Eyewitness to Earthquake

April 18: The San Francisco earthquake occurred on this day in 1906. Given the turn-of-the-century fascination with photography—the Kodak Brownie hit the stores in 1900—this was the first natural disaster to be documented by citizen photojournalists. Many more photos exist of the first two days, as most people were out of film and running for their lives on day three. Jack London, living fifty miles north of the city, ran towards rather than away, snapping pictures and interviewing survivors when he got there:

All night these tens of thousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the labor ghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened with possessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the street clothing and treasures they had dragged for miles. They held on longest to their trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women. …In the end, completely played out, after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelled to abandon their trunks.

But London notes that "Never in all San Francisco's history were her people so kind and courteous." This is also the theme of an account written three weeks after the disaster by San Francisco Bulletin journalist Pauline Jacobson:

 "Twenty-eight seconds of awful interrogation and then the most sociable time I've ever had in my life." I still stand by that summing up…. In all the grand exodus of men, women and children with their poll-parrots and skinny cats, and dogs and pianos and clocks and family pictures, there was little of hysteria manifest, little of excitement. …Everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody's friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. …And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and fire. Not of bravery, nor of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness. The joy in the other fellow.

Both London's and Jacobson's articles are included in Three Fearful Days: San Francisco Memoirs of the 1906 Earthquake & Fire (Malcolm E. Barker, 2005).

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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