A Crack in the Edge of the World

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winch

by Zachary Houle

2 March 2006


Journey to the Center of the Epicenter

This April will mark the 100th anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire—a devastating disaster that virtually leveled a rapidly growing city that had a population of 400,000. Perhaps 700 people perished during the event, and more than 250,000 were left looking for new homes when all was said and done. Despite the significance of the quake as one of America’s greatest natural disasters, one suspects the grim anniversary will only probably be quietly remembered and presumably relegated to a Discovery Channel documentary.

This prediction may turn out to be wrong—the event, after all, was one of the most photographed of its time. Yet consider for a moment the following question posed by Simon Winchester’s latest non-fiction tome, A Crack in the Edge of the World. When the mayor of Daly City, California, declines the erection of a plaque commemorating that suburb’s role at the earthquake’s true epicenter—an 8.25 on the Richter Scale—what does that have to say about America’s attitude to disasters whose wounds are no longer fresh? (Never mind that another nearby town, Olema, proudly but erroneously claims that it was the quake’s true center, merely for the purposes of hawking the disaster on hats and T-shirts to tourists.)

cover art

A Crack in the Edge of the World

Simon Winchester

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906


Covering century-old disasters is a subject that’s all old hat for Simon Winchester, an Oxford-trained geologist who wrote a best-selling book called Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. That 2003 book, detailing a cataclysmic 1883 volcanic eruption off the coast of southeast Asia, had the good fortune of appearing well in advance of the Boxing Day 2004 earthquake and tsunami afflicting said region. This made Krakatoa an unintentionally relevant book insofar as current events were concerned, especially considering that both disasters shared a number of eerily similar traits: a particularly morbid one being that they both left thousands of dead bodies floating in the world’s oceans.

The timing of this book, however, is another matter altogether. Through no weakness on the author or publisher, it arrived not long after Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, another American city at the opposite end of the country and century. (It should be noted that, prior to Katrina, the Louisiana city had roughly 485,000 inhabitants, which is similar to San Francisco’s population 100 years ago.) If one were to simply compare death tolls amid horrific stories of preventative euthanasia, Katrina’s body count of more than 1,400 almost makes the rattling and rolling of the San Francisco quake almost look like an attack from an inflatable Godzilla.

So why read this book? Why care about a negative event that happened on American soil that has already been surpassed in sheer tragedy, where all of the major participants are already buried in the earth? Well, aside from being an interesting read overall, it is a richly detailed, albeit late, account of how American history really does repeat itself, and often not in the same place.

First off, Winchester shows how three earthquakes during the winter of 1811-12 utterly wiped out the settlement of New Madrid, Missouri, which should have been a wake-up call to anyone considering putting a home anywhere near the edge of a fault line. From there, the author ping-pongs around the rest of the continental United States in search of other communities unlucky enough to be hit with a major seismic event. This all renders Crack less a narrative about a single natural disaster, and more about the choices we humans make when it comes to picking places to live or vacation. As Winchester notes: the “world’s biggest cities generally exist for reasons that go far beyond the accumulation of buildings that is their outward manifestation.” Of course, there are prices to be paid for such choices—both in the loss of property and lives—which Crack lays out in starling clarity.

Aside from an unnecessary build-up that focuses on the city’s nouveau riche the night before the tremors—reducing Crack somewhat to Towering Inferno-style histrionics—it is the eyewitness accounts of the rocking and rolling on 18 April 1906, which are probably the most flavorful part of the book. There are mesmerizing stories of buildings crumbling and toppling on top of people, of marauding cattle panicking and trampling victims throughout the city’s streets, of nearby grape plantations in the Napa Valley rising up and down like waves on the nearby Pacific, and of the city’s pendulum clocks breaking at the very moment the earth refused to stand still (5:12 a.m.).

San Francisco’s disaster shares a number of similarities to New Orleans’s, too; the first being that the aftereffects of the disaster were arguably worse than the awful occurrence itself. In San Francisco, shoddy housing construction and lack of available freshwater turned the city into a raging tinderbox for days on end. There was also the issue of looting, and the shoot-to-kill orders meant to protect the city from hoodlums. As Winchester wryly notes: “It was estimated by the federal government at the time that only between three and 10 percent of the damage done to San Francisco was directly attributable” to the initial disaster. As for New Orleans’s plight last year? Well, you can probably re-read the last paragraph and just replace the city names.

Crack, granted, does have its share of huge faults. While there’s nothing here that will give James Frey a run for his money, this Canadian reviewer spotted at least two major errors in geography in rather quick succession. In a section near the beginning dealing with the movement of the earth’s plates, Winchester refers to Nunavut as Canada’s newest Province when it’s actually a Territory. He also mislabels Canada’s Yukon Territory, not the North West Territories, as the site of a diamond discovery in the early 1990s. If one can’t get even the smallest of details right, one has to wonder about the rest of the book’s accuracy.

Which leads back to another quibble: Winchester tends to have an almost savant-like focus on the tiny details insignificant to the telling of the tale surrounding plate movement and the importance of rocks on certain continents. While this book is not nearly as bad an offender as Krakatoa, which goes on and on about how the earth creates volcanoes like a bad Tectonic Plates 101 lecture, the endless, meticulous stream of facts and footnotes get in the way of the human drama—which is where the real story lies. In short, Winchester badly needs a better editor to help him pan for the true nuggets of worthy information.

Still, Crack is a crucial book worth reading, though with some pause. As Winchester perhaps predictably writes in his tome, “movement along the San Andreas Fault ... on some unpredictable day in the future near or distant, will surely destroy any city built by those improvident enough to site it nearby.” Gee, didn’t politicians and activists issue this kind of bold warning repeatedly over the past few decades to the City of New Orleans?

Thus, one can’t help but wish that this book got published before Katrina. It would have been an even more potent reminder of just how predictable a disaster’s narrative story arc can be, even if we humans can’t predict when the next Big One might strike. Like Winchester examining an event already a century removed, this book and its warnings are well-intended but feel like they both arrived out of time, a bit like pokey disaster relief aid. Somehow, this Crack appears to commemorate an Important Date on the calendar; with more luck, alas, it could have also marked a Relevant Current Event.

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