Eyewitness to Earthquake

April 18:The San Francisco earthquake occurred on this day in 1906. Given theturn-of-the-century fascination with photography—the Kodak Brownie hit thestores in 1900—this was the first natural disaster to be documented by citizenphotojournalists. Many more photos exist of the first two days, as most people wereout of film and running for their lives on day three. Jack London, living fiftymiles north of the city, ran towards rather than away, snapping pictures andinterviewing survivors when he got there:

All night these tens ofthousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the laborghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened withpossessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the streetclothing and treasures they had dragged for miles. They held on longest totheir trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart thatnight. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile aftermile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lyingtheir exhausted owners, men and women. …In the end, completely played out,after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelledto abandon their trunks.

But London notes that “Neverin all San Francisco’s history were her people so kind and courteous.”This is also the theme of an account written three weeks after the disaster by San Francisco Bulletin journalist Pauline Jacobson:

 ”Twenty-eight seconds of awful interrogation and thenthe most sociable time I’ve ever had in my life.” I still stand by thatsumming up…. In all the grand exodus of men, women and children with theirpoll-parrots and skinny cats, and dogs and pianos and clocks and familypictures, there was little of hysteria manifest, little of excitement. …Everybodywas your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, theisolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. …And that is the sweetnessand the gladness of the earthquake and fire. Not of bravery, nor of strength,nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness. The joy in the other fellow.

Both London’s and Jacobson’sarticles are included in Three FearfulDays: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 Earthquake & Fire (Malcolm E.Barker, 2005).


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.