The Big One

This is my favorite presentation for my students. It’s all about how I wouldn’t be here if my grandfather hadn’t survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when he was 10 years old. Californians call it “The Big One”.

At 5:12 in the morning of April 18, 1906, my grandfather was thrown out of his bed. His mother also suffered the same fate in her bedroom. She yelled at her young son, “Albert! Say your prayers!”, for surely the world was coming to an end, she thought. He yelled back, advising her to crawl out the windows, now collapsed to ground level, and meet him on the sidewalk for morning prayers!

My great-grandfather was already at work in his bakery.

The 8.0 earthquake caused massive damage to the young city, but nothing compared to the fires that raged for days afterward. In a city fueled by natural gas, the friction of an earthquake ignites explosions and blazes that are hard to manage.

The San Francisco City Council thought they were prepared for this quake (tectonic collisions were not infrequent on the San Andreas Fault!), but they didn’t foresee that the councilman appointed to pay tax funds to a contractor to connect underground pipes from the Bay to the fire hydrants just “never got around to it”.

Fire fighters set fire breaks to try to save yet undamaged blocks, unaware that the water supply remained severely limited. Their efforts did more damage than good and they watched their beloved city burn to the ground. I tell my students: never underestimate the importance of a job someone gives you!

The Army set up a tent city in Golden Gate park and hired my great-grandfather to bake bread 24/7 for over a year while permanent shelters could be built. My grandfather used the time out of school to find money-making opportunities, including delivering that freshly baked bread by bicycle. As the city quickly rebuilt, my grandfather found many other ways to earn a buck (some on the shady side) and invested in high rise apartment buildings. He lived his whole life in the City by the Bay that he loved.

I tell this story as part of my How We See in 3D series. Students are able to view 1906 stereographs through a 1901 stereoscope in order to “step into” history.

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