Thursday, April 21, 2011

Disaster 1906

Disaster 1906: the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
© 1967 Edward F. Dolan Jr.
172 pages

If, as some say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling's whisky?
-p. 175

Years ago I read a fantastic book called Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. A few years later I determined I wanted to buy my own copy of that book, but alas! Woe! My home library no longer had the book and I forgot the title of it. I hit Amazon, and this seemed like it might be what I was looking for.  It actually isn't, as I found out while reading the book and noticed that key elements from the masterpiece I remembered were missing -- like Enrico Caruso hearing of the volcano eruption in his hometown and thanking God he was in safe San Francisco, only to wake up to an earthquake and an inferno.

Disaster stories interest me, hence why my home library contains several books on the Titanic and why I've read various books on the San Francisco and Chicago fires, as well as the Galveston Hurricane. Part of this is what Augustine might call gross curiosity -- the appeal of looking at a car wreck -- but I'm also fascinated by the way people react when their world is completely eradicated and the society-as-usual  no longer exists. In Disaster 1906,  the sleeping town of San Francisco is visited by a mighty earthquake, and then ravaged for several days by fires which consume much of the city.  Communications are negligible, the water pipes are dry, and yet -- people survive. People freely gather together to help pick up the ruins, men from all walks of life join the fire brigades,  women empty their pantries cooking food for the newly-homeless, and a corrupt mayor  suddenly begins to fulfill his moral responsibilities as a public official and becomes a hero. And people are clever! They improvise! They fill the bathtubs with water before the cisterns leak completely dry, saving the water for use in fire fighting: they construct stoves of bricks and random metal grates.  Throughout the long night, as the fires burn and destroy homes, businesses, and all the hopes of tomorrow, people gather together and tell jokes: they sing and entertain one another, and when they day breaks they start picking up the pieces.

Disaster 1906 was probably written for younger readers given its length, but it's a fine introduction to the disaster and one written by someone who grew up in San Francisco, and who is so fond of the City by the Bay that his last chapter is devoted to  commenting on the rebirth of the city after the disaster, in which the wild child of the west coast grew into a Queen who astonished all the world at the Exposition in 1916, but who maintained her childish sassiness.


  • Disaster! The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Dan Kurzman
  • The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906. John Castillo Kennedy. I may have also read this one while trying to find Disaster!  I think my confusion in trying to find the book is warranted given how similar these three titles are. 
  • Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco in the 20s and 30s, Jerry Flamm. One of my favorite books.

This is my fifth review in 15 hours, and while two of those were leftovers from last week and the week before last, it's still odd. Why do I go days without being able to progress in collecting my thoughts on a given book, and then have days in which it's easy?

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