The earthquake and fire ravaged San Francisco’s city hall, destroying many of the town’s records.
My l0th-grade history teacher, Mr. Liptrap, believed the way to students’ brains was through their bellies — that is, the best means of averting a sophomore snore fest each period was to keep his pupils doubled over their desks in laughter. He even had a motto embodying his philosophy: “Good friends, good times, world history.”
The jokes and wisecracks accomplished the improbable — they got a room full of 15-year-olds engaged in history. Still, when it comes to engrossing people in the past, humor can’t quite compete with genealogy. Knowing your ancestors were touched by the historic events you studied in high school makes those milestones meaningful in ways even the funniest joke never could (sorry, Mr. Liptrap).
I’m reminded of that now because, as I write this, the centennial of San Francisco’s April 18,1906, earthquake is all over the news. The Great Earthquake and Fire have always had personal significance to me, though I’ve only once set foot in the city.
The connection? My great-grandfather Charles Essel. We never met, but I’ve often thought of us as kindred spirits because of our shared journalism background (he was a photoengraver) and wry sense of humor. Great-grandpa spent his early adult years in California; at the time of the quake, he was 22 and worked the night shift at a San Francisco newspaper. As my grandmother tells it, he’d just gotten to bed when the tremors struck at 5:12 a.m. Knowing this would be a big story, he took the ferry from Oakland to go back to work, and ended up on a rescue crew. We still have the newspaper photos he brought back to Ohio (one is shown above).
So I’ve been especially attentive to the media coverage — including our own. In the April 13 edition of our E-mail Update newsletter <www.familytreemagazine.com/newslerter/archive.html>, managing editor Diane Haddad reported on captivating quake-related Web sites, including:
• The Bancroft Library: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire <bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/earthquakeandfire>
• Museum of the City of San Francisco: The Great 1906 Earthquake And Fire <www.sfmuseum.org/1906/06.html>
Browsing through the photos and stories, I was struck not only by the destruction itself — but also the fact I was viewing it just as people did 100 years ago. Even if your relatives weren’t directly affected by the disaster, they likely followed the events through the very same articles and images you can now see online.
Want to become engaged in the events your family lived through? The standout history sites among our 101 Best Web Sites are a good place to start. They may not hook you with hilarity as Mr. Lip-trap did my high-school classmates. But for putting the history in family history, they’re as good as it gets.
From the August 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.