A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

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by Simon Winchester

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In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, San Francisco, and a string of towns to its north-northwest and the south-southeast, were overcome by an enormous shaking that was compounded by the violent shocks of an earthquake, registering 8.25 on the Richter scale. The quake resulted from a rupture in a part of the San Andreas fault, which lies underneath the earth's…  See more details below


In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, San Francisco, and a string of towns to its north-northwest and the south-southeast, were overcome by an enormous shaking that was compounded by the violent shocks of an earthquake, registering 8.25 on the Richter scale. The quake resulted from a rupture in a part of the San Andreas fault, which lies underneath the earth's surface along the northern coast of California. Lasting little more than a minute, it wrecked 490 blocks, toppled a total of 25,000 buildings, broke open gas mains and cut off electric power lines throughout the Bay area. Perhaps more significant than the tremors and rumbling were the fires that took over the city for three days, leaving chaos and horror in its wake. The human tragedy included the deaths of between 450 and 700 people, with more than 250,000 left homeless. It was perhaps the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

In A CRACK IN THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Simon Winchester brings his inimitable take to this story, exploring not only what happened in Northern Califonia in 1906, but what we have learned since then about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake in the first place. Winchester's achievement is to position the quake's significance along the earth's geological timeline, while also showing the effect it had on the rest of 20th-century American history.

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Editorial Reviews

The story of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 has been told and retold by dozens of writers. Few of these authors, though, have possessed the narrative gifts or the scientific credentials of Simon Winchester. The author of Krakatoa and The Professor and the Madman is an Oxford University–trained geologist. He renders the cataclysm not merely as a one-minute earthquake followed by three days of deadly raging fires but as a geological event of lasting significance.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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A Crack in the Edge of the World

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Simon Winchester
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060571993

Chapter One

Chronicle: A Year of Living Dangerously

April, April,
Laugh thy golden laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy golden tears!

Sir William Watson, "April," 1903

So far as the ancients of china are concerned, 1906 was a year of the Fire Horse -- a time of grave unpredictability that comes along every six decades, and a time when all manner of strange events are inclined to occur. So to the seers and the hermits in their faraway mountain aeries such events as unrolled during the year would have come as no surprise. The rest of humankind was less well prepared, however, and were caught unawares. And what instruments we have agree that, so far as matters of the earth were concerned, 1906 was, yes, a very bad year indeed.

At least it was bad seismically speaking, being a very violent and a very lethal year. And the flurry of activity that marked what the numbers show to have been among the most ill behaved of times of the entire century began in the morning of the last day of January, when there was an enormous earthquake under the seabed of the Pacific Ocean.

It is said today to have been the greatest and most powerful earthquake that had until that moment ever been registered by the machines of humankind, and it struck a score of communities along the South American coast, devastating towns, inundating fields, and causing huge waves to tear out into the open ocean. Its shaking lasted for more than four minutes, and as many as 2,000 people are thought to have died in the disaster. Scores of thousands were injured and made homeless, and countless villages and at least one major port city were totally destroyed. The effects of the huge traveling sea waves from the event were felt as far away as San Diego, and in Honolulu Harbor in Hawaii all the steamboats waiting at anchor were spun around and carried upward on an enormous tsunami, which ebbed and flowed like a tide every few minutes, bringing confusion and alarm in its wake.

The epicenter of this earthquake, whose details are still pored over, is now calculated to have been some eighty miles due west of a prominent headland known as El Cabo de San Francisco, in Ecuador.

The town that was all but destroyed -- but which has since been rebuilt, only to be damaged many times subsequently -- was the island port of Tumaco, now a prominent oil terminal. But in 1906 it was a place where fishermen brought in sizable catches of tuna and sardines, and where traders hawked bales of rubber and pallets of cinchona bark, ready to be pressed for quinine. Tumaco is some thirty miles north of the Ecuadoran frontier, in Colombia.

Both Ecuador and Colombia suffered grievously from the earthquake, and even today people in the villages by the mangrove swamps of the estuaries speak fearfully of the morning when several hundred miles of their coastline, from the port of Guayaquil in the south to Buenaventura in the north, were devastated by the power of the water and the four minutes of ground shaking. Seismologists working in the 1930s, when Charles Richter created his scale of magnitude, estimated that the Ecuadoran-Colombian Earthquake of 1906 had a magnitude of 8.4, as high as anything then known; new calculations today suggest an even greater magnitude, of anything approaching 8.8 -- as bad a disaster as could possibly be imagined, whether it rated 8.4 or 8.8 or somewhere in between, for the two young republics struggling to their feet.

But the earth wasn't done yet. Sixteen days later there was another very large earthquake, this time on the island of St. Lucia, one of the four specks of Caribbean limestone, sand, and coral that make up what was then the British crown colony of the Windward Islands. According to interpretations of the damage data made in the 1970s, it rated somewhere between VII and VIII on the magnificently named Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik Earthquake Intensity Scale. Just as with the Ecuadoran event of the month before, this February earthquake had its epicenter in the sea too, somewhere off the northeastern tip of St. Lucia, and about twenty miles south of the French possession of Martinique.

This event, which collapsed buildings on both St. Lucia and Martinique, and which was felt by the populations of other islands in the eastern Caribbean, including Dominica and Grenada and St. Vincent, did not kill anyone. But it triggered a burst of smaller earthquakes -- probably a swarm of so-called volcanic earthquakes, which tend to occur when spurts of magma force their way up into the earth's upper crust, after the crust has been weakened by a deeper earthquake that has been caused by the movement of tectonic plates. This wave of lesser earth movements went on for two or three weeks, and for a while the placid life of an island whose people produced, according to the Colonial Office report of the time, a heavenly confection of "sugar, rum, cocoa, coconuts, bananas, bay oil, bay rum, spices and sea island cotton" was dangerously interrupted. The colonial governor, who had his headquarters in Grenada, was alerted, and a Royal Navy warship was dispatched from the squadron in Bermuda. Assistance was offered, assessments were made, and St. Lucia was from that moment on formally designated an earthquake-prone territory, risky enough to be of note but not sufficiently dangerous to be abandoned.

Still it was not over. Five days later a tremendous outbreak of ground shaking occurred in Shemakha, an ancient town of mosques and temples . . .


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Crack in the Edge of the World 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
cookiepam More than 1 year ago
This is the third book by Winchester that I have read... I find that his research is impeccable and his ability to make history both interesting and relevant is consistently good.
HeidiDew More than 1 year ago
This is far and away the best description of SanFrancisco's 1906 earthquake. Simon Winchester's writing is sometimes a little too detailed for the casual reader, but his explanations of geological occurrences are riveting. If you get through this one, try his Krakatoa book, too.
avanta7 More than 1 year ago
Simon Winchester delivers another stellar non-fiction study of an historical event and its ramifications. As he did in "Krakatoa", Winchester delves deeply into the geological record to help the reader understand the mechanism that produced California's fault lines, including the San Andreas fault, and those fault lines' part in creating California's topography. Along the way, he provides a succinct history of San Francisco, from its origin as a squalid tent city at the beginning of the Gold Rush through its transformation into a sophisticated and sparkling urban center. Throw in local politics, crooked developers, and a little regional rivalry, and voila! A highly entertaining narrative of one of the most significant earthquakes in California's long history. Good stuff, and highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book and subject matter are interesting but it is difficult to read. Illustrations were poor. Often they did not match what was supposed to have been illustrated.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm always hoping to find a gem in an otherwise obscure book. This was not one of them. Mostly a geology text, the average reader seeking a story about the San Francisco earthquate of 1906 will be disappointed. More than half way through this tome, we finally get less than 100 pages on the event itself and reactions from eyewitnesses. In addition to wearing out readers untrained in geology, the author constantly interrupts what flow of a story there is with footnotes. The footnotes themselves could be a book...and are generally more interesting than the text being footnoted. Not an interesting read about this historic event.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Didn't know much about the SF quake, but the author does a good job of educating. He enjoys his subjects and I hope he writes about the 04 tsunami someday.