Digging into the Archives: Earthquakes Before Mass Media

Handcolored lantern slide by Frederick Monson showing a scene of death and destruction after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Courtesy of Autry National Center, Braun Research Library Collection, LS.4193

This past Monday was the 105th anniversary of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that left much of San Francisco in ruins. In the age of Twitter and ubiquitous camera phones, a digital trail of images and video, data and real-time dispatches from the scene follows every quake, documenting the destruction and the human response. For earthquakes that rattled the Southland more than 75 or 100 years ago, the digital trail goes cold, and we look to the region's archives to discover the damage, the fear—and sometimes awe—and the politics that marked our seismic history.

On January 9, 1857, the San Andreas Fault produced the strongest recorded earthquake in California history. Named after Fort Tejon in northern Los Angeles County, where the most powerful shaking was reported, the 8.0 quake created a continuous surface rupture along the San Andreas Fault for at least 220 miles, from the town of Parkfield in San Luis Obispo County to the Cajon Pass.

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The 1906 photograph below, from UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, illustrates the quake's force. Railroad tracks cut through a ridge near Palmdale that was likely a fault scarp created by the 1857 quake.

Palmdale Fault Scarp. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley - California State Earthquake Investigation Commission photographs from the Andrew C. Lawson collection, 1900-1910

January 10, 1857 Los Angeles Star reporting on the Fort Tejon earthquake. Courtesy of the USC Libraries' Special Collections.The quake was felt in Los Angeles, then a humble frontier town of fewer than 4,000 people. The following day's edition of the Los Angeles Star—archived in the USC Libraries' Regional History Collection and publicly accessible through the USC Digital Library—reported that "in some places the earth is represented as having undulated as a field of wheat moved by the wind."

Perhaps betraying a lack of understanding of the quake's geological causes, the newspaper was careful to note the weather that preceded the shaking:

We may remark that the previous night was clear but cold, a heavy white frost appearing on the ground in the morning—that the atmosphere at the time of the earthquake was cold, the sky clear, and the sun shining brightly.

In 1872, another major earthquake awakened many Southern Californians. John Muir's letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson about the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake. Courtesy of the University of the PacificAn estimated 7.4-7.8 temblor struck the Owens River valley near Lone Pine in the early morning of March 26—though few presumably had the reaction of John Muir, who bounced out of his Yosemite Valley cabin shouting, "a noble earthquake!" Later that day, Muir described the quake in a four-page letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson available through the UC Libraries' Calisphere website.

Neither the Fort Tejon nor Lone Pine quake caused widespread fatalities in sparsely-populated Southern California; in fact, the 1857 quake claimed only two lives.

By 1933, however, Los Angeles was a booming metropolis with an extensive built environment. So when a 6.4 quake shook Long Beach and much of the surrounding Southland on March 10, the toll in loss of life and property damage was far greater, despite the fact that the quake was far less intense. According to the USGS, property damage totaled $40 million (in 1933 dollars) and 115 people were killed.

Compton after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Courtesy of the CSU Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections - South Bay Photography Collection

The quake's aftermath is richly documented in Southern California's archives. At California State University Fullerton, the Center for Oral and Public History preserves several personal recollections of the disaster. Attorney Albert Launer remembered that many of those killed were struck by falling debris as they fled their buildings:

One of the interesting features of the earthquake was that public buildings that had a bunch of goo-gaw on the outside--you know, bricks extending out and so forth--were very dangerous. Our casualties in Orange County consisted entirely of people who were hit by falling debris from the outside, not the inside. Bricks hit people escaping from the room during the time of the shakes. A big, heavy shake was followed by some quivers of the earth. Then, as someone would run out, the brick would be falling off from some of the fresco work and stuff outside.

Huntington Beach resident Shirley Shaver's account reveals that, in the confusion and panic following the quake, many living along the coast feared the arrival of a tsunami:

Anyway, we went out into the street and stayed there for a while. Two boys came by in a car yelling, Tidal wave's coming! Tidal wave's coming! That alarmed my father enough to decide, Well, we'll get into the car and go over to Buena Park. We spent the night over in my grandparents' back of the house there on the ranch. The ground was trembling all the time, and we just stayed outside. The quake was very bad there, and the aftershocks were very bad there. My old grandmother from Huntington Beach that we took with us said that she'd lived long enough and she'd go into the house and sleep, but everybody else stayed out.

Compton, a city built atop thousands of feet of accumulated alluvium, was especially devastated. The photographs above and below from the California State University Dominguez Hills Archives illustrate the destruction felt by the town's residents.

Liberal Furniture Store in Compton after the 1933 earthquake. Courtesy of the CSU Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections - South Bay Photography Collection

In downtown Los Angeles, few buildings were completely destoryed, but the shaking littered streets with rubble and terrified the prisoners inhabiting the top three floors of the Hall of Justice, as the 1947project's On Bunker Hill blog describes.

Across the region, school buildings fared among the worst, with at least 230 destroyed or rendered unsafe for use. Lucky timing spared many schoolchildren--the earthquake occurred late in the afternoon, after students had returned home from school, as Shaver noted in her account:

I lived here in Huntington Beach during the 1933 earthquake when the school, having been built without enough support between the bricks or something—anyway, the school collapsed. It was the fortunate thing that it happened when we weren't in school.

Huntington Park High School after the 1933 quake. Courtesy of USC Libraries's Special Collections - Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection.

The widespread destruction of schoolhouses shocked many Californians and alerted citizens to the need for building standards that account for the region's peculiar natural hazards. On April 10, exactly one month after the earthquake, the state legislature passed the Field Act, landmark legislation that required the inclusion of earthquake-safety measures in the structural design of schools.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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