… If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake

Title: …If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake
Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Pat Grant Porter
Pages: 64
Recommended Ages: 8 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The If You… series.

Q & A.

What did San Francisco look like after the earthquake?

Everything was a mess! There were cracks in the streets that looked like giant zigzags. If you stood in one, it might be as high as your waist.

Telephone and electric wires had snapped and were hanging down from the poles. Cable car tracks that were in the ground were suddenly sticking up like huge, bent paper clips. And trolley car tracks lay twisted in the street.

Some trees had been pulled up by the roots. Branches were cracked and scattered around.

Chimneys had broken off rooftops throughout the city. Some chimneys had fallen inside homes; others were lying in the streets. In parts of the city, whole buildings had collapsed.

Walls of the new city hall building had fallen down. The dome was left standing on top of steel pillars. It had been the largest building in the state of California. After the earthquake, it looked like a skeleton.

The front wall of one hotel fell off completely, and the bedrooms looked like rooms in a doll’s house. Can you imagine sitting in your bed and looking outat the street – with no windows in between!

Some buildings that were three or four stories high sank almost all the way into cracks in the ground. One nine-year-old girl remembered that her father took her out of their hosue through the attic window right onto the street.

Houses moved forward, backward, or sideways. If you went to bed on April 17th on one side of the street, you might have gotten up on April 18th across the street.

After the quake, one man climbed to the top of a hill and looked down on the city. From up high, people in the streets looked as if they were “running about like… excited insects.” [pg. 7-8]

Were any babies born during the disaster?

Yes. One man wrote to his relatives outside of San Francisco. He said that more than thirty babies were born in Golden Gate Park on the very day of the earthquake. A newspaper reported that triplets were born in a tent. And every day during the week after the quake there were stories about more births.

Babies were born in the streets, in the parks, in doorways, and just about any place you can think of except hospitals. [pg. 48]

Where would you live if your house was destroyed?

In the first days after the earthquake, more than half of all the people in San Francisco had to sleep outdoors. The quake and fires had ruined their homes.

Many went to the parks around the city, spread their blankets, and slept outdoors on the ground. Some people made tents. They tied ropes between poles and hung rugs, blankets, sheets, or even tablecloths over them.

Refugees are people who leave their homes because it’s not safe to stay there any longer. They find new places to live. After the earthquake and fires, the homeless people of San Francisco were called refugees. Many stayed in camps that were set up in the parks all around the city.

At first, most of the refugees lived in homemade tents. But then President Theodore Roosevelt and the United States Army Commander in Washington, D. C., ordered Army forts all around the country to ship tents and blankets to San Francisco.

The Army also built barracks for some of the refugees. These were large wooden buildings that had a number of small apartments in them. In the fall, in became too cold and rainy to stay in tents. And there were not enough barrack apartments for everyone who had lost a home. So the city built little cottages, which were called refugee shacks. The smallest had only one room, and the biggest had three rooms. The shacks were painted green and were lined up in rows in the parks.

The city let you keep the shack if you would move it out of the camp. You had to get the shack lifted up and wheels put underneath. Then horses or mules would pull it away. By the summer of 1907, more than a year after the great earthquake, many people began to move their shacks. Everywhere you went, you saw little green houses traveling up and down the streets.

People moved their shacks to small plots of land that they bought or rented. They set the houses down and sometimes painted them, or added porches. Some people even put two shacks together to make bigger houses. A few of these old refugee shacks are standing today, and people are still living in them.

But there was housing even more unusual than tents or barracks or shacks. Cable cars!

The earthquake had broken the cable car tracks. They had to be fixed before the cars would run again. The cable car company moved its cars to an empty lot, and the refugees moved in. Your family might have set up house in an empty cable car. The platforms in front and in back of the cars were perfect as porches. [pgs. 36-39]

Could you mail a letter after the earthquake?

The post office was one of the few buildings in the center of San Francisco that was still standing after the earthquake and fire. Ten brave post office workers fought off the fires day and night, and by April 10th, they were ready to send out the mail again.

There was only one problem. Almost no one had paper or envelopes or stamps. But that didn’t stop anybody.

People wrote messages on the collars or cuffs of their shirts and blouses. They wrote on pieces of wood, scraps of newspaper, pages of books, and pieces of wrapping paper. So long as you had written down the correct address, the post office would send whatever you had written. You didn’t even need a stamp. [pg. 52]

Conclusion. Entirely worthwhile and very helpful. Could be read in conjunction with Earthquake! and The Earth Dragon Awakes.



Title: Earthquake!
Author: Kathleen V. Kudlinski
Illustrator: Ronald Himler
Pages: 56
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★★

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Another book set during the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

The Story.

Phillip can’t sleep. He probably could if silly Buster would stop barking and the horses would settle down. As it is, Phillip figures he’d better go check on the horses. After all, something might be wrong down there, and it wouldn’t due to have his father’s livery business damaged.

Phillip makes his way to the stables. Nothing’s wrong – the horses are just spooked. Wonder why that could be? And the mice are acting strangely, too, dashing around and out into the street like a cat’s on their tails. Only there’s no cat. Strange…

Suddenly, the world tilts. Nothing’s where it ought to be – the walls and floors are all breaking up and the screams of frightened horses are filling the air.

What is happening? Will the horses be alright? And is this affecting the whole city???


I thought that the family relationships in Earthquake! were excellent. Take Phillip’s little brother, Chester, for instance; he’s the tiniest bit of a scalawag and occasionally annoying, but Phillip never treats him meanly or thinks negatively of him. Phillip’s mother cares very passionately for her family. Instead of breaking down when her home is destroyed, she hugs Phillip and tells him “Remember, darling. We are all safe… Nothing – nothing – else matters.” [pg. 20] Phillip’s father prioritizes moving the family to safety, but trusts enough in Phillip’s maturity to leave him behind to protect the family business. Phillip bears this responsibility capably.

After Phillip spent a tense night with the horses, his father returned and informs him that the fire is so close that they must abandon the horses and seek to save their own lives. Having already risked his life to have stayed with the horses this long, Phillip vehemently disagrees with his father’s plan, insisting that they try to save the horses. It’s said in this scene that Phillip ‘screamed’ at his father, but it is unclear whether this is out of anger, or if that is the only way he can make himself heard due to the proximity of the fire. Phillip ends up freeing all of the horses, shooing them out into the street, nearly causing a stampede, and eventually herding them all out of town with his father.

To give the readers an idea of how tough one boy, Bobby Hunt, is, Phillip describes him as “the Bobby Hunt who used words like gad! and Jehoshaphat! right in school. The Bobby Hunt who tied broken glass to his kite strings to cut off everybody else’s kites in the sky. The Bobby Hunt who kicked the blind cocker spaniel when he thought nobody was looking.” [pg. 16] Although formerly uninterested in getting to know Bobby because he was so unpleasant, Phillip makes an effort to be friendly when he learns that Bobby’s parents died in a fire. They become half-way friends.

When the fire is almost upon the stables, Phillip says ‘Great Scott!’ I personally don’t have a problem with this phrase, but the writer said that by using these words he ‘cursed’. Just so’s you know.

After the earthquake, the stairs collapse under Phillip’s father. When it does so, it is said that he used an oath, but no actual words are given.

Conclusion. Good. While The Earth Dragon Awakes gave a taste of the wider panic and destruction of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Earthquake! describes its effect on one family. Purchase a copy here.

The Earth Dragon Awakes

Title: The Earth Dragon Awakes
Author: Laurence Yep
Pages: 113
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The story of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, as related in this book, is told through the eyes of two lads: Henry Travis and Chin.

The Story.

Although they are great friends, Henry and Chin were born on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Henry is the son of an upper class banker; Chin is the son of a poor Chinese immigrant. Henry lives in a brick mansion, Chin in a tenement house. Henry is rich, Chin is poor. They have different lifestyles, privileges, and opportunities. But both of their lives are cruelly shaken when The Great Earthquake strikes the city of San Francisco.

It happens early – the earthquake’s first rumbles are heard at 5 AM on the morning of April 18, 1906. It strikes swiftly, without forewarning, bursting upon the inhabitants with the full force of its terror. The first shocks rattle the strongest building and cause the weaker to collapse. The second round of shocks causes even the strongest of buildings to give way, trapping hundreds of people under and in their prodigious structures. As disastrous as this is, it is only to be amplified as the events of the day unfold.

Fires break out across the city, some beginning accidentally, and others as a result of arsonage. Soon large portions of the city are ablaze; people and animals alike are kept on a constant flight before the ravaging flames. Looters pillage the fallen mansions and exorbitant prices are charged for transportation from the city. Because of the violence of the earthquake, many of the waterlines are broken and inoperable. This causes a considerable hindrance to the already exhausted fireman as they seek to subjugate the fires.

As Henry and Chin’s families fight their way out of the city, they are tortured by the nightmare that surrounds them and the questions that absorb them: Can the fireman find enough water to quench the fires? Will they be able to salvage a small part of the city from the fires? And even if they can, will the lives of San Francisco’s inhabitants ever be the same?


Early on in the book, Mr. Yep introduces the element of the forbidden penny dreadfuls (similar to dime novels). The boys are depicted as reading them against their parents’ wishes in an attempt to experience the thrill of adventure. I was especially disappointed when the boys made slighting comments about their fathers in comparison to their imaginary heroes.

‘“When I grow up, I’m going to be a lawman just like Marshal Earp.” Henry pretends to blaze away with his six-shooters. “I’m never going to be like my father. All he does is add up numbers all day in that old bank.”

“And my father washes dishes,” Chin sighs.

“Neither is exciting,” Henry agrees.


Chin snuggles up in bed. Soon he loses himself in Marshal Earp’s adventures. His father is kind, and he works hard. But he is no hero. No one wants to read about peeling potatoes and washing dishes.

Just when I was getting good and frustrated with Mr. Yep for these intentionally disrespectful remarks, I realized what he was doing. And sure enough, when later on in the book their fathers are fighting fires and rescuing people, the boys realize that their fathers are real heroes, not just the kind you read about in a book.

Harry thought that Marshal Earp was brave. But no outlaw was as deadly as Nature. This is an even bigger battle. And his father doesn’t back down.


Chin was wrong about his father. He isn’t dull at all. He should have his own book, like Marshall Earp.


Once Henry wanted to be like Marshall Earp. Now he wants to be like his father.

The triumph comes in the last chapter of the book when Henry and Chin discover a penny dreadful among the ruins of San Francisco. Their fathers give them permission to read it to help take their minds off of the tragedy. This is the dialogue which ensues.

A few days ago, they used to read books just like that one. Life seemed so dull then.

Chin shakes his head. “You keep it, Henry. I’ve had enough excitement.” He hopes that the Earth Dragon will sleep a good long time.

Henry looks at their parents sitting on the wagon. They aren’t dismayed by the wreckage. They’re ready to rebuild their city. That takes more courage than capturing outlaws. He whispers to Chin, “and we don’t have to look far for heroes. They were right under our noses all this time.” Henry tosses the book to the side. Then he climbs on the wagon with Chin and Sawyer.

They’ll have enough adventures building a new city, too.

When given the opportunity to fill a mature role, they accept it without hesitation, thus becoming heroes themselves.

Throughout the course of the book, the great earthquake is referred to as the ‘Earth Dragon’. I conducted a cursory investigation of Chinese mythology, but I could find no further information about this name. Dragons are very important in Chinese mythology and many myths include dragons, but I found no stories about the Earth itself being a dragon. My guess is that Mr. Yep used the name as personification to give further interest to the story, not as an attempt to repackage a Chinese myth.

Conclusion. An interesting introduction to the Great San Franciso Earthquake.