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The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906

How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, With a New Preface

Philip L. Fradkin (Author)

Available worldwide
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Paperback, 448 pages
ISBN: 9780520248205
April 2006
$24.95, £18.95
The first indication of the prolonged terror that followed the 1906 earthquake occurred when a ship steaming off San Francisco’s Golden Gate “seemed to jump clear out of the water.” This gripping account of the earthquake, the devastating firestorms that followed, and the city’s subsequent reconstruction vividly shows how, after the shaking stopped, humans, not the forces of nature, nearly destroyed San Francisco in a remarkable display of simple ineptitude and power politics. Bolstered by previously unpublished eyewitness accounts and photographs, this definitive history of a fascinating city caught in the grip of the country’s greatest urban disaster will forever change conventional understanding of an event one historian called “the very epitome of bigness.”

Philip Fradkin takes us onto the city’s ruptured streets and into its exclusive clubs, teeming hospitals and refugee camps, and its Chinatown. He introduces the people—both famous and infamous—who experienced these events, such as Jack and Charmian London, Enrico Caruso, James Phelan, and Abraham Ruef. He traces the horrifying results of the mayor’s illegal order to shoot-to-kill anyone suspected of a crime, and he uncovers the ugliness of racism that almost led to war with Japan. He reveals how an elite oligarchy failed to serve the needs of ordinary people, the heroic efforts of obscure citizens, the long-lasting psychological effects, and how all these events ushered in a period of unparalleled civic upheaval.

This compelling look at how people and institutions function in great catastrophes demonstrates just how deeply earthquake, fires, hurricanes, floods, wars, droughts, or acts of terrorism can shape us.
This is the third book in Philip Fradkin's trilogy on earthquakes. The first two are Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault (California, 1999) and Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay (California, 2001). Fradkin, who has lived adjacent to the San Andreas Fault for thirty years, is also the author of the acclaimed A River No More (California, 1996) and The Seven States of California (California, 1995), as well as many other books. He shared a Pulitzer Prize while at the Los Angeles Times.
“In this well-researched book, Fradkin contends that it was the people of San Francisco, not the forces of nature, who were responsible for the extent of the destruction and death. . . . In fascinating detail, Fradkin tells the story of the quake and reconstruction that followed, and he goes on to analyze more recent history, concluding that San Francisco is in nearly as much danger now as it was a century ago. Some may find harsh his insistence on blaming people, not nature, for natural disasters; but he defends his position forcefully.”—Booklist
“This well-researched, highly readable account, supported by copious eyewitness reports, many of them previously unpublished, puts the reader in the rolling streets and among the toppling buildings as the tremors rip the city apart. One can almost feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke of the resulting conflagration.”—American History
“Provides a richly textured, informative, compelling account of agonies that deserve to be recalled.”—Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
“The definitive work on the events of 1906 and their aftermath, a must-read to understand what actually happened, what it meant for the men and women who lived there, how it reverberates through California history and the lessons for our times, including the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
Indeed, his current study of the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake derives its central strength from Fradkin's depiction of the social and political causes and results of this cataclysm. As bad as the earthquake was a geological fact, Fradkin argues, it was even more catastrophic in the social and political behavior that followed: behavior that had its dynamics in the very DNA code of San Francisco in that era. Just as Katrina revealed the underlying dichotomies and dissonances of New Orleans, so too did the earthquake of April 1906 disclose and exacerbate the social fault lines of San Francisco.—California History
“This briskly and vividly written work, exhaustively researched in archival, manuscript, periodical, and personal sources, is a definitive triumph of scholarship.”—Choice
“Meticulously researched in local archives, [Fradkin’s] book's aim is to tell the story of what happened from the viewpoint of the people who lived through it. . . His account of what happened above ground is first-rate.”—Times Higher Ed Supplement (Thes)
“A rich potpourri of . . . finely sifted details.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Earthquakes unpick political, social and economic vagaries to turn crises into catastrophes. Human stories arguably become more potent in historical post-mortem. Philip Fradkin’s dissection of the humbling of San Francisco in The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 . . . provide[s] a backdrop to the idea of earthquakes as cultural shocks.”—The Times (Uk)
“Fradkin writes beautifully, in a spare, no-nonsense style.”—Shana Loshbaugh Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
“Fradkin is an impassioned writer who knows his subject. . . . He writes that he sees his book not just as a history but also as ‘a disaster manual for the future.’ I respectfully beg to differ. Rather than a manual for the future -- of which there is no shortage -- Fradkin has given us something much more valuable: a clear-eyed view of our past.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Fradkin does an admirable job of examining the event - and, more importantly, its aftermath - from previously unexplored perspectives, and includes a sympathetic portrayal of the much-maligned Abraham Ruef, an attorney and so-called political boss indicated on graft charges shortly affeer the earthquake.”—Nora Sohnen East Bay Express
“The city ignored its uneasy history, and civic and military officials brought on much of the chaos and many of the deaths, the author argues.”—Robert Taylor Sunday Times
“Indeed, for all its horrific incident, ‘The Great Earthquake’ proves an inspiring, even endearing book, full of colorful anecdotes and charming details, encyclopedic in scope and powerfully evocative of San Francisco in its golden age. The panorama Fradkin offers the reader is so sweeping and so vivid that one might be tempted to call his book cinematic, were it not for the fact that all those disaster movies seem so bland by comparison.”—Jonathan Kirsch Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A splendidly researched and well-written history of one of this country's great urban disasters. . . . While most historical accounts deal with the damage from the quake and the ensuing fires, Fradkin takes the reader well beyond the devastation to explore the aftermath, when a San Francisco oligarchy imposed its will on a fractured city and displayed an ugly racism and human nature at its sometimes worst. . . . With a reporter's eye for detail, Fradkin delivers in a most compelling fashion.”—Sacramento Bee
“In this richly detailed retelling of the event, Philip Fradkin places that event within the cultural framework of the era, providing evocative descriptions of its immediate impact and the long-running effects it triggered. Whether already well-informed or merely curious, readers will find much new information as well as helpful perspective.”—Bloomsbury Review
"Before he wrote books, Philip Fradkin was a newspaperman, and this vivid book has the directness, the reliability, and the reliance on original sources of good journalism. It dismisses some of the legends of the earthquake and gives us new information just as gripping. I am already using it as a reference book, and it is sure to become a standard source for everyone writing about 1906, a great historic event that has previously generated little but untrustworthy and dilatory histories."—Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

"The masterful Philip Fradkin once again plays Sherlock Holmes to Western environmental history. None of the standard histories of the 1906 disaster are likely to survive the exemplary jolt of his remarkable new research."—Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

California Book Awards - Commonwealth Club, Commonwealth Club of California

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