Wednesday, November 7, 2012

San Francisco, the 1906 Earthquake, and the Progressive Era

Heather Cox Richardson

Recently, workers in San Francisco unearthed the ruins of the old city hall, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

That event has always fascinated me—not just the destruction caused by the quake itself, but the sense it has always given me that San Francisco in 1906 was a perfect example of Progressive Era America. Some of the worst destruction was caused not by the shaking earth, but by the fires that broke out in the cracked gas lines. As much as 90% of the damage in San Francisco has been attributed to the fires. The thought of the flames roaring up the streets of the city is one of those events that makes history human . . . and in this case, horrific.


Here, it seems to me, is a perfect image of both the potential of the Progressive Era to improve people’s lives—in this case, with gas lighting—and the deadly danger of that potential.

San Francisco has become for me the quintessential Progressive Era city for another reason, too. In 1905, a photographer attached a camera to a trolley car traveling along Market Street. The result was a nine-minute recording of urban life before the reforms of the Progressive Era. There are no stop signs, no traffic lights. Children are playing in the streets and running in front of the cars. People are walking, horses are pulling carts, and automobiles are in a free-for-all on undivided roads. It makes you realize how many of the world we take for granted today was, in fact, a product of the efforts of reformers to draw up some rules to make the modern world safer.

This film teaches really well (there are versions with music available on youtube, too).

It’s chilling to realize that most of the people in the film, going about their errands on busy Market Street in 1905, awoke to horrifying shaking at 5:12 AM on April 18, 1906, watched the City Hall crumble, and ran from the billowing flames.

1 comment:

dan allosso said...

This is a great video. I've often tried to imagine what it was like to walk from East London to the City in the 1840s. The thing that strikes me about this video is the width of the thoroughfare -- it would need to be that wide, to deal with all the slow-moving, horse-drawn traffic. This helps me picture Hackney Road on a busy morning.