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 Continue reading “Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake”


My friend and fellow blogger E wrote a brief post on the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that hit Washington, D.C.: nothing was broken, the cats were scared, a few things fell. And as I started reading her post, sure enough Carol and felt a small magnitude 3.9 earthquake* here in San Mateo: there was a little bit of a noise, the house shook noticeably for about five seconds, and it was over. E ends her post by saying: “What a great reminder that we cannot change much of what happens, but we have a choice in how we behave in response.”

* Later downgraded to 3.6.

Disaster preparedness for congregations

Recently, I’ve been thinking about disaster preparedness for our congregation here in Palo Alto. Fortunately, here in the Bay Area the odds are extremely low for blizzards, ice storms, typhoons or hurricanes; and tornadoes are rare (although we did have one tornado watch this part year). So I don’t have to worry about whether the steeple is going to blow down in a hurricane, as we had to in Massachusetts; nor do I have to know where the storm cellar is, as we had to in Illinois. But we do have to prepare for some potential disaster scenarios.

Two of the more common Bay area disasters shouldn’t worry us much in Palo Alto: we’re on the flats so we don’t have to worry about landslides, and we are far enough from the Bay that tsunami risks are low. However, our buildings are at some risk for flooding: we are in Flood Zone X, which is defined as “an area of moderate risk of flooding (roughly speaking, outside the 100-year flood but inside the 500-year flood limits).” Thus, while we should be paying attention to flooding, it’s not of the highest priority.

Our highest priority for disaster preparedness is, not surprisingly, earthquakes. The USGS “Shaking Map for Future Earthquake Scenarios” (click on the map for Mountain View) shows that our location, because of underlying soils, etc., could be expected to experience very strong to violent shaking (Mercalli Instensity VIII-IX) in an earthquake like the magnitude 7.9 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In other words, it could be bad, and we should be paying attention to preparing for this kind of disaster. So at the moment, I’m reading through the USGS publication “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country”.

I’d be curious to know if your congregation has disaster plans in place, and what preparations you have made. Feel free to hold forth in the comments.