Santa Rosa’s quite the plucky little town, according to this press release from the newly-created Chamber of Commerce: Less than five months after the devastating 1906 earthquake, all signs of damage were cleaned up, stores were back in business, and industrious workers were constructing “stronger and more handsome structures” that complied with the strictest building codes.
It was mostly a pack of lies.
All that new construction was being approved at a reckless pace, with the single building inspector reviewing a dozen plans at once and five major structures given the go-ahead at a City Council meeting. Many of those “temporary business buildings” mentioned by the Chamber were lean-to sheds or wooden roofs to shade open-air tables, and any shoppers who dared visit Fourth street had to navigate a dangerous obstacle course of construction materials and broken sidewalks. Contrary to the Chamber’s claim, there was plenty of debris around; the hulking wreckage of the old courthouse still loomed over the downtown area, and it would be another two months before the demolition contract would even be awarded. Most galling is their claim that Santa Rosa generously “housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco.” Despite tons of donations piled in a warehouse, Santa Rosa stopped food aid after three weeks except to “widows, orphans and the sick” – even refugees were expected to find a job, if only shoveling rubble for $2/day.
But most interesting in the Chamber’s press release is that the earthquake isn’t even mentioned once. Here the Chamber followed the lead of business interests in San Francisco that insisted the great city was destroyed by fires that followed a minor tremor. The story is detailed in one of the best books about the quake, “Denial of disaster” by San Francisco city archivist Gladys Hansen:
As part of this public relations strategy, James Horsburgh Jr., General Passenger Agent of the Southern Pacific Company, wrote to chambers of commerce throughout the state to candidly detail the railroad’s efforts to “set the record straight.” Essentially, the Southern Pacific Company began to rewrite the entire history of the disaster – a simple and sanitized version – to diminish the impact of the earthquake, and to assure easterners that investment in California enterprises would continue to be good business.
The scope of the Southern Pacific Company’s reworking of the history of the catastrophe was, and is, breathtaking. The company’s point of view was that there was barely an earthquake.
Published a few weeks later and widely distributed nationwide, Southern Pacific’s travel magazine, “The Sunset” became a primary source of the fire-not-earthquake (mis)information about what happened in San Francisco. Horsburgh’s letter to the chambers of commerce went further, urging anyone from the groups speaking about the disaster should emphasize “how quickly and wonderfully San Francisco and California recovered from the effects, and how thoroughly and systematically they began the work of reconstruction.”
That, of course, was exactly the myth peddled by Santa Rosa’s Chamber, which was joined at the hip with the two local newspapers, particularly the Press Democrat: A gleaming new 20th century phoenix was arising overnight from the old farm town’s ashes. Variations of that fairy tale are still told today, but in truth it took another year before the professional businesses moved out of the emergency shantytown at Fifth and Mendocino, and it wasn’t until 1908 before Fourth St. again became something like the town’s social hub. Also not mentioned in the Chamber’s PR was that many were still fighting an ongoing battle with the insurance companies. Some appeals dragged on for another five years, and ultimately fewer than ten companies paid their losses in full.
The railroad may have provided the Chamber with free spin, but it didn’t pay to have it printed. In November, the Chamber held a fundraiser at the roller skating rink to pay for the production of brochures. The entertainment that evening was a match between Santa Rosa’s “ladies’ polo team” (hockey on skates) and competitors from another town.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Sends Out Bulletin Regarding Santa Rosa’s Progress
The newly organized Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce has sent out its first bulletin throughout the east regarding the conditions here, and the upbuilding of Santa Rosa. Among the facts covered in the bulletin are these:
The vast amount of work accomplished in the reconstruction of the business portion of our beautiful City of Roses, which had been laid low by the awful devastation of April 18, 1906, is the wonder of every visitor.
All debris was removed from burned area [sic] within weeks’ time of the disaster.
Temporary business buildings were immediately erected surrounding the old business section, and merchants having secured stocks from adjoining towns resumed business with courage and success.
Business buildings partially destroyed were immediately repaired and occupied by former tenants[.]
Residential section, slightly damaged, was soon repaired, and our yards and homes now seem more beautiful than ever.
A stringent building ordinance was adopted by the City Council before any permits for permanent buildings were granted. In the two months this ordinance has been in effect permits over $400,000 worth of business buildings have been granted and the same are now under actual construction, in fact, it is estimated that over one-third of the business area destroyed is in course of rebuilding, with stronger and more handsome structures.
It is noteworthy that less than one-half dozen families left Santa Rosa owing to the calamity, and praiseworthy that she housed and fed, despite her own distress, hundreds of refugees from San Francisco. The Southern Pacific and California Northwestern railroads have been compelled to put on additional freight trains to handle the merchandise required, and materials for reconstruction.
Hotel accommodations are only temporary. Enterprising capitalists will find here a splendid opening.
There is a great demand for laborers, both in building trades and crop harvesting.
Sonoma county conditions are excellent. Fruit crops are large, and marketing at good prices; grape crop short but prices unusually high; hop crop a record breaker, prices above expectation. Large shipments of poultry continue to San Francisco and Nevada daily; likewise dairy products.
There is a feeling of courage and hopefulness alike by our enterprising merchants, property owners and residents.– Press Democrat, September 7, 1906