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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906


A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

The great earthquake that virtually leveled San Francisco a century
ago next April lasted about two-and-a-half minutes. Simon
Winchester has attempted a difficult conjuror's trick by turning
that tiny moment in time into a 400-plus page book (he did much the
same thing a couple of years ago with the cataclysmic volcanic
eruption of Krakatoa in 1883).

The first earthquake tremor does not hit San Francisco until well
over halfway through his book. And when he has covered both the
quake itself and the disastrous three-day fire that resulted from
it, the patient reader still has a ways to go to reach the end. I
would guess that the actual earthquake and fire between them
account for perhaps a third of the book's length.

Along the way Winchester gives us learned lectures on the
relatively new science of plate tectonics, the geology of
mountain-building, the history of both California and San
Francisco, continental drift, the history of seismology, and of
differing methods of measuring the magnitude of quakes. We go off
with the author on investigative jaunts to Iceland, to a dusty
general store in Oklahoma, to the wilds of northern Canada and to
Yellowstone National Park.

We learn that Charles Richter, who gave his name to the Richter
Scale, was a nudist and a womanizer. We find that San Francisco's
mayor on that fateful day was a professional violinist. We hear a
lot about the city's blatant discrimination against its Chinese
residents. We are told how the quake gave early impetus to the rise
of Pentecostal fundamentalist religion.

All this is certainly interesting, but it takes us pretty far
afield from the early morning of April 18, 1906 and slows down the
book's basic narrative. Simon Winchester is a trained geologist,
and here, as in his earlier KRAKATOA, he gives major emphasis to
the grinding, rubbing and colliding of tectonic plates against each
other "as if in some kind of bizarre traffic accident." Later his
colorful prose has those same plates engaging in "unending mazurkas
and tarantellas." Along with his somewhat sententious March of Time
prose style, Winchester certainly has a gift for colorful

He also has a liking for obscure words that will send readers to
their unabridged dictionaries. There are a few (nunataks, candela,
and most especially "thixotropically") that I could find in no

His preoccupation with geology takes us back many millions of
years, virtually to the Big Bang itself. We learn about "ma," a
geologist's way of expressing the number of millions of years
before the present that something (probably) happened. His book
ends with apocalyptic warnings of certain disasters looming up in
the near future -- which in geological time means maybe tomorrow,
maybe a million or two years from now. Reader, if you live near
Yellowstone National Park, or in Anchorage, Alaska or Portola
Valley, California, consider yourself forewarned.

When Winchester does settle down to consider the earthquake and
fire themselves, his reportage is wondrously vivid. One eyewitness
saw a stampede of just-unloaded cattle roaring toward him down
Mission Street, abandoned by their keepers and frightened out of
their bovine wits (he shot as many of them as he could). Actor John
Barrymore, well known for his laziness, was spotted trying to clear
some wreckage, inspiring someone to remark that "it took an
earthquake to get John out of bed." Firemen could only stand by and
watch helplessly as the city burned, because the water main system
had collapsed.

After the dust had cleared, many insurance companies tried to
weasel out of paying claims by arguing that damage was caused by
the earthquake (which was not covered by their policies) rather
than by the fire (which was) -- and that the fire could not be
blamed because by the time it started, the buildings were already
in ruins and hence worthless.

One controversy that Winchester cannot resolve is the number of
deaths. Early estimates counted around 600, but later the figure
rose to about 3,000. City officials and the tourist industry of
course tried to play down the extent of the devastation. The quake
was felt over an area of 400,000 square miles and was recorded on
seismographs all over the world.

Despite its obvious padding and ponderous tone, this book succeeds
in bringing a century-old catastrophe graphically to life. I once
interviewed a survivor of the San Francisco quake. What he said was
certainly interesting, but it has taken Simon Winchester to make me
feel as though I had been there.


Reviewed by Robert Finn ( on December 28, 2010

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
by Simon Winchester

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2006
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060572000
  • ISBN-13: 9780060572006