Simon Winchester, A Crack at the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 461 pages with illustrations, suggestions for additional readings and an index.
On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was awakened by a massive earthquake. The shaking of the earth and the fires that followed destroyed much of the city. Yet, it wasn’t the first nor was it the largest of the earth’s recent tremors. In the months leading up to the San Francisco quake, there were jitters all along earth’s fault lines as well as a seemingly unusual amount of volcanic activity. As a trained geologist, Simon Winchester provides a detailed explanation of plate tectonics (he also provides similar explanations in at least two other books, Krakatoa and Atlantic). In addition to speaking of the movement of plates, he discusses the geology behind earthquakes (not all quakes occur along plates) as well exploring the developing science of earthquakes. Although we’ve come a long ways since 1906 (plate tectonics is a relatively new theory), by the time of the San Francisco quake, the earth was ringing with instruments allowing scientist at the time to gain a better understanding of what was happening to the earth’s crust. These records are also benefits for modern geologists who can use them with newer insight. Thanks to these new insights, the pinpoint of the earthquakes epicenter has changed.
Winchester ties his book together with a road trip around much of the North American plate (he drives across country for a teaching gig in San Francisco, after which he heads north to Alaska before heading east). This allows him to explore other large quakes within the North American plate such as Charleston, South Carolina (1886), New Madrid, Missouri (1811) and Anchorage, AK (1964). In a way, these travels often seemed to distract from the point of the book, though they did provide a personal link to his stories.
In addition to geology, Winchester provides a history of San Francisco as well as parts of the city such as Chinatown. The quake destroyed immigration records of the Chinese which gave those seeking to flee the wars going on in China a way to get around the tough immigration laws of the day.
Some of the interesting facts of the earthquake include how the insurance companies argued in court over whether the destruction was from the quake or the fire. After the fire, it was hard in parts of San Francisco to tell which buildings were damaged by the quake (and not covered by insurance) or fire (and covered by insurance). He also talked about the architecture of San Francisco and how some wanted the city to develop a master plan for development after the quake, but business interest quickly took over and the designs by Daniel Hudson Burnham for a city like Washington were quickly shelved. Although San Francisco is often seen as an “artsy city,” Winchester notes that this wasn’t until after World War II.
Winchester also discusses potential religious fallout from the quake. To the south, in Los Angeles, the Azusa Street revivals were just beginning to gather steam. These revivals are important in the development of Pentecostalism in America and the preachers quickly pointed to the quake as evidence of God’s judgment. In Krakatoa, Winchester points to a similar fundamentalist religious rise in radical Islam in Indonesia following that volcano’s massive eruption. Labeling the disaster as God’s judgment isn’t anything new. In my own studies of Virginia City, Nevada (which in a way was a sister city to San Francisco), there were general outcry by those affected by a disastrous fire in 1875, which burned much of the city’s business district, at the preachers in San Francisco who pointed to the destruction as God’s judgment. By 1906, Virginia City was just a shell of itself and no one was paying much attention to what its preachers were saying, but I'll have to go back into my notes and see if there was any mention of the San Francisco fire and earthquake. . Of course, not everyone was ready to point the finger at their neighbor’s misfortune and, as was the case in Virginia City which also received help from San Francisco following the fire, those in Los Angeles responded immediately by sending supplies.
This is the fourth book I’ve read by Simon Winchester and I have come to appreciate how he weaves together two of my favorite subjects, history and geology. I recommend this book even though I didn’t think it measures up to Krakatoa (my favorite of the four books I’ve read by Winchester). However, this book does provide the reader with an understanding of what goes on under our feet, as well as insight into San Francisco’s history, especially the great earthquake.