Earthquake Storms: An Unauthorized Biography of the San Andreas Fault

Earthquake Storms: An Unauthorized Biography of the San Andreas Fault

by John Dvorak

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480447868
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 248,816
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Dr. John Dvorak, PhD, worked on volcanoes and earthquakes for the US Geological Survey, first at Mount St. Helens, then as a series of assignments in California, Hawaii, Italy, Indonesia, Central America, and Alaska. He has written cover stories for Scientific American, Physics Today, and Astronomy magazines, as well as a series of essays about earthquakes and volcanoes for American Scientist. Dvorak has taught at the University of Hawaii and lectured at UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis, the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Earthquake Storms

The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault

By John Dvorak


Copyright © 2014 John Dvorak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4786-8



We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860

On Wednesday morning, November 14, 1860, the Golden Age, a steamer from Panama, arrived in San Francisco. On the dock was a phalanx of city and state officials anxious to greet the ship's most anticipated passenger, Josiah Dwight Whitney of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Whitney, now 40, strong and stout with a ring of whiskers and a head of thinning hair, arrived with his wife of six years, the former Louisa Goddard of Manchester, England, their four-year- old daughter, Eleanor, and a long-time family maid, who, for the convenience of Mrs. Whitney's parrot, had agreed to be called "Mary."

Also traveling with Whitney were four young men who would be his assistants. There was Michael Eagan, who could do anything from camp cooking to laboratory chores. There were two recent college graduates, William Brewer and William Ashburner, who would serve as Whitney's scientific staff. The fourth man, only 19 and extremely near-sighted, was Chester Averill, whose family had sent him to California with Whitney as punishment for a student prank he had committed at Yale. Whitney would use him in a variety of ways—as a clerk, a mule driver, a barometrical reader, and a general factotum. Averill, for all his early misbehavior, would prove himself to be a most efficient and useful man.

At dockside, after the exchange of pleasantries and much fanfare, Whitney's wife, their daughter, and the maid were ushered to a private residence that had been prepared for them and where the Whitney family would reside for the next four years. Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney and his four assistants were taken to their new offices on the Montgomery block in the financial district of San Francisco so that they could begin work immediately—to compiling and completing a geological survey of the entire state of California.

The need for such a survey was self-evident among those who charged themselves with ensuring California's—and their own—financial future. The discovery of gold in 1848 had set off a race for riches, but gold production peaked quickly, so that by the end of the first decade it was barely half what it had been at the maximum. This worried the economic and political leaders of California who knew that new gold strikes were being made elsewhere—at the Comstock Lode in Nevada and near Pike's Peak in Colorado, both in 1858, and at Bodie, California, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in 1859—discoveries that convinced them that additional mineral riches must also still lie within their state. It was just a matter of finding them. But because it seemed that every sand bank of every stream had already been sluiced and every stone that lay in every outwash plain had been overturned and examined, it was agreed that a more concerted, less haphazard approach had to be taken. And so it was decided that the state of California would hire a bona fide rock expert. But how to find one?

Though several California miners clamored for the job, no less a political figure than the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Stephen Johnson Field, decided he would search outside the state for the right man. Justice Field wrote to the presidents of several major colleges on the East Coast, asking who was the country's foremost authority on mineral ores. The responses were unanimous: Josiah Whitney, author of the widely acclaimed The Metallic Wealth of the United States.

Originally educated as a chemist at Yale College, after his graduation Whitney was taken aside by his father, who told his son that it was time he chose a profession, one that would insure sufficient income to support himself and a family. The law, his father said, would be an appropriate one. At first, Whitney dutifully followed his father's advice—until he met and had a private conversation with the man who was regarded as the greatest geologist of the age, Charles Lyell of King's College in London.

It was 1841 and Whitney was headed to Cambridge and preparing to enter Harvard Law School when he heard that Lyell, author of the influential and highly popular Principles of Geology, first published in 1830, was giving a lecture at the Odeon Theater in Boston. Whitney attended, as did more than a thousand other people. Lyell, unfortunately, had a cold that night and he spoke hesitantly and slowly. Yet despite these faults, Lyell displayed a clarity of thought that carried his audience, including Whitney. Afterwards, Whitney sought out the great man and spent an hour with him. Whitney left convinced that he should forgo a study of the law and pursue the more adventurous—though obviously less financially rewarding—science of geology. Perhaps, Lyell suggested, Whitney might make a living if he focused on the search for ore deposits.

Whitney took the advice and, though his father objected, spent the next five years in Europe, traveling through England, France, Germany, and Italy. He developed a special interest in mountains, crossing the Alps five times in five different places. He spent time in Russia, traveling as far east as Moscow. In all of these countries, he sought out authorities and discussed with them theories about the growth of mountains, the development of canyons, and the causes of eruptions and earthquakes. In 1847, six years after meeting Lyell, Whitney completed his tour of Europe and returned to the United States, where he found work searching for copper deposits on the upper peninsula of Michigan. That led him to compile all that was known of the mineral wealth of the United States, which he published in book form in 1854.

In 1855, he began working for the state of Iowa, looking for mineral wealth. In 1859, the state of Wisconsin hired him to search for iron and lead deposits. He spent winter months preparing reports at his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. In the spring of 1860, a letter arrived from Chief Justice Field offering him the newly created position of California's state geologist. Seeing an opportunity to work in the most mineral-rich state in the union, Whitney accepted immediately.

Just five days after his arrival in San Francisco, Whitney traveled by a special buggy to Sacramento for a private meeting with Governor John Downey, a Los Angeles man. During the meeting, the governor assured Whitney that he and his assistants could go anywhere—on public or private lands—request anyone's assistance, use any conveyance—they were given free passage on any train that ran within the state and on any ship that sailed along the coast or the inland waters—and could call upon any resource to complete their geologic survey and to prepare their reports.

The governor also had a personal request. Reports had recently arrived in Sacramento that a deposit of tin ore of "fabulous wealth" had been discovered in the southern part of the state near modern-day Riverside. Could Whitney keep the governor personally advised as to the potential of this discovery?

Whitney said he could not; he told the governor that whatever he learned about California's geology would be available to everyone equally and at the same time. His refusal—so William Brewer, one of the assistants, would write later—was the beginning of what, over the years, would develop into a full-blown antagonism between the governor and the men of California's Geological Survey.

But for now, as the geologic work was ready to commence, California politicians and businessmen and other prominent citizens came around often to the Montgomery office to become acquainted with Whitney and his assistants and to find out what they were doing—and to learn what they were discovering. Newspaper editors became especially fond of "the scientific men from Massachusetts," quoting them at every opportunity. By the end of their first month in California, the five men were already well known, though not one of them had yet sampled or studied a single rock.

By January 1861, Whitney and his assistants had assembled enough equipment to begin serious fieldwork. They had land-surveying instruments they'd brought from the East Coast that would be used to make topographic maps, a key element to conducting a geologic survey. In California, they purchased a medium-sized wagon with heavy braces, because few roads yet existed in the state. They also purchased a team of four strong mules to pull the wagon and an additional six mules for the men to ride and to carry extra equipment. Each man was issued a revolver and a large knife. Two carbines and two double-barreled rifles were included, considered essential parts of the camp gear. And each man was instructed that, whenever he left camp or went into a town, he was to carry a gun, knowing that if unscrupulous men saw that he was well armed, they would leave him alone.

Once they got under way, the five men soon discarded their East Coast attire, which had devolved into rags, torn apart by chaparral and jagged rocks, and adopted the rugged denim pants and rough flannel shirts of the gold miners. They also acquired cowhide boots and broad- brimmed hats. And though when he was at home Whitney insisted that clean sheets be placed on his bed every day and refused to wipe his hands twice on the same towel, when in the field he, as well as the others, learned to sleep in the open on oilcloth and to cover himself with a single blanket.

They cooked for themselves and ate whatever was at hand. They became skilled at washing clothes in muddy creeks and in carrying delicate mapping instruments up steep slopes in all weather conditions. In reading through their journals, one learns that they also came to handle, even to admire, the cantankerous California mule.

For four years, Whitney and his team of assistants crossed the state, descending into every major river valley and climbing to the crest of every major mountain range. Their travels and accomplishments were glorified in local newspapers. Whenever they passed close to a sizable town, community leaders sought them out, anxious to associate themselves with Whitney and his team of geologists.

In 1864, in recognition of his leadership, his men named the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—which is also the highest point in the contiguous 48 states—Mount Whitney. The same year, this expert on mineral ores issued his first major report. Its contents shocked the people of California when they read it because, instead of telling where additional mineral deposits might be found, this 236-page tome described something else—paleontology!

The public's outcry was immediate: Why had so much public money been used to uncover the bones of long-extinct reptiles, to illustrate the imprinted skeletons of long-dead fish, and to describe the shells of useless clams? In scanning through the hundreds of pages of text based on four years of intense fieldwork, one finds the word "gold" only three times and the words "wealth" and "riches" not at all.

One outraged citizen carried the tome to the state assembly and antagonized legislators in their offices by reading sections to them. And the legislators reacted. They reduced both Whitney's annual salary and his budget by half. He responded by leaving the state and returning to Massachusetts, where Harvard College honored him with a professorship. It was there, in the halls of the nation's oldest and most distinguished academic institution, that Whitney prepared a second report that he entitled simply Geology.

The people of California read the second tome with great interest. At least this time there were nearly 200 pages—the middle third of the report—that described the gold-bearing regions of the state, focusing, not unexpectedly, on the Mother Lode, the 100-mile-long stretch at the base of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains where the most productive veins of gold had been discovered in January 1848. The report told how Whitney and his men had visited almost every major gold field in the state and how they had entered almost every major mine. The report described the geologic setting of each one, though here Whitney committed an unforgivable offense: Showing either an ignorance of or a total disregard for political realities, he pronounced more than half of the mining claims in the state as either worthless or unproductive. And, more than that, there was an important element missing from the report: There was no indication where additional gold might be found.

This lack of telling where new gold strikes might be made caused the state legislators to act again. This time, they cut Whitney's salary and his budget to zero. Now a Harvard professor, Whitney continued to live in Massachusetts, making an occasional trip to California to continue his fieldwork, his efforts now supported by private sponsors in New England and by benefactors of Harvard's museums.

In 1874, still without any new prospects as to where additional mineral ores might be found, the California state assembly voted to formally end the job of state geologist.

* * *

Today Whitney's Geology is regarded as a masterpiece, exquisitely written and describing not only the geology of California but also its fauna and flora, much of it now gone. Whitney recounts a visit to Yosemite when the valley was still pristine. He is the first to use the term "High Sierra." And he tells of personal adventures in confronting flash floods and assisting local lawmen who were searching for desperadoes. One of the few errors in his Geology is his assessment of the potential for an oil industry in California in which he stated that the oil-rich deposits known along the coast would never be of commercial value.

Because the survey work was begun during winter months, he and his assistants had started in the southern part of the state, where they took time, as the governor had requested, to investigate rumors of the discovery of a major tin deposit south of the San Bernardino Mountains.

By the time they arrived, hundreds of claims had already been made, covering all the hills and ridges for miles around. But as far as Whitney could determine, a tin-bearing mineral, cassiterite, could only be found at one spot: at the Cajalco Mine. And that mine, at the time he visited, consisted of a single shaft dug down only 36 feet and was mostly filled with water.

Nevertheless, Whitney collected rock samples from the Cajalco Mine and sent them to Boston and to New York to be assayed. The results were as he predicted: Though one sample yielded 60% metal, the others showed only small amounts. In all, Whitney thought the discovery was interesting—the Cajalco Mine is the only known occurrence of tin ore along the Pacific coast north of Mexico—but of little commercial value, a judgment borne out by a century of repeated attempts to extract ore from the mine.

It was fortunate—or perhaps unfortunate—that the first glimpse that Whitney had of California's geology was in the region around the Cajalco Mine because here the geology is extremely complex. There are no simple horizontal strata, arranged in layer-cake fashion, as visible in places like the Grand Canyon, indicative of what much of the earth looks like beneath our feet, and no simple upturned rocks and a few great folds that are so prevalent in the eastern half of the United States and across Europe, areas that Whitney had already studied. Instead, what he saw south of the San Bernardino Mountains was, in his words, "a Gordian knot," "a curious snarl." Today we understand the cause for this geologic maelstrom: It is the San Andreas Fault.

Whitney crossed the San Andreas Fault many times during his years of exploration, though he never recognized any of the features as indicating a geologic fault—nor would anyone for another 30 years. Today we see the same landscape and the same features with different eyes.

At San Bernardino, north of the Cajalco Mine, one can see three long mountain ranges. To the west are the San Gabriel Mountains. Immediately to the north and extending to the east are the San Bernardino Mountains. Separating them is a low area known as Cajon Pass, a corridor where vital lifelines pass—oil and water pipelines, electrical power lines, and the I-15 freeway that links Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Cajon Pass exists because the San Andreas Fault runs through it, forming the boundary between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains.


Excerpted from Earthquake Storms by John Dvorak. Copyright © 2014 John Dvorak. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: The Swimmer,
Chapter 1: A Noble Earthquake,
Chapter 2: No Occasion for Alarm,
Chapter 3: A Tumult of Motions and Noises,
Chapter 4: Bridging "the Golden Gate",
Chapter 5: Blue Cut and the Mormon Rocks,
Chapter 6: The Troubled World of Charles Richter,
Chapter 7: Of Petrol and Pinnacles,
Chapter 8: A Transformative Idea,
Chapter 9: To Quake or Not to Quake,
Chapter 10: Ancient Tremors,
Chapter 11: Disassembling California,
Chapter 12: Earthquake Storms,
Epilogue: Bodega Bay,
Image Gallery,

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