread the fire. So that was not a matter of graft. It was just bad judgment.

CONAN: Let's introduce another speaker on our panel, Simon Winchester, the author of many books, most recently A Crack In the Edge of The World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. As Simon is also with us here today on the panel. Good to see you Simon.

Mr. SIMON WINCHESTER (Author): And you, too.

CONAN: All right. Let me ask you, in addition to some of the physical and demographic questions, there were spiritual, intellectual changes as a result of the 1906 quake.

Mr. WINCHESTER: Yes I'd rather like to ratchet the conversation down a level or two and talk about the high degree of testosterone in San Francisco. This was although as Kevin says, a maritime city. It was also a city populated by miners, I mean, miners with an e--and who had come here without their families and were, I mean, basically--I think I can use the phrase on NPR the FCC is, I'm sure, listening--But they were a fairly horny crowd of chaps. And so, ladies of easy virtue flocked into San Francisco and the town that resulted had all, you know, Sitka spruce and stuff like that, but it also had brothels a-plenty and very dubious bars and this wonderful hotel which I'm so sorry was a victim of the 1906 quake, the 1,000-room hotel Nymphomania, which also, I'm afraid, was burned to a crisp.

But this did have a salutary effect when it came to the reaction to the earthquake. And it came about in a rather peculiar way. Because, at the same time, well in the early part of the 20th century, there was a very energetic evangelical Christian movement working it's way westwards from where it was founded in Topeka, Kansas. And it fetched up in a little church in Los Angeles, which in 1906 was a town of only 40,000 people, on a street called Azusa Street.


Mr. WINCHESTER: A to Z U.S.A., precisely. And the preacher there, a Reverend Parham, was on the 15th, Sunday the 15th, preaching to a group of assembled people who believed that the lord manifested himself by extraordinary behavior among the congregation. They would either fall to the floor and foaming at the mouth or speaking in gibberish, or speaking foreign languages that they had hitherto known not-at-all before. So all this went on, on the 15th of April, but the Reverend Parham got up and said, this is all very spectacular, and it does display that the lord is here and manifesting himself, but there's going to be something more dramatic in the next few days. And there was a reporter there from the Los Angeles Times. And on Monday, the 16th of April, 1906, there's a report in the L.A. Times, wonderfully prescient, which says, Local pastor predicts major sign from God imminent.

And 3 days later, the most sinful, testosterone-rich city in all of America was destroyed in 42 seconds of ground shaking and an avenging angels fire, which came down in put an end to it all. And the following week, the following Sunday, whereas 200 had turned up on the 15th, on the 22nd, something like 10,000 people crowded into this little church to see the pastor with a rather smug expression on his face, saying essentially, from the pulpit, I told you so.

And with that was born the Azusa Street revival, and with that revival, a Seminole moment in the history of Fundamentalist Christianity in this country, was born the Pentecostalist church, which has such, you know, intellectually splendid creatures as Jimmy Swaggart and Tammy Faye Baker and Pat Robinson. All the legatees, in a peculiar way, of the San Francisco earthquake.

And one might look further to the political consequences of fundamentalist Christianity in this country and wonder the extent to which in fact San Francisco is to blame.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)


Philip Fradkin, San Francisco's reputation even then as sin city, you say wasn't justified.

Mr. FRADKIN: I don't think that's the main point. I think that's one of the myths. That's what we saw today when the jazz band was playing and so forth. It was a very gritty industrial city. There were very rich people here who had made their money off Virginia City silver mines, off transcontinental railroad, build their mansions on Nob Hill. A very small minority.

And then there was a very large disparate majority of people who had to work hard, who were recent arrivals, who were not the pioneers who were cited today at Lotta(ph)'s Fountain, who were the recent arrivals like most of us in California, including myself. And they were the ones who made up the most of the population. They came from all over and they had different cultures and it wasn't a melting pot, so much as a salad bowl.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line if I can look at the -- There we go. Bill. Bill's with us from Oklahoma.

BILL (Caller): How are you today?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

BILL: Good. We all know from history and media and so on and so forth that opium dens sprang up in San Francisco, a blind eye was turned to them, thought to be used only by the Chinese or the lower class; it was in society.

I was curious. After the quake, was it as prevalent or was it held back from being built or utilized by the people in society?

CONAN: Sue Lee, why don't we turn to you for that.

Ms. LEE: The opium expert. Opium…

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Ms. LEE: There were, yes, there were opium dens. Opium was legal. You could advertise your opium dens in the newspaper. It wasn't outlawed, I don't think, until 1909. And it was used to, for people to relax and not just by Chinese. And actually, the opium dens were also a tourist attraction to Chinatown.

CONAN: We're talking today with Sue Lee, Simon Winchester, Philip Fradkin, and Kevin Starr about the cultural reverberations of the great quake and fire of 1906 here in San Francisco.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Simon, let me bring you back in. This, the question of this--There were intellectual repercussions, as well. You describe in your book, The Crack in the Edge of the World, how--was it becoming a burgeoning intellectual and artistic community, really fled the city. Perhaps there were no great need for artists or painters or sculptors in the immediate aftermath.

Mr. WINCHESTER: They did all take off. Kevin is a greater expert on this than I am, but they took off and went, essentially, to Carmel by the Sea. And so all the painters and many of the writers who had made a considerable name for themselves in Fantasy Ecla(ph) San Francisco, took to their heels and didn't really come back until Howl was published in the 1950s.

It was a half century long dearth of artistic and intellectual energy in San Francisco. There was an attempt.. There was a publishing company set up with a wonderful name, something-opolis. Philopolis, for the love of the city, I guess, from the Greek. The Philopolis Society which sought to publish books and to create furniture and to create paintings and it sputtered out of existence after only about 15 years because there simply weren't enough creative people. They were all down sunning themselves and presumably having lots of opium by the sea in Carmel.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

CONAN: Let's get a question from the audience here in San Francisco.

PRIANCA (Audience Member): Hi, my name's Prianca and I'm coming from Atherton in the South Bay. I'm wondering what parallels can be drawn or even lessons learned from the successful rebuilding of San Francisco to the current challenge to rebuild New Orleans.

CONAN: Hmm. A question that has occurred to many. Kevin Starr.

Professor STARR: Well, I think that, when we say what a city is, we say it's a physical thing. It's an economic thing. But a city also has to be imagined. A city is a moral community. It's an imaginative construct. And that's why, for instance, writers play an important role and Simon's very correct saying that the writers left. Writers play an important role. You can't see Paris without seeing it partly through Balzac or London without seeing it through Dickens or Chicago without seeing it through Dreiser, because cities have to be imagined.

And the thing that did not go wrong with San Francisco, and I'm a great admirer of Philip Fradkin's book in showing a number of things that did go wrong, but something that didn't go wrong was that San Francisco didn't lose an imaginative sense of itself. It was impoverished. It was embattled. It was confused. But it was still there.

And that, that's the crisis, I think, with New Orleans. New Orleans had reached a point of development a long time ago, if you think of New Orleans before the Civil War as a great entrepole(ph) for the cotton, cotton industry in the South, ect. And then it went into this mode of just reflecting upon itself in terms of tourism, ect.

Incidentally, tourism became the lead element in the San Francisco economy from 1962, so there's that parallel there. So, I think the combination of New Orleans and San Francisco is that somehow San Francisco recovered itself. It recovered its image of itself, rematerialized itself, and we're still waiting now for that process to occur in New Orleans or even to begin.

A friend of mine, Joe Cockin(ph), his new book on cities, says it can take, from this level of catastrophe, it can take up to, from 10 to 20 years for a city to resuscitate itself. From that perspective, the oligarchy that had not handled the fighting of the fires so well, certainly by 1909 had rebuilt the city within the Portola Exped—-Portola Exposition celebrated that. So that was remarkable. San Francisco having, as I said…

I mean, here's a city after all that was only found in its American format by, in 1847. By 1855, a mere eight years later, published an 800 page history of itself, The Annals of San Francisco.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Professor STARR: So, here's a city not lacking in self esteem and that, for all the self congratulatory aspects of it, and of course I speak as a fourth generation San Franciscan. My great grandfather came from Ireland in 1852. My other great grandfather came from Rhode Island a few years later. That sense of community, imaginative apprehension of San Francisco, was there when it was needed.

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break now. We'll talk more about the San Francisco earthquake when we come back. Plus, an artist who turned the city into Jell-O.

800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of crowd clapping)

CONAN: Today, we're broadcasting live from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. One hundred years ago today, an earthquake changed the future of the state of California, the West, and in many ways, the United States.

With us to explain are Kevin Starr, a Professor of History at the University of Southern California, Philip Fradkin, the author of The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, Sue Lee, the Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, And Simon Winchester, author of A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Let's see if we can get a caller on. This is Elle. Elle's calling from San Francisco.

ELLE (Caller): Hello. I wanted to make two quick comments. One serious and one less so. One is my husband's grandfather was in the '06 quake; he was a child at the time. And he recalled vividly the martial law that was really sharply inflicted right after the quake. He witnessed a man crossing some kind of a line. I don't know, a rope line or something that was meant to keep looters out because there was so little fresh water. The man seemed to be going towards a dripping cistern of some kind. And a soldier meant to guard that area just, no warning, just shot him. Or that's what my husband's grandfather remembered.

And the other quick comment, in addition to the Pentecostal church, the same grandfather, as a child, because of the earthquake, his family moved out to the East Bay to one of the farmsteads out in the Fremont area, where one night, I guess is was a very cold winter, he left a lemon phosphate or a cherry fizz or something out on the porch with a stir stick on it. And when he went out in the morning, it was still there and it was frozen solid. And playing with it in his hands, he was able to pull it out with the stir stick, this frozen lump. And a few years later, he remembered the wonderful frozen juice on a stick trick and he invented the popsicle.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

ELLE: So, another kind of side event of the earthquake in addition to the Pentecostal church.

CONAN: Maybe he was smoking opium at the time, so it might explain the whole thing.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

ELLE: There you go.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

But Philip Fradkin, let me ask you. I mean, there is all this talk about martial law. Funny thing, martial law wasn't declared.

Mr. FRADKIN: Exactly and if you pick up a first page or the wrapper of the Chronicle today, the commemorative issue, and it will say that martial law was declared. But it never was. It was a grey zone. And the mayor with the backing of the oligarchy who was perhaps pulling the springs, put his name on the most infamous proclamation that was ever issued by a civil government in this nation's history, and that was, and I'm quoting directly, to KILL, Kill was in all capital letters, anyone suspected of a crime.

And what this woman just described was another instance of soldiers and vigilantes, national guardsmen, even a cadet from the University of California who got shot, of shooting innocent people.

Now, the National Geographic just ran a special, and it wasn't very special. It was very exaggerated and it was a great perversion of history. And they twice depicted in this docudrama, a firing squad of soldiers with people lined up. It never happened that way. It was more discriminating in a sense it happened case by case.

CONAN: Sue Lee, though, we do hear accounts of Chinese people being, well, singled out perhaps more than others as they raced into try to protect their belongings or even find some of those records we were talking about.

Ms. LEE: Right. There were guards in Chinatown. They guarded the sites of the Chinese bazaars. There's a very famous Chinese bazaar called Sing Fat, which was next door to Old St. Mary's Church, and we've got a photograph of a guard standing on the rubble of Sing Fat.

But we do have a story of a man who went back to his home to retrieve his identity papers, his birth certificate. And he successfully went, got those papers, shoved them in his pocket, and as he was leaving, he was bayoneted, and just left. And so, he pretended, you know, he stayed still until the military, the militia guy left, and then he got up and made his way to where his family was. But he lived to tell the story, but again, this illustrates the importance of identity papers, but it also illustrates the kind of arbitrariness of the militia.

We have stories of Donna Dena Cameron(ph), who was the head of the Presbyterian Mission, who had left her ledger of the slave girls that she had saved at the sight of the old mission. She went back to that mission in the middle of the night and was able to retrieve them, with the aid of a militiaman. She didn't get stabbed.


Okay. Let's get some, Tom on the air. Tom is calling us from Kansas City.

TOM (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I had a question. There's been a lot of contrast between Katrina and San Francisco. And my question is contrasting how insurance played a role in 1906 versus how it plays a role now; if it played a role at all.

CONAN: Simon, you want to tackle that?

Mr. WINCHESTER: Well I'm happy to, because England comes out of it rather well. Um, basically, there were three insurance types of companies operating in San Francisco in 1906. There were the Germans, there were the Americans, and there was Lloyds of London. And the Germans all turned tail. They all went back to Hamburg without paying, essentially a nickel, to the people that had been so badly hurt in San Francisco. The American companies struggled gamely. Many of them went bankrupt and then, or at least ran out of money. And they issued scripts; they issued shares in new companies in lieu of money, so that the victims who took that ultimately some of them became very wealthy. And that helped contribute to, of course, the reconstruction of the city.

As far as Lloyds of London was concerned, a great hero was a man called Cuthbert Heath, who--because a great deal of insurance was underwritten in London, he sent a telegram, which is contrast to Phil Fradkin's infamous document, this is one of the documents of which the insurance industry, which is in my view not an industry that ever does anything particularly nice, can be proud of. Because he said, simply, pay all claims without question. And this did for Lloyds of London an enormous amount of good PR.

So Lloyds came out of it well, the Germans came out of it appallingly badly, and the Americans inept, but courageous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It was the opium. (Laughs)

Kevin Starr, though, there was a dispute over whether claims would be filed for earthquake, which wasn't covered, or fire, which was.

Professor STARR: Well I'll defer that to Phillip, because Philip has, in his new book, went into that quite extensively.

CONAN: Philip, then?

Mr. FRADKIN: Well yes, this was not secret. In the days that followed, the Board of Realty gathered together and issued its proclamation, which was duly reported in the newspaper, and that was that there was a fire, there was no earthquake. And that's been followed at least for the last 50 to 60 years following that. Now it's an earthquake and not a fire. Strange change in juxtaposition there.

But, like New Orleans, there were problems. Most everyone had fire insurance and no earthquake insurance. In New Orleans perhaps they had a homeowner's policy which is not covered by flood. So there is a great deal of combativeness, a great deal of difference of opinion as to who should get paid after one of these disasters. And so, like Simon said, the people who were from England did very well, the Germans didn't, and we did not bad; but in any case, no one paid very much on earthquakes, or in the New Orleans example, on floods.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left, and I wanted to ask you. And I've read material from all of you except for Sue Lee, on this point. All of you do say another earthquake is inevitable. The same kind of, well, you were taking, Philip Fradkin, about how San Francisco destroyed itself, the hubris that you write about, Simon Winchester. Any sign that we're more prepared today than we were 100 years ago?

Mr. WINCHESTER: I think we're not really. Although this earthquake and the publicity surrounding it, the anniversary, has led, I think, in San Francisco to an increased level of consciousness, which may translate into preparation Japan-style; which is what I think I'd like to see for the Bay area. People having, with their mother's milk, an understanding of what they should do in the event that an earthquake happens.

But I know we don't have much time left, but I do want to raise a sort of philosophical point that comes from Prianca's wonderful question twenty or so minutes ago about the rebuilding of cities generally. I mean, the east and Europe is littered with ruins; cities that were built in the wrong places. Pompeii, Petra, Vekulanium(ph), Iutia(ph); ruins of things we love. Venice, which was mentioned in the first hour, that's a city well on its way to being ruined. Its being depopulated like you wouldn't believe.

But America doesn't have any ruins. America's cities are so young, that, America is so young, that it puts its cities where it jolly-well wanted to put them, without wondering about the consequences of, was it a wise place to build? Let's say New Orleans, 20 feet below sea level, in a place that's afflicted by constant hurricanes. Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, I mean, are those sensibly sited in the middle of waterless deserts? There's no great history in the world of building cities to last in the middle of deserts.

And then what about San Francisco? If we knew in 1842 what we know now, that San Francisco sits at one of the most dangerous plate boundaries on the planet's surface, would we have put a city there? No, we wouldn't. Should it stay here in the very long term? I think geology, which is a pitiless attribute of this planet, may think otherwise than the city fathers do today.

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, but I wanted to thank you all for your contributions as we await the next one; whenever that comes.

Kevin Starr, Philip Fradkin, Sue Lee, and Simon Winchester, thanks so much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

ALL: Thank you.

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