RSB Books

RSB Books

Richard Schwartz

Writer, Historian


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RSB Books

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

Earthquake Exodus, 1906

Berkeley 1900

Circle of Stones

Earthquake Exodus, 1906
Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees

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Though it ruptured more than three hundred miles of the San Andreas Fault, the mighty earthquake of April 18, 1906, will forever be known for the city it only indirectly destroyed: San Francisco. Other Northern California towns were jostled as violently&emdash;a few seconds of furious shaking flattened downtown Santa Rosa and much of Stanford University, for example. But by felling San Francisco's chimneys and rupturing its water mains, the earthquake provided ideal conditions for a conflagration that swept away what Robert Louis Stevenson once ominously dubbed "a woodyard of unusual extent and complication," temporarily erasing one of the nation's greatest cities and rendering a quarter-million people homeless. For three days and nights, people in the East Bay watched the metropolis burn and listened to the concussions of dynamite drift across the water.

Prima donna that she is, San Francisco has always upstaged those other cities that her own citizens regard as mere bit players and supporting actors in the Bay Area. In the tragedy of 1906, she had a starring role to which&emdash;not surprisingly&emdash;Sarah Bernhardt likened her own performance of Phèdre a month later in UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. After a century, however, Richard Schwartz reminds us that the earthquake left a lasting imprint on other cities as well.

On April 17, 1906, the university town had twenty-six thousand residents. A year later, it had grown by half again to thirty-eight thousand, largely due to the influx of homeless refugees fleeing the afflicted city. Schwartz explains how Berkeleyans generously responded by setting up temporary camps, dispensing food, listing jobs, and even taking in the homeless. He details the measures taken to ensure public order and health as city and university officials struggled to deal with thousands of disoriented, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous strangers, many separated from their loved ones&emdash;everyday details long forgotten but worth study by those who wish to better prepare for the next great shake.

San Francisco's misfortune was a godsend for East Bay real estate agents and developers, for ex-urban refugees quickly discovered they could buy suburban lots far cheaper and with more benign weather than those of the fog-shrouded city by the Golden Gate. The recent advent of electricity and telephones, as well as excellent train service provided by the Key Route and Southern Pacific systems, increased the value of properties throughout the region and encouraged subdivision of the last farms in Berkeley. In the Mason McDuffie Company, Berkeley fortunately had one of the most enlightened developers in the country. That the quake happened at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement&emdash;and that UC Berkeley had just established the West's first College of Architecture&emdash;produced a bumper crop of fascinating houses, churches, and clubhouses that literally distinguish the town to this day. Schwartz reminds us that today's Berkeley, as much as San Francisco, is largely the result of that shaking a century ago.

Dr. Gray Brechin

Berkeley, California