While San Francisco Burned

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A century before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, an earthquake measuring around 8.0 and lasting more than a full minute smashed into the city of San Francisco, overturning lamps and cracking gas lines. The fires that spread over the next three days reduced almost the entire city to smoldering piles of stone. The devastation of April 18-21, 1906, is hard to believe today: 508 square blocks were destroyed; 28,188 structures burned. It remains the largest peacetime urban conflagration in history, and modern estimates suggest that some 3,000 people lost their lives.

The story has some eerie parallels with this summer’s hurricanes. Like New Orleans, San Francisco had been warned, but government agencies spent their money and attention on bossism and political favors instead of on public safety concerns. In both cities, the political structures proved just as rickety as the physical structures, and when the disaster came, the city fractured on racial lines while bureaucrats responded with a mixture of

blundering and brutality. San Fran- cisco’s corrupt and incompetent mayor, Eugene Schmitz, gave the order to execute looters summarily, although the chaos made it impossible to tell looters from innocent civilians rescuing their own property. Nobody knows how many perished at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers who, led by the ruthlessly inept General Frederick Funston, assumed martial law – even though it was never declared.

Clumsy as he was at maintaining order, Funston was an even worse firefighter. He sent troops racing through the city to blow up buildings with dynamite and gunpowder to make firebreaks – but the soldiers didn’t know how to use explosives, and the city’s only demolition expert was drunk. Pulverized buildings only made more kindling, and flying gun- powder only started more fires. Civilians who tried to remain in their homes were dragged out at gunpoint, although those few who were allowed to make a stand were able to save their homes. Meanwhile, firemen rushed from fire to fire, finding most of the

water pipes broken and most of the emergency cisterns dilapidated and empty. They were forced to use sand, and even sewage, to fight the flames. (There was enough wine in the city’s warehouses to quench the fires, but nobody seems to have thought of it.) At one point, a tugboat in the harbor pumped water through a linkage of firehoses stretching over a mile in length, to help fight fires deep within the city.

The ships offered one of the few scenes of unambiguous heroism. Lieutenant Frederick “Frisky” Freeman, in command of the fire tug Leslie, directed the efforts to save the city’s waterfront, which would prove essential to receiving relief supplies in the days to come. Freeman, oftentimes dodging General Funston’s meddlesome commands, managed to save almost the entire Embarcadero from destruction.

The rest of the city, of course, was not so lucky. Hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless, and virtually the entire city was destroyed in the worst calamity in the history of the West Coast. But San Franciscans were eager to dust themselves off and start anew. Within a decade, the “Phoenix City,” as it called itself, had rebuilt, prouder and more ostentatious than before, in time to host the Panama- Pacific International Exposition, one of the great showpieces of a proud age.

Along with the rebuilding came reforms to the city’s profoundly corrupt” politics. For years, Mayor Schmitz had been ruled by political boss Abraham Reuf, who, from his office as city attorney, served as a middleman for bribing the state legislature, and commanded labor unrest whenever it would produce a profit. Just before the earthquake, former mayor James D. Phelan had started the process of ending Reuf’s control over the city, and when the dust settled, he and sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckles financed an investigation that culminated in convictions and.jail time for Schmitz and Reuf.

To many people, this sounds like a story of resilience testifying to the greatness – if also the recklessness – of the American spirit. But for Philip Fradkin, it’s a story not of triumph, but of foolhardiness, exploitation, and greed, all of which is ultimately traceable to a sinister “oligarchy” of capitalist schemers. Although his book delivers outstanding new research, at the end of 400 pages of scattered and inelegant prose the reader is left with a timeworn caricature of early 20th century capitalism, complete with watch fobs, handlebar mustaches, and smoky back rooms. San Francisco, he tells us, was rebuilt because greedy industrial-

ists concocted a vigorous PR campaign to purge all mention of the word “earthquake” and delude people into thinking the city was safe.

Fradkin seethes with contempt for American industrialism: he calls railroad employees “minions”; refers to looting as “liberating”; describes the architecture of San Francisco as “faux- European monstrosities of the silver and railroad barons.” He even complains that the name firefighters gave to the “Ham and Eggs Fire” has “a working-class connotation,” when in fact it was based on the understanda-

Mayor Schmitz gave the order to execute looters summarily, but the chaos made it impossible to tell looters from innocent civilians rescuing their own property.

 

ble folk tale that the fire began when someone cooked breakfast. Mayor Schmitz’s order to shoot looters was not just rash, according to Fradkin, but part of a class war – proven, he says, by the fact that “price gouging” was not similarly punished. (Of course, contrary to Fradkin’s characterization, a sudden increase in prices in a disaster area is not a “crime committed against the needy in times of crisis,” but a natural, ultimately beneficial reaction which draws supplies to where they are needed most.)

Business leaders simply could do nothing right, in his view. This leads him into some curious contradictions. He complains that free-market institutions failed to give serious study to the possibility of a major earthquake – yet he admits that the insurance industry had been predicting catastrophe for San Francisco years beforehand. He claims the city’s capitalists ignored the warnings of the 1868 quake – yet admits that the Palace Hotel was built with the state-of-the-art earthquake and fire-proof technology. He depicts the 1900s as an era of heartless greed; of Snidely Whiplashes fantasizing about evicting poor widows. Yet he admits that the relief effort was the largest the nation has ever known to this day – $10 million in gold-backed 1906 dollars, almost all from private donations – and that the hated Southern Pacific railroad offered free passage to the refugees. He complains that businessmen blamed the city’s destruction on the fire, rather than the earthquake, as.part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to hypnotize the public into forgetting there even was an earthquake. Yet he admits that the fire was the major cause of destruction – at least 90% of it – and that the fire was spread mostly by incompetent government employees blowing up block after block with incendiaries. And if the “oligarchs,” as Fradkin insists on calling them, thought they could make people forget about the danger of earthquakes, they were remarkably unsuccessful. A flood of books, magazines, and coin-operated stereopticons brought images of The Quake – as well as the word “earthquake” – to the attention of the country within months of the devastation.

Throughout all his contradictions, Fradkin’s one .constant is unrelenting negativity. Although one critic has hailed his book as a tale of “hubris and heroism,” there are exactly four and a half pages of heroism in his book: his description of Lieutenant Freeman’s efforts at the Embarcadero. The rest is a constant hissing at “the rich and powerful” who “manipulated” society and cruelly put “the rights of property owners” ahead of “the safety of the community.” Fradkin seems to think

San Francisco should simply not exist at all, and that in a world free of corporate greed, it wouldn’t. “It is a marvel,” he writes, that San Franciscans “did not just give up and go away.” But that marvel is not a source of admiration to him – it’s a sign of weakness. Why Fradkin himself continues to live in the Bay Area, as he has for 30 years, he doesn’t explain. Is he, too, a victim of the capitalist plot?

Simon Winchester, who studied geology at Oxford, approaches The Quake from a very different perspective, resulting in a book much broader and shallower than Fradkin’s. He is interested in why the ground shook to begin with – and it doesn’t start shaking until almost 250 pages into his book. His discussion of The Quake is over 130 pages later, and the rest is devoted to the nature and causes of earthquakes in general, mixed with his trademark amusing digressions. Although Winchester is the best writer of the three, “A Crack in the Edge of the World” is light on the history of the earthquake itself, relying much more on secondary sources and his personal trips to earthquake zones.

It’s a relief that, possibly because of his broader perspective, Winchester resists diving into feeble sociological

Civilians who tried to remain in their homes were dragged out at gunpoint, although those few who were allowed to make a stand were able to save their homes.

whining. Yes, he acknowledges, many business leaders tried to play down the effects of The Quake and the likelihood of another, “setting a tone of rather forced jollity.” And they did so in part to prevent a flight of investors. But there were other reasons, too – for one thing, insurance companies were more likely to pay for fire than for earthquake damage. And in any case, the pro-business spin doctors were unable to prevent the presses from flooding the market with books like

“The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire,” and ultimately making Los Angeles, farther from fault lines and relatively safer, into the new capital of California’s economy. Ultimately, the “forced jollity” was less a capitalist conspiracy than a combina- tion of can-do spirit, self-defensive whistling in the dark, and a conscious, understandable love of the places that we call home. As Winchester points out, Yellowstone Park “sits on top of a potential supervolcano, the eruption of which – at some unpredictable moment in the geological near term – will devastate nearly all of Western America.” Yet people continue to live in the path of destruction, not because they are fools, but because they believe the risks are worth the rewards, and they refuse to cower before Nature’s fickleness. “All that man does, and everywhere that man inhabits,” writes Winchester, “is for the moment only – like the cherry blossoms in a Japanese springtime, exquisite simply because of their very impermanence.”

But it’s Dennis Smith who, in “San Francisco is Burning,” directly challenges Philip Fradkin’s approach. Smith’s primary interest is in heroism, and particularly in Lieutenant Freeman, whose leadership and intelligence have never been adequately recognized. Even Smith’s writing style is the opposite of Fradkin’s. He writes like a pulp novelist, with unabashed enthusiasm for the might and perseverance required to fight fires without gasmasks, to carry hundreds of pounds of firehose without automobiles, or, in the fire’s awful climax, to push an iron steam engine nine blocks up the hill toward as simply”fiction.” He makes some outlandish statements (e.g., “San Franciscans were not prejudiced against the Irish . . . The city prided itself, then as now, on its liberal acceptance of all people”), and repeats unverifiable and even apocryphal stories, such as tales of policemen shooting people trapped in the rubble so as to put them out of their misery, or the story that the Ham and Eggs Fire started in the kitchen of “a

Fradkin depicts the 1900s as an era of heartless greed; of Snidely Whiplashes fantasizing about evicting poor widows.

 

woman living on Hayes Street” – which is about as reliable as the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. A reader is understandably skeptical about the rest of Smith’s facts, and this suspicion is only deepened by the fact that he provides no footnotes, but merely a lame “author’s note” assuring “that all information contained in the book may be relied upon as historically accurate.”

These flaws are fatal, and that’s regrettable because the story Smith wants to tell very much deserves to be told. There was much heroism in San Francisco; it was an age of heroism. But while Smith excels in putting a personal face on the triumph and tragedy, his portrait is often just as shallow as Fradkin’s. For Fradkin, Rudolph Spreckles and James D. Phelan were coldhearted moneygrubbers, on a dia-

bolical mission to snatch the scepter from the persecuted Abe Reuf; for Smith, they were spotless paragons of civic virtue, fighting the lonely fight against Reuf the Archvillain. Fradkin skates over the undeniable fact that Reuf was engaged in shameless brib-

A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank· of America, set up shop on a park bench amid the wreckage, lending small amounts to devastated workers so they could rebuild their lives.

 

ery; Smith ignores the illegal interrogations and corrupt trial procedures that convicted him.

But the difference between Smith’s focus on heroism and Fradkin’s obsession with greed is more than just a difference in perspective. It’s symptomatic of a deepening cultural gulf that has serious implications for everyday life in America, and certainly for how we deal with great disasters. More than anything, the can-do spirit of San

.. Francisco – what that age was proud to call being “indomitable” – was the spirit of enterprising individualism, which has in many ways been· rejected by today’s culture of entitlement and need. San Franciscans of 1906 saw that they had lived through an awful catastrophe, but they would not let it get the best of .them. They rallied around ideals best exemplified by A.P. Giannini, the Italian capitalist who founded the Bank of America, and who set up shop on a park bench amid the wreckage of Union Square, lending small amounts to devastated workers so they could rebuild their lives. Today, a growing spirit of helplessness and servitude has inflicted upon society images of angry victims screaming demands into CNN cameras that the government come and help them. An older generation would have thought this undignified – not because they were exploited, but because they believed in taking pride in the hardiness of one’s spirit. That kind of pride was the spiritual backbone of America’s commercial republic, which built skyscrapers and spaceships, cured disease, and lit the nights. But it has weakened under a tide that idolizes the mundane and turns its back on “indomitability.” This, combined with hysterical news media saturating the airwaves with manufactured crises and pitiful spectacle, has largely replaced the spirit of rugged individualism with one of grasping bitterness that John McWhorter has called “the victimology cult.”

This is the psychological keystone of the welfare state, and its consequences are evident in the contrast between 1906 and 2005. Then as now, people suffered horrifying catastrophes, and those who came to their aid deserve all the gratitude possible. But today’s relief efforts are tinged with a resentment that seems absent from the more self-reliant atmosphere of 1906. In 2002 alone, state and local governments in Louisiana spent $7,094,373 on social programs, not counting schools. That’s seven times the amount spent on police and fire services combined. Such a vigorous welfare machine has enormous moral consequences: destabilized families; violent inner cities; ruined public schools. But worse than these is what even Franklin Roosevelt recognized as the moral decay that accompanies welfare addiction. “Continued dependence on relief,” he admitted, “induces a spiritual and moral disintegration … To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” The welfare state inculcates a sense of relaxation even in those who do not receive aid, loosening the demands of responsibility, and sapping the energies that might otherwise be devoted to enterprise and self-improvement. A person is never really on his own today; never wholly in charge of his destiny; never truly accountable. We are relieved of the danger of failing, at the price of never having to try with all our might. Thus we never discover what it means to succeed completely on our own. The result is a stifling of the moral imagination.

Time and Newsweek have seriously questioned whether New Orleans should even be rebuilt at all, a question that would have struck Americans of a century ago as absurd. But for writers like Philip Fradkin, for whom heroism, individualism, and achievement are trivial episodes in a tale of Dickensian woe, such questions are murmured in all seriousness. Interpreting the 1906 quake as an incident in the class struggle is of a piece with the modern static mindset that sees construction and reconstruction as an affront to community, or the environment, or other idols of the sensitive class. At bottom it is contempt for human achievement.

One contemporary observer of the earthquake recalled that in the days after the disaster many people considered moving elsewhere. But “it only required a moment’s consideration” for them to choose to remain. San Francisco was the place where they

People choose to live in dangerous places – and to rebuild after disasters – because they believe in the possibility of an admittedly fleeting happiness.

 

were known and where there were still over 300,000 people.to be fed, clothed, and housed. Here there was an adjacent country big enough for an empire, as rich in possibilities as any land on God’s footstool, for which San Francisco was·the bank and clearing house, the shipping point for the products, and the supply house for the needs. San Francisco was· the place for them, for had. not the commercial hand of the Orient and the islands been reaching out to this port, taking more and more. of the things we grow and make, and returning to us things that the people of the Occident crave and need? San Francisco then was the place to renew business, where the conditions not only invited but demanded it, with the promise of great profit.

To the welfare-state mentality, these. words reveal desperate. need, which cruelly forced people to stay in a place they knew to be dangerous. But to the people themselves, the “promise of great profit” meant opportunity — an opportunity for a happy and successful life, which in the broader sense meant the opportunity to make a city and a home. People choose to live in dangerous .places -and to rebuild after disasters – because they believe in the possibility of an admittedly fleeting happiness, and because they love these cities.

No city is more deserving of that love than San Francisco, the most charming city in America. Every land has its dangers – the North has blizzards, the Midwest has tornadoes, New Orleans has hurricanes, and San Francisco has earthquakes. But cities are more than just places to live; they are connotations, images, and meanings, built a day at a time by the people who choose to make their lives there. They’re cultures. As comedian Steve Martin wrote in his screenplay for “L.A. Story”: “It’s·. a place where they’ve taken a desert, and turned it into their dreams.”

Like the residents of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the people of New Orleans knew for years that a major hurricane would devastate their city. But they chose to stay for many reasons, not the least of which was its charm. Novelist Anne Rice recently wrote in the New York Times that the city where she was born “shaped who and what I am. Never have I experienced a place where people knew more about love, about family, about loyalty and about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is perhaps their very gentleness that gives them their endurance.” The people will rebuild, she wrote,”because itis where they have always lived, where their mothers and their fathers lived, where their churches were built by their ancestors, where their family graves carry names that go back 200 years. They will stay in New·Orleans where they can enjoy a sweetness of· family life that other communities lost long ago.” This doesn’t sound like a victim of exploitation; is there any reason to think differently of the people who rebuilt San Francisco?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.