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Historic California Earthquakes in Long Beach and San Francisco

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

A commercial book about the San Francisco Earthquake published 1906

A commercial book about the San Francisco Earthquake published 1906

Earthquakes in California

To Californians living in the earthquake belt, the feeling of a little "shaker" now and then is rarely a big deal.

However, several historical earthquakes in the Golden State have caused death, injury and considerable damage between 1857 and the present day.

  1. The Tehachapi Quake of 1952 moved furniture and knocked things off shelves a hundred miles away.
  2. The Loma Prieta Quake damaged the Oakland Bay Bridge and collapsed the two-level viaduct in 1989. It caused several deaths and messed up things for quite some time—and was caught on TV because of the World Series game that was about to be played there that day.
  3. The Northridge quake knocked down LA freeway overpasses in 1994. The restoration took a long time, though the construction crews worked day and night.
  4. There was even one back in 1857 big enough to be reported in newspaper articles of the gold rush era.

Californians are likely to experience an odd sensation of a minor loss of balance or see a hanging lamp begin to sway and look at each other and calmly say, "Hmmm. . . earthquake".

Sometimes it is a jarring lurch, or only a rolling motion, usually a jiggle that made you instantly wonder if something was affecting your equilibrium, but the rattle of dishes in a cupboard often clinches the fact that the sensation is geologic rather than personal in nature.

Small tremors knock things off of shelves now and then, but two historic quakes in the state had some major consequences, including the passage of new construction laws for California.

The biggest effect of an earthquake on our family was to jolt the memories of my parents, who had both lived in Long Beach, California, when the 1933 earthquake hit on Friday, March 10, at about 6 p.m.

"On 4th St. between Elm & Atlantic, Long Beach, Calif. - #2 Winstead Photo"  (J. B. Macelwane archives, Saint Louis University)

"On 4th St. between Elm & Atlantic, Long Beach, Calif. - #2 Winstead Photo" (J. B. Macelwane archives, Saint Louis University)

Any little shaker, or even a news story about a moderately serious quake, often brought out their remembrances of the "Big One" that happened the year before my parents married.

More than a hundred people were killed in Long Beach, California, and many more were injured. Brick and masonry buildings at that time were not usually reinforced. Two and three-story buildings collapsed completely. Decorative cornices and ornamentation on large structures came down too, often upon the heads of those fleeing a shaking building.

The high school, a complex of grand neoclassical buildings, was almost completely devastated. Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where mom was a student that year, had been an elegant shrine to education that spoke of durable academic tradition and solidarity.

The quake destroyed colonnades, arches, decorative cornices, classical ornaments and porticoes. The impressive dome over the administration building crashed into the courtyard. Luckily, school was not in session.

Extensive Quake Damage

Churches, banks and commercial buildings crumbled as well. My dad said that the quake hit while he and his brother were in a parked Model T car.

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Their first impression was that some of their friends were jumping up and down on the back bumper. If the shaker had hit a few hours earlier, thousands of children in schools all over the city would have died.

Mom, who was 16 then, often repeated the stories about how her family moved out of their damaged house and pitched a tent in the backyard, as many of their neighbors did.

They also moved the old wood-burning stove out into the yard, and she and her mother baked bread and cooked for the neighbors and their own family.

Others brought their firewood and used her "old-fashioned" stove, too, since gas lines had been destroyed and the fuel supply was shut off. My grandparents were one of the few in their area who could still cook after the destruction. Whoever had the good sense to shut down the Long Beach gas lines probably saved the city from total devastation by explosions and fire.

Long beach Methodist Church- 1933

Long beach Methodist Church- 1933

Before the quake, Grandma had been complaining that she was still using an old-fashioned wood stove and needed a modern gas appliance like almost everyone else had by that time. Grandpa had been unconvinced to spend money on such an unnecessary luxury. They were one of the few households with the old cast iron stove, which required building a wood fire in the heating chamber.

Aftershocks continued for weeks. Streets were filled with brick and masonry rubble, especially in the downtown area. There was terrible destruction everywhere, with buildings collapsed or with facades peeled down, so they looked like toy dollhouses with intact interior rooms open to view.

Wood frame structures such as Grandpa's apartment house withstood the shaking better than most downtown buildings, but there still was some damage with cracks in the interior plaster of walls and ceilings.

Mom and her teenage friends went down to the armory to help out where the U.S. Navy had set up a soup kitchen to feed displaced citizens. They also enjoyed flirting with the sailors.

The Pacific Fleet had entered the Long Beach Harbor just a few days before the disaster, and the navy pitched in with supplies and manpower to provide food, water and shelter all over the area. They also helped to clear streets of rubble and do whatever was needed.

Jefferson Jr. High, Long Beach, CA

Jefferson Jr. High, Long Beach, CA

Making Things Normal Again

When school resumed, classes were set up on the athletic fields, under tarps, in tents, and sometimes just on an open patch of grass marked by a numbered stake. The beautiful archways and impressive dome of the high school administration offices had collapsed into immense piles of rubble.

School administrators did their best to conduct classes normally, and many of the students considered it an adventure. In fact, most people tried to carry on as usual, even as aftershocks continued for months throughout the cleanup and restoration. The event at least provided work and jobs for people who had been struggling through the great depression.

High school classes were held outdoors on the athletic fields. (Page from 1933 Poly yearbook)

High school classes were held outdoors on the athletic fields. (Page from 1933 Poly yearbook)

Silent Film: Long Beach Earthquake

Remembering the San Francisco Quake

This was NOT the first destructive earthquake to hit a densely populated area in California. The people of Long Beach were well aware of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which had destroyed a major city only 27 years before.

By 1933 San Francisco had been rebuilt (in fact, Coit Tower was built in that year) and the port city had grown beyond its former glory. Both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were under construction, as well.

Dynamiting buildings to stop the advance of flames.

Dynamiting buildings to stop the advance of flames.

Shortly after the Great earthquake and fire of 1906, publishers found that they could sell a lot of newspapers, magazines and books with pictures and stories about the astounding catastrophe.

I happen to have a copy of one of these exploitative—almost tabloid-like—books that were published in 1906. (Cover at the top of the article.)

The book belonged to my great aunt. I can remember looking at it when I was a child.

Filled with photos and illustrations, it sensationally testifies in Victorian-style language to the terror and destruction felt by the survivors who escaped to Oakland, to Golden Gate Park, and to anywhere they could.

The original photos in the book are not great, but it is remarkable that so many were even available. Photographic technology was still in its early stages. In fact, this was the first major natural disaster to be documented by photos.

Some modern sources say that the extent of the actual death and damage was minimized by city officials, and a lot of photos released for publication were 'touched up' because they feared that future business for the area would be discouraged from investing in the destroyed city if the full extent of the destruction was revealed.

"Millionaires" leave the city in automobiles.

"Millionaires" leave the city in automobiles.

The Terrified Chinese

The Terrified Chinese

Actually, the non-photo illustrations give a more dramatic rendition of the disaster, with the artistic interpretations of terrifying moments.

As a sign of racial intolerance, it is interesting to note that the Chinese are depicted as being terrified and totally out of control, while a lot of the other refugees seem to be a bit more calm and heroic.

The book advertises itself as being " A Complete and Accurate Account of the Fearful Disaster which Visited the Great City and the Pacific Coast, the Reign of Panic and Lawlessness, the Plight of 300,000 Homeless People and the World-wide Rush to the Rescue. TOLD BY EYE WITNESSES."

There is some reason to doubt that the account is complete and accurate, and the accounts are a bit sketchy.

The book is "padded" with descriptions, photos and drawings depicting the city before the disaster, as well as other material relating to other earthquakes and volcanic eruptions throughout history. Nevertheless, the book is an artifact of the era, in somewhat fragile condition, and has obviously been perused many times.

Stanford University illustration.

Stanford University illustration.

Back to 1933

Twenty-seven years later, the people of Long Beach were probably not thinking about the San Francisco disaster. Many people were still struggling to provide basic life necessities during the last days of the Great Depression.

The natural disaster did, at least, result in jobs being created. Cleanup and reconstruction put a lot of people to work. My parents got married the following year.

I was well into my 20s before I saw historic photos from the Long Beach event on a TV program. Though I had heard family stories many times, I don't think I realized the extent of the disaster until seeing the old photos.

Many of the downtown buildings had been unreinforced brick, which crumbled into giant heaps of rubble, giving the whole city the look of a war's aftermath.

Subsequent California earthquakes have been much less destructive than they might have been because of lessons learned in '33.

The Long Beach quake resulted in a new set of state laws requiring tough building codes for California which affected the construction of buildings. Schools and other public structures were required to follow strict standards for earthquake resistance.


Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, I felt both free and secure in my young life, free from stress and surrounded by an extended family that got along well and even liked each other.

It was an era of optimism and opportunity. With the soldiers back from Europe and the Pacific, houses were being built, colleges were expanding, business was booming, babies were being born.

Though we worried a bit about atom bombs, it seemed an abstract fear and unlikely. Besides, we knew from the school drills that if a bomb were dropped, the sirens would sound and we would all be safely crouched under our school desks, heads tucked down and each of us with one hand covering the back of our necks.

I remember thinking, when I was a young adult, that my parents had lived through some extraordinary events including the Great Depression, World War II and a major earthquake.

Those uncertainties and horrors were behind them by the time I was old enough to aware of the wider and harsher world.

In another branch of our family, people had been displaced by war, lost their land and possessions, were chased by an advancing enemy front and were strafed by aircraft fire. They faced freezing, starvation and serious sickness.

So why are these events important to me? The earthquakes are only metaphors for extreme tests and difficulties people have always faced.

Our ancestors lived through wars, political upheaval, personal losses, natural calamities, physical suffering and deprivation of all imaginable kinds. We are their inheritors.

Survival stories from the past give me great hope for the future. I have never personally experienced times of economic extremity, and not had to endure hardship of natural disasters or war, but I know that it is possible for people to survive adversity while keeping their humanity and hope.

If this were not true, none of us would be here now.

We're NOT in Kansas

In California, we appreciate our earthquakes—it actually keeps some people from moving here.

At least with an earthquake, all your stuff falls down in one place and is not blown to the land of OZ.

I am always thankful that many of the people living in the tornado belt were glad to stay there rather than moving to "shake'n bake" land.

We already have "plenty-too-much" of people here, and we need our wonderful, hard-working farmers to stay in Kansas instead of clogging up our California freeways.


Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 25, 2014:

Animals don't like earthquakes or falling bookcases. I'm sure it was very frightening.

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on August 25, 2014:

My niece would have been in the Napa one yesterday, except she was in San Francisco at the time. Her dog was still home though. Her bookshelves fell over and everything on them broke. I can't imagine what her poor dog went through.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 25, 2014:

Sounds like an interesting episode, LG. The earthquake subject popped up again, since we had a fairly strong one in Northern California yesterday-- damage to buildings, broken gas and water lines, about 100 people injured, and lots of broken wine bottles.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 25, 2014:

Thank you, Paradise7, I do appreciate your compliments. When we lived in Southern California we experienced little shakers on a regular basis, now we are in an area where earthquakes are pretty rare. We do get an occasional heavy snow, but that is something we can prepare for.

Debra Allen from West By God on August 25, 2014:

Now this came about in a strange time. Last night we were watching an old Fantasy Island show where a guy wanted to go back in time to meet his great grandmother. She was said to be a self-made millionaire. We when the guy went back he found that his great grandmother was the owner of a Whorehouse. That wasn't the biggest part of it all. That was during the San Fransico Earthquake. He was there and he fell in love with someone that worked at the establishment. It was very interesting and historical...really historical now that that show have been off the aire for a very long time. Anyway I come to hubpages and I see your article. Thanks for the article.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 25, 2014:

Thanks for your comment and story, watergeek. All Californians have a couple of earthquake tales. I'm glad you weren't electrocuted in the shower. :)

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on August 25, 2014:

My parents also lived through the Great Depression. It really left a mark on them. I enjoyed your article very much and appreciate the point you're making--there's always hope, even in the midst of the worst of times. Your parents exemplify this concept. I live in upstate New York, so I've never experienced an earthquake, for which I'm grateful. Our worst natural disasters are in the order of blizzards and ice storms and the occasional flooding. We always cope.

I thought you did an admirable job, especially with the pictures, the content, and the original and historic sourced materials that you used.

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on August 25, 2014:

I was in the Northridge quake in 1972. That was worse than the 1994 one, but exciting for me. My first one. I was showering at the time, early in the morning. I quickly turned off the water to prevent electrocution (lol), waited until the shaking had stopped enough to climb out of the tub, dried off, whipped some clothes on, and raced down the street to make sure my best friend and her kids were alright. My landlord said the ground was still shaking when he saw me running.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 21, 2013:

We went to the beach frequently in the 50's and 60's. Yes, Long Beach was a beautiful place and a good place to grow up. The city did go through a period of steep decline. In more recent years there have been efforts to revitalize downtown and the shore area. The last time I was there was ten years ago. There were lots of little shops and sidewalk cafes, a brew pub, a bookstore and other small businesses, but there were also some vacant sites. Some of the new enterprises looked as if they might be struggling. A light rail public transportation system has been put in, and I have heard rumors that some of the elements of "The Pike" (amusement park) may be reborn.

Thanks for commenting.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 21, 2013:

I do recall the Sylmar quake, though it didn't affect us personally.

Also the Northridge Quake in 1994, did a lot of damage -- it happened a couple of days after my Dad died. Mom said that all of the quake news at least was distracting and kept her from thinking about his passing every moment of the day, at that time.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on October 21, 2013:

Good job! I understand how you feel about your parents' courage and calm in the face of a huge natural disaster and adverse circumstances. Both my parents were children of the Great Depression, and though it definitely left a mark on them both, they also survived with high courage and hope for the future, especially the futures of their children.

The inside view as related by your parents, along with some historical data about the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933, made this one fascinating piece. I remember going to Long Beach in the early 70's, and thinking what a wonderful place it was! Then, it had sort of an amusement park feel to it, and the beach itself was BEAUTIFUL! I went back about 16 years later and found the atmosphere had completely changed to that of an ABANDONED amusement park, and there seemed to be a lot of drug users on the beach and hanging around the big pier. I hope for the sake of all who make their home in Long Beach, that it is in the current day restored to peace and prosperity.

John C Thomas from Chicago, Illinois, USA on October 20, 2013:

I went to Venice High School in Los Angeles. The original high school was destroyed in the 1933 quake. Luckily, the quake happened well after school had been let out for the day. The current Venice High School was built in 1934 on the same site. It was the location where "Grease" was filmed.

I also personally experienced the February 9, 1971 Sylmar quake as an 8 year old kid. Sixty-four people died in that quake. If it had happened two hours later (instead of 6 a.m.) it would have been much worse, because many freeway overpasses collapsed.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on September 14, 2010:

It may be true that frequent small shakers release the energy and dissipate it with less damage. That seems logical, at least. When there hasn't been a quake for a long time, it often seems that it is more intense.

Dog-ear scratching doesn't count. :)

Every area seems to have its particular potential for some kind of disaster. It sounds like you live in a beautiful place.

Thanks for commenting, knell63.

knell63 from Umbria, Italy on September 14, 2010:

I've not long moved to an earthquake zone along the Apennine Mountains in Italy and am just getting used to the whole ground moving thing. Every so often I wake up in the middle of the night think "ohh earthquake" but normally its just the dog scratching his ear.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 25, 2009:

Thanks, Kiwi. Do you live in CA? Seems like you have seen a lot of the state. I also wrote a hub about my parents who not only went through that quake, but also the great depresson and WWII. Yes times are tough for a lot of people-- but not as bad as they could be.

kiwi91 from USA on March 25, 2009:

I didn't even know about the 1933 earthquake. I've read up on the 1906 Earthquake before, and how it flattened the World's Fair (which looked incredible). The Exploratorium is the only evidence of that still standing, which I believe isn't the original structure, but a copy of what was once there. I remember the '89 earthquake and watching it happen on TV live during the world series, then traveling over that same highway 15 years later. Scary. I saw a program that pinpoints the next projected "big one" in the Palm Springs area, my favorite place to go to in CA. At least there's no double decker highways there.

The story you told is inspirational and really makes our current economic crisis look pint sized! Great hub!

Peter from Australia on March 07, 2009:

Rochelle your tale of the Earthquakes makes my earthquake seem like a minor tremor. It must have been awful to go through what those unfortunate people had to suffer. I could not live in an area that was prone to such violent disturbances.

I can relate to your growing up in the middle class era, it's a pity we can't wind back the hands of time and work out where it all went belly up! (am I mixing my metaphores?) ;-[)

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 27, 2008:

Yes it can depend on your surroundings and circumstances.

 My sister worked in  a 28 story building in Los Angeles.. building that was "earthquake resistant" with some built-in flex. They also had regular drills which directed them to move away from the windows toward the core of the building. They could really feel movement in real events, and they were pretty coll wth it.

At one point when they had a moderately good shake-- everyone (instead of following the drill) headed over to the windows to see what was happening to the construction workers who were in the 'skeleton' stage of building a new high rise.  The workers were holding tightly to the steel girders.

ReuVera from USA on October 27, 2008:

What an interesting Hub! And you are so cool and calm about those earthquakes:) I am shivering already from the word itself. When living in Kazakhstan, I took some course in the city of Almaty. That month was like constant dizziness and local people like, "Hmmm. . . earthquake". :) But when we lived in Israel we experienced an earthquake between 5.7 and 7.2 on the Richter scale in 1995, which really scared me for many years to come. We lived then on the 8th floor of a 9 stores house. I woke up because I thought that my little son sneaked in my bed and was jumping on it. Stuff was falling from shelves... Brrrr... not a pleasant memory..

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 15, 2008:

I think maybe I do remember the pseudonym-- though I have two possibilities. Yep . It's got to be You.

My Dad loved to get the non-Californians to try the "fresh olives right off the tree".


lauralang on October 15, 2008:

Wow Rochelle, The "Earthquake Story" is the best of the best. Your stories are always excellent. However, as you know, I am also a Ca. native, born and raised in the SF Bay Area, and I will take a quake any day to a tornado. Some of my lasting fun memories are of having Mid Western or East Coast relatives or friends visit and having a quake. Their expressions and screams are permanently inbedded in my memories. Another Ca. memory is inviting out of state guests to pick olives from the trees and eat them. Not a pleasant taste if they are not soaked and treated in brine.

We do take our earthquakes seriously and our wild fires seriously but as you know they are well worth enduring for the wonderful life in Ca.

Rochelle, do you recognize the user name of lauralang? It is my childhood pen name when I wrote my stories from my perch in my back yard fig tree.

I know you will, but keep up the good work.

aka Laura

Shadesbreath from California on October 15, 2008:

That book must be like your absolute super treasure, especially with you being a museum type. That's awesome. This was an interesting read. The part about the San Francisco quake reminded me about my Grandma Mac (yeah, same one from that one hub) who lived through that quake. She used to tell me stories about being up on the hill looking down at the city and all the smoke.

Nice work on this hub, and grats on being hubber of the week. You deserve it.

andyjay on October 14, 2008: have really lived an interesting many cool stories....keep up the really interesting really have so much wisdom....thanks...i didn't even know there had been so many earthquakes...great stuff!

SharpBrains from San Francisco, Calif. on October 13, 2008:

Rochelle: Such a quakin' great hub. I learned so much and loved all the details, especially those told by your mother, father and grandparents. Also loved all the various eyewitness accounts from newspapers of the time. Truly great reading. Hang on!!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 13, 2008:

Jerilee--Yes there was damage to the oil rigs--but in some of the old pictures of after-quake damage you can clearly see many oil derricks -the old wooden ones- in the background. I'm, sure there was underground damage in the pipelines

Thanks, Donna, as I said  if I could pick a favorite natural disaster, quakes would probably be preferred over hurricane or tornado.

I remember once going out to my car to go to work. As I walked out to the driveway, we were having a moderately good quake. The parked cars on the street were bouncing pretty good and my cat, who was sitting on the concrete was looking at me with a "What the heck are you doing!" look.

Jerilee Wei from United States on October 13, 2008:

Enjoyed your hub! One of my grandmother's lived in Long Beach during that 1933 earthquake. At home she was in the kitchen cooking, slid under the legs of the old time stove, and burned her eyebrows and eyeglasses completely off. She always talked about that earthquake for the rest of her life.

Your hub made me wonder if there was any damage to the oil rigs (if they existed then) and Signal Hill.

I was born in Long Beach and went to some of my primary grades there.

Donna Campbell Smith from Central North Carolina on October 13, 2008:

I love your history pieces, Rochelle. We've had a few little shakes in NC, but hurricanes are our speciality.

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