Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Books: "The Longest Minute" By Matthew J. Davenport, On The 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake And Fire


The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

By Matthew J. Davenport

St. Martin's Press; 352 pages; hardcover, $29.99; eBook, $14.99; available today, Tuesday, October 17th

Matthew J. Davenport is a former prosecutor who practices law in North Carolina, and he has been a contributing writer for The Wall Street Journal book review and Salon.com, as well as a member of the Authors Guild. His debut book, First Over There, was a finalist for the 2015 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History, was acclaimed as "a brilliant work for every library" by Library Journal, and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson billed it as "military history at its best."

Davenport's new book, The Longest Minute, intimately tells the story of the devastating Great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and it is still the strongest in the recorded history of California. This is such a delicately written book, as it is a harrowing chronicle of the destruction, but one also of a city's resilience.

Smoke and flames consuming downtown and threatening the Ferry Building and the wharf, wooden ships, and piers. Bancroft Library.  (all pics courtesy of St. Martin's)

On the morning of April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m. Pacific time, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco, the largest city. The next 48 seconds after impact, which occurred while most of the town was still asleep, sent shockwaves throughout the city, buckling streets, shattering water mains, collapsing buildings, and crushing hundreds to death as many were trapped alive. 

Fires ignited in an instant throughout the city, as they were fueled by dry wooden ruins. Nearly 3,000 people perished, and those who were not killed on impact, by collapsing buildings or falling debris, died as the inferno raged throughout town, as they were trapped with rescuers unable to save them as they burned alive. The fires burned for the next three days, as flames devoured most of the city and shattered any hope of saving those trapped. More than 28,000 buildings were destroyed, including homes and businesses, churches and schools, which left approximately a quarter million people, which was more than half the city's population, homeless.

The Call Building burns late the first morning. Market Street has been cleared of most onlookers, and hoses stretching back (out of frame to the left) to an engine pumping from a Palace Hotel hydrant are laid out near Lotta's Fountain (bottom center). San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Davenport's deep research included archival sources to highlight many aspects of the tragedy, some of which have either been overlooked in previous books on the earthquake, or never reported or published. These records, which included hundreds of previously unpublished letters and photographs. were used to pinpoint the causes and origins of the dozens of fires sparked by the earthquake, and traces how these fires spread into one of the deadliest and most destructive firestorms in American history.

One of the most fascinating things Davenport delved into were verbatim court transcripts, as hundreds of eyewitnesses testified in court cases brought by property owners against insurance carriers. He is the first author to consult these, a natural since he is an attorney, and the depth of these insights provided some of the most fascinating descriptions of the earthquake and fire from survivors.

Hundreds help rescue survivors from the top floor of what was the four-story Valencia Street Hotel before it sunk into the fill-land of Valencia Street between 17th and 18th Streets. Dozens were crushed or trapped, and those who did not down in water flooding from the broken street main died in the fire that followed. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. 

In this excerpt, Davenport writes of the unprecedented nature of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: "News of the earthquake and fire traveled faster than news had ever traveled before - over telephone lines and telegraph wires and even through wireless signals. The nation and world read details of the earthquake within hours of it striking, and over the coming days, AP wires carried the latest on the slow destruction of San Francisco by fire. Newspapers in towns and cities nationwide issued 'Extra!' editions and evening issues with news of the spreading inferno, all bought by readers eager for updates. It was the first such event to be followed nationally in almost real time, giving it unprecedented attention and immediacy. And having struck in a city filled with professional photographers and in a time when cameras were cheaper and more widely available than ever before, it became the most-photographed disaster of its time. Vivid images of skyscrapers engulfed in flames and an entire city leveled to an apocalyptic ash heap of ruins - even motion pictures of the aftermath captured on hand-cranked cameras - were seen far and wide, adding life to sterile newsprint and closeness to a distant tragedy, capturing the attention and imagination of people coast-to-coast and making it America's first truly national disaster.

When the last fire was extinguished, the smoke cleared to reveal a dystopian wasteland and laid bare the breadth of destruction and depth of loss. In many of San Francisco's largest districts and neighborhoods, nearly every resident had lost their home, church, library, theater, grocery store, butcher, shop, bakery, dry goods store, drugstore, and favorite restaurant and coffee shop. Most downtown employees lost their workplaces, and ever South of Market child lost their school. Every inhabitant of Chinatown lost their home, and every merchant, their store. The city's downtown banking and harbor districts (the current-day Financial District) were reduced to stripped skeletons and rubble, including all fifty of its banks. City Hall was shaken to a crumbled shell and had many of its vital records incinerated by the firestorm that had destroyed the city's landmarks and largest homes and gutted its tallest buildings and grandest hotels. Seventy-five church sanctuaries were destroyed, including all three cathedrals and five of the seven synagogues. On one end of a city block, four lodging houses packed with tenants occupying more than one hundred rooms had collapsed and burned so quickly that only a handful of people escaped, and the ash of incinerated residents mixed with the ash of their flattened rooms, along with the dust of other wooden flats jammed into the same block - just one of more than five hundred blocks stripped, leveled, or vaporized.

Never had a major American city been so totally destroyed. But within days, newspaper coverage of the disaster shifted to optimistic stories of rebirth and rebuilding, part of a concerted effort by city leaders and business owners to persuade displaced residents to return and reassure potential developers that San Francisco was a safe bet for investment and growth. 'GREAT BUILDINGS ARE TO RISE FROM ASHES' ran the headline of the Chronicle one week after the earthquake. Front-page stories highlighted a 'spirit of unity' that had 'arisen out of the fire' and would lead to 'the making of a grander city.' Reporters insisted 'the calamity should be spoken of as 'the great fire' and not 'the great earthquake,'' and they began to refer to the disaster as 'the great fire' to avoid a perception of San Francisco as earthquake-prone. And the Board of Supervisors fixed the total dead at the misleadingly low number of 478, while thousands were still unaccounted for and remains were still being found.

Rubble was cleared and homes were rebuilt and businesses reopened, and in the first few years that followed, the anniversary of the disaster served mostly as a benchmark for the progress of the city's rebirth. 'SAN FRANCISCO WILL CELEBRATE TODAY THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF ONE YEAR OF RECONSTRUCTION' read the April 18, 1907, headline of the Chronicle. 'SAN FRANCISCO'S REBUILDING IS WONDER OF WORLD' declared the Examiner on April 18, 1908, and on the 1909 anniversary, the Call headlined 'HOME AGAIN AFTER THREE YEARS.' In 1915, the city hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair to acclaim the completion of the Panama Canal and showcase San Francisco's nine-year recovery and celebrate 'the rebuilding which has obliterated almost all traces of the disaster.'

In the decades that followed, the city's skyline grew to surpass its former heights, and '1906' became a universal touchstone for all parts of the disaster - the earthquake, the fire, the injury and death, the loss of one's home and pets and all material possessions. '1906' was a common answer by survivors to questions of what happened to their childhood home, their first job, their father's store, the school they once attended, or how a loved one died...'1906 Survivor' was employed as an honorific title for aging survivors who would appear at annual commemorations and share their memories, an exclusive club that dwindled each year until its last known member passed in 2016. And now in a time with the last survivor gone and no living connection to the city that was, '1906' has endured as San Francisco's historical demarcation line between its current life and its former."

1906 vs. 1989: Since the 1906 earthquake is the strongest ever recorded, as it hit the Bay Area at a 7.9 magnitude, it is necessary to compare it to a recent one that most remember in 1989. The Loma Prieta earthquake was a 6.9, and most of the country witnessed it on television as it happened because it struck just as the third game of the World Series, the Battle of the Bay between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, was about to begin. Incidentally, the publication of this book, October 17, is the 34th anniversary of that tragedy.

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