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".

In Frisco, the great romanticist, Robert Louis Stevenson, hungered and wrote one line immortal--"it was a clear cold night of stars"--in "The Silverado Squatters". In Frisco, they erected the first monument to the creator of Prince Florizel of Bohemia, John Silver, and the reincarnator of Francois Villon.

Hundreds of our later stage's best actors came from Frisco, where the theatre rose early and flourished exotically. Lotta came from Frisco and became our first ingenue. Its early stock companies vitalized our stage.

In Frisco, Kipling's manuscripts were turned down by editors, and he avenged himself somewhat on the town, though before he closed his depreciation he had to be little less than just to the place, if for no other reason than that, had there been no Bret Harte and "The Luck of Roaring Camp", and "M'liss" and "Tennessee's Pardner", there would have been no "Soldiers Three", perhaps no "Kim" and no "Recessional". In Frisco, William Keith--Keith, who has something of the dark color of Diaz-Keith undoubtedly one of the greatest of American artists. Artists, poets, novelists, scientists, teachers, lent the population a tone of devil-may-care.

This town, of less than half our population, had more and better daily papers than St. Louis. It sent a boy to New York to challenge the supremacy of Pulitzer in journalism with les taches jaunes, and to frighten Wall Street with a red flag having just a touch of yellow, and to compel by sheer audacity attention to his intention to be president--Mr. William Randolph Hearst.

Frisco has won world-wide renown next to New York and Chicago, and now it has won the world's interest by a calamity such as was Chicago's first claim to fame.

A Frisco-built battleship, the Oregon, made a world-wondering run around the Horn to Santiago and into the fight that broke Spain's power in this hemisphere forever.

Frisco was loved by its citizens as no city is loved in this land, save possibly New York. It was a city that cared for the beautiful, that took to ideas. It had the Bohemian Club, in a world in which Bohemianism was fumigated of its disreputability, and stood for the true as distinct from the perverted tawdriness of Murger's "Vie de Boheme". It supported at least four excellent weekly papers, The Argonaut, the News Letter, Town Talk, James H. Barry's Star,--periodicals individual, high-class, cosmopolitan. George Sterling wrote there the best book of verse of the last four years, "The Testimony of the Suns", and from Frisco, Jack London, with his gospel of beauty in brutality, captured men's imaginations and awoke in their hearts echos [sic] of "The Call of the Wild" and the snarlings of "The Sea Wolf". The literary center of Frisco boasted of the finest book store in the country west of New York and the output of Paul Elder & Co., publishers, was almost a new revelation in some aspects of the art preservative.

Life was lived in Frisco. It was a little of Paris, of Rome, of Pekin. It was a town of temperament in which lightsomeness blent with a native beauty sense. Winds of the sea came in and met with winds of the desert. The fog, mostly pearl-gray but often sun-tinged to opaline, hung over the town and gave it rare values to the esuriently artistic eye. Naval officers brought there, as wives, the daughters Ah Tong, Hawaii's Chinese millionaire. Sport flourished in all forms, square and vertiginous. The climate made for love making. The wine and fruits and flowers, and the mysterious sea mists and the wonderful odors of East and West made life a picture, a poem. The world turned to Frisco and California as it turned in earlier years to Rome and Florence and Italy. There the singer, the sculptor, the painter, the novelist, sought the sky and air that freshened heart and fecundated mind. It chained the sensitive of soul, and it immuted the merely sensual lovers of luxury. Always and ever about one was the conjugating of the verb "enjoy"--not always conjugally.

It was opulent and of a mighty oriency of brightness, but with darkness to heighten the picture. Its slums were the most impenetrable "in all the lands of Christendie". Its crimes surpassed, in quality of shudder, the crimes of other places. Its citizens gave to the city more gracefully than other citizens of other towns gave to them. An ignorant miner, Lick, gave the city a great miner's hotel, and to the state the world's finest observatory. It was gladdened with many fountains and parks. It was a city which the rich decorated and loved inconceivably, disgraced in their early orgies, but never wholly ruled. Its king was the head of the seamen's union, Andrew Furuseth, in the face of all the interests and wealth of the community.

A strong sense of beauty somehow clung to the mental image of the town, even to one who, as I, had never seen the place, its glamour always had a sort of hidden foreboding in it. There was ever the same suggestion of lethal malefic genius behind all the story that was told of its curiously morbidezza, amorousness of the day, and its childlike desire to forget the night. It was too far, as it sometimes seemed, and in the glory in which it lay and in which it lingered in thought, there seemed something of a light that held a pale tone of bale back of all its bliss. Its people loved it with that intensity with which we love what we are likely to lose.

There was a great gap in the history of American life, letters and character and achievement with Frisco's story omitted.

There ran through and beneath the town many a little tremor that the town personified, might have superstitiously interpreted, as does the individual the slight shudder as he talks with a friend--someone walks or dances over my grave. But the gongs and mad fiddlers kept going in Chinatown, and the orchestras in the multitudinous, gorgeous, risque, restaurants never ceased a strain, and the women walked with an added lure in their motions and a deeper softness in their eyes, and as in the old fable, Love and Soul blent to make the climax of pleasure, and the town was rapt in voluptuous, semi-oriental autolatry, and . . .

Then the earthquake came! And flood, and fire, and death in his most fantastic disguises burst in on the dreams that came through the ivory gate of dawn. The passional city learned to pray. Suffering paid in a flash for each pulse of joy. But the men of the ruined city met in their forum and said, "The city shall rise again more beautiful than before". The hungry, the tatterdemalion crowd, shelterless, wan, haggard, smokegrimed, joked with the soldiers over their dole of bread and water. The women rallied each other on their bizarre, bisexual garniture. Life had been pleasure. Ruin was fun. Death? Well to have died in the fall of Frisco was something like coming home from battle on the Spartan shield.

Will Frisco stay fallen? No. A new Frisco shall up--rear itself and laugh at the sea, and when old Atlas again shifts the globe a little on his shoulders--it will laugh and dance and fight and drink and make love as before and be proud that among its other claims to greatness is that of having met and conquered a calamity that stilled and chilled the whole world's heart for a day. Before the crash and flame, Frisco was beginning to protest at being called anything but San Francisco. Yet Frisco clung, it held some winking, sly hint of frisky. Even the great black headlines over the evil news used the diminutive abbreviation like a touch of light in the cloud, a sort of fresh, smiling rose on the pall, speaking of resurrection. The foundations of the city went wobbling at the end of the Easter feast almost. 'Twas and 'tis an omen.

Frisco fallen shall flower again from disaster and desolation and death, and it shall realize the dreams not only of those who vowed their dreams shall not be defeated, but the unfilled ambitions of those lovers of the city who went down in the ruin to the realm where is not light, nor laughter, nor song, nor weeping, nor dreaming more. It will be a great city for it is a great city even today, though never rose again one stone of it upon another. It has given, it still gives us the joy of life, the throb of passionate story, the sense of love of beauty in all forms, the thrill of an unparalleled catastrophe, the inspiration of indomitable cheerfulness before the most implacable fate. There's something in it of the spacious older world and yet something too, that is unforgetably [sic] American in its peoples' recovery to a mood of readiness, as the poet said, "to match with Destiny for beers". Vale et Ave Frisco the beautiful, the glad, the strong, the stricken, the invincible. Down with her went our hearts. Up with her will go our souls. The country's hope and faith and love are more fired than the shuddering earth and all these are in the tear brightened eyes of Frisco looking out from the wreck over the Pacific where lies the future big with mighty fates for her beyond all prophecy.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. 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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