1868 Earthquake: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

It is not surprising that a collection of historical San Francisco images would have many, many views of the 1906 earthquake. Outside of the Gold Rush, which turned the small Mexican pueblo of Yerba Buena into the boomtown of San Francisco, no single event has had a bigger effect on the city’s landscape, legacy, and lore than the earthquake of April 18, 1906 with the fires that followed.

But I hope you forgive me when I say, after viewing hundreds and hundreds of images of the city destroyed in 1906, I feel a perverse interest in coming across photographs of a different San Francisco earthquake.

1868 Earthquake damage on Commercial Street.
Damage on Commercial Street from the October 21, 1868 earthquake. (wnp37.00713, stereograph by Carleton Watkins, courtesy of a private collector.)

To an old-timer walking on Market Street on April 17, 1906, the “Big One” was two generations past. On October 21, 1868, 149 years ago this month, an estimated 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit a little before 8:00 a.m. (Although it would be known until 1906 as “the great San Francisco earthquake,” the event flattened the city of Hayward and did far more damage in other Bay Area locales.)

Earthquakes were noted before the arrival of the Americans—a major one in 1836, another damaging Mission Dolores and Presidio buildings in 1838. Significant earthquakes also struck in 1857 and 1865. But the city continued to put up masonry buildings (good against the frequent fires, bad in seismic events) and filled in creeks, marshes, and parts of the bay to expand into shaky “made ground.”

October 21, 1868 earthquake damage to Tobacco & Cigar Warehouse on 300 block of Commercial Street.
October 21, 1868 earthquake damage to Tobacco & Cigar Warehouse on 300 block of Commercial Street. (wnp37.00950, stereograph by Oscar Foss, courtesy of a private collector.)

The October 21, 1868 earthquake killed five people, injured another two score, and inflicted $400,000 in property damage, mostly in areas reclaimed from the old Yerba Buena cove. Frightened horses charged through dry goods store windows, sidewalks caved in, California Street erupted with fissures, and collapsing brick walls crushed men.

Malcolm E. Barker’s book, “More San Francisco Memoirs, 1852-1899, The Ripening Years,” has two excellent accounts of the quake. Louis Laurent Simonin was taking a bath in a hotel when it hit. He ran out of his room half-dressed, and he wasn’t alone: “[T]he hotel guests, panic-stricken, terrified, screaming and gesticulating wildly, were crawling down the stairs on all fours: the women in their nightclothes, with hair unkempt, the men in their bathrobes and, for the most part, barefoot…”

The Rail Road House, the S. P. Taylor & Co. paper company, and a tobacco warehouse on Commercial Street were some of the most dramatically affected. Edward Bosqui ran down to his office in the vicinity: “Two dead bodies were discovered under the debris of the coping and fire-walls which had fallen on them on Clay Street, nearly opposite our office; and farther down the street, between Sansome and Battery, another body was found under similar circumstances.”

Damage at Market Street and First after the October 21, 1868 earthquake.
Damage at Market Street and First after the October 21, 1868 earthquake. (wnp37.00891, stereograph by Oscar Foss, courtesy of a private collector.)

Of course, one doesn’t have to go back so far to remember a notable October earthquake. Like Monsieur Simonin, my roommate Marty was in the bath when the Loma Prieta “World Series” earthquake struck on October 17, 1989. He too ran out wild-eyed, wearing only a towel.

The 1868 earthquake struck on the Hayward Fault. Seismologists and other researchers say a major event on that same fault, now with millions living and working along it, is overdue.

The major San Francisco earthquake anniversaries in April and October, separated by six months, serve well as reminders to refresh and replenish your personal earthquake kit. Go to http://www.sf72.org to get a supplies checklist. Change the batteries, switch out the gallons of emergency water, get prepared.

Really… are you ready? The next Big One could happen the minute after you finish reading this.

Treasure Island: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

We look at so many historical images here—more than 21,000 on the site to date—that we almost start believing our ancestors lived in a desaturated world of gray and sepia. So when we hit a run of color slides we can’t help feeling like Dorothy stepping into Oz after the twister. Look how the little girl’s yellow dress pops in this view of the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) on Treasure Island.

Tower of the Sun from the Court of the Seven Seas on Treasure Island, July 4, 1940.
Tower of the Sun from the Court of the Seven Seas on Treasure Island, July 4, 1940. (wnp25.2906, 35mm color slide, courtesy of a private collector.)

Here’s an achingly vibrant shot from the expo of flowerbeds and a woman in red hat and gloves:

Flower bed on California Avenue on Treasure Island, July 4, 1940.
Flower bed on California Avenue on Treasure Island, July 4, 1940. (wnp25.2907, 35mm color slide, courtesy of a private collector.)

Newcomers, and a lot of longtime locals, may be unaware that Treasure Island was created in the 1930s specifically for the Golden Gate International Exposition world’s fair. The pancake-flat 400 acres of dumped rock, sand, and topsoil was intended to serve as San Francisco’s airport when the exposition closed. (This plan was not, as the buzzword goes today, scalable. Can you imagine a 747 touching down there today?)

With a theme of “Pageant of the Pacific,” the fair celebrated the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and had its own mythology. An eighty-foot-high goddess of the ocean and a “Tower of the Sun” stood over a strange landscape of ziggurats, Sinophilic villages, English gardens, and carnival sideshows.

In black and white, with the names of explorers and conquistadors emblazoned on high walls around her, the goddess “Pacifica” is a guardian to some great tomb.

The Court of Pacifica, with the eighty-foot-high ocean goddess statue at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.
The Court of Pacifica, with the eighty-foot-high ocean goddess statue at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, 1939. (wnp14.4379, negative courtesy of a private collector.)

But the colossal walls and columns lose their chill and gain some hoke when you see them splashed in mauve and butterscotch. The sign for “Vacationland” in the background of the photo below puts one in mind of Walt Disney’s amusement park offerings to come:

Golden Gate International Exposition, Fountain at the Court of Pacifica, Ford Building beyond.
Fountain at the Court of Pacifica, Ford Building beyond. (wnp25.1781, 35mm color slide courtesy of a private collector.)

In 1939, the fair had fine art from Europe. In 1940, an “Art in Action” exhibition had cutting edge bohemian sculptors and painters such as Diego Rivera working onsite. But counter-balancing all the high culture were low-brow entertainments belying the grandeur: Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch (women in cowboy hats and skin-colored tights), monkeys racing tiny automobiles, and Guess-Your-Weight side-show stands on the “Gayway.”

As with almost all world’s fairs, Treasure Island lost lots of money. The approach and arrival of World War II cast a pall on the celebratory spirit that purple walls and golden fountains couldn’t lift. The Navy took over the island for decades.

Now San Francisco is making a riskier bet than the GGIE. As sea levels rise with climate change, the city wants to build 8,000 residences and 500 hotel rooms on a poker chip of made land reached by a single causeway and a bridge with a history of seismic resistance issues. Challenge the goddess Pacifica at your risk.

Oldsmobile on Yerba Buena Island, 1938. Treasure Island and GGIE under construction.
Oldsmobile on Yerba Buena Island, 1938. Treasure Island and GGIE under construction. (wnp14.2403, negative courtesy of a private collector.)