Spectator at the Disaster
Nature in violent action can be spectacle, tragedy and object of scientific wonder all at once
Grove Karl Gilbert, one of the first geologists to survey the American West and later acting director of the United States Geological Survey, once wrote,
It is the natural and legitimate ambition of a properly constituted geologist to see a glacier, witness an eruption, and feel an earthquake. The glacier is always ready, awaiting his visit; the eruption has a course to run, and alacrity only is needed to catch its more important phases; but the earthquake, unheralded and brief, may elude him through his entire lifetime.
Gilbert’s encounters with glaciers and volcanoes came easy. In 1899, while on a scientific expedition to Alaska, he spent months mapping, measuring and photographing nearly 40 glaciers. He had his encounter with active volcanoes when the expedition’s small ship came within sight of Pavlov volcano, which Gilbert later reported was steaming from a spot high on the peak, and then sailed close to Bogoslof Island, a mound of steaming crags that had risen recently from the sea. But the shaking of an earthquake kept eluding him.
He left Alaska a month too soon to feel the ground rock back and forth during a magnitude 7.4 earthquake near Yakutat Bay, which raised a 40-foot wave that washed the shoreline on which Gilbert had recently stood. Gilbert seemed genuinely disappointed to have missed it. Nearly 30 years earlier, he had been “tantalized,” so he wrote, when he left central California after an extended stay of several months and returned east just weeks before the Great Inyo Earthquake of 1872 shook the western half of the continent, from Oregon to Central America. His appointment with geological upheaval finally came on April 18, 1906. That morning, he was asleep at the Faculty Club at Berkeley—in town to attend a meeting about California mining and how it was ruining the environment—when, “by a tumult of motions and noises,” he was awakened and became aware “with unalloyed pleasure” that “a vigorous earthquake was in progress.”
The destruction in Berkeley was “trivial” by his estimation, but within two hours of the earthquake, he learned “that a great disaster had been wrought on the opposite side of the bay and that San Francisco was in flames.” It took him two days to find passage there by ferry.
When he arrived, the city was still burning. He chronicled the progress of the fire, watching as block after block of close-set wooden houses were consumed by flames. At one point, he recorded in his notebook the time it took for a two-story building to be destroyed: “roof gone in seven minutes; first falling of wall in nine minutes; flaming ruins in twelve minutes.” After the fire ended, he set off, again by ferry, to the area hardest hit by the earthquake, which was on the north side of the bay, and there he began a formal scientific investigation.
Gilbert would author a famous government report about the earthquake. At the end of the report, he considered the possibility that future earthquakes might strike San Francisco. Should a repeat of the 1906 event be expected within the lifetimes of the next few generations, he wondered, or had the recent calamity given the area long-term immunity from another violent disturbance? He had no answer. But he was sure that “timidity will cause some to remove from the shaken district and will deter others who were contemplating immigration.”