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

by Simon Winchester


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The international bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa vividly brings to life the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that leveled a city symbolic of America's relentless western expansion. Simon Winchester has also fashioned an enthralling and informative informative look at the tumultuous subterranean world that produces earthquakes, the planet's most sudden and destructive force.

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, the earthquake wrecked 490 blocks, toppled a total of 25,000 buildings, broke open gas mains, cut off electric power lines throughout the Bay area, and effectively destroyed the gold rush capital that had stood there for a half century.

Perhaps more significant than the tremors and rumbling, which affected a swatch of California more than 200 miles long, 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 upwards of 700 people, with more than 250,000 left homeless. It was perhaps the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Simon Winchester brings his inimitable storytelling abilities -- as well as his unique understanding of geology -- to this extraordinary event, exploring not only what happened in northern California in 1906 but what we have learned since about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake in the first place. But his achievement is even greater: he positions the quake's significance along the earth's geological timeline and shows the effect it had on the rest of twentieth-century California and American history.

A Crack in the Edge of the World is the definitive account of the San Francisco earthquake. It is also a fascinating exploration of a legendary event that changed the way we look at the planet on which we live.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060572006
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/10/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 143,467
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.15(d)

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.


New York; Massachusetts; Scotland

Date of Birth:

September 28, 1944

Place of Birth:

London, England


M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

Read an Excerpt

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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Excerpted by permission.
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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author Simon Winchester gives a crisp and authoritative reading of 'A Crack in the Edge of the World,' and well he should as he not only is a spellbinding storyteller but also a geologist schooled in the mysteries of the destructions that can assail our world. The recent tragedy in South Asia reminds us once more of the horrific toll taken when our Earth is rent asunder, and through Winchester's eyes we see again the destruction that began on April 18, 1906 in San Francisco. While Winchester is certainly an accomplished scientist he relates the causes of this historic event with such clarity that lay listeners are able to easily grasp the ramifications of the theory of plate techtonics (a theory of geology which sets out to explain continental drift), while at the same time he weaves a fascinating narrative of what happened and what we have learned since that time about earthquakes, their causes and effects. It's well to remember that in 1906 San Francisco was the golden city, formed in part by the Gold Rush and the immigrants who poured in seeking their fortune. It was an exciting place, a place of promise. Then, quite suddenly, along with a number of other towns San Francisco was hit by an earthquake of tremendous proportions - 8.25 on the Richter scale. It took less than 60 seconds for it to ravage 490 blocks and turn 25,000 buildings to rubble. In effect, the city was toppled, soon to be reduced to smoldering ahes by the fires that followed. With 'A Crack in the Edge of the World' Winchester has made a valuable contribution to the archives of American history, and reminded us that we can be destroyed but never defeated. - Gail Cooke
BRKJAGUAR More than 1 year ago
In my plans to go to San Francisco recently, I decided to read Mr. Winchester's book- I had already read two others by him. He is a well researched, very intellectual writer, and extremely detailed. If you want to learn about tectonic plates, and particularly the San Andreas Fault this book would be quite excellent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World is a very interesting book and easy to read. However, if you are looking for a lot of details regarding the San Francisco Quake as well as the aftermath (rebuilding), this is not the book for you to purchase. A Crack in the Edge of the World has a great amount of details regarding plate tetonics, famous quakes world-wide, history of California and the early days of San Francisco. For me, I enjoyed this information and found it very useful for understanding the San Francisco quake as well as the California fault systems in general. My only criticism about the book was a statment he made regarding the use of camels by the US Army in the West and that being a total failure. In reality, it was not the camels that failed. It was the US Army that moved its attention to the Civil War and the camel "experiment" was over. Despite what Winchester says, it was a success and I would recommend The Last Camel Charge by Forrest Bryant Johnson for information regarding this little known episode on US History. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone that has begun collecting infromation about the 1906 San Francisco Quake as it is a great introduction to the subject.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winchester's account of the San Francisco's earthquake is quite good, when he finally comes to the point of telling its story. Unfortunately, to reach it, one has to endure Winchester's meandering across the globe or more precisely the American plate. I found Winchester's constant reference to the "modern" revolution of plate tectonics quite strange. To me, the 1960s sound ancient not modern. Plate tectonics is part of every school book and common knowledge to all but old fossils. Winchester's drama thus comes at least thirty years too late. I would have preferred a shorter, leaner account that put San Francisco and the catastrophe at its center. One of Winchester's weaker titles.
rsummer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Far more interesting than I had expected. The author goes off on many tangents and that added a great deal of interest to the whole story. Also embedded is a mini course on Geology which is quite useful to understand what is going on underneath us.
maunder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book on a cruise heading to San Francisco and it enhanced my appreciation of the history of the town enormously. I must confess, as Winchester says in his book, San Francisco and the effects the earthquake had on it, were what I expected the book to be about, but it has fascinating anecdotes and digressions about exploration and settlement in the American West, about th odd habits and proclivities of geologist and other scholars involved in the study of geology. This book is well worth a read. Extremely entertaining.
wdwilson3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The more I read Simon Winchester, the more I want to read. His style is accessible, human, and eclectic, dealing with complicated subjects in a manner that totally draws the reader into the topic. ¿A Crack in the Edge of the World,¿ you would assume from the cover blurb and photographs, focuses on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Yes and no. Winchester deals with a wider topic first, global plate tectonics, narrows the field to earthquakes, narrows it again to earthquakes in the United States, further to the San Andreas Fault, and then zeroes in on the ¿06 quake. Along the way, fascinating and informative digressions take place, little anecdotes that not only amused me but informed me.Winchester doesn¿t just focus on the physical geology of earthquakes, although there is plenty of that. A full social history of San Francisco, before and after the quake, is also presented, and as someone who knows a bit about the subject, I can say that the information is accurate and entertaining.Winchester¿s formal training at Cambridge was in geology, and, like John McPhee, took a sharp turn from that discipline into journalism. With both of them I find the same love of fact and detail, and luckily for us, the ability to weave facts into accessible prose. I¿m gathering more of Winchester¿s books to see what I¿ve missed.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What better book to read while on a trip to San Francisco than this one? A Crack in the Edge of the World tells the tale of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The fires that started just shortly after the earthquake exacerbated the devastation the earthquake created. It took three days for the fires to be completely put out. By that time, all of Chinatown and much of San Francisco was in rubble and ashes.It's a little scary to read a book about an awful earthquake while visiting the site of the earthquake, reading expert opinion that there is a 65% probability that another terrible earthquake will hit San Francisco before 2032.
williwhy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a reasonably interesting book about the San Francisco Earthquake and the fires that followed. It starts out very strongly, with some really engaging writing. But after a while it seems to lose steam. I found it to be a lot less interesting and very difficult to maintain enthusiasm after the quake itself. Where Krakatoa made good parallels to the modern world regularly, which seems a stretch on its face, this book should have had an easier time with that but fell down.
bookworm12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Simon's writing was dry, relying to heavily on facts to draw the reader in. Other authors have managed to blend the factual research with individual accounts in a way that flows easily. Erik Larson did an excellent job with Isaac's Storm (an account of a hurricane), but Winchester fails to connect with the reader. Instead his book feels clinical, referring to one person's account of the earthquake as an "anecdotal example." I loved learning more about San Francisco's history and the science behind the earthquake, but I wish he had made the book less like a term paper.
Cole_Hendron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winchester is sometimes guilty of confusing wordiness with descriptiveness. All his books have a plodding element that prevents them from joining the ranks of their betters. His writing needs a braver editor to confront this and push back. He neither succeeds as a rigorous or inspiring writer of science, nor as an insightful observer of socioeconomic history. But he tries. Enjoyable but fails to impress.
NellieMc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a great book as long as you are interested not only in the history of the SF earthquake, but also plate tectonics and other geological information. Very thorough and ultimately very scary for anyone living in the part of the country.
DaveFragments on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this and gave it away to a friend who really loved it. Be sure to get the cover that opens out into a poster.
dickcraig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have been to San Francisco a lot and it is hard to imagine the tremendous power lying just below the surface. Winchester again does his meticulous research to bring people and events alive.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I initially started listening to it, but Winchester¿s sentences are so long and adorned with such long lists of adjectives, and his writing so dense with information, that I constantly found myself re-winding the CD to get the full meaning. Nevertheless, as I found the subject matter quite fascinating, I promptly got the paper version of the book and continued.This book is about much more than the title suggests. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 serves as a focal point for a treatise in Earth geology, earthquake geology, American history, history of California, urban development and many other things that are however vaguely connected to any of the above mentioned topics. It must be one of the most comprehensibly researched books on the subject, and even though it digresses for hundreds of pages, it still makes a coherent and fascinating whole.
SarahJo4110 More than 1 year ago
Normally I enjoy every bit of Simon Winchester's writing. Though there were good tidbits spread occasionally throughout, the majority of this work was, I cringe to say, a complete bore.
suzi38 More than 1 year ago
Earthquakes happen and Winchester's book helps explain them. The floating 'islands' that we all live on are those plates, and their bumping and grinding together result in earthquakes. The book focuses more detail on the 1906 in San Francisco, but the explanations of why quakes occur is fascinating. Living in California I naturally have an interest in quakes. Winchester has a conversational tone to his writing that makes the complexies of plate tectonics understandable to the lay person without a geology major background.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A really great read. You'll not get into the beef until about page 140. That's okay, there is alot of interesting stuff about geology and it's history. Some interesting stuff about the California gold rush and some rather interesting information about what the Chinese had to endure in San Francisco in those times. I really enjoyed this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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.