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Momentous disaster: Ninety years ago today an earthquake transformed Santa Barbara

Devastation left in the wake of a June 29, 1925, earthquake is evident in this view looking up State Street to the Granada Theatre in the center. NEWS-PRESS FILE PHOTOS

Devastation left in the wake of a June 29, 1925, earthquake is evident in this view looking up State Street to the Granada Theatre in the center.
NEWS-PRESS FILE PHOTOS

Today is the 90th anniversary of the largest disaster in Santa Barbara history, the 1925 earthquake that destroyed a significant part of downtown and forever altered the look of the town.

The Spanish Revival architecture for which Santa Barbara is known was a recent import, but once the city started to rebuild, red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls became the style.

The California Hotel was among myriad buildings devastated by the earthquake of June 29, 1925.

The California Hotel was among myriad buildings devastated by the earthquake of June 29, 1925.

 The Santa Barbara Mission's towers were left with severe damage.


The Santa Barbara Mission’s towers were left with severe damage.

The Morning Press front page of June 30, 1925, tells the story.

The Morning Press front page of June 30, 1925, tells the story.

The 1925 earthquake also is the subject of an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum that runs through July 5, featuring newspapers, photos, films and some surprises for the visitor.

It started offshore, in one of the many faults that crisscross the channel, at 6:42 a.m. on a Monday, just like today. The Richter Scale had yet to be invented to measure the force of the quake, but scientists originally put it at magnitude-6.3.

New research in the 1970s replaced the Richter with the Moment Magnitude Scale, the current unit of measurement, and now estimates the quake at magnitude-6.8.

Either way, it was a huge jolt that awoke many Santa Barbarans that morning. Those at home were scared but safe.

But 13 people died that day, people who were out and about. One man died in his car when a wall fell on him. Three men, leaning up against a wall waiting for work, died as the wall fell.

Storefronts and the facades of hotels along State Street came crumbling down, revealing the floor plans within. The two towers of the Mission were damaged. Parking garages, filled with cars, collapsed.

All the major civic buildings -the courthouse, the jail, the library, schools and churches -suffered damage.

The Sheffield Dam, only 8 years old, collapsed, sending 30 million gallons of water rushing down Voluntario and Alisos streets, sweeping away three houses and leaving the lower parts of the city under 2 feet of water.

Historian Neal Graffy, whose book about the earthquake is due in the fall, says the fascinating part of that day was how well the community responded without waiting for authority to issue commands.

“People took it upon themselves and organized,” he says. “The Red Cross put a tent up in De la Guerra Plaza within an hour of the earthquake. Because most people were at home, they checked on the welfare of their families, then headed downtown to the business district.

“Within hours, the American Legion and Naval Reserve had 400 men patrolling the streets, digging through debris. The Red Cross were making coffee and getting water for the people patrolling and for displaced hotel guests. We didn’t wait for FEMA or helicopters or the National Guard. We did it ourselves.”

Mr. Graffy disputes the official number of the dead, saying he has it at 11, not 13. For his book he is writing proper obituaries for each of the victims, who have been relegated to mere names for decades. Ten years ago he bought headstones for four of the people who had been buried without one.

Two of the heroes of the day were William Engle and Henry Ketz, both power plant operators, who shut off power and gas to the city right after the earthquake.

Because the San Francisco (1906) and Yokohama, Japan (1923) earthquakes destroyed fewer buildings than the resulting fires, these two men stopped fires from breaking out in Santa Barbara and were rightly given recognition and rewards.

The structures that fell were wood and brick. But Moorish architecture was popping up in town thanks to architect George Washington Smith and others, and such buildings as the new Lobero Theatre, City Hall and Santa Barbara High School survived.

Proponents of the new style could point to them as proof of safety. So Santa Barbara changed.

The exhibition runs through July 5 at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St. A special First Thursday event will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, which includes a free screening of the 1974 film “Earthquake,” plus food and drink.

Go to www.santabarbaramuseum.com or call 966-1601 for more info.

FYI

1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake Facts

Time: 6:42 a.m. June 29
Size: magnitude-6.8 (estimated)
Number of dead: 11 or 13
Amount of damage: $8 million

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