Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake

Palo Alto Unitarians were getting ready to build their first church building when the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, struck.

1. A first-hand account by a Unitarian

Gertrude and I were rudely awakened by the shaking of the house and the accompanying rumble, roar, and crash. “What is it?” said she. “It’s an earthquake — and it’s a bad one,” I replied. “What shall we do?” “Stay right here. This little house will last as long as anything.” I knew the sturdy construction of our bungalow … but in my heart I felt that nothing could survive such a vicious shaking—that this was the end for us. It was like a terrier shaking a rat.

— Guido Marx, husband of Gertrude V. D. Marx, a charter member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; quoted in Sandstone and Tile, vol. 30, no. 1, Winter, 2006 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Historical Society, 2006), p. 3.


2. Unitarians join the relief effort

Palo Alto.— The hall in which services have been held was wrecked by the earthquake, and there has been but one regular meeting of the church since that event. The men and women of the church have been most active in relief work. All the churches and societies united for relief work, with headquarters at the Congregational church. We undertook an employment agency for men and women, and this was one of the valuable helps in the restoration to normal living. Of a sum of money sent to Mrs. Stone [wife of Rev. George Stone, AUA Field Secretary] by the women of our Alliance in Detroit, $25.00 came to us. Never was such a sum stretched to cover many wants,— clothes for babies and uniforms for nurses. These nurses had been burned out and lost everything except the clothes they wore. They had volunteered to form a new hospital for the care of children with contagious diseases. When discovered they had worn their clothing a week among these contagious cases, and their only supply of water had to be carried entirely by hand. It was hard to decide whether the Women’s Alliance which made the uniforms, or the nurses who received them, were the happier.

Many of our church members are connected with the University, and as soon as work closed there they left town. Those of the Alliance who are still in Palo Alto met on the 12th of June and each woman pledged herself for a contribution of articles for the fall sale.

Our hearts are full of gratitude for the bright future. To know that our church building is assured and that Mr. Snow has accepted the call of the parish is a constant inspiration. The great opportunities of a university town lie before us. We shall try not to be unworthy of them.

The Pacific Unitarian, San Francisco, vol. 14, no. 8, June, 1906, p. 260.


3. Architectural plans destroyed

…The new church at Palo Alto has called Mr. Sydney B. Snow, a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, to be its minister, and I had the pleasure of reading to the church on Sunday, June 3d, his acceptance of the call. It is hoped that the new church building will be ready for occupation early in the fall. Its erection has been greatly delayed by the San Francisco fire, in which the plans were destroyed.

— Rev. George Stone, “Field Secretary’s Notes,”, The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 14 no. 8, June, 1906, p. 242.


4. A scientific explanation

Not surprisingly, after the great earthquake, Unitarians wanted to read a scientific explanation in The Pacific Unitarian, the newspaper for West Coast Unitarians. Prof. Leander M. Hoskins of Stanford, a member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, contributed a scientific explanation of earthquakes to the issue of June, 1906, from which this is excerpted.

“The Study of Earthquakes”

The importance of an occurrence varies with the point of view. As an event in the history of the earth the earthquake of April 18th has but slight significance, being but one small incident in a process which has been going on for many thousands of years. The crust of the earth has sustained a fracture. This has affected a depth of perhaps a few miles and a horizontal extent of several hundreds of miles, and the movement has amounted at most to a few feet. The surface of the earth abounds in evidences of past movements amounting to thousands of feet and affecting areas of thousands of square miles. These great displacements are the accumulated results of innumerable small movements, and these have undoubtedly been accompanied by fractures similar to that which produced the recent earthquake.

These continuous movements are due to the fact that the earth’s crust is subjected to continually varying forces. Just how these forces are caused is a question of the greatest interest to the student of geology and earth-physics, but upon this question the last word is far from having been spoken, and space is lacking for any explanation of the views held by different authorities.

Whatever may be the main underlying causes of these slow movements of the earth’s outer crust, there is no doubt that the fractures incident to them are the cause of the majority of destructive earthquakes. In the case of the earthquake of April 18th, there is no room to doubt either the fact of the fracture or its nature. It has left its trace on the surface in an almost straight and continuous line for nearly 200 miles. The movement which has taken place is of the kind called by the geologist “faulting.” This means that the two portions of the fractured crust slide past each other along their common surface. This fracture surface seems in the present ease to be an approximately vertical plane. Its mark upon the ground runs in a northwesterly direction from near San Juan in San Benito county to a point on the sea coast near Point Arena, and thence to an unknown distance on the ocean bottom. The relative displacement of the two masses on opposite sides of this rift seems to be mainly horizontal, the ground to the southwest having moved northwesterly relatively to its neighbor. The movement as seen at the surface amounts in places to fifteen or twenty feet, while from eight to ten feet is perhaps a fair average for a considerable part of the length. In certain localities a small vertical displacement is seen also. From the surface movement it is not possible to infer with any accuracy the amount of displacement in the underlying rock mass, the surface ground being everywhere of so loose a character as to permit considerable local variation in the surface movement. Still less is it possible to infer the depth to which the earth’s crust is affected by the fracture.

The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 14, no. 8, June, 1906, pp. 244 ff.

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