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The Big One: A Family History

My grandfather arrived in Northern California in 1900. He'd left Delebio, his home town in northern Italy, primarily, he said, because he didn't like to be told when to farm by the Pope, who prohibited farming on Sunday. He left his wife and two children in Italy, telling them he'd send for them when he had saved enough money to bring them over.

For several years Carlo Scaramella worked the woods outside Cleone and loaded lumber boats with railroad ties at several north coast towns. Once, while loading lumber off Little River, a storm blew up and the lumber boat captain decided that he better get out of there. The captain put out to sea; he said he didn't have time to put anybody ashore. Carlo was headed to San Francisco on an involuntary trip. But he didn't make it. The captain lent Carlo a rowboat somewhere near Stewart's Point and bid him bon voyage. He walked all the way back to Cleone.

It took him a couple of weeks to get back. He worked his way north, doing odd jobs. On the way he stopped and visited other Italian immigrants, and probably had a few of sips of wine. By 1906 Carlo had finally saved enough money to arrange for his wife and sons, Joe and John, ages 7 and 8, to come to California. (My father, Gene Scaramella, was born on the family homestead near Gualala.) My grandmother wasn't too happy about leaving her extended family in Italy and her hometown but she was a dutiful peasant wife. They took a train from their hometown to Milan, then to Genoa. From Genoa they took a boat through the Mediterranean, the straits of Gibralter and around the Iberian peninsula to Northern France where they embarked on the journey of their lives by steamship — steerage class, sleeping in hammocks, eating from the hampers of food they'd brought with them. The Scaramellas arrived in New York two weeks after they'd left Delebio.

During the voyage they were crowded down in the ship's hold in conditions Carlo’s son Joe later described as "pretty miserable." After arriving at Ellis Island and being processed through the demeaning entry process where they were examined like livestock, they managed to find a friend of Carlo’s who spoke English. (Carlo had written ahead to his friend about his wife and sons' pending arrival.) They then took the transcontinental train to San Francisco, arriving on the 17th of April, 1906.

My grandfather had made arrangements to meet his wife and sons the next day and accompany them back to Mendocino County on the steamer "Pomo," which was scheduled to leave San Francisco at 10am on the 18th.

But Carlo’s plans were memorably disrupted.

A little after 5am on the morning of April 18th, the 1906 earthquake sundered San Francisco from its previous reality.

The ground heaved and buildings shook. The quake lasted for less than a minute, sheering facades off buildings, ripping houses from their foundations, and opening a rift in the ground some 270 miles long and up to 21 feet deep in some places.

There was a fire in the hotel where my grandmother and her two boys had put in the night before. Screaming hotel staffers ordered everybody to get out! Now!

My grandmother lost all her belongings, including her fine laces and other prized family heirlooms she'd brought from Italy and had carefully stored in a shipping chest which she had no time to get out of the building before it was destroyed.

When Anna got into the street she saw utter chaos. People were running everywhere in every direction. She heard hysterical stories of people being crushed by falling masonry, people being burned alive in buildings. The city was burning.

(click to enlarge)

At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco had roughly the same population as New Orleans did before Katrina. In both cities, news reports had offered eerily prescient warnings of impending disaster. Just as the New Orleans papers foretold of the tragedy that awaited New Orleans should its levees be breached, newspaper reports more than 100 years ago compared San Francisco to a tinderbox awaiting a match.

In both cities it wasn't the actual event, but the series of ensuing catastrophes that caused the greatest physical damage.

In New Orleans it wasn't the hurricane itself, but the rupture of the levees that left 80% of that city under water.

Similarly, in San Francisco, firestorms triggered by broken gas mains reduced more than a third of the City by the Bay to ashes, causing more damage than the earthquake itself. Water main breaks led to water shortages. Desperate to put out the flames, firefighters used dynamite to try to blast firebreaks, often inadvertently setting the city ablaze anew.

San Francisco, April 18, 1906

The fires raged for three days and charred more than 500 square blocks — nearly a quarter of the city. By the time rescuers were able to sift through the cinders, more than 250,000 people were left homeless — the same order of magnitude as the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

As the fires gained momentum and the city's water system collapsed, survivors gathered wherever they could find water. All through the night after the earthquake victims huddled together in the open air as flames lit the sky.

A huge relief effort — which would put the pathetic response to Katrina to shame even by today's standards — was begun. Many refugees, including my grandmother and my two uncles, made their way to the East Bay via ferry where they were taken in by Oakland residents whose houses were still standing. Others were living in tent camps.

Then my grandmother faced another problem.

Joe and John got the measles. The family was quarantined in a literal chicken coop in the East Bay harbor area for several days. After they recovered somewhat the boys were taken in by another Oakland family.

By keeping track of bulletin boards, but having no idea of the fate of his young family, he finally tracked them after a month of desperate searching. He hadn't seen his family for six years. They arranged travel to Point Arena, first by train to Cloverdale, and then by horse-drawn stage to Elk and then another horse-drawn wagon to Point Arena where Carlo, the patriarch, lived at the time.

Downtown Point Arena in the early 1900s

Soon, the reconstruction of San Francisco began. By the time the last tent camp closed in 1909, developers had moved more than 5,000 families out of the camps and into cottages. Remarkably, some of these cottages are still in use today. Perhaps most important, by providing housing for the working class who became the backbone of their own recovery efforts, San Francisco paved the way for its speedy recovery.

As we observe the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, we can look back on the big 1906 quake as more than an isolated historical event. Since another Northern California earthquake is the only remaining catastrophe (after 911 and Katrina) predicted by the feds which has not (yet) happened this century, the first Big One is more than just history. It is a lesson, particularly about unexpected secondary effects — if this generation is capable of learning any.

Postscript: Marc Reisner's must-read little book, contains both a thorough history of quake country but a chilling account of what is likely to happen in the Bay Area when the next Big One strikes. Reisner makes the ominous point that if earthquakes were again to re-occur at the rate they did five hundred years ago in California, neither LA nor San Francisco would be habitable to the overcrowded extent they are today.


  1. George Hollister April 20, 2018

    Great family history story. I too, have some family history stories involving San Francisco and the earthquake, but none as good as this one.

  2. Julee Wheeler May 5, 2018

    Please contact me. I’m one of the Scaramella descendents and in the middle of tracing my family history. I may have some things you want to see pertaning to North coast history.

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