The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires

By Dennis Smith

Viking. 294 pp. $25.95


America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins. 462 pp. $27.95

Like New Orleans, San Francisco is imprudently located. The ground beneath the city moves both violently and unpredictably. Until this past September, the earthquake and fires that devastated the region in April 1906 were the worst urban disaster in American history. When the last flames were extinguished, 522 blocks (some three-quarters of the city) had been obliterated. An estimated 3,000 people were dead; another 200,000 were left homeless.

But while nature dealt the first blow, the tragedy that followed was mostly man-made. When the earth stopped shaking and the fires started burning, the city's famously corrupt leadership faltered; the nightmare that followed would stretch, in horrible slow motion, over several days. The spectacle of a city surrounded by water burning itself to ashes has inspired hundreds of books, and as the disaster's centennial nears, two more titles join the stack: Dennis Smith's "San Francisco Is Burning" and Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World."

Smith, a former New York City firefighter and the author of "Report From Ground Zero," has structured his story around the firefight, but he ultimately takes in much more. Like any disaster narrative worth its salt, this one has its Cassandra: the National Board of Fire Underwriters, whose 1905 report on San Francisco's uninsurability cited an inadequate water supply, combustible wooden buildings, hilly terrain and narrow streets, concluding that the city had "violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up." What the underwriters did not know -- what no one at that time knew -- was that San Francisco lies along the border between two of the large, constantly shifting plates that make up the Earth's crust. The San Andreas fault, the roughly 800-mile section of that border that cuts through California, is one of the world's more seismically active zones.

Shortly after 5 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a section of the Pacific plate that had been locked against the North American plate suddenly slipped several feet northward, triggering a magnitude 7.8 earthquake with an epicenter a few miles west of San Francisco. From that moment, everything that could go wrong in the city did: The water mains broke; the capable and experienced fire chief was fatally wounded when his firehouse partially collapsed; the city's government floundered. Sensing an opening, the acting commander of the Army's Pacific division, Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, an impetuous Spanish-American War hero, marched his troops into the city. The mayor acceded to this power grab and even issued a proclamation authorizing Funston's troops and the city's police officers to kill looters and other troublemakers, thereby virtually ensuring bloodshed.

With hydrants running dry, Funston ordered soldiers and firemen to blast firebreaks. No one there that week knew how to effectively use explosives to interrupt a fire's path; untold damage was done by botched attempts. In many cases, flammable, low-grade explosives (such as gunpowder) were used in lieu of high-grade ones (dynamite), and the blasters targeted the wrong buildings at the wrong times, ultimately feeding and even starting more fires. Meanwhile, Funston, obsessed with maintaining law and order, diverted thousands of able bodies from rescue efforts, bucket brigades and other, more effective firefighting techniques. Those men who weren't blowing things up were ordered to guard private property -- even while that property was burning to ashes.

Smith's chronicle of this block-by-block fight against the fire is riveting. One does wish that he'd stuck to straightforward narration and not resorted to quite so much dramatization; a recitation of the facts is quite gripping enough. But it is a careful rendering overall, and a sobering one.

Winchester's effort is, on its face, more ambitious but achieves less. Over the course of "A Crack in the Edge of the World," he roams across the North American plate, from Iceland to the Midwest to California to Alaska, discussing everything from geophysics (he has an undergraduate degree in geology) to Neil Armstrong to the birth of Pentecostalism. He doesn't get to the earthquake until well into the second half of the book. Many readers of his best-selling "Krakatoa" and "The Professor and the Madman" clearly enjoyed this sort of ambling field trip. That much is a matter of taste. The extent to which Winchester's conclusions about 1906 deviate from recent historiography is not. "By all accounts," he writes of the military clampdown on the city, Funston "rose memorably to the occasion." Winchester does not consider the likelihood that Funston's actions may have cost many lives and contributed to the near-total destruction.

It's difficult to sort out how Winchester came to this and other similarly surprising conclusions. He uses footnotes as opportunities for further digression, not for identifying sources. His acknowledgments shed little more light: Those thanked include a National Park Service scientist with whom Winchester had "a brief and unexpected encounter in an elevator in a Dallas hotel" and a Nob Hill waiter with an "infectious enthusiasm for collecting San Francisco memorabilia." Despite several months' residency in the Bay Area, Winchester (unlike Smith) doesn't seem to have made much use of archival holdings there. (He does, however, list "Seabiscuit" among his sources.)

His interpretation of those sources he did consult is likewise perplexing. For example, he and Smith both describe as credible a San Francisco archivist's recent estimate that 3,000 people died in the earthquake and fires. But Winchester also claims that very few were killed by soldiers, police or vigilantes -- even though the archivist's casualty figure, which he accepts as credible, includes 500 such deaths. (Smith, for his part, sensibly concludes that shootings were widespread.)

After Hurricane Katrina, Winchester publicly compared that storm's aftermath to the events of April 1906, suggesting that the authorities had performed better the first time around. But what happened in San Francisco a hundred years ago is a cautionary tale -- the more so because it is a story that San Francisco's boosters were so keen to downplay. Although a historical committee appointed by the mayor in April 1906 compiled nearly two tons of paper documenting the disaster, the collection disappeared some years later. Not everyone believed the loss to be an accident. "A centralized depository of accounts and photographs that would serve as a source for an endless stream of articles and books about the collapse and burning of buildings, not to mention the deaths of so many people," writes Smith, "did not lend itself to the confidence and optimism that the city needed to go forward into the future."

San Franciscans, not unlike New Orleanians, recognize their city's existence as something of a guilty pleasure, one that closes its eyes to the inevitable. There was no small amount of hubris in the decision to rebuild a city on such unstable, if breathtaking, ground: Scientists tell us that there is at least a 60 percent chance of a large earthquake hitting the Bay Area in the next 30 years. And so, having opened his account with a foretelling of disaster, circa 1905, Smith closes with an updated version of the same: a more recent insurance industry analysis of San Francisco's situation that is, he writes, "as close to Doomsday reportage as I have ever seen."