Portals of the Past

By Kathleen Knowles

Awake Unto Me 300 DPIIn his terrific book, Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, Gary Kamiya had this to say about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake:
“The ruins looked like the bombed-out wastelands of Dresden, Tokyo or Hamburg in World war
II. It was the closest thing to an urban apocalypse this country has ever seen.”
As my readers, family and friends know, I love history, especially San Francisco history. It’s only natural I would write a story set during the 1906 earthquake, a seminal event in the history of San Francisco. When I was writing my first novel, Awake Unto Me, I took part in a ‘backstage’ tour of the botany collections of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Our tour was led by two veteran docents who told us a remarkable story about a woman named Alice Eastwood. The Cal Academy was then housed in a Market Street building in 1906 and was burned in the fire that began immediately after the earthquake. Most of its holdings were destroyed but the most precious parts of the plant collection, the type specimens, were saved by Alice Eastwood, CAS curator of botany. I saw some of the material in storage at the Academy during that tour. When I heard how she accomplished that feat, I thought, “That has to go into a novel.”
I was already planning to carry the characters in Awake Unto Me through the earthquake. Part of that planning including situating their home west of Van Ness where the post-earthquake fire was finally stopped. I knew I would need some new characters though. So there was one of my main characters, Alice Eastwood, fictionalized under the name Abigail Elliot. Her character and background were quite easy to put together since the Cal Academy archives house her papers. I spent happy hours reading them. There’s nothing in Alice Eastwood’s background to suggest she was a lesbian but she never married and claimed she had no idea how she would combine marriage and her career. So I used the lack of evidence about her personal relationships to draw my own conclusions.
The other main character is, of course, one of the many medical people I seem drawn to write about: Norah Stratton, a friend of one of Esther Strauss from A Spark of Heavenly Fire and a recent transplant from New York. Welcome to San Francisco, now here’s an earthquake for you! Needless to say, it’s a shock to poor Norah.
The problem with writing about the 1906 earthquake was exactly what aspects of that very complicated event to use. There’s much to choose from because the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire was a extremely well documented disaster. You could say it was the first globally known disaster and the media coverage at the time was overwhelming. Even the early movie technology of the time got into the act. I watched some silent films of the smoking ruins from the Library of Congress.
My recurring character Kerry is an employee of the Palace Hotel so there was the tragic story of the demise of that building. Her lover Beth is a doctor as are their friends Esther and Addison so that gives all of them a concrete role after the earthquake. In a disaster, doctors are going to be on the frontlines taking care of the victims. I got to find out a lot about the experiences of the San Franciscans after the earthquake and I was able to incorporate a lot into the story. One my favorite factoids: the downtown post office evaded the destruction and was able to conduct business almost normally in the chaotic weeks after the earthquake. I learned about which parts of the City got their water back and when thanks to a website called The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco which incorporates the records of the City water department from 1906.
As calamities have a way of doing, the 1906 earthquake throws my human characters’ lives into complete disarray. Some are left with their home intact but with serious injury. Some lose their homes but everyone’s life is upended one way or another. To write about being in an earthquake and then adjusting to life in its aftermath, I drew on my own experience going through the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. That was a surrealistic experience to say the least for those who were present. For the loved ones of San Franciscans who were anxiously trying to get news, it was terrifying.
My wife, Jeanette was my girlfriend of just four months in October 1989. She was on a jet flying to Germany when the earthquake hit. She and her friend Michael watched scenes of destruction on CNN with narration in German, while she frantically tried to call me and Michael tried to reach his dad who lived on Nob Hill. After an earthquake, the phone lines are jammed because everyone calls their friends and family to ask, “Did you feel that? Are you okay?” In Two Souls, my characters are not able to phone but they still try to check in with one another and tell their stories just as we twenty first century folks do.Two souls
After the earthquake, my friends and I had a cook out and listened to the radio and watched the helicopters fly over the dark City all night. I still have a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle “Earthquake Special” newspaper. The newspeople put it together using a generator and then handed out free copies on street corners the morning after the earthquake.
People who don’t live in California often express abject fear of earthquakes. Honestly, give me an earthquake that happens every 30 to 100 years over tornados and hurricanes which happen EVERY year.
The framing columns on the Two Souls book cover are a stylized rendering of a monument called the Portals of the Past. Amongst the many photographs and stories I came across during my research was the photo Arnold Genthe took of the ruins of the Townsend mansion on Nob Hill. In the book, I have Abigail and Norah actually come upon him engaged in this activity while they are out exploring the ruins. The only surviving structures on Nob Hill were this doorway and the outer masonry walls of the James Flood mansion on California Street. The 8 marble columns of the entryway were given to the City by Mrs, Townsend and in 1909 were relocated to the shore of Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. They were named the Portals of Past and are thought of as the symbol of San Francisco’s rebirth after the earthquake. They are also serve as a reminder of what happened in 1906. I visit them every so often and wonder what it was like for San Franciscans back then. Two Souls is the concrete result of my musings.

9 Responses to “Portals of the Past”


  1. 1 Devlyn67 December 6, 2016 at 10:50 PM

    This is a fun blog but the link to comment on it doesn’t work. Devlyn

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  2. 2 Karen Hesse December 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM

    I worked in the pressroom where the printing presses actually were in 1989 for the Chronicle and the Examiner. They wouldn’t let us in to print anything the morning after. The basement was dark, the presses were silent, and we were stunned. Your earthquake edition paper must have been printed elsewhere.

    Like

  3. 3 Maureen December 9, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    There is an Alice Eastwood Camp in Marin on a trail that starts by the Mountain Home and continues to Muir Woods, I often wondered who she was as we hiked the trail.

    Like

  4. 4 S.A. December 9, 2016 at 2:13 PM

    Great blog, thanks! You’ve done a lot of research, and I look forward to seeing how you synthesize everything. I’m from WA (State, not DC!), and completely agree – infrequent quakes are a vast advantage to annual disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes. Looking forward to reading the new book!

    Like

  5. 5 Teryl Cardella December 9, 2016 at 6:47 PM

    Great Blog. I’m a history buff so I do love a accurate story, I do approve of a few things being slightly changes to dress up the story. Am looking forward to this book.

    Like

  6. 6 Devlyn December 10, 2016 at 12:14 AM

    You’ve done an amazing job of researching, I always enjoy stories so much more when the author has done their research so well and I actually learn something.

    Like

  7. 7 Espe Garcia December 10, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    As a retired elementary school teacher, social studies has always been a favorite of mine. While I read the synopsis of your research into the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and your book, I was drawn into the story. A good story is a great teaching tool! I would love to read more!

    Like

  8. 8 judym22 December 11, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Gosh, apologies, somehow your books have slipped under my radar. No longer so, I love the research you have done, I will be following up on all the references you have mentioned. Thanks Judy

    Like

  9. 9 Angela December 15, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    Looks worth a read x

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 625 other followers


%d bloggers like this: