Historic California Earthquakes in Long Beach and San Francisco
To Californians living in the earthquake belt, the feeling of a little "shaker" now and then, is rarely a big deal.
There have, however, been several historic earthquakes in the Golden States between 1857 and the present day.
1. The Tehachapi Quake of 1952 moved furniture and knocked things off shelves a hundred miles away.
2. The Loma Prieta Quake damaged the Oakland Bay Bridge and collapsed the two level viaduct in 1989. It messed up things for quite some time-- and was caught on TV because of the World Series game that was about to be played there.
3. The Northridge quake knocked down L.A. freeway overpasses in 1994. Restoration took a long time, though the construction crews worked day and night.
4. There was one back in 1857 that was reported in newspaper articles of the gold rush era.
Californians are likely to experience an odd sensation of a minor loss of balance or see a hanging lamp began to sway, and look at each other and calmly saying, "Hmmm. . . earthquake".
Sometimes it is a jarring lurch, or only a rolling motion, usually a jiggle that made you instantly wonder if something was affecting your equilibrium, but the rattle of dishes in a cupboard often clinches the fact that the sensation is geologic rather than personal in nature.
Tremors knock things off of shelves now and then, but two quakes seem to have had some major historic consequences, including the passage of new construction laws for the state.
The biggest effect of an earthquake in our family, was to jolt the memories of my parents who had both lived in Long Beach, California when the 1933 earthquake hit on Friday March 10 at about 6 p.m.
Any little shaker, or even a news story about a moderately serious quake, often brought out their remembrances of the "Big One" that happened the year before my parents married.
More than a hundred people were killed in Long Beach California, and many more were injured. Brick and masonry buildings at that time were not usually reinforced. Two and three story buildings collapsed completely. Decorative cornices and ornamentation on large structures came down too, often upon the heads of those fleeing a shaking building.
The high school, a complex of grand neoclassical buildings, was almost completely devastated. Long Beach Polytechnic High School where mom was a student that year, had been an elegant shrine to education that spoke of durable academic tradition and solidarity.
The quake destroyed colonnades, arches, decorative cornices, classical ornaments and porticoes. The impressive dome over the administration building crashed into the courtyard.
Churches, banks and commercial buildings crumbled as well. My dad said that the quake hit while he and his brother were in a parked Model T car. Their first impression was that some of their friends were jumping up and down on the back bumper. If the shaker had hit a few hours earlier, thousands of children in schools all over they city, would have died.
Mom, who was 16 at the time, often repeated the stories about how her family moved out of their damaged house and pitched a tent in the backyard, as many of their neighbors did.
They also moved the old wood-burning stove out into the yard and she and her mother baked bread and cooked for the neighbors as well as for their own family.
Others brought their firewood and used her "old fashioned " stove too, since gas lines had been destroyed and the fuel supply was shut off. My grandparents were one of the few in their area who could still cook after the destruction. (Whoever had the good sense to shut down the Long Beach gas lines probably saved the city from total devastation by explosions and fire.)
Before the quake, Grandma had been complaining that she was still using an old-fashined wood stove and needed a modern gas appliance, like almost everyone else had by that time. Grandpa had been unconvinced to spend money on such an unnecessary luxury. They were one of the few households that had the old fashioned cast iron stove which required the building of a wood fire in the heat chamber.
Aftershocks continued for weeks. Streets were filled with brick and masonry rubble, especially in the downtown area. There was terrible destruction everywhere, with buildings collapsed or with their facades peeled down so they looked like toy dollhouses with intact interior rooms open to view.
Wood frame structures such as her father's apartment house, withstood the shaking better than most downtown buildings, but there was damage with cracks in the interior plaster of walls and ceilings.
Mom and her teenage friends went down to the armory to help out where the U.S. Navy had set up a soup kitchen to feed displaced citizens. They also enjoyed flirting with the sailors.
The Pacific Fleet had entered the Long Beach Harbor just a few days before the disaster, and the navy pitched in with supplies and manpower to provide food, water and shelter all over the area. They also helped to clear streets of rubble and do whatever was needed.
When school resumed, classes were set up on the athletic fields, under tarps, in tents, and sometimes just on an open patch of grass marked by a numbered stake. The beautiful archways and... impressive dome of the high school administration offices had collapsed into immense piles of rubble.
School administrators did their best to conduct classes normally, and many of the students considered it an adventure. In fact, most people tried to carry on as usual, even as aftershocks continued for months throughout the cleanup and restoration. The event at least provided work and jobs for people who had been struggling through the great depression.
Silent film: Long Beach Earthquake
This was NOT the first destructive earthquake to hit a densely populated area in California. The people of Long Beach were well aware of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which had destroyed a major city only 27 years before.
By 1933 San Francisco had been rebuilt (in fact, Coit Tower was built in that year) and the port city had grown beyond its former glory. Both the Golden Gate bridge and the Bay Bridge were under construction, as well.
Shortly after the Great earthquake and fire of 1906 , publishers found that they could sell a lot of newspapers, magazines and books with pictures and stories about the astounding catastrophe.
I happen to have a copy of one of these exploitative-- almost tabloid-like-- books that was published in 1906. (Cover shown above.)
It belonged to my great aunt. I can remember looking at it when I was a child.
Filled with photos and illustrations, it sensationally testifies in Victorian- style language, to the terror and destruction felt by the survivors who escaped to Oakland, to Golden Gate Park, and to anywhere they could.
The photos are not great, but it is remarkable that so many were even available. Photographic technology was still in its early stages. In fact, this was the first major natural disaster to be documented by photos.Some modern sources say that the extent of the actual death and damage was minimized by city officials, and a lot of photos released for publication were 'touched up' because they feared that future business for the area would be discouraged from investing in the destroyed city, if the full extent of the damages were known.
Actually the non-photo illustrations, give a more dramatic rendition of the disaster, with the artistic interpretations of terrifying moments.
In a probable sign of racial intolerance, it is interesting to note that the Chinese are depicted as being terrified and totally out of control, while a lot of the other refugees seem to be a bit more calm and heroic.
The book advertises itself as being " A Complete and Accurate Account of the Fearful Disaster which Visited the Great City and the Pacific Coast, the Reign of Panic and Lawlessness, the Plight of 300,000 Homeless People and the World-wide Rush to the Rescue. TOLD BY EYE WITNESSES.
There is some reason to doubt that the account is complete and accurate, and the accounts are a bit sketchy.
The book is "padded" with descriptions, photos and drawings depicting the city before the disaster, as well as other material relating to other earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions throughout history. Nevertheless the book is an artifact of the era, in somewhat fragile condition, and has obviously been perused many times.
Back to 1933.
At the time of the Long Beach earthquake, many people were still struggling to provide basic necessities during the last days of the Great Depression.
The natural disaster did, at least, result in jobs being created. My parents got married the following year.
I was well into my 20's before I saw historic photos from the Long Beach event on a TV program. Though I had heard their stories many times, I don't think I realized the extent of the disaster until seeing the old photos.
Many of the downtown buildings had been brick, which crumbled into giant heaps of rubble, giving the whole city the look of a war's aftermath.
Subsequent California earthquakes, have been much less destructive than they might have been because of lessons learned in '33.
The Long Beach quake resulted in a new set of state laws requiring tough building codes for California which affected the construction of buildings. Schools and other public structures were required to follow strict standards for earthquake resistance.
We're NOT in Kansas
In California we appreciate our earthquakes-- It actually keeps some people from moving here.
At least with an earthquake, all your stuff falls down in one place and is not blown to the land of OZ.
I am always thankful that many of the people living in the tornado belt were glad to stay there rather than moving to "shake'n bake" land.
We already have "plenty-too-much" of people here, and we need our wonderful, hard-working farmers to stay in Kansas instead of clogging up our California freeways.
Growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood I felt both free and secure in my young life, free from stress and surrounded by an extended family that got along well and even liked each other.
It was an era of optimism and opportunity. With the soldiers back from Europe and the Pacific, houses were being built, colleges were expanding, business was booming, babies were being born.
Though we worried a bit about atom bombs, it seemed an abstract fear and unlikely. Besides, we knew from the school drills that if a bomb were dropped, the sirens would sound and we would all be safely crouched under our school desks, heads tucked down and each of us with one hand covering the back of our necks.
I remember thinking, when I was a young adult, that my parents had lived through some extraordinary events including the Great Depression, World War II and a major earthquake.
Those uncertainties and horrors were behind them by the time I was old enough to aware of the wider and harsher world.
In another branch of our family, people had been displaced by war, lost their land and possessions, were chased by an advancing enemy front and were strafed by aircraft fire. They faced freezing, starvation and serious sickness.
So why are these events important to me? The earthquakes are only metaphors for extreme tests and difficulties people have always faced.
Our ancestors lived through wars, political upheaval, personal losses, natural calamities, physical suffering and deprivation of all imaginable kinds. We are their inheritors .
Survival stories from the past give me great hope for the future. I have never personally experienced times of economic extremity, and not had to endure hardship of natural disasters or war, but I know that it is possible for people to survive adversity while keeping their humanity and hope.
If this were not true, none of us would be here now.
- The Long Beach Earthquake of 1933
More Long Beach Quake photos.
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