Thursday, September 6, 2018

Historical California Earthquakes

San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

As a California resident for most of my life, I’ve felt my share of earthquakes, including a few recent tremors that shook our apartment. So I thought it would be interesting to explore several of the most significant earthquakes in California’s recorded history, though of course they were going on long before people started writing them down.

1. Fort Tejon Earthquake, 1857

Fort Tejon, California.

I learned about this earthquake when researching my most recent historical novel manuscript, set at Fort Tejon, a remote army outpost somewhat south of Bakersfield and occupied during the 1850s and 60s. Estimated at what we would now count between a 7.9 and 8.3 on the Richter scale, this quake was even stronger than the famous San Francisco earthquake, though since it hit a less closely inhabited region, it cost far fewer lives.

This earthquake hit at approximately 8:30 am on January 9, 1857, after a smaller quake rocked Fort Tejon a couple of hours earlier. The entire area from the fort to farms to the nearby Native American reservation was severely shaken, with fissures opening up in the earth up to forty miles long and twenty to thirty feet wide! The earthquake was felt and reported in newspapers as far flung as San Diego and Sacramento.

Many buildings were severely damaged, including most structures at Fort Tejon. Streams were altered, and an eyewitness described seeing the Colorado River go momentarily dry, as the quake forced the water up in a giant wave.

As Quartermaster’s Deputy Alonzo Wakeman, wrote to the editor of the Los Angeles Star:

“The earth has opened in many places for a distance of twenty miles. Many instances occurred of narrow escapes from injuries by the falling buildings…it is a miracle that no lives were lost [that he knew of], for which mercy we are indebted to the protecting influence of an All Wise Providence.”

~ From A View from the Ridge Route: The Fort Tejon Era, by Bonnie Ketterl Kane

2. Owens Valley/Lone Pine Earthquake, 1872

This earthquake was interesting to me as well, since the Paiute characters in my story came from the Owens Valley before being force-marched south to Fort Tejon. This earthquake, estimated at a 7.4, occurred on March 26, 1872, east of the famous Sierra Nevada mountains. Thirty people died in this quake, twenty-seven in a collapsed row of houses in the town of Lone Pine. This earthquake held the unusual combination of both dip-slip and strike-slip faults, which meant the ground shifted both horizontally—up to twenty-three feet!—and vertically at the same time.
John Muir in his beloved mountains, by Francis M. Fritz
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While based in northern California, this quake stopped clocks as far south as San Diego. It was most famously documented by explorer and naturalist John Muir, who helped found Yosemite National Park. 

Muir wrote, The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle—an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock-storm."

3. San Francisco Earthquake, 1906
Burning of San Francisco, Mission District: Chadwick, H. D.
National Archives and Records Administration,
 Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The famous “Great Quake” hit the bustling city of San Francisco in 1906. While measurements vary between 7.9 and 8.3—approximately the same magnitude as the Fort Tejon earthquake—this quake was far more deadly, killing as many as 3,000 people. The San Francisco earthquake affected a much broader area, being felt from southern California all the way up to Oregon and inland to Nevada, but the destruction hit San Francisco the hardest, especially because of the devastating fire the earthquake sparked. And with the city’s water mains destroyed by the quake, the firefighters were helpless to stop the blaze until a merciful rainstorm finally brought relief—but not until over 25,000 buildings were destroyed and 250,000 people rendered homeless.

Most gripping are the eyewitness accounts, such as this snippet from P. Barrett:

“Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces….it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot – a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm.”

It took the next four years for San Francisco to rebuild, though the city rose stronger, better planned, and more beautiful after the “Great Quake.”

I personally remember the 1994 Northridge Earthquake from when I was a young girl, one of the most destructive quakes in California’s recent history, though my family wasn’t seriously affected. But one way or another, earthquakes have helped shape California’s character and history, and probably always will.

Have you ever experienced an earthquake? Does the thought of these deep-earth tremors fascinate or frighten you? Which of these historical earthquakes do you find most interesting? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines, won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky, and is currently a 2018 Genesis Finalist. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and sharing, Connie!

  2. Kiersti, I'm amazed that it only took 4 years to rebuild San Francisco after the Great Quake. These days, it seems people are still struggling to rebuild years after a major event, possibly because of all the red tape we have now.

    My personal recollection of experiencing an earthquake was when we lived in the Ottawa Valley in Eastern Ontario. I awoke to the sensation of three large, but gentle waves passing under our bed, which I've always thought might have been due to the high water table beneath the area.

    1. It is amazing they rebuilt so quickly, isn't it? Especially with so much less technology and machinery then--but I think you have a point about the red tape. :)

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Anita! Blessings.

  3. I am most familiar with the San Francisco earthquake so I enjoyed learning about these others. In the early 1980's our area suffered an earthquake. I was visiting my mother and was actually on the floor playing with my niece and I definitely felt the tremors and I just remember wondering how my home would be when I got home. I don't remember how strong it ranked but it was strong enough to create cracks in our basement walls. This was definitely unusual for our area of Kentucky but we are near a fault line so I know that this could happen again.

    1. Wow, that's amazing--I didn't know Kentucky had experienced such a strong earthquake! Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Connie!

  4. I am eager to read your story set at Fort Tejon! I have visited and it is an interesting place to go. Fascinating how the area used to be home to grizzly bears!

    These earthquakes are certainly scary. Thanks for the post!

    1. So cool that you've been to Fort Tejon, Susie--I haven't met many people who've even heard about it! I'd love for you to read the story sometime. :) Thanks for stopping by and sharing!