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The Great San Francisco Earthquake
Program Transcript

Sam Faix: The bed was sliding around the room like a kite.

Dorthea Klahn: We grabbed each other and said, "This is the end of the world!"

Newton Kevie: The front of the building just collapsed; the earth opened up and down it went.

Narrator: San Francisco, 1906. Will Irwin, the journalist, had described it before the great calamity as: "the gayest, lightest hearted, most pleasurable loving city of the Western continent."

Willie Britt, a fight manager, said: "I'd rather be a busted lamp post on Battery Street, San Francisco, than the Waldorf Astoria in New York."

Rudyard Kipling said of this place: "San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited by perfectly insane people ... whose women are of remarkable beauty."

Four hundred thousand people lived in this city. It was the ninth largest in the nation and the biggest in the West. Her people hailed from all over the world. The president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, had come here in the spring of 1903. The Golden Gate Band played patriotic tunes. Fifty thousand school children cheered along Van Ness Avenue.

Here, Mr. Roosevelt said, was "the garden of the Lord" and the "West of the West." In the "West of the West" no one dreamed that San Francisco would soon be destroyed.

The big quake of 1865 was just a distant memory -- an amusing part of the city folklore. The city had practically burned to the ground six times in its early days. But this legacy, too, seemed safely in the past. The modern fire department was believed to be invincible. Many of the people who put their faith in the city were newcomers. One-third of the population had been born on foreign soil. Another third were the children of immigrants.

Cora Luchetti: When my father arrived here from Italy, he immediately got a job out on Fillmore Street. Our store was directly across from a bakery, known as the Wikery Bakery. My mother arrived and uh, found a job right near where my dad was working. He delivered the vegetables, and she probably opened the back door. So that's how they met.

Narrator: For the thousands of people who had disembarked at her wharves since the days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a magnet -- a kind of promised land at the end of the rainbow. The first home for many on American soil was in the district called "South of Market." Here were cheap wood tenements, packed side-by-side like a house of cards. They would be the first to burn.

Newton Kevie: Them little streets were like colonies. All the Irish were settled in one little neighborhood, and the Dutch would settle in another neighborhood, and the Jews would settle in another neighborhood. And it was just a neighborly party -- everybody knew everybody else.

Narrator: North of Market was a city within the city. Twenty-thousand Chinese lived here.

Edwar Lee: Chinatown was very, ah, circumscribed, in that it was only about five-square blocks at that time, and we're not supposed to wander beyond Powell Street or Broadway on the north.

Narrator: The Chinese ghetto was portrayed by the popular press as a barbaric and dangerous place, whose inhabitants worshipped pagan gods and indulged in fantastical vices. They ate strange foods and lived in a world cloaked in mystery and secrecy. On the inside it was rather less romantic. A few were influential merchants, traders of silks, tea, and cheap human labor.

Chinese laborers had started coming to California around the time of the Gold Rush. "Gold Mountain Men," they were called back home in Canton. In San Francisco they became workers in sweatshops, servants in the houses of the rich. There was an invisible wall around Chinatown -- a wall of racial prejudice.

Edwar Lee: Well, my parents -- the minute they landed in San Francisco from China they just stayed in Chinatown and hardly ever got out of Chinatown.

One time, I -- as a little boy -- I wandered beyond Pacific Avenue and I was beaten by some Italian boys. We knew that we were hated as a people. And so we generally tried to stay aloof, and be by ourselves.

Narrator: Just a few minutes walk and half a world away from Chinatown was the Palace Hotel. If you had the money when you came to town, it was the place to stay. There was cut glass and marble in every corridor. And the incredible luxury of telephones and bathtubs in every room. There was also the most modern system of fire alarms and sprinklers. The Palace was built to be indestructible. But so was the Titanic.

Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer, checked in here the night before the quake. He arrived with 54 steamer trunks and 50 self-portraits. That evening, Caruso stepped on stage to sing Don Jose in Carmen in San Francisco's Grand Opera House.

If you couldn't get tickets to the opera, you could go to a gala costume carnival on skates where Miss Floria was crowned the "Queen of the Rollers." In the district called Barbary Coast, nickelodeons showed scandalous moving pictures. The coast was described by one indignant critic as:

Barbary Coast Critic: That sink of moral pollution, whose reefs are strewn with human wrecks. Here blear-eyed men drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, and engage in vulgar conduct. Here are debauchery, disease, insanity, blasphemy, death and Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass.

Narrator: The men on the vice-squad were ever vigilant -- provided no one paid them not to be. The mayor of San Francisco, Eugene Schmitz, was a front man for a corrupt city boss. The board of supervisors were content to receive their portion of the bribes. It was said they were so eager to better their position, they would eat the paint off a house. This was City Hall.

But serious "business" was done in a little pub on the south side of Market. There, city politicians wheeled and dealed with those who needed favors and who could afford to pay for them.

Newton Kevie: They're all crooks! There was a lot of graft going on in them days, but people took it for granted -- everybody was graftin' so it didn't make any difference.

Narrator: Schmitz and his cronies controlled the grandest city west of the Mississippi. A few dozen big hotels, offices, and banks were built of bricks, steel and masonry. Most everything else was built of wood. San Francisco was a city waiting to burn.

In 1906, the fire alarm, the response, the men and the equipment worked exactly the way they are portrayed in this early silent film.

Chief William Murray: Everything was automatic in the firehouse. The lights lit on the first strike of the bell. When the bell hit, the lights lit, that let go. The horses moved out under the collars, they snapped the collars, the drivers in the seat, and they're on the street. They were very fast.

Narrator: But in spite of everything, in spite of San Francisco's 38 steam engine companies, 320 horses and 584 firemen, who had already distinguished themselves as the city's home grown heroes, the fire department would be hard-pressed to face the coming disaster.

Just months before the earthquake, the National Board of Fire Underwriters stated in a report that, "San Francisco has violated all underwriting precedents by not burning up. That it has not done so already is largely due to the vigilance of the fire department which cannot be relied upon to indefinitely stave off the inevitable." The underwriters were about to be proven correct.

Dorthea Klahn: I was sleeping with my mother and we thought it was the end of the world. We grabbed each other and s--- pulled the covers over our heads and said, "This is the end of the world!" And of course we were scared to death.

Sam Faix: We tried to stand up or do somethin', but we couldn't get -- we had to hang on for dear life. Because as I said, the bed was flying around the room like a, like a kite.

Cora Luchetti: We tried to get out the back kitchen door onto our porch, but the chimney was broken down and the bricks were all against the door. We couldn't get out.

Narrator: The quake hit San Francisco on Wednesday, April 18, at precisely 12 minutes past five o'clock in the morning. But San Francisco wasn't the only place to get hit. For more than 200 miles along the San Andreas Fault, the crust of the earth slipped as much as 21 feet. In San Jose, 8000 people were homeless. Santa Rosa, a town of 7000, was leveled. Trees were uprooted. Fences curved. And in some place the earth flowed like water. The quake had the impact of six million tons of TNT or roughly 12,000 times the power of the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. It remains the greatest natural disaster suffered by a North American city.

Back in San Francisco, in the hours just after the quake, people wandered in the streets in confusion. "They had a singular hurt expression," remarked one observer," as if a good friend had suddenly wronged them." In some districts, people had no idea of the amount of damage that had been done. At Valencia Station, commuters waited impatiently for a train that would never come. Others, including Sam Faix, set out and walked to work.

Sam Faix: But when I got there, the building stood like a drunken man, there. And the boss was there, and he says, "Sam would you mind standing here and watching the building?" And I says, "It's no use watching it. There's nothing to steal!"

Newton Kevie: And there were people walking along, well some with wheelbarrows and their clothes. And some with their parrots, and their canaries and what have you -- anything they could carry. I even saw a guy rolling a barrel of whiskey along.

Narrator: The number of people killed by the earthquake was not yet known -- or even guessed at. But it was clear that many of the worst casualties were in the neighborhoods south of Market. An estimated 30 to 80 people were crushed in the Valencia Hotel. Sam Faix was there.

Sam Faix: A fellow come out of the third floor star-spender naked, not a stitch on him -- out of the window. And he stood on the fire escape. And I bent over to a, put a, to one of the firemen, and I says, "Say, you better see what you can do with that poor devil, because he's liable to get hurt." It didn't take five minutes, since that fellow got outta there, when the whole floor, everything -- crashed into the basement with a roar. God, what a noise that made! They had a big party the night before there, and the majority was still asleep -- so they slept there for good.

Cora Luchetti: And my mother kept telling the children, she says, "I just have a feeling something happened to your father." And about a half an hour later, my mother sees the horse and wagon coming back. And driven by a strange person. So my mother knew that was the end. And she got the news that my father had been killed in the quake.

Narrator: All over the Mission District tenements folded in "like pasteboard." From the wreckage the cries of the trapped and injured could be heard. Those who survived could not be helped at the city's hospitals which had sustained major damages in the quake. They were taken to the dance hall where only last night Miss Floria had reigned as the "Roller Queen."

Ziona Rogoway: I rode around with my father. I sat on the -- next to the driver, on the driver's seat while he went around with his wagon looking for injured people who had not been found. And then we, we couldn't find Nellie after that. Nellie was the horse. And I was crying, "Where is Nellie? Where is Nellie?" I never have learned what happened to Nellie, never have learned.

Narrator: What no one yet realized that morning was that the greatest tragedy of San Francisco was yet to unfold. The shock had snapped gas mains and toppled chimneys. Fifty fires had started almost simultaneously.

Although the city's telephone and central alarm system were destroyed, the individual fire brigades flew into action. But when they arrived on the scene, there was no water. The quake had broken almost all water mains coming into the city. Hydrants gave off a trickle and then ran dry.

By 7:00 a.m., Mayor Schmitz had received status reports from the police and fire departments. Half a dozen fires were raging out of control. The mayor issued a proclamation stating that looters would be shot on sight. He also deputized special police whose actions would later be questioned.

But the real power lay in the hands of Brigadier General Frederick Funston, the ranking army officer in San Francisco. Funston commandeered automobiles and mustered troops. By 8:00 a.m., more than 1700 men had arrived downtown. Their orders were to fight the fire, evacuate citizens, and prevent crimes. But in the chaos that followed the soldiers themselves were seen looting. By the time troops were patrolling the streets, a good part of the city was in flames.

At about 9:00 a.m. someone living in the Hayes Valley section kindled a fire to cook breakfast -- innocent of the fact that the quake had damaged their chimney. This was the result. By noon the Ham and Eggs Fire, as it came to be known, was on its way to claiming a good part of the city.

Sam Faix: My friend and me, we took a hike over between 4th and 5th on Fulsom Street. Because there was -- a little wooden church was burning. Flames were just shootin' up. And we stood watching that little church burning. It was horrible.

Chief Murray: The fire was really off and running by this time. So we found, we got down to a building that was going and I can recall the chief who was in command yelling that the, the front of the building was coming out, the wall was collapsing. So a police officer decided that what we were doin' down there wasn't a right proper place to be and he said, "Where are you from?" We said, "Telegraph Hill." "Well go on home," and sent us back up the hill.

Narrator: It was believed many of the modern office buildings could withstand the flames. Most prominent: the Call Building, one of America's first skyscrapers. The call caught shortly after 10:30am. It burned from the top down, its elevator shafts acting like flues. A few firemen were trapped on the upper floors and incinerated.

About this time the Funston decided that the only hope of stopping the destruction was to use dynamite to create a fire break. At 1:00pm, a demolition team raced across Market to blow up the Monadanock Building. The dynamite didn't work. All that was accomplished was to gut the interior of the building without bringing it down. Around the corner a telegraph operator tapped out San Francisco's last message to the outside world.

Audio Tape

Telegraph Operator: 2:30 p.m. The city practically ruined by fire. It's within half a block of us. The Call Building is burned out entirely. The Examiner Building just fell in a heap. Fire all around us in every direction. Destruction by earthquake something frightful. They are blowing up standing buildings that are in the path of flames with dynamite. No water. It's awful. I want to get out of here or be blown up.

Narrator: By 3:00 p.m., all telegraph lines were down. The city was isolated. Black powder and dynamite in the hands of inexperienced men often spread the fire rather than contained it.

Archive footage, Alice Fun: All day long you hear those dynamite going, bing, bing, bang, you know. All over. We always thought that was a big waste.

Narrator: Next to the Manadanock was the Palace where Caruso had spent the night. It withstood the flames until 3:30 when its special sprinkler system ran dry. Bartenders gave away bottles of fine wine, while National Guardsmen made a last ditch effort to save the hotel. By 5:00 p.m., it was gone. Towards the afternoon, in certain parts of the city, the fire began to assume the characteristics of a fire storm. The fire generated its own superheated wind, which causes spontaneous combustion. A police officer described seeing a tongue of flame catch three people: "It crackled just like a million firecrackers," he said, "and it was low to the ground. The flame seemed to pass through them. When it had gone they were just balls of fire on the ground."

Alice Fun: I remember seeing the fire. And, uh, uh, you know, all around. There was smoke and everything. I remember looking at the sun, or moon, I don't remember if it was the sun or moon, but it was very red. And I remember having nightmares for a long time remembering that, all that redness in the moon or sun.

Narrator: The fire, by late afternoon, had not only cut San Francisco off from the rest of the world -- all lines of communication within the city were severed. Untrained "deputies" guarded banks and stores and took the law into their own hands. And soldiers patrolled the streets without their commanding officers. By nightfall they had evacuated thousands of people.

Alice Fun: Very soon we had people knocking at our door. And wanting to come in because there, they wanted people to get out, evacuate. And um, there was solders and uh, we had to get out. And therefore led us to, uh, Washington Square. And we, we were put up there, uh, just assigned a place where we were to be in that section.

Narrator: In the panic, soldiers barred many from saving their possessions, hours before the fires reached their district.

Sam Faix: One fellow says: "I'm gonna take a hike over Market Street." And the soldier told him, "No you're not; nobody goes over Market Street." He says, "Who's gonna stop me?" And the soldier says, "I will! Because if ya insist on goin', I'll put a bullet through you."

Narrator: Kids who were found looting were spared and publicly humiliated. They were forced to wear placards proclaiming their crime in the streets of San Francisco. Later, there would be persistent reports of shootings.

Walter Devecchi: We got down to Broadway and we heard somebody screaming up there. And when we walked back there and the guy starts running and the, then the closest sentry says, "Halt! Otherwise I'll shoot." So he shot because he wouldn't halt, see.

Narrator: Towards evening a young newspaper reporter named Jack London surveyed the scene. "I knew it was all doomed," he wrote. "I walked for miles and miles through empty blocks." In the intense heat of the city two troopers sat on their horses and watched. Surrender was complete. Thousands of people were huddled in open squares and parks while the fire raged unchecked through surrounding neighborhoods. Others watched from rooftops on Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill. By this time it seemed to many there was nothing one could do but watch.

Chief Murray: That night we went up on top of the hill, my mother and I, and the whole city was burning. All south of Market and all along the waterfront was going and she said to me, "Well, Will, you'll now be a pioneer of new San Francisco."

Narrator: By 10:00 p.m., 250 city blocks had gone up in flames. South of Market was gone. The financial district was gone. Chinatown and the Barbary Coast would burn in the night. Reports began to reach the outside world. But it would take days before anyone, including the people who lived through it, could fully grasp what was happening. The headlines were part fact and part fiction.

At dawn on April 19, 24 hours after the earthquake, people who had lost their homes gathered in the streets. They seemed shell-shocked, unwilling or unable to go any further. Fortunes, factories, homes had all been swept away. Word got around that boats were taking people across the bay, and thousands began the long trek down Market Street to the Ferry Building.

Edwar Lee: My parents were able to hire a wagon. And we told them we wanted to go to the, uh, waterfront to take a boat over to Richmond. And they people demanded $20 for the ride, and that was quite a sum of money in those days, because the average Chinese earn about $15 a month.

Narrator: Others dragged trunks for miles or carried what they could on their backs. Messages to lost friends and relatives were chalked on the sides of the buildings. Another reporter joined a stream of refugees. He wrote: "The street seemed dead, not recently dead but as if buried by some cataclysm of long ago and then dug out of the lava. Everywhere there was smoke, a contortion of stone, and a great silence." At the end of the long march when people finally got to the Ferry Building, they were told they could only take what they could carry in their arms.

By mid-day on April 19, 250,000 were homeless. Over 3000 were dead. But that was only the beginning. The city would burn for another two days.

When the fire had burned itself out, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, arrived in what was left of San Francisco. He wrote: "The hills rolled to the seas as bare as when the pioneers landed in '49. But now they are a blackened waste. North to the bay, west to the Mission -- nothing but ruins. The wholesale district is destroyed, the manufacturing district, the financial district, and the waterfront section -- all destroyed. I will not attempt any description of this scene; I do not believe that any words of mine could convey the slightest comprehension of the wreck and ruin."

Chief Murray: Took us out. Took, uh, the whole hill out. And we had nothing up there. All they could remember, uh, when my mother took me up after the fire, we saw where we lived. All that was left was the, the foundation, the concrete foundation. We found one thing, and that was a little sewing machine that you turned around by hand, for a little girl that my sister had it. And that was in the ruins. And that was about all we saved out of that.

Archive film, William Randolph Hearst: One must free the mind of the idea that there has been a fire in San Francisco and must realize that there had been a fire of San Francisco. The whole city has gone up in one mighty blaze. The calamity seems overwhelming and yet the people are not overwhelmed. Everything has been destroyed except that indomitable American pluck. In a month there will be the beginning of a new and splendid city. In three years it will be built and busy.

Narrator: Finding loved ones would take days. Hundreds prayed they would not find them on the lists of the coroner who now supervised the exhuming of hastily buried corpses in Portsmouth Square.

Food was short at first. Men scavenged for canned goods in the debris. Drinking water was a precious commodity. But even before the fire had burned out, supplies began to flood the city. Military garrisons from Portland and Seattle sent 900,000 rations.

A relief train arrived from Los Angeles. Hearst mobilized the resources of his newspapers and dispatched 12 trains from New York. Congress appropriated one million dollars. Pledges of money came from cities, town and organizations all over the country. Soup kitchens cropped up amid the ruins. And everyone waited in lines.

Newton Kevie: My father and I, many a time, got to the -- stood in line, from the early morning until maybe four or five o'clock in the afternoon and when you get to the counter where they were handing it out, well: "Sorry, it's all gone." Then you had to wait until the next day to get in line. And that's the way it went.

Narrator: Standing in bread lines, meat lines, soup lines, any kind of line, became the central activity of life. Everyone had to do it. Soldiers made sure nobody cheated. Some people joked about it. Others didn't think it was so funny. A few were inspired to write poetry:

Irish Actress:
It ain't such a terrible long time ago
that Mrs. Van Bergen and me
Though livin' near by to each other, y'know
Was strangers for all ye could see.
For she had a grand house and horses to drive,
And a wee rented cottage was mine,
But now we need rations to keep us alive
An' we're standing together in line.

Narrator: If you weren't standing in line you were probably digging out, whether you liked it or not.

Walter Devecchi: My father was standing on the, the curb right in front of our, the tents, and, and an army man came along and my father was very courtesy and he says, "Good morning, Captain." And he says, "You workin'?" My father says, "No sir." And he says, "Come with me."

Newton Kevie: Anybody they caught walkin' the streets was handed a shovel and followed the truck for five or six blocks, until they picked up another guy. Then they let the last guy loose, and that's the way it went on. They worked 'til 6 o'clock, maybe.

Narrator: Within a week of the end of the fire, over 200,000 people found shelter in camps that had sprung up in the parks and squares of the city. Newspapers in San Francisco portrayed the life of the camps as something downright heroic. Here again were frontier men and women reduced to the bare necessities of life, toughing it out like the stalwart pioneers of '49.

Chief Murray: We were cooking out in the front of tents, you know. And the sand would blow into the beans and it was an awful mess. And the grit of that sand in the beans -- I could never look a bean in the face for many years after that!

Narrator: While people started life over again in the camps, the city -- its government, utilities and business -- struggled to get back on its feet. City Hall was devastated. The quake had exposed fake "marble" columns -- evidence of underhanded deals with the contractors who had built it -- at the inflated cost of $7 million. Mayor Schmitz and his "paint-eating" cronies would eventually be deposed. But for the time being, he still enjoyed immense popularity. And it seemed that the quake had shocked him into his best behavior. With the grim memory of the Ham and Eggs Fire, the Mayor ordered everyone who still had a home to cook on the curb until the inspectors could check their chimneys.

Another big problem was sanitation. With sewers blocked, epidemics were feared. Rats flushed from the sewers could carry the Bubonic Plague.

John Conlon: If it's one thing my mother didn't like, it was rats. We had five ash cans for all our refugees. When we'd come back at noontime for lunch, I'd inspect the ash cans without the covers to see if a rat had gotten in, and of course if he got in one, he couldn't get out. My dog, Sandy, a fox terrier, would be standing there with his tail wagging, and if there was a rat in any of the cans, I'd tip it over and the rat would jump out, and Sandy would kill him. So I would take the rat over to this teenager, and he'd take it, I guess, down to the emergency hospital. And the city was paying a bounty on all the dead rats. And, uh, what he'd do, is he'd give us a couple of pieces of candy and he'd collect the bounty.

Narrator: The main post office survived. Mail service resumed almost immediately. Letters were accepted without stamps or envelopes. Messages were scrawled on any available scrap of paper saying: "All safe, although lost all." And "Everything's ruined. But don't worry; government is looking out."

Insurance companies, having lost their records in the fire, set up a central bureau to sort out $170 million in claims. Businessmen waited for weeks for their safes to cool, before discovering what remained. It was said that in many places the debris was not even allowed to cool and bricks were pitched from lots when still "as warm as muffins." Volunteers on the clean-up crews took up the refrain: "In the damnedest finest ruins I'd rather be a brick than live anywhere else but San Francisco." The great clean-up had begun.

Thousands of standing walls were torn down. An estimated six and a half billion bricks were carted away or cleaned of mortar to be re-used in new buildings. The demolition of the gutted Palace Hotel cost $90,000 dollars. For the whole city, just hauling away the mess and dumping it in the Bay would cost $20 million. Railroad tracks were laid down streets all over town for debris trains. You were lucky if tracks ran near your property. If not, you'd swap your kingdom for a horse. In the first 18 months of reconstruction, 15,000 horses died in harness. Contractors figured into their costs the value of the animals they knew would have to work to death. Work on the streetcar system began at once. The United Railroad replaced cable systems with overhead wires for new electric trolleys. Only 10 days after the quake, Mayor Schmitz inaugurated service on the first line. People cheered as the car passed. Some forgot to move until almost too late. Thousands of laborers worked on running. Newspapers proclaimed the rebirth of the city: a newspaper reporter asserted that,

Reporter: The business of San Francisco has not been destroyed, merely the business equipment. If there is a businessman in this city who is not perfecting his plan for resuming at the old stand or as near as possible thereto the Chronicle has not heard of him. It's a free state, everyone beginning over again, rich and poor alike. The Chief of Police sits in the window of a corner grocery. And the Relief Committee is working 24 hours a day from the showroom of a vegetable grocer. Cooking their dinners in the streets may be seen girls who have been educated at Stanford, Berkeley, Vassar and Bryn Mawr. The loss of life is small. The loss of social positions is colossal. Down to the elements now nothing counts but human love. Humanity is on the flat and everyone is on the level.

Narrator: Within six months, the ranks of the building trades in the city doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. Working men and their families arrived from all over the nation. Popular postcards of the day featured "The Brick Cleaner..." "The Carpenter... " and "The Steel Girder Man" as the new heroes of San Francisco.

A carpenter could make a fat wage of four dollars a day. In New York City, lawyers were only making $1.50.

The Chinese returned from segregated camps to survey what was once their home. In the next three years, Chinatown would be rebuilt, mostly by the Chinese themselves.

Edwar Lee: My father was so grateful that the family was intact, and that we had suffered no great loss. And so he decided to follow the American custom of having a Thanksgiving dinner. And so he bought a turkey -- a 20-pound turkey -- and a portable oven, and uh, roasted the turkey. And that caused quite a commotion among the people living in the tenement house, because they'd never heard of such a thing. And, a, but my father said, "Well, the American custom is to have a Thanksgiving celebration and that's what we're doing."

Narrator: Twenty-eight thousand buildings had been destroyed. Three years later they would be replaced by 20,500 new ones. A completely new city rose upon the edge of the bay. The people of San Francisco shard a sense of triumph. They also shared a desire to erase the memory of the disaster and reassure themselves and the rest of the world that the new city was somehow invincible.

They fought for and won the right to host the World's Fair of 1915. February 20 was opening day. "Come down into the streets," instructed the organizers. "We want everybody. We will walk, everyone without distinction. After years of waiting, the hour had come for San Francisco to come into her own. We are going out there to open our Exposition."

When the crowd entered the gates it fell strangely silent. There was a benediction. "To the city of St. Francis by the western sea, give a hope and a faith that know not failure." Even the city's Chinese were invited. They staged a grand parade through the streets to the fair. The Italians staged their own events celebrating Columbus, the discoverer of America, and the great Italian patriot, Garibaldi. Fatty Arbunkle and Mabel Normand, King and Queen of the Silent Comedy, were welcomed by a new mayor on the steps of the half-finished City Hall, a symbol of reformed city government. The fair itself was designed to represent the complete development of human civilization up to present time.

The wonders of modern technology were particularly reassuring. They seemed to demonstrate a triumph of main over the forces of nature. The World's Fair's own fire department was supplied with the most modern equipment. The last of the old horse-drawn steamers had just been replaced the year before. Thanks to the new motorized fire trucks, and the installation of high-pressure water mains in the city, people were confident that destruction by fire could never happen again.

Tens of thousands came to San Francisco in spite of the lingering worry that the city remained on shaky ground. In the end, there were no guarantees that the city was invincible. There were only the will and the example of the people themselves. Here was manifest an indomitable and impetuous spirit that, in the wake of disaster, had built an entire city and a world's fair from the ground up.

Dorothy Klahn: It, it, it was fairyland -- it was just like fairyland to me.

Cora Luchetti: Those were the glorious years when I was fifteen, and it was just beautiful.

Chief Murray: That was one of the most wonderful fairs they'll every have anywhere.

Walter Devecchi: Oh, that place? That's a nice place. And the only words that I could use: it was magnificent!

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The Great San Francisco Earthquake American Experience

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