C-SPAN has produced a short video about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake that’s certain to become a top reference for information about the disaster, given the cable channel’s reputation as a trustworthy source of impartial information. Unfortunately, that segment is riddled with myths and falsehoods about the quake, I’m deeply sorry to say.

As part of its 2015 “Cities Tour,” C-SPAN presented several short videos about Santa Rosa and its history including a segment on the 1906 quake with Gaye LeBaron, apparently speaking extemporaneously, for a little under seven minutes (you can view it in full here). There are a few slips of the tongue – certainly she meant to say civic leader Frank Doyle had a “paternal” concern for Santa Rosa and not that he was a “paternalistic figure” – but the factual mistakes are more serious and must be addressed. Some items below are slightly edited and presented out of chronological order for clarity of discussion.

*   …a hundred people died here, at least a hundred people that we know of died in this earthquake and that’s staggering.  

FALSE. Exactly 82 are believed to have died in Santa Rosa, and it can be said with high confidence that the total was at least 85 (see discussion). While it seems very likely that a hundred or more people really were killed or died later because of injuries, there is zero evidence. Using any number higher than 82 is speculation.

*   In terms of property damage and life lost, per capita, no town in America has even been as affected by an earthquake as Santa Rosa was in 1906…the damage here was absolutely staggering. If as many people had died in San Francisco, per capita as died in Santa Rosa, it would have been 75,000 dead.  

FALSE. Here Ms. LeBaron is claiming more than 18 percent of the people in Santa Rosa were killed – which would have meant nearly 2,000 dead.

(Do the math yourself: The pre-quake population of San Francisco was about 410,000 and 18 percent of that is 73,000. At the end of 1906 the Press Democrat estimated the population at about 11,000. )

Misleading “per capita” claims have been repeated for decades and are based on overstating the number killed as 100+ and underestimating the size of the Santa Rosa community. There’s a lengthy discussion of this issue in my 1906 earthquake FAQ – which, by the way, has been available on the Internet since 2013.

*   Help came in from outside. One particular man who was visiting here from Kansas got his son to drive him to a bank in Petaluma where he cashed a check for $5,000, and brought it back and gave it to people to clean up… the money that was left he divided it among the churches to help people.  

HALF TRUE. Bertrand Rockwell and his daughter’s husband, James Edwards, drove to Petaluma where Edwards’ brother-in-law cashed the check. The amount was not mentioned at the time, but ballooned in the retelling over the years. It was likely not $5,000; it would have been difficult for a typical auto of that day to carry so much weight in gold and silver coins (Edwards probably owned the 22.5 horsepower runabout seen here).

Rockwell’s donation to the emergency relief effort came out to $692.00, which paid for two days work. There was no mention in any newspapers at the time of him giving money to churches. For more, see: “The Legends of Captain Rockwell” published here earlier.

*   There were three downtown buildings… that survived…the one behind me which we now call the Empire Building, which was actually a bank building in those years. It had been built in 1904 and it was badly damaged but it came back. And just down the street is the Barnett-Mailer building. [Both] survived the earthquake.  

FALSE. The Empire Building was constructed in 1908 (see article). The Barnett-Mailer building at 631 Fourth street was built in 1907 and was on the only block downtown which was completely reduced to rubble.

The third structure mentioned in the video was the old Western Hotel in Railroad Square –  now home to Flying Goat Coffee – which indeed survived the 1906 earthquake, as did many other buildings in the downtown area. Only the Fourth street retail district was almost totally demolished. The map produced by the State Earthquake Investigation Commission shows the scope of damage.

*   The 1906 earthquake gave the town a chance to redesign itself for the automobile which was new. There was a man named Frank Doyle who… went to every merchant in town and talked them into giving several feet of their frontage to widen Fourth street…so they would be adaptable to the automobile which shows a great deal of foresight.  

FALSE. Five days after the disaster – even before all the bodies were recovered – the interim Democrat-Republican newspaper commented, “All the business streets should and must be widened, and now is the time to do it.” The only specific reason given for street widening was to make them suitable for streetcars. In more than a dozen articles that appeared in the papers in the following months, automobiles were never mentioned. Not once.

Frank Doyle, who decades later would become a loud cheerleader for building the Golden Gate Bridge, was then a cashier at Exchange Bank and one of three men heading the citizen’s committee on street widening. From the newspaper accounts, it appears he acted as treasurer handling the money. In the end the civic improvement project was a bust; they managed to widen only two blocks of Fourth street, from the east end of Courthouse Square to E street (for more background, read “Boulevard Dreams“).

There are smaller bones that could be picked in that video, but the last – and perhaps, most important – dispute I have with her narrative is the portrayal of 1906 Santa Rosa as a simple farmtown (“a forward looking town with a lot of prospects”) that emerged transformed, phoenix-like, from the quake ashes and rubble. Once again, that’s simply false.

Santa Rosa certainly looked more cosmopolitan after it was rebuilt; the fires swept away the jumble of 19th century buildings that gave the downtown its “Wild West” appearance. But the earthquake didn’t interrupt Santa Rosa’s thriving underground economy based on gambling and prostitution, with a tenderloin district nearly as large as the one found in Reno. Santa Rosa actually legalized Nevada-style prostitution the year after the earthquake. See the “Wide-Open Town” series of four articles for more on the rough temperament of the place.

Worse, the earthquake thwarted meaningful progress and entrenched Santa Rosa in its old ways. While the progressive movement swept out corruption in San Francisco and other American cities, no reformers had the chance to gain public office here. There were no post-quake muckrakers calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.

So yes, the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake really was a transformative event – only not the one always portrayed. Instead of being the spark that propelled the town into the better days of the Twentieth Century, the disaster looms over our past as the day time stopped. The question to debate is whether it casts its long dark shadow over Santa Rosa still.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *