Last week, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park launched a major new exhibit called “Earthquake.” It has a walk-through model of the earth, an interactive space to teach earthquake preparedness, and even live ostriches. (Apparently, there’s a connection.) There’s also an earthquake simulator resembling an old Victorian home, bringing us right back to the big one in 1906.
Very few people are alive, today, who witnessed that earthquake 106 years ago. Even if they are still here, they were too young then, or too old now, to remember. But there are many recordings from the 1950s and 60s that still exist – and they’ve been collected by the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Sam Redman, a newly minted PhD from the office, joined KALW’s Steven Short, to listen to these stories preserved from one of the most significant events to touch our region.
“It's a rather quiet performance,” says the voice of Kathleen Norris, one of those preserved in the oral history archive. Norris was 25 years old at the time of the 1906 earthquake. “There's a deep earthy sound that is subterranean and very disturbing,” she continues. “It's just a matter of a clicking and clacking and rattling, but it's everywhere. Every picture on the wall is going ‘tack, tack, tack.’”
Sam Redman says listening to these oral histories connects us in a way that supersedes reading transcripts. "Many interviews have been transcribed, but that doesn't capture hearing the actual voice," he says. "It adds a human voice to the past that a photograph or film might not accomplish. And through these voices we question our assumptions about the past.”
The voice of Kathleen Norris recounts the real-life experience. “Most people have a feeling, especially when they've watched movies about earthquakes, that things racket and roll as if you were crossing the channel on the third of February,” says Norris about the moment the earthquake hit. "I know the earthquake lasted moment,” she continues, “but, it felt like it lasted five minutes. But of course, it changed our lives forever.”
An author, Norris shares her recollections of life as a 25-year-old high society woman living in Mill Valley in 1906. She articulates both her perceived reality at the time and also her assessment of the significance of the earthquake.
Listen to the full story above to hear more voices of “Earthquake.” Portions of the Regional Oral History Office archives are now available in open public access. To help them digitize even more content and make it available to the public, visit their website.