How did disasters affect buildings in California towns and cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
In what ways did people cause disasters in California during this era?
In what ways did people’s actions contribute to the destruction caused by natural disasters during this era?
Before European and American development, Native Californian groups altered the landscape purposefully to preserve it, and avoided areas they knew to be dangerous. But by the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush brought a population boom.
These newcomers naturally built new towns and cities around bays, harbors, rivers, mountains, and fertile valleys. But because they didn’t know the landscape’s history, some communities were built on top of potentially dangerous environmental factors, such as flood plains and unseen earthquake faults.
From the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, earthquakes, floods, fire, disease, and other catastrophes shaped and re-shaped California’s natural environment and the new towns and cities growing up across the state. These images document both natural and human-caused disasters across California during the era, especially the destruction to property and peoples’ lives following fires, floods, and earthquakes.
Fresh water — in groundwater, rivers, and lakes — is one of California’s most prized natural resources. But controlling and managing water for drinking and irrigation has not been easy.
Images of Oroville and Alturas in the Shasta Cascade region show the devastating effects of heavy rain and extensive flooding in the town areas. Flood images from Marysville, in the Gold Country, show the streets filled with flood water.
Cities like Anaheim in Southern California experienced major flooding and immense population growth. A building boom resulted in the cementing over of natural watersheds, which increased the potential for flooding.
Large-scale irrigation projects intended to help farmers and prevent cycles of drought and severe flooding continue to affect large portions of California. Canals built along the Kern River near Bakersfield were crucial to harnessing California’s agricultural potential. Enormous labor demands were required to create and maintain the Central Valley’s irrigation projects.
The city of Los Angeles, now with a population of over 9 million people, was built in an arid desert. This meant diverting billions of gallons of water for drinking and agriculture from other sources around the state and building numerous dams and power plants.
Uncontrolled waste and vermin in dumps, in the streets, and in cramped living spaces contributed to disasters in densely populated towns and cities. In Los Angeles in 1924, pneumonic plague carried by rats spread quickly.The city established disinfecting crews to eradicate any potential infected rat and squirrel populations, and destroyed rundown buildings considered potentials for disease. Suspect buildings and people were quarantined for weeks.
Some quarantined neighborhoods were home to Mexican immigrants. This led to reframing dialogue about the disease in racial terms. The movement toward containing disease became about quarantining certain neighborhoods perceived as a “public menace.”
most disaster survivors — whether displaced by flood, fire, or earthquake — did not leave or move to
safer ground. Instead, people worked to rebuild and reshape their cities in the same place. They used newer and better
building materials and techniques, hoping to create sturdier structures that
would withstand another natural disaster.
For example, In San Francisco, the earthquake brought down brick buildings and the fire burned the wooden ones. The city was rebuilt with more expensive but theoretically safer reinforced concrete, which allowed for taller, more modern, and more stable structures, changing the city’s skyline. Although natural disasters continue to threaten California’s cities and towns, its people continue to find new ways to reinvent and work with their existing environment.
How to use Local History Mapped (PDF): ideas and activities for the classroom
K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities (PDF) (Source: Geographic Education National Implementation Project)
Five Themes of Geography (Source: Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the NCGE/AAG)