Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 18, 1906 - The Great San Francisco Earthquake

April 18th is the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  While working on my family genealogy I discovered some interesting connections to that day.

My maternal grandmother Hazel Hobson was senior at UC Berkeley in Spring 1906. The earthquake happened just weeks before graduation. Classes and finals were canceled, and it was decided that the publication of the Senior Record would be put off until their 1st reunion. Though the leather cover has started to succumb to time I have her copy.

From the Forward "It is the record of the earthquake class, a class that was shaken away from contact with books and papers and hurled unawares into the turmoil of life, and there assigned to active service. Our men and women were sent forth into the land in the hour of her sorest need. We graduated alike without final examinations and without the customary celebrations of Senior Week....As our class stands unique among the classes, so must it's Senior Book have no counterpart among college publications. It is designed to have no place in and form no part of any series: it bears no title, no volume number to link it to commonplace records. We desire it to be a unique record of a unique senior year. It's preparation has been a labor of love".

My paternal grandmother, Olive Waters, grew up in San Francisco. She and her father were in Europe when the quake hit, but the family home at 1976 California Street survived unscathed. In 2007 I sent a letter to the "current owner" at that address. He contacted me and I was delighted to find out he's a history buff. He provided me with more pieces of the puzzle about the house. He also discovered there was a photographer's studio under the name of RJ Waters listed at the address. I knew that my great grand uncle had been a photographer, but little else, so at his suggestion I did some research on the web.

RJ Waters was born in Virginia City, NV and worked out of Gold Hill, NV until his move to San Francisco. His outdoor views of Tahoe, Gold Hill, Virginia City and the Sierras ranked him among the best photographers of his time. He became well known for his photos of the SF quake and did some innovative work for the Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915 by launching a camera in a balloon contraption to get the first "aerial photos" of the exposition. 

I also found reference to a book entitled "1906 The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire" by Darrell Heppner. I contacted Mr. Heppner and he told me the story of how he came into possession of some of RJ Waters' photo negatives. In May 2000 he and his wife were at the Alameda flea market and discovered a vendor with black boxes containing 4"x5" glass negatives of the 1906 quake along with an old typed list of information about each negative. They purchased the lot and it became their passion to publish a book about the quake, its aftermath and the rebuilding of San Francisco. I have a signed copy of the book and Mr. Heppner gave me permission to use some of my grand uncle's photos. 

Our lives are tapestries, threads woven from generation to generation. I had no idea my grand uncle had lived and worked in Gold Hill, NV until this week. The connection? I had always wanted to be married in Nevada and a high school friend living in Reno suggested a couple of places for us to check out. With he and his wife, and two friends from home as witnesses we were married by the Justice of the Peace at the Gold Hill Hotel in 1986. Make the time to talk to your elders, ask them about old pictures, ask them about the times they lived in, record it or write it down and begin a dialog for generations. It can be a fascinating adventure.