Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Story Elements: San Francisco Dreams

I can't remember what first caught my attention about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Once I began researching it, I couldn't stop. So many elements resonate today - natural disasters are a too-frequent occurrence of our lives. 

Before April 18, 1906, San Francisco was a wild city of 400,000 people, making it the ninth largest American city of that time. Nearly every vice imaginable could be found there, particularly in the Barbary District. It was the Victorian Age, but peep shows, nickelodeons showing scandalous videos, dance halls and whore houses enjoyed great success because the Mayor was easily bribed, like his Vice Squad.

The Barbary District was also where the term "shanghai'd" came into play. Men who wandered alone into alleys or near the bay sometimes found themselves kidnapped, headed on ships to Shanghai.

San Francisco captivated my imagination, as I'm sure it did for many people who visited in its heyday. The earthquake changed a way of life for many residents.

The disaster was immense in magnitude. Though the Richter Scale hadn't yet been invented, geologists estimated it at about 7.8. 

More than 3,000 died. Many perished in the earthquake itself, but the resulting fires killed many more. Lasting for days because of broken water mains, these fires were so intense, they sometimes erupted into fireballs and engulfed anyone in their path. Smoke blackened the skies.

Crumbling structures buried or trapped other people, oftentimes too quickly to react. More than once, police took pity on men either caught on fiery rooftops or pinned by debris too heavy to move - and shot them before they could burn alive.

Men were deputized as special police whose actions later came into question. At the Mayor's direction, they shot looters on sight. More than 1700 soldiers arrived to help, but some of the soldiers themselves were seen looting. The military's attempt to halt the fires by dynamiting entire city blocks was a miserable failure.

On the afternoon of the quake, a telegraph operator tapped out this final message: city destroyed by fire, Examiner building just fell in a heap. Fire all around us in every direction. Destruction by earthquake something frightful. They are blowing up standing buildings in the path of flames. No water. It’s awful. I want to get out of here. Or be blown up.

People wandered the streets in a daze. Amazingly, once food rations and supplies arrived by train, people rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Everyone was determined to rebuild the city. They cleared debris, saving whatever materials they might reuse. So much debris, in fact, that 15,000 horses died in hauling it away - and contractors figured into estimates the value of the animals they knew they'd have to replace.

Work on the street car system began almost immediately, and ten days later, Mayor Schmidts inaugurated service on a new line. Concerned about a possible epidemic, the city offered a bounty for dead rats.

The PBS Documentary The Great San Francisco Earthquake's available on YouTube in six fascinating segments. Here is the first:

 I hope you found this as fascinating as I did. I loved writing this story, and throwing Norah and Mac into these dramatic times. I hope you'll check out their story too. :)


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Such disasters are frightening even in our enlightened times. How terrfying must it have been then. You pick such clever settings for your novels.

Cate Masters said...

Thanks Susan! This was another fun time period to write. I hope readers think so too!