Like a bad penny, it seems there’s no getting away from misinformation about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake.

The latest stumble came from the Press Democrat, which published a seven-part story titled, “XMAS SR ’06.” The paper deserves a standing ovation for reviving serial fiction; it’s a grand newspaper tradition too rarely found. Let’s hope the paper’s new owners understand that if it’s done well, it can also boost circulation – more than a few copies of the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1970s were sold to readers avid to follow the sordid doings in Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” But the PD was off to a bad start with its introduction:

“XMAS SR ’06” takes place the first Christmas after the April 18, 1906, earthquake that leveled much of Santa Rosa. The quake killed at least 100 people and forever changed the small farming town.

The only accurate part of that statement is that December did indeed follow April.

I commented that the info was wrong, and staff writer Robert Digitale replied that his source was a 2006 Press Democrat article. He further answered via e-mail that he wasn’t about to fix errors unless “the newspaper prints a correction” to its six year-old story. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

To be fair, the PD is not responsible for all the errors. Some of the mistakes date back to the official report from the California State Earthquake Investigation Commission published by the Carnegie Institution in 1908. But also to be fair, it should be pointed out that those are pretty easy errors for anyone to catch. Although I’ve discussed earlier problems with the report’s casualty count, I see now that I’ve only addressed the larger accuracy questions in private e-mail. So without claiming to be a comprehensive quake FAQ, here’s a discussion of some common misconceptions:

HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE KILLED IN THE 1906 SANTA ROSA EARTHQUAKE?   No one knows for sure. Exactly 82 are certain to have died in Santa Rosa, and it can be said with high confidence that the total was at least 85 (see discussion). Any numbers higher than those are speculation. I personally believe that 120 – about 50 percent more – is a reasonable guess for several reasons (read “Body Counts, Part II” for details). A final casualty count of 77 was settled by 1908, the same year as the Commission report, which claimed there were “61 identified dead, with at least a dozen ‘missing,'” even though no missing persons had been mentioned since the weeks immediately after the quake. The report offered no footnote or explanation why it chose those figures.
HOW MUCH OF SANTA ROSA WAS DESTROYED IN THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE?   n the downtown area, all or most of the buildings on fourteen city blocks collapsed and/or were destroyed by fire. About twenty other buildings around town, including a handful of residences, collapsed or were severely damaged by the earthquake and many chimneys presumably fell or needed repair. The Commission report included a map of all damage that is considered accurate.
WHAT WAS THE POPULATION OF SANTA ROSA DURING THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE?   Knowing the size of the town is critical for evaluating the impact of the 1906 earthquake, but population estimates vary from less than 7,000 to almost 12,000. As April, 1906 was almost in the middle between decennial census taking, there is no census count.

At the end of that year, the Press Democrat estimated the population then at 10,990, but that apparently included the overall Santa Rosa township; the 1910 census put the town population at 7,817, with 13,560 people in the township. The official city in that decade was compact, bordered roughly by today’s Junior College to the north, the fairgrounds at the south, Dutton Avenue on the west and the Memorial Hospital neighborhood to the east.

The Commission stated the population was 6,700, which was probably a typo and is particularly unfortunate as this number has been repeated as gospel in the modern Press Democrat and elsewhere. But Santa Rosa’s population in 1900 was 6,673, and that would mean the town only grew by 27 people in six years. Ummm…no. I suspect the report probably reversed the two digits, and meant to write 7,600. If you simply average the difference between the 1900 and 1910 census counts (9.53 new people added per month), there would have been 7,168 here at the time of the quake. That’s a little closer to their unreversed figure. Again, the Commission gave no source as to where it obtained its data, or whether it was supposed to represent the count at the time of the quake or when the report was published in 1908.

The Polk-Husted city directory – published by a company which produced city directories throughout the state and presumably knew a thing or three about estimating populations – put Santa Rosa at 12,185 when it was published in 1908, using a formula where they multiply the name count in the directory by 2.5 to include women and children. There was no 1906 city directory, but using this method the earthquake population would have been in the high 11,000s.

In this history blog, I have always used 10,000 as a ballpark number for 1906-1910.

Using the Press Democrat’s modern-day assertion that at least 100 people died out of 6,700, it would mean that more than 1.5 percent of the town’s population was killed – a staggering proportion. In sharp contrast, if the population was 10,000 and 82 people died, it would be only half that percentage, and about the same as San Francisco’s casualty ratio (see discussion).

WAS SANTA ROSA A TYPICAL SMALL FARM TOWN IN 1906?   Hardly. There were 30+ saloons in the downtown area, mainly around the train depot and along 4th street, and their operations were only interrupted briefly by the earthquake. Since the 1880s, Santa Rosa had a thriving underground economy based on gambling and prostitution, with a tenderloin district nearly as large as the one found in Reno. Santa Rosa also legalized Nevada-style prostitution the year after the earthquake. See the “Wide-Open Town” series of four articles.
DID THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE CHANGE SANTA ROSA?   Yes, but not necessarily for the better. The earthquake wiped out many of the “wild west” buildings downtown, which were replaced by new, safer buildings in the modern style. But the rebuilding of downtown also dried up money that was about to be used for civic improvements, including the town’s first park. The political reform movement that swept other communities at the time skipped Santa Rosa, leaving the same Old Guard running the town. Read “Forward Into The Past” for additional background.

This page was last updated April, 2022 to update URL links by je

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