Signal 100 | A century (plus) of covering earthquakes

No. 28 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

Perhaps the most asked question last week in Santa Clarita was: “Did you feel the earthquakes?”

The nation’s 243rd birthday was celebrated this Fourth of July, and marked by an earthquake followed by several aftershocks. The first quake was measured at 6.4, and a day later, a bigger one hit, registering 7.1. 

The epicenter was in faraway Ridgecrest, but they were felt here. A gap in the planet’s crust along the faultline could be seen from outer space. But here, 125 miles away? A few dishes and nerves rattled, but there was no appreciable damage.

Every time the ground shakes, The Mighty Signal has been here to fearlessly report. We’ve even written about it long after the earthquake has hit.

We’ve noted how Spaniard Gaspar de Portola had the distinction of being the first European to visit the Santa Clarita. He was on a mission from Spain to explore California and make recommendations on where to put the future Catholic missions. His party was rocked by a 6.0-magnitude tumbler while camping out by the La Brea Tar Pits on July 28, 1769. Then, hiking up here, they felt a major aftershock their first day in the SCV on Aug. 8.

The third-largest quake on the North American continent that science knows about happened just a few miles north of the SCV. On Jan. 9, 1857, at 8:13 a.m., a major continent-busting earthquake was centered in the Fort Tejon area. It knocked over just about all of the few buildings here in the SCV, including the original satellite mission San Francisco. Cows, horses, atheists and men fell over.

In our old Signal archives, we noted a split at Fort Tejon that was 10 feet in diameter. One mountain man in Frazier Park reported losing his mule into a yawning chasm when the earth split and that he almost fell into the crevice himself from his bedroll. One Newhall woman was killed when her house collapsed on her.

Get this. That Fort Tejon quake expelled 5.5 times the energy of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

A 5.75 tumbler centered in Pico Canyon on May 19, 1893, caused an angry mob to march from Newhall to Mentryville. Local residents blamed the drilling for oil in Pico as the cause of the quake. Many in the mob demanded the oil drillers stop.

They didn’t.

Of course, there’s the granddaddy of earthquakes, the 1906 event in San Francisco some 352 miles north of us. The official death toll was put at around 3,000, but there are reports that authorities deflated the actual figures and that tens of thousands may have perished. The conspiracy people point out that government officials from Sacramento all the way back to Washington didn’t want any bad publicity for San Francisco hosting the upcoming World’s Fair.

The Signal reported a local angle to the 1906 San Fran quake. SCV pioneer Charles Kingsbury was a firefighter at that time in San Francisco. Kingsbury fought flames for four days straight. In one building about to go down, a woman begged him to rescue her box of jewels. He nearly died retrieving it. 

As a reward, she gave Kingsbury one of her diamond rings. He had it reset and lost the huge stone while competing in a boxing match.

On April 20, 1923, we had our very own mini Mt. St. Helens event. Hundreds of folks went up to Haskell Canyon to see a natural phenomenon when a mountain split in two. A section about 200 yards long slid 60 feet, leaving a chasm of 40 feet. It formed a partial dam across the creek. 

The Signal offered several amateur explanations: 1) earthquake; 2) landslide from the recent rains; and 3) gas accumulations from underground oil.

The Signal can find humor in the most trying of situations. In this front page from March 1933, we noted how the Red Cross had called up to the Newhall Sheriff’s station to report the death of deputy Roy Wingate in the Long Beach earthquake. The man who answered the phone said: “Well. You’re talking to him right now, and I’m not dead yet.”

On March 16, 1933, The Signal chronicled the second-largest natural disaster in Southern California history. A massive earthquake, centered in Long Beach, devastated the Southland. There were 125 people initially reported killed from the quake. The shaking was severe in Newhall, but damage was confined to goods and dishes falling off shelves and a few cracks in foundations.

Signal Editor A.B. Thatcher was in downtown L.A. during the 6.3 quake and reported that all eyes were constantly on the tops of the buildings for fear they would come down. Another local resident, Vinetta Sloan, recalled being in Long Beach when the quake hit. She said she was hopping from one foot to the other, trying to keep her balance and fearing that the earth would open and swallow her up. She recalled driving home, through mobs of crying, screaming, laughing people. Thousands of people ended up living in open spaces and parks.

The Signal even ran a short editorial on the earthquake.

We were against it.

Another effect of the L.A./Long Beach/Compton earthquake was a school holiday for local kids going to San Fernando High. The school was closed for a week to check for quake damage.

They were still feeling aftershocks from the big Long Beach earthquake of 1933. While there wasn’t much local damage, it sure scared the heck out of one visitor at the Newhall Hotel. The Signal noted that James Donnelly, who resided at the resort, was taking a bath the night of the quake. He kept trying to climb out of the tub and kept getting knocked back down. “This is what I get for trying to take a bath on a Friday night,” he told friends. Donnelly also confessed his big fear was that the side of the building would collapse and he’d be sitting there, stark naked, for if not the world to see, at least everyone in Newhall.

One of the best photos ever (taken by Signal Publisher Tony Newhall, if memory serves us) of the 1971 Sylmar quake appeared on the front page of this paper. A sinkhole opened near the railroad tracks at present-day Newhall Avenue, partially swallowing this auto.

The Feb. 9, 1971, 6.5 quake was allegedly centered in Sylmar. Technically, The Signal reported, it was centered right in the middle of my backyard in Iron Canyon. It rattled the Santa Clarita Valley, causing $5.3 million in local damage to 1,540 of the valley’s 15,000 permanent buildings. Mobile homes suffered the worst. About 70% of the SCV’s 2,200 mobile homes were destroyed.

One car, parked near Hart Park, was partially swallowed up by the earth. Signal Editor Scott Newhall came up with chilling prose in his editorial: “The Earth for a moment played us false. We are suddenly a baby who has been dropped by its mother, and we resent it.”

On the bright side, while the quake caused $1 billion in Southern California damage, it was just 1/100th the strength of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Care to guess who was hurt the most by the 1971 earthquake? 

Thatcher Glass. About a $3 million cleanup bill.

One aspect of the aftermath of the Feb. 9 earthquake was flight. Several hundred residents put their homes up for sale, pulled their kids out of school and moved out of the SCV, citing fear of the moving Southern California earth.

Another byproduct of the quake was parking lot sales. 

Nearly every business in town was setting up tables, trying to get rid of quake-damaged merchandise, some of it marked down 90%.

There were many strange stories. Prisoners were abandoned in their cells for quite some time at Wayside Honor Rancho in Castaic. Many didn’t know if they’d ever get out or if they might just starve to death behind bars.

Then, there were the dogs.

Many SCV residents just moved away, leaving their pets behind. Other creatures just ran. More than 100 abandoned pooches formed a giant pack after the 1971 quake and started attacking livestock and people. 

Fish & Game came in and either captured, trapped or shot many of the feral canines.

This date of Oct. 29, 1976, will be remembered for something that DIDN’T happen. The Signal noted that a rumor, based on a hoax, had started around town that an earthquake greater than 8.0 on the Richter Scale would be centered in the SCV. Parents took kids out of school and some families even left town.

That same week, we reported on county inspectors announcing that the Castaic Dam was pretty darn close to indestructible. We had been visited a few weeks earlier by a minor tremor. The 350-foot high Castaic Dam is designed to settle deeper into the soil during earthquakes and would hold up even in the event of a record 8.5 quake. 

No need to shiver. 

The Tejon rattler was probably around an 8.0, according to Caltech, making it about the same size as the San Francisco quake. An 8.5 would be (and, Skip Newhall, correct me if I’m wrong) 100,000 times greater than the San Fran nightmare of 1906.

In late 1985, The Mighty Signal, in honor of the anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake, published an Earthquake Preparation Guide. We printed a map of how much time you’d have to get out of harm’s wet way if the Bouquet Reservoir burst. We calculated that it would take about 45 minutes for the floodwaters to reach the Valencia/Bouquet/Soledad intersection. Obviously, if the much larger Castaic Dam broke, it would take just a few minutes before water and debris reached Castaic. Guess if you’re there and it happens, jump high, flap your arms and stay up as long as you can.

Not one to profit from tragedy, The Signal published a pictorial special edition of the 1994 earthquake. The author recalls many in the ad department were teary that we wouldn’t sell advertising.

Then there was the huge 6.7 event of Jan. 17, 1994. Some call it the Northridge Quake. We, of course, called it the SCV Quake.

That’s one of those days I’ll never forget. Publisher Will Fleet, Managing Editor Tim Whyte, cartoonist Randy Wicks, a whole bunch of the staff and I met in the parking lot of The Signal when it was over on Creekside Road in Valencia. The building was unsafe to enter, which didn’t stop us. I’ll never forget the eerie calm. With the power out, I was suddenly aware of how annoyingly loud that office was, from neon hum to the rattling of technology. 

At the time, through epic floods, war, Depression and the damn offices burning down, The Signal had never missed publishing an issue in its then-75 years of existence. 

Someone said we weren’t going to start now. We all rolled up our sleeves, took photos, wrote stories, drew a cartoon and printed that next day’s issue in Palmdale.

On the way home, I was driving with Whyte and his wife, Erin. It was about 3 a.m. We’re in the Antelope Valley at a stoplight, and next to us was a sheriff’s prowl car. 

I’m in the back seat. Tim’s driving. I asked Erin to roll down the window and ask the deputies something. Window down, I utter quietly into her left ear: “Ask the guy if he and his girlfriend would like to race for pink slips all the way down to Magic Mountain.”

Erin paused for a moment and without a skip, simply said: “I just want to thank you both for the great job you’re doing in this time of emergency.”

When the light changed, she swore at me.

In both the ’71 and ’94 quakes, the SCV was cut off from the outside world. Roads buckled. The I-5 overpass collapsed and Los Angeles Police Department officer and 25-year veteran Clarence Wayne Dean died in horrific fashion. 

He was headed to work on top of the great span when it collapsed, sailing 100 feet to his death in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1994. The 6.7 quake took the lives of 57, with nearly 9,000 reported injured. 

Damage in the Southland was estimated between $13 billion and $55 billion in 1994 dollars. That would make it one of the costliest disasters in American history. The Signal reported one elderly citizen died of a heart attack — the only local fatality of that ’94 shaker. The damage was staggering. Some 5,000 block walls fell and another 2,000 chimneys here.

One thing about being a Signal reader or especially a paid subscriber. You can feel safer than your illiterate neighbors with the valuable facts we provide.

While the 1994 event did millions in damage here, it paled in comparison to both the Alaskan quake of 1964 and, especially, the Chilean planet-in-a-blender event of May 22, 1960. 

The Alaskan quake actually shifted the axis of the Earth by nearly 4 inches. But the Chilean quake, which registered an unbelievable 9.6, shifted the planet’s axis by 6.5 feet.

A 9.6 quake is about the maximum the Earth can possibly sustain.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 29 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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