Although the earthquake wrecked the business and residential portions of the city alike, on the hills the land did not sink. All “made ground” sank in consequence of the quaking, but on the high ground the upper parts of the buildings were about the only portions of the structures wrecked. Most of the damage on the hills was done by falling chimneys. On Montgomery Street, half a block from the main office of the Western Union Company, the middle of the street was cracked and blown up, but during the shocks which struck the Western Union building only the top stories were cracked. Similar phenomena were experienced in other localities, and the bulk of the disaster, so far as the earthquake was concerned, was confined to the low-lying region above described.
From the origin of San Francisco the earthquake has been its bane. During the past fifty years fully 250 shocks have been recorded, while all California has been subject to them. But frequency rather than violence of shocks has been the characteristic of the seismic history of the State, there having been few shocks that caused serious damage, and none since 1872 that led to loss of life.
There was a violent shock in 1856, when the city was only a mining town of small frame buildings. Several shanties were overthrown and a few persons killed by falling walls and chimneys. There was a severe shock also in 1865, in which many buildings were shattered. Next in violence was the shock of 1872, which cracked the walls of some of the public buildings and caused a panic. There was no great loss of life. In April, 1898, just before midnight, there was a lively shakeup which caused the tall buildings to shake like the snapping of a whip and drove the tourists out of the hotels into the streets in their nightclothes. Three or four old houses fell, and the Benicia Navy Yard, which is on made ground across the bay, was damaged to the extent of about $100,000. The last severe shock was in January, 1900, when the St. Nicholas Hotel was badly damaged.
These were the heaviest shocks. On the other hand, light shocks, as above said, have been frequent. Probably the sensible quakes have averaged three or four a year. These are usually tremblings lasting from ten seconds to a minute and just heavy enough to wake light sleepers or to shake dishes about on the shelves. Tourists and newcomers are generally alarmed by these phenomena, but old Californians have learned to take them philosophically. To one is not afraid of them, the sensation of one of these little tremblers is rather pleasant than otherwise, and the inhabitants grew so accustomed to them as rarely to let them disturb their equanimity.
After 1900 the forces beneath the earth seemed to fall asleep. As it proved, they were only biding their time. The era was at hand when they were to declare themselves in all their mighty power and fall upon the devoted city with ruin in their grasp. But all this lay hidden in the secret casket of time, and the city kept up to its record as one of the liveliest and in many respects the most reckless and pleasure-loving on the continent, its people squandering their money with thoughtless improvidence and enjoying to the full all the good that life held out to them.