Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thursday in History: Relating to San Francisco

Studying history is really fun. What’s even more fun is finding your own last name staring back at you from the page of a history book.
In 2009 I ran up to my husband and shoved the book I was reading for my really cool American urban history class in his face. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” he asked, as he disengaged from whatever he had been studying. “Look!” I pointed at the name, excited, and watched his face to see his reaction when he saw it. I was expecting a little more than a calm nod and “hm,” so I jumped around the room excitedly for him. “Isn’t that cool?!” I asked. He agreed so that I would leave him alone, and I went back to read more about how Mr. Livermore and his neighbors worked together to save their homes during the fires that ravaged San Francisco in 1906.
Don't build your house on shifting sand.
Image from wikipedia.
At around 5 AM on this day in history, April 18th, 1906, San Francisco suffered one of its infamous earthquakes. Since America didn’t have building codes until the 1920s, many structures that were architecturally unsound or built on top of questionable surfaces simply toppled. Those that were still standing were at risk of being burnt to a crisp by the fires that had sprung up from fractured gas lines.
Unfortunately, the city’s water main was also damaged in many areas, so smothering the fires wasn’t an option. Boats from the bay were put to use, to carry water to firefighters and to ferry refugees across the bay to Oakland. Firefighters also tried to use dynamite to isolate fires and keep them from damaging any more property. Regrettably, this often ended up doing more damage than the fires themselves would have, since in addition to the property that was blown to smithereens in the explosion, the dynamite would usually start little fires of its own. And those little fires would never stay behind the designated lines that the dynamite was supposed to be making in the first place.
San Francisco aflame
Image from wikipedia
Citizens from many different neighborhoods were ordered by the army and firefighters to evacuate. There wasn’t anyone making sure that people didn’t go back to their homes after they were forced to leave every one of their worldy goods behind, and that was how one particular neighborhood was saved. Instead of adopting an “every man for himself” attitude, Mr. Livermore and his neighbors worked together, extinguishing whichever parts of one another’s homes happened to burst into flame.
Although the homes and property were saved, it probably wasn’t the best idea to stay, since a series of aftershocks shook up the city even more and fires raging elsewhere could have easily made their way up the hill to the very buildings they were protecting. But hindsight is 20/20, and while those who fail are remembered as stupid, those who succeed are hailed as heroes.
And even though this particular Mr. Livermore was probably very distantly related to my husband’s family (the California Livermores came to the area by way of Mexico, while the branch that my husband is descended from made its way to the southwestern United States after several generations of life in New England), it’s still pretty awesome to know that you share a name with someone who was lucky enough to survive and beat back the fires during one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.

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