The San Francisco Earthquake
by Lesley Sudders
I can only imagine what my English grandfather, George Henry Sudders, was doing at 5 a.m. on April 18, 1906. After crossing the Atlantic and traversing the U.S. by train, he was probably sleeping in a small San Francisco hotel or rooming house near the docks. This temporary lodging would have sufficed until his ship sailed for Australia, carrying him to a new life.
Before he dozed off that night, perhaps he mused about the impending birth of his child back home in Burnley, England. The baby, born May 18, 1906, would become my father, Jack. My grandfather might have envisioned for the hundredth time a joyful reunion with his family in Sydney when he was established.
Any pleasant dreams would have been shattered by the massive earthquake that struck with little warning.
On April 18, 1906, in the early morning hours, San Francisco was devastated by a major earthquake, followed by even more disastrous fires. The Richter scale was years away, but modern estimates put the quake around 8 on that scale, plus or minus.
Sea travel was no doubt interrupted, presenting at least a delay in George Henry’s traveling on to Australia. He apparently made the best of the situation and altered his plans accordingly. Reconstruction of the city began almost at once. An accomplished brick mason, he perceived opportunity and stayed there for a few years, working and saving money. Then, for reasons unknown to me, he decided to join countrymen who had settled in Pueblo, Colorado. He sent for his wife, Sarah Jane Dooley Sudders, and my father, by then four years of age.
The St. Francis Hotel, still a luxury hotel near Union Square, was a few years old in 1906 and remained relatively intact. It served as a temporary shelter for some of those made homeless. In wandering through the hotel one day, I found photos of some of those people. I had seen only one image of my grandfather, but thought I saw a resemblance to him in one of the photographs. The man wore a dark coat, bowler hat, and bow tie.
My grandfather died a few years before my birth, so I know only from sparse oral histories in my family what he was like. But I can imagine – my writerly right – that this catastrophe reflected his character, which was clearly marked by resilience and hard work. I so wish I could have heard his first-hand account of the disaster. Or that he had written down his thoughts of the time. Natural reticence may have prevented this. But as I gazed at the old photograph, I began to wonder what he would say to me, if he could. Well, of course, he could. And there began the sketch of a book I plan to write. Now for the “What ifs?” and “Maybes.”
I’m not planning a family memoir but I do want to consider a problem George Henry might have had and how it was resolved. Why did he leave England? Was it because he sought to avoid the class consciousness that ruled the day? Or maybe he was a felon escaping the law? Did he and his wife plan carefully and pragmatically how they would create their new life? Perhaps he deserted her, pregnant, with nary a word.
He might have labored in San Francisco as an honest craftsman, enjoying the spirit that gave rise to the rebuilding of the city. Or he could have been an agent of dishonesty, helping property owners collect insurance from fires he set. Damage from the quake was not insured, but fires were.
My first thought was that “he” – my fictional character – witnessed a murder, perhaps by a scion of a wealthy family, a crime that reverberated through the bloodline into the current day. Perhaps he was the murderer.
And so on…
When I lived in San Francisco, I went to parties celebrating the anniversary of the great quake. I won’t do that this year, not only because I live in Phoenix now, but because I’ll be spending the afternoon at Authorpalooza at the Dog-Eared Pages Bookstore in North Phoenix. But I will give it a passing thought, knowing that had circumstances been different, some other version of me might be throwing shrimp on the barbie.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.