Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pop History Moment: San Francisco Devastated By Earthquake, Fire

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On April 17th, 1906, San Francisco was the jewel of the Pacific; early photographs show a range of uncommonly beautiful buildings in both commercial and residential districts...

An earthquake as powerful as the one that struck the city on this day in 1906 was bad enough - 7.8 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre at Mussel Rock - but it's really fire that's the scourge of cities, and it certainly scourged this one. Broken gas mains caused some of the fires; still others were set by citizens for insurance purposes. Either way, equally ruptured water mains hampered firefighters, and the inferno raged for four days and four nights. Only a few pre-1906 structures survived, including the Ferry Building, which was doused with water by nearby fire boats.

Afterwards, people lived in tent cities for two years or more as rubble was carted away and entire neighbourhoods rose from the ashes. Beginning in 1915 - by which time the reconstruction was largely complete - survivors began meeting at Lotta's Fountain on the anniversary of the disaster in commemoration. The same year's Panama-Pacific Exposition - originally intended to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal - became the impetus to rebuild the city.

It's a curious thing how a city's buildings can be reduced to ruins but its civic pride can remain undamaged, or indeed often even increase. Again and again throughout history such things have happened, and yet places as diverse as Rome, London, and New Orleans persist. For all that cities seem to conspire to crush our souls, they also manage to inspire us in equal or greater measure.

The events of this day inspired the 1936 film San Francisco, but oddly enough the story hasn't yet had a retelling yet during the age of CGI - despite being the subject of numerous books and documentaries.
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