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"The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned"

The Newspaper in American Life

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

Before dawn on April 19, 1906, the city of San Francisco woke to a series of explosions and a tremendous rumbling. In less than a minute, the earthquake set in motion the worst natural disaster the nation has ever experienced.

Fire sprang from gas mains, wood stoves, and toppled lanterns, and church bells were set clanging. Gold Rush-era cisterns were useless and all but one water main was ruptured. “Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand,” said one eyewitness. “Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot--a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm.”

Only one newspaper managed to publish that morning. The San Francisco Daily News moved to a small print shop on Mission Street and on a hand-cranked press, rushed out an edition--peppered with errors--until the building was evacuated and dynamited as a firebreak.

By noon, all of Newspaper Row was destroyed, including the city’s tallest structure, the twenty-two-story Call Building. All telegraph lines were down, and for the first time, San Francisco was cut off from the world. “People were hungry for news,” says Mark Sweeney, chief of the Library of Congress’s preservation reformatting division, and technical coordinator of the United States Newspaper Program. “The water lines had broken, so there was no steam to run the presses, and consequently, no newspapers.”

Newspapermen from the three major papers, the Call, the Chronicle, and the Examiner, made their way across the bay to the offices of the Oakland Tribune, where they worked together to produce a special combined edition on April 19 with the headline:


The paper carried no advertisements. It was distributed free of charge to the people congregating in Golden Gate Park and elsewhere.

“The newspaper, above all, is the local history of this country,” says Henry Snyder, professor of history and director of the California Newspaper Project.

The California project is part of the United States Newspaper Program, which was launched in 1984 to locate, catalog, and preserve newspapers published in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present. The holdings of public libraries, county courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries, archives, and historical societies are being inventoried, and catalog records are entered into a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center. Microfilm copies of newspapers are available to researchers across the country through interlibrary loan.

“Newspapers recorded history in a way that no other documents did. They are a rich source of history on two levels: they tell about the lives of everyday people and about extraordinary events,” says Sweeney.

The day after the quake hit, as two dozen aftershocks shook San Francisco and the city continued to burn, the special edition Call=Chronicle=Examiner announced, “Death and destruction have been the fate of San Francisco. Shaken by a temblor at 5:13 o’clock yesterday morning, the shock lasting 48 seconds, and scourged by flames that raged diametrically in all directions, the city is a mass of smouldering ruins.”

“It was the great cataclysmic event in twentieth-century California history. As they say, on April 18, 1906, the earth shook, the sky burned,” says Gary Kurutz, curator of special collections at the California State Library.

The two halves of earth along the San Andreas fault had rebounded past one another like a released rubber band, producing seismic waves traveling at 7,000 miles per hour. Charles Richter had yet to devise his scale, but geologists estimate that the quake would have registered an 8.3.

Within two hours the wood-frame buildings south of Market Street, an overpopulated area built on reclaimed ground in the Mission Swamp, collapsed and caught flame like tinder. By midday, sparks from a quakedamaged flue had lit the “Ham and Eggs Fire,” which engulfed the north side of Market Street. “The story goes that a woman was cooking breakfast after the great quake and apparently the sparks flying up her chimney caused a fire that spread throughout the city and devastated almost all of downtown,” says Kurutz.

It was five hours before a Western Union wire chief was able to restring a single wire and reconnect the city with the outside world. Perched on a thirty-foot pole, he spent the next eighteen hours sending out the word. The National Guard was dispatched that day.

The San Francisco Chronicle later reported some of the untold stories of that day under the headline PLUCKY NEWS GATHERER STICKS TO HIS WORK IN GRAVE PERIL: “No one has written of the work of the newspaper men on April 18 and 19 and the following days; they have not time to write it, and no one else can. Only the boys that were in the thick of it know what each other did and what they went through.”

The Chronicle quoted a member of the Associated Press, Jerry Carroll. “’The last office of the Associated Press on the night of the 18th was on a doorstep in Chinatown, and the copy was written in the glare of conflagration--a light that cost $1,000 per second.’

‘“I was told to write the lead for that night’s story,’ says Jerry, ‘but the Postal people told me I would have to hold it down to 500 words. I could just as well have condensed the Bible into a half column as I could have confined the news of that day in that space.’”

Before the earthquake, San Francisco had been the nation’s ninth largest city, and the largest in the West: an industrial port city with a booming artistic and literary community. When the fires finally ceased on April 21, nearly three thousand acres were destroyed, thousands of people had been killed, and a quarter of a million were homeless.

“An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco,” Jack London wrote in an eyewitness account for Collier’s. “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts.”

History would ultimately prove London wrong, and the city would rebuild in time to host the 1915 World’s Fair. The Fair would celebrate not only the opening of the Panama Canal, but also the renaissance of San Francisco, demonstrating to the world that the city was flourishing as ever before.

But many of the major runs of the city’s papers were entirely destroyed in the fire. “Reconstructing the history of San Francisco is more difficult, since many of the long runs don’t exist, and if they exist, they are in repositories outside San Francisco,” says Snyder. One of the advantages of a centralized database is that it tells a researcher based anywhere from California to Maine that the only known copy of the San Francisco Daily News from April 18, 1906, is held at the New York Public Library, while copies of the Call=Chronicle=Examiner are held by five museums and historical societies in California.

“The Huntington Library in San Marino has unique issues of New England papers,” Snyder says. “Conversely, some California newspapers survive only in New England libraries, like the New-York Historical Society, because the miners sent them back. Some of the gaps in one state title can only be filled in from runs in another state.”

The California State Library has been collecting newspapers for fifteen decades. One of its treasures is a copy of the state’s first newspaper, the Californian, dated August 15, 1846. It was published in Monterey by Philadelphian Walter Colton, who noted in his journal, “To-day the first newspaper ever published in California made its appearance. . . . My partner is an emigrant from Kentucky, who stands six feet eight in his stockings. He is in a buckskin dress, a foxskin cap; it is true with his rifle, ready with his pen, and quick at the type-case.”

Colton and Robert Semple used a wooden screw-type press that had belonged to the governor of California. “The story goes that they had to scrounge around and use paper associated with making cigarettes and cigars to print the first issue,” Kurutz says. The first edition was foolscap-size and printed in both Spanish and English. Colton wrote, “Though small in dimensions, our first number is as full of news as a black walnut is of meat.”

“Locally the paper was very important for giving news of the Mexican War, the conquest of California, and what was going at the time with Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor,” says Kurutz. “It also contains the earliest published account of the famous Donner party stranded in the Sierra in 1846.”

The next year, the same wooden press was employed to print San Francisco’s first newspaper, the California Star, and two years later, the pioneer publisher Edward Kemble used it to print Sacramento’s first newspaper, the Placer Times. When Kemble discovered he did not possess typeface large enough for his masthead, he carved out the words Placer Times with a jackknife.

By the time Kemble wrote a history of California newspapers in 1858, the number had leapt from two titles to three hundred and twenty-four, largely because of the flurry of newspapers generated by the Gold Rush. By the early 1850s, Kurutz says, “San Francisco, in fact, could boast that it not only consumed more champagne than Boston, but it also published more newspapers than London.”

But most papers were short-lived, and in 1858 Kemble characterized California as a “newspaper graveyard.” As for the editors and publishers, “Not one can be said to have become rich from the profits of their newspapers.” He noted that one suffered knife wounds, one was killed by an assassin, and four were injured in duels because of articles they had written.

Duels were not uncommon on the East Coast either, where newspaper publishing had been thriving for a century. The same year the first California paper was published, John Ritchie Jr., the Republican editor of the Virginia Enquirer, met the challenge of John Hampden Pleasants, the editor of the Whig. Pleasants did not survive the showdown.

“There were very politically charged newspapers, and they channeled the political passions of the people of the time in a way that they don’t now,” says Errol Somay, director of the Virginia Newspaper Project. He recounts that when the editor of the State challenged the editor of the Whig to a duel in 1883, the two took elaborate measures to evade the law, traveling two hundred miles to meet in West Virginia. Although dueling was illegal, the incident was covered on the front page of the victorious editor’s paper. “The final duel is described in great detail, like a sporting event.”

The Virginia project has been inventorying and cataloging its 6,250 titles for nearly ten years. “Every library in its particular region has its own treasures,” Somay says. “Here in Virginia it is our collection of the Virginia Gazette. Our newspaper publishing goes back to 1736 in this state, which is one of the earlier dates.”

Eighteenth-century papers such as the Gazette printed official proclamations and dispatches, and presented news differently than today. When Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, the historic occurrence was buried in the back of the paper, in an item about presidential bills. “We expect major events always to be front-page news,” says Somay. “But with the early newspapers like the Virginia Gazette, most of the front page would be taken up with ads for rum or livestock.”

“Newspapers become a vital link to the time they were printed in,” he continues. “The title that is the most requested here at the Library of Virginia is the Recorder from 1802. In it is an editorial by John Callendar, tearing into Thomas Jefferson for his supposed liaisons with Sally Hemings.” Callendar writes in his editorial, “The name of Sally will walk down to posterity alongside of Mr. Jefferson’s own name.”

“He was a great scandal monger, but two hundred years later, people are dying to get at it, because it is one of the first official documents of this event,” says Somay.

Five years ago, the Library of Virginia received approximately ninety requests for microfilm per quarter, but since the newspaper program began, the number of requests has more than doubled to two hundred per quarter. One paper highly sought after by researchers, the Richmond Planet, is an African American newspaper founded during Reconstruction by a group of former slaves. Its most well-known editor, John Mitchell Junior, was appointed to the position at the age of twenty-one. In a time of segregation, lynch mobs, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, he dared to “hurl the thunderbolts of truth into the ranks of the wicked,” as one writer put it. On the back page of each issue, he printed a listing of all documented lynchings across the nation. “He was not only doing it because of its obvious racial atrocity--there were children, there were white people--it was a matter of taking a stand against uncontrolled vigilantism,” says Somay.

The library continues to acquire copies of papers that tell unexpected stories of the past, such as a copy of a Civil-War era Richmond Dispatch. The paper had been sent across the river from the southern side to the northern side during a Christmas truce in the Battle of Fredericksburg. “The northerners and southerners would exchange boats and sail things across the river--the southerners would send plugs of tobacco, and the northerners would send coffee and newspapers,” explains Somay. When the library received the Dispatch, it still had a note attached to it saying, “Friend Yanks, you seem disposed to communicate with us but the wind is against you, in the morning probably the wind will have shifted when you can send us over a paper. A fresh one if you please will be more acceptble than som old copis that you have been in a habit of cheeting us with. Thomas Seaton, Co. H 17th Miss. P.S. Instruct your relief in the morning to send us over a paper that is if the wind does not shift to knight.”

“A lot of what we film is made up of titles that we become aware of from other librarians, archivists, researchers, newspaper offices themselves,” says Jeff Sohn, project coordinator of the New York Newspaper Project. “I receive requests regarding papers that have not been filmed, that are in jeopardy of extinction, because they are in a small historical society that can no longer house them--or they may be deteriorating, or in the basement of a newspaper office that no longer wants them.”

New York State’s first paper, also named the Gazette, was printed in 1725 by William Bradford, a publisher with royalist sympathies. It was just two pages in length, and contained lists of ships, outdated foreign news, and a few advertisements. Within a century, the number of New York State papers would reach one hundred and twenty, and by the time of the Civil War, the number had tripled.

The nation’s first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was published in New York City in March 1827, the same year slavery was abolished in New York State. Twenty years later in Rochester, Frederick Douglass founded the abolitionist North Star, in which he combined the condemnation of slavery with a call for the emancipation of women. The paper had a circulation of four thousand subscribers in the U.S., Europe, and the West Indies, and carried the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”

One paper in the New York project’s collection, the Sandy Hill Herald from Hudson Falls, New York, had the foresight to admonish its readers on Jan. 28, 1886: “As a rule, the local paper is read and then cast aside as of little worth. This is a thoughtless disposal of what would, if carefully preserved for a few years, be of great value to its possessor. Every year would increase its value as an encyclopedia of former events. There are before us twentyfive bound volumes of the HERALD dating as far back as 1841, and the fortunate possessor would not part with them for any consideration. He has at times been offered as high as ten dollars for the privilege of cutting a single article from their pages. . . . There are many reasons why every person should preserve at least their village paper.”

“There is a gap in the way we think about collecting our historic memory,” says Somay. “If you get a published book about the Battle of Gettysburg, you catalog it and put it in your collection. If it is starting to deteriorate, you preserve it. It’s sanctified, because it’s a book, but newspapers have been treated as ephemera. Yesterday’s paper may talk of important issues of the day, both locally and nationally--so they are primary source documents. They have incredible importance especially when you are at a hundred years remove from the time.”

Many papers have been saved but are in bad condition, even if they have been bound into volumes, says Andrea Vanek, assistant director of the California Newspaper Project. “The best way to preserve newspapers is to lay them flat in an acid-free box, but most of the papers that we find are not that way. We’ve found nails, or brads, or sometimes holes punched in the pages, and you lose text because of the holes--it is very destructive to the paper. We also find a lot of papers that have just been folded and put on the shelf, so they are brittle and brown along the fold.”

Newsprint deteriorates because of the high acid in the paper. Newspapers printed before 1875 were often printed on paper composed of old rags beaten into a liquid pulp, cast onto a screen, and made into individual sheets. “We have books that date back to the sixteenth century, the incunabula period, that look excellent and will last forever,” says Kurtuz.

With an increasingly literate population and the demand for papers in larger quantities, a faster means of papermaking was devised. “One of the ironies of newspaper preservation is that fact that you could take the Virginia Gazette home--it’s in great shape, very durable, because it is printed on rag paper,” says Somay. “Then around the 1860s the demand for newspaper printing became so great, they began breaking down wood pulp with alum, which converts to an acid over time, so that the paper becomes embrittled. Newspapers from the 1830s don’t have the same preservation demands that the 1930s have--in fact papers from the 1930s are often in dire condition.

“So we’re at risk of losing our more immediate past, which is an odd situation. The papers contain the seeds of their own destruction.”

“You walk up and down the aisle at the library and you see the ‘cornflakes,’ the chunks of newspaper that fall down to the floor,” says Kurutz. “That’s why microfilm, and later, digitization, is going to be such an advantage--because newspapers are a primary source and you will be able to read them without damaging the original.”

Microfilming is a painstaking and time-consuming process. “It’s very rare that you find a whole run of a paper in good condition,” says Vanek. “We have to disbind them to film them, because usually the binding is so tight that you cannot get a good image. Sometimes we have to put whole sheets into a Mylar sleeve or tape or iron them, or sometimes correct numbering or dates in pencil on the issues. It takes a very long time to get them camera-ready.”

“Papers are being ferreted out and made available not only bibliographically, but also preserved--it’s a real boon to researchers to finally know who has what,” says Kurutz. “This is a bibliographic Mount Everest for California, with its complex newspaper history. From San Diego up through Fort Bragg, tremendous resources are being made available.”

Snyder, the director of the California newspaper project, has been canvassing the Golden State for more than a decade, on the hunt for old and rare newspapers. “You never know when you’re going to turn up a lead one place that will take you some place else,” he says.

One regional publisher had saved local papers from Winton, California, for twenty-five years, and showed Snyder his attic stacked full of them. “They were in bundles and pigeons had roosted in there. It was dirty and dusty and it was a hot day. I went through and tried to make the best inventory I could of these bundles, and I took the earliest issue I found of each of these eight titles.” Snyder cataloged them, hoping to return and complete a thorough inventory. “I called him a few months later, and he said, ‘You’ll be very sad to hear that sixty days after you were here, the place burned down to the ground.’ So I had the earliest known copies, since I’d saved them. That was a tragedy: eight local communities, twenty-five years worth, lost, because the local libraries hadn’t saved them.”

Snyder is semi-retired, but he says that the work continues to be “intensely rewarding.” He himself has long ties to the state: his great-great-grandparents arrived by covered wagon in the 1850s, and there were newspaper publishers on both sides of his family.

Snyder says, “I’ve found towns that were six miles apart but each had their own newspaper.” In Downyville he met the publisher of the Sierra Booster, Hal Wright, a relative of the Wright Brothers. For forty years, Wright was California’s only flying newspaper deliveryman, tossing his paper onto the front porches of subscribers as he flew by in his 1949 Aeronica Sedan. He published and delivered the paper every three weeks until he died at the age of ninety-six, the oldest active pilot in the United States.

“That kind of local identity is not characteristic of most of today’s publications,” says Snyder. In the past twelve years, he and his team have identified more than half of the twenty thousand California newspapers that have been published since 1846. They are printed in thirty-nine languages and represent Oakland’s Portuguese community, San Francisco’s Greek and Chinese, Fresno’s Armenian, Cambodian, and Hmong, and California’s many Spanish-speaking communities.

Somay says the collection and microfilming of newspapers is urgent business. “We may never have this chance again to preserve newspapers that are on the verge of total extinction,” he says. “We may never pass this way again.”