April 18, 1906 – An estimated 7.8 – 8.3 earthquake rattles more than just a few teeth along the western seaboard. The quake’s magnitude is an estimate at best because seismic monitoring capabilities were not yet available, but by anyone’s estimate, the quake was massive. It was felt from as far north as Coos Bay, Oregon, as far south as Los Angeles and even beyond Carson City, Nevada. The city of Santa Rosa was obliterated and Stanford University was left in severe ruins.
There is no doubt that at the turn of the 20th Century, San Francisco was the major economic and social hub of the west. Even in the late 1800s, when people were headed west, the question, “Where ya goin’?” was answered with”San Francisco.” People didn’t go to Los Angeles the way they went to San Francisco. People didn’t go to Seattle the way they went to San Francisco. San Francisco had managed to establish itself as the “New York of the West.” Business headquartered in San Francisco in a tradition that continues to this day.
But no one could have envisioned the catastrophe that would befall that city 102 years ago today.
At 5:12 in the morning, all hell broke loose and for almost a whole minute, it seemed to residents of the bay area that the earth itself was angry and its wrath was focused on San Francisco. The epicenter was later tracked to the San Andreas Fault, California’s most renown “crack” in the world. The exact location was just off shore along the San Francisco-San Mateo county line. The fault ruptured ground from Humboldt County to San Benito County and became one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Photographs of the aftermath do not begin to express the absolute devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The California State Historical Society lists over 7,000 photographs on-line of the days, weeks and months after the event.
But what makes this natural disaster so worthy of attention in 2008 isn’t that today, April 18, happens to be the 102nd anniversary of the event, but how quickly the city recovered from being almost completely wiped off the map.
In 1906, there was no FEMA upon which to call for help. The people of San Francisco had to find money elsewhere to rebuild their city. Eastern capitalists and insurance companies were the primary source of money. Twelve insurance companies went bankrupt and others left the state, but the entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco was not easily deterred. Many of the shopkeepers in San Francisco immediately set up make-shift sites to get products and services back into the hands of the people. There were even people offering to give tours of the devastation for a price. No, San Francisco was down, but she wasn’t out.
Contrast that with 2005 when Hurricane Katrina back-slapped New Orleans into the Stone Age. It’s been three years and people are still waiting for the government to cough up money. If the government were running now as it was in 1906, the people would wait until hell froze over because now, as then, it is not the government’s responsibility to bail out the people after a major disaster. President William Howard Taft only handed $500,000 to San Francisco and that was only after his Secretary of War suggested he do so.
Americans have become so complacent in government handouts that it is no wonder that New Orleans still has places that are uninhabitable. It is not up to the government, it is up to the people if America is to be a great nation. When I began to read about people like Brad Pitt putting his money where his mouth is and actually going to New Orleans to help rebuild the city, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that there was anyone left in Hollywood who would actually stoop to manual labor to help another human being in need. Where the hell was George Clooney? Where was Jane Fonda? Where were Susan Sarandon and Timothy Robbins? At any given time all of these people have criticized the government for not helping the poor victims of New Orleans. The government shouldn’t be helping ANY victims of Katrina, the rest of America should be helping the victims of Katrina – starting with the liberal crybabies in Hollywood. If 1906 society had been like 2008, San Francisco would still be waiting for money to rebuild, there would be no Golden Gate Bridge and the city itself would be little larger than a single exit along Interstate 5.
No the people of 1906 San Francisco knew that if the city was to be rebuilt, it was up to them. Nothing good ever came out of America if it came from the government. The best of America isn’t her government. The best of America is her people. The best of America is people like Brad Pitt taking his millions of dollars and giving some of it and his time to rebuilding New Orleans. The best of America doesn’t sit on its lazy butt waiting for its monthly government handout. The best of America takes off its jacket, rolls up its sleeves, gets its hands dirty and applies elbow grease to help out where it’s needed. It’s like President Kennedy said at his inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!”
As for 1906 San Francisco, it only took 9 years to completely rebuild the city almost from the ground up. The rebirth of the city was declared in 1915 when it was chosen to host the Panama-Pacific International Expo – a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, the 400th anniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean. The PPIE was held in a part of the Marina District on 635 acres of fairgrounds from The Presidio to Van Ness Avenue and included the Tower of Jewels. This area became known as the “rebirth place of San Francisco”. Ironically, it was this very area of San Francisco that suffered heavy damage, collapsed and burned buildings in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. But even after that earthquake, San Francisco has shown that the best of America is in her people. Somehow, we’ve lost that vision of this great nation, becoming mired in political posturing and in-fighting. We somehow need to get that back and become ONE nation again.