Times Past

Overhead power lines a problem in 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake and fire. Not much has changed

Santa Barbara’s State Street after the June 29, 1925 temblor.
Santa Barbara’s State Street after the June 29, 1925 temblor.

“All wires in a radius of many blocks were down. Our engineer at the power plant, by a great act of heroism, pulled the switch; but if that had not been done, fleeing people would have been in grave danger.”

In 1925, famed architect Julia Morgan warned of the danger of above-ground electric lines as she witnessed the aftermath of an earthquake and the resulting fires that destroyed Santa Barbara.

She was hired to design the Margaret Baylor Inn, a hotel for young professional women at 924 Anacapa St. In the wee morning hours of June 29, 1925, Morgan arrived on a business trip to Santa Barbara.

She recorded her experience in the Berkeley-based journal, Architect and Engineer.

She missed a taxi at the train station and decided to walk to the Carrillo Hotel. “As I stood resting, I saw fine white dust coming from a brick building nearby, the same white dust which I had seen come out of the chimney near my room in San Francisco [in 1906].

“The shock came, threw me down on my knees. I crawled on my knees into the street until I felt the car tracks and then worked my way down through the blinding dust to a place in front of an auto salesroom.”

She watched families fleeing along State Street, trying to avoid the chards of plate glass from store windows.

“It was,” she noted, “a great practical experience.”

“I was impressed with the fact that the greatest menace was from electric wires. No matter at what expense all wires in public streets in California should be underground.”

Miss Morgan’s concerns with overhead power lines haven’t had much impact on the realities of city and regional planning over the past 93 years.

There weren’t the vast number of long-range high voltage lines in 1925, but she would certainly share a concern for them had they existed.

We think of the recent fire in Paradise, caused by problems with long-range overhead electric transmission lines, and even the lower voltage overhead lines all around our homes in San Luis Obispo.

We need to learn from the repeated examples that history has provided.

Since the beginnings of permanent human settlements in cities and towns, a variety of natural and human disasters have overtaken Mohenjo Daro, an ancient Indus Valley Civilization, the Mayan cities and Pueblo/Anasazi sites, and weren’t rebuilt. Others, the vast majority, were rebuilt, sometimes a dozen or more times.

If the surrounding land has strategic or economic value, dwellings will be rebuilt. Like the cities of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, San Francisco after its many earthquakes and fires, and even smaller and more remote towns like Paradise.

As technology develops, sometimes, “smart rebuilding” takes place.

Financial resources permitting, post-hurricane structures reflect the lessons learned, with elevated living quarters and passages for the ebb and flow of tidal surges.

We doubt that the rebuilt city of Paradise will incorporate the traffic flow restrictive elements of the “Delft Plan” that city leaders encouraged a few years ago, which so greatly hindered the evacuation of the area.

One lesson, albeit a terribly costly one, that needs to be incorporated is underground power lines, most especially the high voltage transmission lines that seem to have caused several of the worst fires.

Downed power lines were a hazard in the 1933 “Long Beach Earthquake,” the 1952 Tehachapi temblor, the 1971 “Sylmar Quake,” the 1987 Whittier disaster, the 1989 Loma Prieta tragedy and the 1994 Northridge quake, long before the disasters of last year’s Thomas Fire and the Camp Fire.

It’s a long overdue public safety issue where being “penny wise and pound foolish,” to quote Benjamin Franklin, translates into thousands of human tragedies.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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