The Tectonic Tour, Part 2: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake


Every couple of hundred years, California experiences a “big one” along the San Andreas Fault line. The last one happened in 1906, and I witnessed the 105th commemorative celebration yesterday morning in San Francisco (which was the subject of yesterday’s post).

Most of the visible reminders of the 1906 quake and fire have disappeared from the landscape in San Francisco. That’s why we continued our “tectonic tour” of the Bay Area by driving an hour north of the city to the Point Reyes National Seashore to find physical evidence of the quake.

Point Reyes is a lush, verdant triangle of land that used to hang out near present-day Carmel about 5 million years ago, until a myriad of “big ones” jolted it 150 miles to the north, along with the rest of the Pacific Ocean Plate.

The winding scenic drive along the coast on California 1 is worthy of a calendar page at every turn, assuming of course, you can actually see anything through the fog. For much of the drive, we were smack-dab on top of the San Andreas Fault line, where this part of California is being sheared off by underground forces like a giant piece of string cheese.

After stopping in the town of Point Reyes Station to get a tire repaired after picking up a nail, we circled back to the visitor’s center. There we met an extremely friendly guide who pointed us to the start of the park’s earthquake trail.

Earthquake science was still in its infancy when the 1906 quake hit, and it was believed for many years that the epicenter of the quake was near Point Reyes. (It was later learned that it was actually only two miles from San Francisco’s border, near Daly City.)

It’s only a short walk along the trail before you come to a line of blue posts that marks the fault line. It reminded me of the white posts I had once seen in the DMZ which delineated the border between North and South Korea. But at this border between the North American and Pacific Ocean tectonic plates we found no mine fields, or armed guards.

What we did find was a fence that crosses the fault line at a perpendicular angle. Before 1906, it was a single structure, but today it is in two sections, now 16-feet apart. This was the amount of distance the plates moved in relation to each other during the San Francisco Earthquake.

A bit farther down the path we found a creek that had its path altered that same day. Whereas, once it had flowed in a straight line, today it follows a Z-pattern, having also moved 16-feet by the quake.

Compared to the Earth, a human life, even one as long-lived as Bill Del Monte’s (who I wrote about yesterday), is only one frame in a very long movie. Although the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake is a part of our distant past, it’s inevitable that soon another in the endless series of “big ones” will occur, bringing unimaginable destruction.

But if San Francisco serves as an example, the next great quake will create new traditions of remembrance, honoring the spirit of the survivors among that generation of Californians.

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

One response to “The Tectonic Tour, Part 2: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

  • Patrick McClellan

    Along the Earthquake Trail at the Pt. Reyes park, I hope you enjoyed Exhibit #6 (the “tail” of Mathilda the Cow). She was memorialized by the giant of American geology, G.K. Gilbert, in the official report of the 1906 earthquake (the “Lawson Report”): “…the fault crevice was momentarily so wide as to admit a cow, which fell in head first and was thus entombed.” Well, apparently, the tale of the fault-bound bovine was all a hoax. A letter penned years after the quake by a guy whose family lived on the ranch (now park headquarters) included this version: “…the cow had died and we had to bury her. That night along came the earthquake which opened a big crack in the ground; we simply dragged the carcass over to the crack and tipped it in with the feet sticking out. Then along came those newspaper reporters and when they got the idea that the cow had fallen in, we weren’t about to spoil a good story: Why spoil it now?”

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