The Definitive Post-Earthquake Homage to San Francisco in 1906

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105 years ago, a devastating earthquake hit San Francisco. Fires swept over the city. As is still the case, commentators across the country tried to make sense of the destruction and ended up meditating on what the city by the bay had meant before tragedy struck. Perhaps the most stylish of these essays was The City That Has Fallen by William Marion Reedy, a St. Louis editor who'd never seen the place. I ran across it in a slim little volume tucked away in the Berkeley library, a reprint of the original from 1933. The essay is a sidelong, scattershot tour through the American conception of "Frisco."

"One may not hear it mentioned for a year, two years, five years--then someone is sure to state definitely that Reedy's story in the Mirror is 'the best thing ever written about San Francisco," wrote Oscar Lewis in the foreword to the 1933 edition, printed by the San Francisco Book Club.

I reproduce it for you here from the Online Archive of California, which created an ambitious Internet destination for primary documents about the disaster. I've also pulled photos from the digital collection the gallery above. The visual story that emerges is one of destruction but also remarkable resilience and ingenuity.

The City That Has Fallen

FRISCO it was called in that affection which prompts expression in diminutives. Shaken to shards in the dawn, gulped in part by a mad sea, swept by flame. Ruin covering agony, crowned by hunger, thirst, fever, pest. Death over all.

Beautiful, soft Frisco, luscious as a great pear or a lush cluster of grapes. City of romance, splendor, strife, where the strange odors of the East come in to sweeten the winds of the West. Frisco sleekly fair and like the Pacific, as treacherous, as fair.

Town of wild, strange, tumultuous memories to one who never saw its streets or sensed its paradisiacal lay or felt the subtle, passionate stirring of its more than Italian, curiously blent quattrocento and ultra modern atmosphere.

There gathered the seekers of the Golden Fleece to scatter their shearings, to gamble, carouse, steal, murder, and build a mighty town. The village a hell and then--the Vigilantes. Judge Lynch was its first law-giver, more rigorous than Draco.

Navvies turned Croesus came in and builded banks, their palaces rising in uncouth ostentation, setting up insane speculation, developing rivalries that flowered into duels and into remorseless combines to drive one man, thinking himself broken, into the sea. Names were heralded from there that meant gold in mountains. Flood, O'Brien, Mackay, Fair, Sharon--and a score more. They leagued with or fought one another. They plundered one another and the public. They died--most of them with a plenteousness of wives, equal almost to that of their money.

Stormy men and sudden wealth and growing cosmopolitanism with all the colorful low life of a great port, the poetry of ships from strange seas, the Babel of all earth's tongues made the world forget the old mission times, before the Gringos came.

Business, politics, the law, life, all life was picturesque and blood color. Then out of the aureate din and dust came the constructives, Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, Sutro, taking mighty chances on building railroads across the continent, dazzling the world with their daring, buccaneering the plains, piercing the mountains and grabbing subsidies that made imperial domains look like kitchen gardens.

Out of Frisco came the gambler Keene to teach lessons to Gould and Fisk and Daniel Drew, to break and be broken, to win and fail, and win and finally hold his own and much more against the most frenzied of frenzied financiers of a third of a century later.

The daughters of rough-and-tumble barkeepers and wrangling women married the sons of princes whose lines ran back to the time of Michelangelo and beyond. The woman of the camp queened it in London, and offered to buy the Arc de Triomphe in Paris because it obstructed her view of a parade. The grub-stake prospectors built palaces, filled with the spoil of Italy, on Fifth Avenue. Their daughters set the pace over the Four Hundred. The contest over their wills by wives they forgot to mention clogged the courts. Supreme Justices of the Nation were assaulted by the champions of these wives, and the United States Marshal slew Sarah Althea Hill Terry's attorney husband to save a justice who had decided a case against her.

There came from the sand lots the cry that the Chinese must go. It stirred the country fiercely, was forgotten only to revive again thirty years and more later as a result of the War with Spain. Out of golden Frisco came the raucous voice of Dennis Kearney, an agitator to live in history with Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, to inspire the thinking of statesmen who would not have wiped their feet upon them. Dennis Kearney's mad, snarling, obscene mouthings are today translated into profound statesmanlike argument against the Yellow Peril.

Stormy men and sudden wealth and growing cosmopolitanism with all the colorful low life of a great port, the poetry of ships from strange seas, the Babel of all earth's tongues made the world forget the old mission times, before the Gringos came.

Burst from Frisco the tender tough singer of the "Heathen Chinee", the historian of "The Luck of Roaring Camp", the wildly luxurious genius of Bret Harte. He gave us the West fixed forever, as Scott and Burns gave us Scotland, Dumas France, Cervantes Spain.

With the romance that headquartered in Frisco, Mark Twain savored his messages of fun to the world and developed his talent until today he is, not perhaps but undoubtedly, our chiefest man of letters, his gift immortalizing "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn", classicizing "The Jumping Frog", vindicating "Ariel" Shelley and interpreting for us the sanctity of Joan of Arc.

In Frisco, Richard Realf sang a few songs unforgettably and, harassed by misfortune, slunk away to die to the music of "De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum", a poem ranking surely with "Thanatopsis".

And then a little man, poor, unknown, a printer, almost starving, meditating in this city of the Golden Gate on the problem of the House of Have and the House of Need. This printer wrote a book. It set the economists by the ears. It challenged the theologians. It shook Mammon in his temple, the Pope on the throne of St. Peter. It made men realize the sense of brotherhood. It created a religion of the here and now, with a remedy for want, curb on human greed. The book was "Progress and Poverty". The man was Henry George, the greatest social scientist since Buckle, the profoundist economist since Adam Smith, the ultimate perfection of antithesis to Niccolo Machiavelli.

In Frisco uprose The Argonaut, the country's greatest weekly newspaper. Its editor was another Voltaire, Frank Pixley. His cry was, "crush the infamy" (the Catholic Church) and so splendid and multifariously expressive of his hatred that even the Catholics read it for its style.

For Frisco had the aesthetic atmosphere. It was another Florence. The urge to poetry was in the air. Today the author who came from Frisco is omnipresent. Markham of "The Man With the Hoe", is claimed by Frisco. Frank Norris of "The Pit", flourished in that town of horrors and magnificences. Gertrude Atherton first moralized there or thereabouts. Gelett Burgess there conceived "The Purple Cow", and then an odd little man named Doxey issued The Lark, sui generis, an epoch making publication that will live in history with Frazer's Magazine, with the Anti Jacobin, with the Yellow Book. Ambrose Bierce, the most vitriolic of American writers, there wrote tales that, for terror in artistic imagination, challenge the supremacy of Poe. The Overland Monthly was a Frisco enterprise that lives today. Joaquin Miller went red shirted to London and told them in his "Songs of the Sierras" of what would come to be in the city that "Serene, indifferent of Fate", as Harte said, "... sitteth at the Western Gate".

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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