The week began on Easter Sunday, April 15, the 41st anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln and a month after the death of Susan B. Anthony. San Francisco, as did the nation, reveled in a technological transformation: the phonograph, the automobile, the electric light. Despite its relatively small stature — perhaps 430,000 residents, the nation’s ninth most populous city — San Francisco boasted a financial and artistic influence, a physical beauty that had garnered a worldwide reputation.
Its ascendance, in just over 50 years, had altered the national character. The Gold Rush had been the wellspring of Manifest Destiny: Those who had grown tired of the congestion and poverty of the East had found, at the Golden Gate, the economic opportunity and personal freedom that had first brought their families to the New World. What inhibitions had not been shed upon arrival in New York vanished in San Francisco.
The great profiteers of the boom — Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins — finished the mandate of “sea to shining sea” when they ruthlessly masterminded the western leg of the Transcontinental Railroad through the High Sierra: Without the gold and the railroad, San Francisco would have become a marginal outpost of Los Angeles.
The economic boom and libertine spirit triggered a cultural and artistic revolution equally unprecedented. Mark Twain, a reporter for The Californian, captivated a nation with a silly frog tale, and then borrowed the name of a San Francisco firefighter named Tom Sawyer and created a new American literature. When asked why he had never returned to his beloved San Francisco, he responded, “Would you see me cry?”
Frank Norris hinted at becoming America's Victor Hugo with “The Octopus,” an astonishing social novel that laid bare the avarice of the railroad monopolies: His death at age 32 crimped his stature as one of America's literary giants.
A local street urchin named Jack London — King of the Oyster Pirates at age 14, Socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland at 24 — had become the poster boy for the worldwide progressive movement, carving a legacy of fearless adventure, muscular prose and social activism that would make him the most influential American writer of them all. Ambrose Bierce's biting satire helped weaken the railroad monopoly. In 1904, Lincoln Steffens published one of American journalism's seminal tomes, “The Shame of the Cities,” attacking the political bosses who ruled every American city.
Entrepreneurs kept pace with their Bohemian cousins. General store owner Levi Strauss took drab tent canvas, dyed it the blue of Genoa sailors, and sold his “blue jeans” to miners desperate for durable britches. William Randolph Hearst built a small San Francisco newspaper, The Examiner — won by his father in a poker game — into a publishing empire.
Progressivism, socialism and suffragism found fertile soil in the Paris of the Pacific: More than 140 labor unions flourished in The City, defining the American middle class. Laborers with any skill, from cooks to carpenters, earned the highest wages in the nation.
But the money and the growth and the joy of life came with a deadly price tag: Corruption and complacency had left The City vulnerable to repeated disasters.
By the end of that April week, the saloon where Twain and London had drunk, the stage where, on April 17, the great Caruso had delivered a performance as Carmen's love-mad suitor, Don Jose, lay in ashes. Nearly 29,000 buildings incinerated.
It did not have to happen. San Francisco had been warned. Repeatedly. The fire, the true source of destruction, could have been mitigated. Lives could have been saved; sections of The City might have
Six times, between 1849 and 1851, The City had burned. In 1905, the Board of Fire Underwriters warned another major conflagration was inevitable. For six years, San Francisco's brilliant fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, had been asking to build a radical fire-suppression system: fire boats, enormous reservoir tanks on San Francisco's hills, and steam pumps every few blocks along San Francisco Bay.
City officials, led by the corrupt regime of boss Abe Ruef and Mayor Eugene Schmitz, ignored him: Sullivan would never pay bribes or kickbacks for funding of his systems.
On April 17, 1906, Ruef and Schmitz learned they were about to be arrested in a massive corruption probe: The plot had been hatched in the White House office of Theodore Roosevelt the previous November. Fate interceded.
Several hours after the great Enrico Caruso delivered a stunning performance at the Grand Opera House at Third and Mission streets, the San Andreas Fault slipped along a 270-mile path. It leveled cities from Mendocino to San Jose. The enormous destruction in San Francisco was followed by fires that raged for three days.
Fire Chief Sullivan was among the first victims, falling four stories through his shattered fire house: he would spend the duration of the horror in a coma.
With Sullivan gone, Mayor Schmitz made one catastrophic decision after another. He ordered federal troops, California national guardsmen, police and “special police,” the latter no more than thugs and vigilantes, to shoot to kill anyone suspected of looting or “other crimes.” Over the next days, they would kill dozens of innocent people.
With two of The City's three main water lines destroyed, troops used low-grade explosives in an attempt to blast fire breaks on wood-frame buildings. The fiery debris started hundreds of fires. The true heroes of those awful three days, the United States Navy and San Francisco’s firefighters, who won crucial battles to save the waterfront and the Western Addition by stopping the fire along the west side of Van Ness Avenue, have been largely ignored. The official history was written by the victors: Schmitz and Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston, who imposed martial law without authorization of the president and added immeasurably to the death and destruction, managed to paint themselves as heroes.
Today, the voices echo again. The Gold Rush is now the Internet, software, and biotech boom. Arts and culture are alive in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Barry Gifford and Carlos Santana. John Muir’s Sierra Club still reigns, Michael Tilson Thomas wields the baton not far from where Mayor Schmitz once did.
Once again, the voices of caution are rising: the USGS warns of a major seismic event along our seven active earthquake faults. Once again, our water system is vulnerable: this time, it is the 260 miles of tunnels and aqueducts that form the Hetch Hetchy, and the 1,600 miles of levees along the very fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta System.
Just like the Board of Fire Underwriters in 1906, another boardof underwriters, Germany's giant reassurance company, Munich Re, in its “Mega Cities — Mega Disasters,” states we are due for a major catastrophe, the second most vulnerable city in the world, after Tokyo, and just ahead of Los Angeles.
Once again, the nation is plagued by corruption and incompetence.
Our history is speaking to us. Once again, we're too enraptured with our wondrous gifts, our infinite possibilities, to notice or act.
Mark Twain once said, “San Francisco was paradise to me.” A century later, in “Angels in America,” which he premiered at Project Artaud in the Mission District, Tony Kushner said, “Heaven is a place that looks a lot like San Francisco.”
It looks a lot like heaven to most of us. How determined are we to keep it that way?
James Dalessandro is the author of “1906,” an epic re-creation of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. He is also the writer and co-director of a feature documentary about the disaster, “The Damnedest Finest Ruins.”