Recently, I came across a link to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, which includes scans and full texts of many newspapers from around the state, dating from the 1840s into the present. It’s a fantastic resource, and yet somehow one I did not know about until only a month or so ago, never mind that it’s operated partly by UC Riverside. Surely, this database is enough to make any California history buff squeal.
But out of this whole database, I’m sure you can all guess which city’s papers I looked up first, and which dates.
Yes, the famous Call-Chronicle-Examiner is in there, the April 19th, 1906 joint issue between San Francisco’s three major newspapers, printed in Oakland after newspaper row at Third, Market, Kearny, and Geary got all but obliterated, detailing how the rest of the City was sure to be completely wiped off the face of the map before the day was out. It’s not just the famous headline there – it’s the whole thing, its full dire and frantic text. I was definitely excited to be able to read the full issue associated with that famous headline.
But, more fascinatingly, the San Francisco Call from April 18th, 1906 is also included in the archive, and a pristine scan at that.
I marvel at the fact that any copy of this paper still exists. I admittedly don’t know what the standard paper route distribution times were like in 1906, but given that the M7.8 mainshock occurred at 5:12 AM, I cannot imagine that it had been long since the copies had finished printing, let alone made it into the outer reaches of the city, where the flames did not reach. The burning of the Call Building is one of the most iconic images of the 1906 earthquake and fire. I am impressed that any piece of paper found its way out of the building and lasted long enough to make it onto a 21st-century scanner.
This individual copy of a newspaper’s survival story might be near heroic for a piece of ephemera, but what it does provide is a far more mundane look at the City that was nearly lost and forever changed in the predawn of its release date. And it was mundane – a slow news day, even. Enrico Caruso’s performance with the Metropolitan Opera, which is a key event described in so many histories of the disaster as a prime example of pre-quake opulence, does not even make an appearance until page 5 (apparently Caruso was great, but the production “as a whole, however, is lacking to some degree in distinction”). No, the front page news is of how an insurance magnate was arrested for driving on the wrong side of the street, how a rich merchant married a nurse who helped bring him back to health after long illness, how Standard Oil is worth a huge amount of money as a company (some things don’t change, earthquake or no earthquake), how the son of a local millionaire is in jail for forging his father’s signature on a check, how one toddler shot his playmate, but another child went on his own volition to earn money to support his family, how the Supreme Court has invalidated divorces granted by states in which the former couple did not reside. Later pages have news of bad weather in Shasta, of how one Reverend Crapsey (what a name!) is on probation by the church for violating Episcopal teachings in his sermons, how the Czar can finally pay some of his debts, how plans for the County Fair are going, and, even, how some people were lucky to escape a warehouse fire in North Beach. News is news – things that happened in the past day, things of some note or merely local interest. I do doubt, however, that many of the things in this paper would have had much bearing come April 19th, even if April 18th had been a completely normal day.
This newspaper shows a city bustling along in its day to day life, entertaining itself, worrying about its money, indulging in gasps over scandals, being tempted by flashy ads (towels are on sale – don’t forget yours!), cheering victory for the home team…This newspaper shows a city doing the kinds of things that cities do now, but the details within, the particular zeitgeist filling out those template topics, those were cut short the day this paper was printed. This is the last day of Old San Francisco, and the fact that it was just any other day drives home how completely sudden the earthquake was, how completely consuming the fire was. One last normal day, forty-five seconds of movement leading to three days of inferno leading to a long tail of recovery before the City could have template article slow news days again.
Of course nobody had any idea what was coming, or that they needed to tidy up their business by the end of April 17th. Nobody knew that earthquakes and faults had anything to do with each other before the 1906 earthquake. (Only a handful of geologists had a concept that such a thing as “The San Andreas Fault” even existed!) The fact that we know this correlation now, that we can study and model faults as the earthquake source, means we certainly have a better understanding of earthquake hazard in San Francisco, the rest of California, the rest of the world. But we still can’t predict the next Big One any better than we could in 1906. Haiti had no idea in 2010, Japan’s foreshocks still weren’t enough to make it anticipate what was about to happen in 2011. The next one in California, in San Francisco, will be just as sudden and unexpected. We won’t know it’s coming until it’s here.