An Inferno Waiting To Happen


America and the Great California

Earthquake of 1906

By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins; 462 pp; $27.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good The author marshals a trove of arcane research to spin a memorable tale.

The Bad A lengthy geology lesson precedes the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The Bottom Line A solid account, but less successful than previous works by Winchester.

In A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, best-selling author Simon Winchester comes up with a solid concept for an historical thriller: retelling the riveting story of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in the context of new breakthroughs in the field of geology.

In the past 40 years, Winchester tells us, the Old Geology, with its focus on rocks and fossils, has given way to a New Geology that sees the planet as "one entire and immense system." The theory's heart is plate tectonics, which presents the earth's exterior as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle of rigid plates whose interactions drive most major geologic activity, including the creation of oceans, mountains, and earthquakes.

But like two plates grinding into one another, Winchester's approach produces some unfortunate results. Most annoying, he turns literary foreplay into a maddening tease. It's not until page 201 that he begins to tell the horrific tale of how the largest city in the Western U.S. was destroyed by an earthquake-triggered fire that burned uncontrollably for three days. Reading chapter after chapter, I kept thinking, O.K., here's where the earthquake is going to strike. But Winchester postpones the main event with a tortuous chronicle of the geological evolution of the U.S., California, and the San Andreas fault. Moreover, he fails to produce a central character or theme that could have fused his geological musings with the story of the quake.

Still, if you make it through the first half of the book, the second half is enjoyable. In two entertaining chapters, Winchester chronicles the genesis and "exuberant, almost irrational" growth of the city, beginning with the 1848 gold rush. Most of the arrivals pitched tents on the slopes of the city, and the oil lanterns within created an assemblage that looked from the crowded harbor "like an amphitheatre of fire." The housing shortage was so acute that a few enterprising folks rammed ships into the muddy shoreline and refashioned them into hotels and prisons. The promise of riches drew shady characters from all over the world. Winchester reports that the word hoodlum is derived, some say, from a racist cry of "huddle 'em," a signal for local mobs to harass Chinese immigrants.

When Winchester turns to the earthquake, echoes of Hurricane Katrina abound. For years fire chief Dennis Sullivan had demanded a saltwater firefighting system and freshwater cisterns that could help control a big blaze. And in October, 1905, the National Board of Fire Underwriters declared San Francisco's water system to be in such poor shape that it would not be able to halt a major conflagration. But like the many unheeded calls to shore up New Orleans' defenses against floods, these warnings were disregarded. Seven months later the cautions proved tragically prescient.

The earthquake struck the city at 5:12 in the morning on Apr. 18, 1906. It thundered through the streets like a roller coaster of death, with the entire surface of the earth and everything on top of it rising and falling, rising and falling, in an "unstoppable tsunami of rock and brick and cement and stone." Winchester quotes one cop's report: "The buildings around and about me began to tumble and fall and kept me pretty busy for a while dodging bricks." Toppling chimneys were lethal weapons, killing many as they slept, including the fire chief.

The horror lasted all of 48 seconds, and then all hell let loose. Moments after the shaking stopped, broken gas pipes, fuel tanks, and chimney coals ignited the city. Within 12 hours, half of San Francisco's heart was torched. On Apr. 21 the fires finally burned themselves out. When the smoke cleared, 3,000 people were dead, and half of the city's 400,000 residents were homeless.

The city ultimately recovered from the tragedy. Unfortunately, Winchester does little with this part of the story. Still, he makes the interesting point that despite the rebuilding, "San Francisco's crown began to slip immediately after the disaster of 1906. And the city has never regained its status, nor will it ever." The torch of supremacy passed to Los Angeles. San Francisco did learn some lessons, though. Stronger building codes were written. And architects began using reinforced concrete and steel skeletons. The city has not suffered a catastrophic fire since.

In the end, A Crack in the Edge of the World is less successful than previous Winchester efforts, such as The Professor and the Madman. As he has in the past, the author marshals a trove of arcane research to spin a memorable tale. But this time there are a lot of rocks to dig through before the reader hits pay dirt.

By Spencer E. Ante

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