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In April 1906 San Francisco was “the Queen City of the Pacific,” the largest city in California and the busiest port on North America’s Pacific Coast. It was a city of superlatives, most banks, best entertainment, richest rich, and greatest ethnic diversity. Then the earth moved and San Francisco lay in ruins.
“The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906,” by Matthew J. Davenport, tell the story of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It describes the pre-earthquake city and how it became what it was. It then recounts the events of the earthquake and what followed in the immediate aftermath.
Davenport takes readers into the ethnically-diverse streets of San Francisco of the late 1800s and the first half-decade of the 20th century. Readers visit Chinatown, the Italian, Russian, and Mexican enclaves in the city and the homes of the very rich and very poor. He shows how San Francisco grew from an obscure Mexican town to the economic dynamo of the West Coast. He shows how rapid growth created a town ripe for disaster. Poorly-built, crowded buildings were common. Infrastructure was neglected. Much of what existed was shoddy.
Then the earthquake struck. Davenport shows that while the earthquake caused substantial damage, the real destruction was caused by fires started after the earthquake. They raged for days before finally being controlled. He shows how the city fought the fires. They had first-rate fire-fighters, but he shows how the loss of infrastructure crippled firemen’s efforts to stop the fires.
He also describes the relief efforts, both in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and long afterwards. He shows how the US Army and Navy provided immediate assistance and how the city organized itself. He relates the experiences of the survivors and the fate of those killed during the disaster.
Davenport took a fresh look at the earthquake, conducting extensive research in writing this book. He reviewed existing public records prior to and after the earthquake. He made extensive use of previously un examined resources including letters, unpublished memoirs, and diaries from survivors to piece together his account. The result is a remarkable in both the breadth and depth of what Davenport relates.
“The Longest Minute” is a dramatic and fascinating account of the 1906 Earthquake. Readers feel they are actually in the San Francisco of the time. Exciting and fast-paced, it offers a human account of a natural disaster.
“The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906,” by Matthew J. Davenport, St. Martin’s Press, October, 2023, 448 pages, $35.00 (Hardcover), $16.99 (Ebook), $35.00 (Audio and Audio CD)
This review was written by Mark Lardas, who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.Published in