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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

October 5, 2021: AmericanFires: The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

[October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that tragedy and four other historic fires, leading up to a somber special post on our current crops of horrific wildfires.]

On two distinct, equally inspiring communal responses to one of our most destructive disasters.

The April 18th, 1906 earthquake that struck the coast of Northern California, with a particular locus of the San Francisco Bay Area, was itself a particularly destructive one, measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale and hitting the maximum level of Mercalli intensity of XI (both of those measures were developed in the 1930s, and so have been applied retroactively to estimate the quake’s force and effects). But it was the fires that developed throughout the city in the quake’s aftermath—some started by firefighters themselves while dynamiting buildings to create firebreaks; others supposedly started by homeowners seeking insurance payouts; but most simply the effects of a natural disaster on a largely wooden city—that produced the most widespread destruction; by the times those fires died down several days later, an estimated 80% of San Francisco had been destroyed. Well more than half of the city’s population of 410,000 were left homeless by the quake and fires, with refugee camps in areas such as the Presidio and Golden Gate Park still in operation two years later. Although the relatively new technology of photography and the very new technology of film allowed the quake’s effects to be catalogued more overtly than for any prior disaster, amplifying the destruction’s public visibility, by any measure and with or without such records the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was one of America’s most horrific natural disasters.

No amount of inspiring responses to that tragedy can ameliorate its horrors and destructions, and I don’t intend for the next two paragraphs to do so. Yet in the aftermath of the earthquake, San Francisco communities did respond to it in a couple of distinct but equally compelling and inspiring ways. In the quake’s immediate aftermath, the city’s residents began to set up emergency procedures and services with striking speed and effectiveness, a process documented and celebrated by none other than William James. The pioneering American psychologist and scholar was teaching at nearby Stanford at the time, and, after waking up to the earthquake, managed to journey into San Francisco later that day and to observe at length the city’s and community’s ongoing responses to the quake. He detailed those observations in Chapter IX, “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake,” in 1911 book Memories and Studies, describing what he saw as “a temper of helpfulness beyond the counting” and noting that, while “there will doubtless be a crop of nervous wrecks before the weeks and months are over, … meanwhile the commonest men [used in a gender-neutral way, I believe], simply because they are men, will go on, singly and collectively, showing this admirable fortitude of temper.” While not all American disasters have produced that same communal spirit (as we’ll see later in the week’s series), it does represent a consistent historical thread, and James’s observations ring true across many such moments.

The other inspiring response to the earthquake came from a more specific San Francisco community, and represented an opportunity to challenge a discriminatory and unjust law. By 1906 the Chinese Exclusion Act and its many subsequent extensions had been in operation for a quarter century, leading to both the detention and exclusion of Chinese arrivals and numerous hardships for existing Chinese American families and communities (such as San Francisco’s century-old Chinatown). When the 1906 fires destroyed numerous public birth records, members of those Chinese and Chinese American communities saw a chance to resist and circumvent those laws, and the concept of the “paper sons” was born. Current Chinese American men and families would produce fraudulent birth documents, whether for children born in China or to be sold or given to other unrelated young men, in order to claim them as having been born in America and thus U.S. citizens (itself certainly a fraught category for this community, but one to which, the Supreme Court had ruled in 1898’s United States vs. Wong Kim Ark decision, the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship still applied). Despite its unequivocal horrors and losses, then, the 1906 earthquake allowed for the city’s and nation’s Chinese American community to continue and grow despite the Exclusion era’s xenophobic limitations, a positive and inspiring outcome to be sure.

Next fire tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Fires or other historic disasters you’d analyze?

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