Sunday, March 12, 2006

100th Anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

I’ve been walking around San Francisco in a state of excitement for weeks now. As I prowl the downtown area, strolling by Union Square or the Old Mint on Fifth Street near Mission, black and white images come into my mind. Instead of seeing what’s actually there, I envision what remained after the devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906. I imagine myself cast back to those terrible days when the city shook and burned.

The 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake is approaching and it’s a magical time for history lovers. The whole city seems to be gearing up for a massive celebration. Every time I am at the California Historical Society, I see journalists and scholars preparing shows on the quake. It maked me determined to see as many of the exhibits on the quake as I possibly can.

The main Wells Fargo Bank office on California and Montgomery has a wonderful exhibit, including an earthquake simulator. You can stand on a platform and wiggle your body to create a sense of the force of the shake of the earthquake, which measured anywhere from 7.8 to 8.6 on the Richter scale.

The reason I love this exhibit is because it shows some of the history of my family, some of the history I am writing about in my book Towers of Gold. My great great grandfather Isaias Hellman was the president of Wells Fargo Bank at the time of the earthquake. The bank building burned completely, but the vault survived. Bank officials had to wait two weeks until the air in the vault cooled completely before opening it. If they opened it any soon, a fresh supply of oxygen might have ignited the contents and burned all the bank's records. The exhibit shows photos of the opening of the vault, as well as the temporary headquarters of the bank on Jackson Street.

The California Historical Society on Mission Street has a wonderful exhibit centered around the pictures Jack London and his wife Charmain took of the ruins after the earthquake and fire. The Londons were at their home in Sonoma when the quake hit, and were hired by Collier’s magazine to write an article on the devastation. They spent many sleepless nights wandering all over the city, interviewing survivors and recording the many scenes of devastation.

The Museum of Modern Art has a photo exhibit, as does the California Legion of Honor. In that show, famed photographer Mark Klett juxtaposes earthquake photos with modern-day shots of the same locales. He included one of 2020 Jackson Street, the temporary home of Wells Fargo Bank and the permanent home of Hellman’s daughter and son-in-law.

There will be all sorts of commemorations of the earthquake. Each year, the city of San Francisco sponsors an event at Lotta’s Fountain at 5:12 am the morning of the anniversary of the quake. A dwindling pool of quake survivors always come and are honored for living through the catastrophe. This year, officials are expecting thousands, rather than hundreds, to show up.

The San Francisco Chronicle plans to reprint the paper that was published April 19, the day after the quake, with its famous headline “San Francisco in Ruins.” All the buildings housing the newspapers burned – including the newly constructed skyscraper that housed the San Francisco Call – and so three papers joined forces that night and published on the press of the Oakland Herald.

There are some great on-line narratives and histories of the earthquake, including eyewitness accounts that will make you shiver. The Virtual Museum of San Francisco is a wonderful resource, with hundreds of captivating reports. The San Francisco Public Library has put its earthquake pictures on-line, and will present displays on the quake in Main Library in the Civic Center as well as at branch libraries around the city. The Bancroft Library has assembled the world’s largest collection of information on the quake. It has also put together an exhibit in doe Library.

1 comment:

Ed Terpening said...

Hi Francis,

Glad to hear you enjoyed our exhibit. We also have just launched a blog to commemorate the event, and to provide disaster preparedness information. It's now available at

-Ed Terpening
Blogging/RSS Project Manager
Wells Fargo Bank.