Digging into the Archives: Earthquakes Before Mass Media | KCET
Digging into the Archives: Earthquakes Before Mass Media
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.
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.
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:
In 1872, another major earthquake awakened many Southern Californians.
An 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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.