Magazine Recalls the Quick Response to the San Francisco Earthquake a Century Ago
Press Release · Wednesday, April 18, 1906

Washington, DC

Washington, DC…What happens when an American city is destroyed?

A natural disaster strikes a major city—thousands are trapped in dangerous buildings, drinking water is hard to find, hospitals can´t function, utilities and communications are out, transportation systems grind to a halt, and looters run at large.

Such was the scene nearly a century ago, when an earthquake struck San Francisco at 5:15 a.m. on April 18, 1906, setting off fires, panic, and confusion—a situation that the U.S. military units based in the city responded to quickly.

"A quarter of a million people were on the streets, having escaped with only the clothes on their backs," writes Rebecca Livingston, an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration, in the Spring 2006 issue of the agency´s quarterly magazine, Prologue. "Military forces jumped into immediate action without waiting for instructions or authority from Washington, D.C., the state government or city authorities."

She continues: "American military forces, many on their own initiative, were on the streets of San Francisco in minutes after the earthquake. . . . Although there was a great deal of confusion over who had authority in any particular operation, generally all parties agreed to settle the questions after first emergency operations were completed."

Livingston´s article, drawn from military records in the holdings of the National Archives, goes on to describe how the military dealt with the problems of lack of drinking water, communications, food distribution, racial tensions, and inter-service rivalries.

"Seeing what worked and what did not work during the San Francisco earthquake could perhaps be helpful in the investigations of the first-response situations after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Livingston adds.

The Spring Prologue also includes an article, "Beyond the Box Score," which describes documents, drawings, photographs, and motion pictures that are part of the agency´s holdings about professional baseball; many of the records are patent and court documents.

Another article, "A Founding Father in Dissent," examines the life of Elbridge Gerry, whose action as governor of Massachusetts in approving a politically manipulated legislative redistricting plan inspired the term "gerrymander," but whose earlier work as one of the architects of the Constitution gets little notice from historians.

Other articles in the Spring issue include:

  • "Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath," which draws on the Hemingway papers at the Kennedy Library in Boston to show how war changed not only the author but American literature as well.
  • "VIPs in Uniform," a look at the military files of some of the famous and famous-to-be, including Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, George S. Patton Jr., and Jack Keroauc.
  • "An Extraordinary President and His Remarkable Cabinet," in which Pultizer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about researching her new book, Team of Rivals, at the National Archives.

Prologue´s regular feature, Genealogy Notes, examines the World War II Army enlistment files that are available online through the National Archives´ Access to Archival Databases.

For nearly four decades, Prologue has shared with readers the rich resources and programs of the National Archives, its regional archives, and the Presidential libraries. Each issue features historical articles—drawn from National Archives´ holdings and written by noted historians, archivists, and experts—as well as articles explaining and describing many of the National Archives´ activities and programs as the nation´s recordkeeping agency. The Washington Post said, "Prologue . . . can be regarded quite literally as an invitation for further study. It is also consistently absorbing reading."

A 1-year subscription to Prologue costs $20. To begin a subscription, call 301-837-1850 or 1-800-234-8861, or print out the order form found on the web site at Mail orders to Prologue, P.O. Box 100684, Atlanta, GA, 30384.

You can also fax credit card orders to Prologue at 301-837-0319.

Single copies of Prologue are available at the Archives Shop or at the Cashier´s Office in the National Archives Building in Washington or at the Publications Sales Office at the National Archives at College Park. Back issues are also available at the College Park location.

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Contact the National Archives Public Affairs Staff for a press copy of "Beyond the Box Score" at 202-357-5300.

Selected articles from the Spring Prologue will soon be posted at:


This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
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