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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

From the Ashes Reborn                                  Brandon Nguyen


A former correspondent for the Washington Post and author of fourteen books, Dan Kurzman is the winner of five literary and journalistic awards, including The Newspaper Guild¡¦s Front Page Award, The National Jewish Award, and two Cornelius Ryan Awards for best book on foreign affairs. His other notable works include: Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Subversion of the Innocents, and, Miracle of November: Madrid¡¦s Epic Stand, 1936.



April 17th, 1906 began like every typical, luminous day in California¡¦s cultural, economic, and social capital, San Francisco. Optimism had reached its zenith, as San Franciscans languished in dreams of hopeful futures and relaxed in a blanket of security. Four day later, ¡§thousands of people were no longer alive¡¨ and, ¡§about twenty-eight thousand buildings worth $350 million to $500 million¡¨ lay in ruins after a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter scale slammed into the sleeping port city and ignited a raging firestorm devouring 500 city blocks.1 In his revealing book, Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, Dan Kurzman details one of the most influential weeks in San Francisco¡¦s history.

Kurzman¡¦s organizational strategy differs from the mainstream history book norm. Instead of merely relating the harrowing events on April 18th, Kurzman intersperses his commentary with anecdotes from average citizens, focusing the book¡¦s attention on San Francisco¡¦s common man and how the fabric of the city changed due to the disaster. He sets the stage by describing San Francisco¡¦s diverse population, including Irishmen, Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese living in relative ¡§grandeur, interspersed with islands of grubbiness.¡¨2 Kurzman depicts the city as a bustling cosmopolitan jungle inhabited by prostitutes, gangsters, and corrupt politicians, but also hard-working laborers and self-made businessmen striving for the American dream. With a majority of the population determined to strike it rich, he characterizes the people¡¦s holistic viewpoint as ¡§lusty, almost passionate optimism¡¨¡Xan optimism that would surprisingly endure during and after the quake.3 Thus, in the opening chapters of the book, Kurzman portrays the city¡¦s self-reliant, individualistic Gold Rush mentality before 1906 as a powerful psychological assurance for San Franciscans who believed nothing could impede their beloved city¡¦s development. However, San Francisco¡¦s geographic proximity to the Hayward and the 600 mile-long San Andreas faults make it a prime target for earthquakes.4 Moreover, the poorly funded, neglected San Francisco Fire Department possessed, ¡§a single fireboat and had only 585 firemen¡¨ and relied on a negligible water supply only ¡§the quantity of an Olympic swimming pool.¡¨ 5 Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan repeatedly demanded increased funds for technological improvements in his department, but was met with San Francisco mayor, Eugene Schmitz¡¦s, adamant refusal to ¡§splurge on what he considered an unnecessary expense.¡¨6 A copy of his mayoral predecessors, Schmitz coveted wealth and money over safety and necessity. Unfortunately, nature¡¦s volatile wrath combined with the municipal government¡¦s apathy would prove a catastrophic time bomb for San Francisco and shatter its guise of invincibility.

Continuing his chronology, Kurzman describes the cataclysmic earthquake through various individual testimonies. According to Sergeant Jesse Cook, ¡§the ground seemed to twist¡Klike a top while it jerked this way and that.¡¨7 Awoken by the sudden jolt, many San Franciscans legitimately believed that the world was ending, proclaiming, ¡¥¡§My God, we¡¦re going into the bay!¡¨¡¦8 The earthquake was immense, The rock surfaces along San Andreas Fault slipped thirty feet, and the shockwave traveled from the epicenter at a breakneck two miles per second. Poorly constructed buildings and weak foundations proved the main cause of most earthquake fatalities. For instance, over 120 people perished when the famous Valencia Hotel collapsed. Mountains of rubble rendered the city¡¦s primary hospitals useless, resulting in the death of hundreds more. Probably the most costly mistake occurred when a woman in the Hayes Valley district started the infamous Ham and Eggs Fire by cooking breakfast for her family; the seemingly harmless cinders from her stove sparked the incineration of the neighborhood and later, over half of San Francisco. Unable to communicate or organize effectively, San Francisco¡¦s scattered fire stations became isolated and ineffective, reminders of sub par city funding. Most demoralizing was the untimely destruction of the city¡¦s remaining 850,000-gallon underground water reservoirs, the most crucial protection against fire, which ironically caused flood damage in the hours before the fires. Ultimately, it was the raging inferno, not the initial earthquake, which escalated the death toll into the thousands.           

Kurzman then delves into the social impacts of the tragedy and how it permanently affected San Franciscans¡¦ interaction with one another. In the midst of unimaginable death and destruction, with its already struggling government now nonexistent, one-third of its fire stations totally inoperable, and some 200,000 people made homeless, San Francisco¡¦s populace resorted to desperate action. For example, some trapped victims chose suicide over burning to death. One badly wounded San Franciscan shouted, ¡§ ¡¥Shoot me! For God¡¦s sake, shoot me!¡¦¡KA young man then grabbed the officer¡¦s pistol, and¡Kblew his brains out.¡¨9 Kurzman implies that gruesome scenes such as these were commonplace in those trying days following the earthquake, and blames the ¡§Armageddon¡¨ hysteria and immediate shock for the desperate behavior. Other vignettes include the infamously destructive actions of Brigadier General Frederick Funston. Kurzman reports how General Funston assumed complete control over San Francisco after virtually declaring martial law, sending 2,100 troops into the burning city to maintain law and order.10 Ironically, these undisciplined soldiers began pillaging abandoned businesses, drinking discarded alcohol, and shooting civilian looters on sight. General Funston¡¦s misstep added to the rapidly deteriorating municipal government. Mayor Schmitz and the newly appointed Fire Chief John Dougherty were convinced that dynamiting buildings to create ¡§firebreaks¡¨ would halt the flames, but their plans only provided fuel for the Ham and Eggs Fire swiftly moving westward toward the coastline. Epitomized by the decisions of General Funston and Mayor Schmitz, Kurzman illustrates San Francisco¡¦s leadership snowballing their problems by failing to confront the disaster with composure or clear-mindedness.         

¡§The city is doomed¡Keverything will burn¡¨ read the telegraph from General Funston to the War Department on the fire¡¦s third day.11 Retelling the dynamiting of Van Ness Street like a battlefield journal, Kurzman climactically relates the last stand of San Franciscans against the monstrous, indomitable blaze at Van Ness. If the fire crossed west of Van Ness, San Franciscans would have to concede the whole city to the inexorable flames. With additional firefighters, militiamen, and newly discovered water sources from an open water main on nearby Mission Street, along with supplementary dynamite courtesy of Contra Costa County, the Western San Franciscans awoke on Friday, April 20th to receding, diminishing flames still east of Van Ness Street.12 The fire was finally contained, the western half of San Francisco saved, and most significantly, San Francisco had survived the most traumatic ordeal in its history.

Approaching his subject from a journalistic standpoint, Kurzman¡¦s thesis deals with the positive social influences of the earthquake and fire. Whereas before the disaster San Franciscans were isolated and racist, sharing the horrific experiences unified and made tolerant San Franciscans. Kurzman tells of one instance where stranded refugees banded together for the sake of survival: ¡§the neighbors, of varying races and cultures, contributed their traditional foods to joint meals.¡¨13 He describes how ¡¥¡§everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody¡¦s friend. The individual, the isolated self, was dead¡¨¡¦ and ¡§a new sense of social justice and civic brotherhood would be necessary¡¨¡¦14 The polar opposite of the preceding ¡§Gold Rush¡¨ ideal of individualism and self-reliance, Kurzman points out that San Francisco¡¦s post-fire philosophy involved accepting diversity and relying on mutual support. The residents of whatever origin would ¡§view themselves with greater pride as San Franciscans¡¨ and not simply as, ¡§members of a particular ethnic or class community.¡¨15

Kurzman is a native of San Francisco. Because he grew up in the post-1906 city, Kurzman is acquainted with the culturally diverse ambience unique to San Francisco, and thus parallels his thesis to his experiences in a multicultural environment. A political historian, Kurzman prefers to write history from the viewpoint of influential leaders their decisions¡¦ repercussions, putting the onus on the leaders¡¦ actions during the earthquake and indirectly expressing his dislike of Mayor Schmitz and General Funston. In fact, Kurzman presents average San Franciscans as the protagonists, writing that it was not the bureaucracy that defeated the fire, but the, ¡§boys of that hill...the old Irish woman¡Kwho now came painfully toiling up the slopes with water for the fire.¡¨16 However, Kurzman¡¦s somewhat New Left focus on the mass¡¦s struggles with authority does not highlight any class conflict in San Francisco¡Xusually a popular topic for New Left historians. That this conflict between privileged and poor is muted may be attributed to the fact that San Francisco¡¦s two leaders, Mayor Schmitz (a member of the Labor Party) and General Funston, rose from the middle class and did not begin their careers with considerable wealth like most other American leaders.

Kurzman also focuses on minority racial groups, namely the Chinese, in San Francisco. Since Kurzman lived in the second half of the twentieth century, marked by increased immigration from Asian countries into California, he includes Chinese Americans¡¦ stories like those of Fong Chong and Jimmy Ho to acknowledge current San Francisco demographics. Kurzman mentions how white San Franciscans felt repulsed by ¡§Chinese rejection of American citizenship and values¡¨ and demonstrates how preceding racist policies such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, and ¡§Yellow Peril¡¨ contrasted with the gradually improved Chinese American integration after 1906.17 In effect, Kurzman is a unique historian of the contemporary era in that he does not fall under a certain school such as New Left historiography, but instead takes influence from archetypal New Left philosophy in combination with his own perception.

Aside from Kurzman¡¦s historiography, critics of the book point to its reliance on subjective, one-point perspective vignettes by secondary sources. Often written years after the incident and based on memory, these anecdotes do not provide acceptable historical data found in primary sources, critics argue. Yet, Kurzman¡¦s book is nonetheless based heavily on individual accounts of the earthquake and fire. Critics decry that Kurzman cites his sources with ¡§lack of concern,¡¨ that these sources are ¡§mighty skimpy and in significant places nonexistent,¡¨ and clearly the work shows signs of being ¡§rushed to print in time for the 95th anniversary of the earthquake.¡¨18 Conversely, supporters applaud Kurzman for his research in labeling the official death toll of 498 ¡§erroneous,¡¨ and for placing the count at 10,000. Others indicate that Kurzman¡¦s book uncovers and reports extensively on corrupt politicians, ill-equipped public safety, and prolific looting¡Xsubjects other historical works about the 1906 quake have not bothered to recognize.19 

Most troubling of Kurzman¡¦s criticisms is the accusation of flawed source citation. As the reader progresses through the book¡¦s narrative flow, events, facts, and dates are nonchalantly accepted as truth. Aside from this alleged mistake in scholarship, Kurzman¡¦s overall effectiveness is questionable. His cinematic prose leaves the reader detached from characters¡Xthe exact opposite of his intention. Kurzman describes one case of a woman who asked, ¡§what will happen to my young daughter and the baby she was carrying?¡¨20 Blatant fabrication fictionalizes questions the woman never asked and exaggerates the story to Kurzman¡¦s liking. Although the content remains engaging throughout the book, Kurzman¡¦s ¡§social change¡¨ thesis is blandly generic in design. Disappointingly, he explores the disaster¡¦s effects on San Francisco almost exclusively and completely ignores how the quake impacted the rest of California, and downplays Eastern reaction to the event. Finally, Kurzman briefly describes San Francisco¡¦s rebuilding process in ¡§Epilogue¡¨ but disregards laws and safety regulations surely enacted after the earthquake. As a whole, the deficiency of important details and reputable data in Kurzman¡¦s writing consequentially limit the book¡¦s believability.

Even though Kurzman revolves the story around San Francisco, he does tie in several events concerning Eastern America. Including the 1882 Exclusion Act, Kurzman additionally discusses Secretary of War Howard Taft¡¦s disgust for General Funston¡¦s declaration of martial law. While Washington deplored its leadership, the city¡¦s reputation as a fun loving, lighthearted, pleasure town vanished in Easterners¡¦ eyes. San Francisco after 1906 would be characterized by the New York Sun as, ¡§a horde of huddled refugees living among ruins.¡¨21 Congress appropriated $500,000 for relief, and the House passed the bill within ten minutes. Overall, the East¡¦s role in the disaster was limited, as San Francisco¡¦s earthquake remained unique to California.

Earthquakes are more prevalent in California than in any other state in the country, thus, making the 1906 tremor a distinctly Californian disaster. Equally, San Francisco residents were ¡§a tough frontier people, a people born in fire and hardened in the gold mines,¡¨ far different from Midwestern farmers or Eastern manufacturers.22 Consequently, the earthquake tested their Western mettle first inherited in the 1850s, independent of the Eastern United States¡Xa prime application of Frederick Jackson Turner¡¦s well-known ¡§Frontier Thesis.¡¨  Asian immigration is another important facet of San Francisco¡¦s history. In 1906, an estimated 17,139 Chinese immigrants lived in San Francisco, more than all other cities in the United States combined.23 Therefore, the earthquake evoked a new, distinctively Asian perspective unmatched elsewhere in the nation.

To make his work applicable to the whole of America, Kurzman attaches attention grabbing drama to the event. Just as California endures earthquakes, other regions see similar devastation such as hurricanes, flooding, or tornadoes. Accordingly, disaster stories are interesting and pertinent to a majority of Americans. More significant than the actual debacle, governmental mistakes and uncontrollable hysteria found in 1906 San Francisco can occur anywhere. Kurzman also sends a universal message of revival and reconstruction, epitomized by San Francisco¡¦s, ¡§new City Hall¡KHall of Justice, a county hospital, and numerous schools.¡¨24 Much like the civilian tales of triumph in the face of danger, the story of a city persevering through adversity appeals to many Americans.

A metropolis on the brink of utter disintegration, San Francisco weathered the 1906 earthquake and firestorm with its idiosyncratic Western endurance. Once thought to be a simple natural disaster, Kurzman¡¦s book sheds light on municipal corruption and the tragic consequences of misled judgment. An inimitably Californian epic, the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent rebirth personified San Franciscans¡¦ ¡§maxim engrained in their city¡¦s soul: Nothing was impossible.¡¨25



1. Kurzman, Dan. Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. New York: HarperCollins Publications Inc., 2001 34, 250, 251.

2. Kurzman, Dan 2.

3. Kurzman, Dan 3.

4. Kurzman, Dan 33.

5. Kurzman, Dan 14-15.

6. Kurzman, Dan 16.

7. Kurzman, Dan 36.

8. Kurzman, Dan 36.

9. Kurzman, Dan 40.

10. Kurzman, Dan 72, 80.

11. Kurzman, Dan 190.

12. Kurzman, Dan 191, 201.

13. Kurzman, Dan 50.

14. Kurzman, Dan 243.

15. Kurzman, Dan 245.

16. Kurzman, Dan 196-97.

17. Kurzman, Dan 60.

18. Traxel, David. ¡§8.3¡¨. The New York Times. July 1, 2001. June 1, 2008. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990DE7D91630F932A35754C0A9679C8B63>. 

19. Ware, Ciji. ¡§Cracks in the heroic story of the 1906 quake¡¨. The San Francisco Chronicle. April 22, 2001. June 1, 2008. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/04/22/RV149135.DTL>.

20. Kurzman, Dan 68.

21. Kurzman, Dan 241.

22. Kurzman, Dan xxiv.

23. U.S. Census Bureau. ¡§100th Anniversary: San Francisco Earthquake ¡X April 18¡¨. www.census.gov. August 9, 2007 June 1, 2008. <http://www.census.gov/Press-release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/006580.html>.

24. Kurzman, Dan 252.

25. Kurzman, Dan 256.