Michael Portillo visits the seismology department at UC Berkeley and hears the story of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
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I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads of North America
with my faithful Appleton's guide.
Published in the late 19th century,
it will direct me to everything that's novel, beautiful,
memorable and curious
in the United States.
As I travel through this vast continent,
I'll discover gold and silver,
movies and microchips, oil and oranges,
and learn how America's most famous railroad
conquered the wild landscapes of the West.
My journey in Northern California continues,
moving away from San Francisco.
I'll consider the power of the intellect
and the force of nature.
The Gold Rush raped the environment,
tearing up the hills and polluting the rivers.
If you believed in karma, you might think that
the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was nature's revenge.
This rail line actually passes over the San Andreas fault.
I'll discover that it took a Scotsman and a teddy
to teach US citizens to cherish America the Beautiful.
I'm making a 1,000-mile excursion from Reno, Nevada,
to San Diego in Southern California.
Today, I start in Northern California,
in the seismic city of Berkeley,
before unearthing agricultural revolutions in Stockton.
I'll leave the tracks to explore the wilderness of Yosemite
in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
On this leg, foundations are rocked...
The earthquake has begun.
An incredibly sharp jolt that time.
..I try not to lose my footing...
-Scared of heights?
Does the rope make it all the way to the ground?
I don't know that. THEY LAUGH
..and end up in a flat spin.
Turning this two-tonne beast is hard work.
I'm travelling on the Bart commuter rail,
heading eastwards on the Millbrae to Richmond line.
Berkeley is my first port of call on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Originally settled as Oceanview during the 1850s,
the city's population boomed with displaced San Franciscans
following the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906.
The state's oldest university campus opened here in 1868
and is renowned for its pioneering research,
notably in the field of earthquake science.
At Berkeley, says Appleton's,
is located the University of California,
a state-aided institution which is open to both sexes
and where tuition is free.
At this brain-packed university,
earth-shaking discoveries are made daily.
A powerful 7.9 magnitude earthquake
struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906,
resulting in a four-day-long inferno.
More than 80% of the city was destroyed
and at least 3,000 people perished.
To discuss its impact on geological science,
I've come to see Dr Peggy Hellweg.
-Peggy. Hello, I'm Michael.
-Nice to meet you.
-Welcome to the Berkeley seismo lab.
-Thank you very much.
I came to talk about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Why was there one?
The surface of the Earth is covered with plates.
These plates are moving relative to each other, past each other,
under each other and over each other.
California is a region where the plates are moving past each other
and the San Andreas fault is the main expression of the boundary
between those two plates. People back in 1906 didn't know that.
Where does the San Andreas fault run?
The San Andreas fault runs from the south, near the Salton Sea,
all the way up through California, past San Francisco
and it goes into the ocean near Cape Mendocino
in northernmost California.
-That's a tremendous distance.
-So, on the order of 800 miles.
Just days after the disaster,
geophysicists commenced a two-year project
to compile data and observations
and to document how the state's varied geology was affected.
This map here shows the shaking intensity
based on the reports of damage.
The shaking was very strong in the Bay Area. There are
other seismic stations operated all over the world already in 1906.
Records from Potsdam in Germany, for example,
where you can see these are the surface waves from the earthquake.
These are other cities. Munich, and here's one from the Isle of Wight.
And this massive event in each of these charts
is measuring the San Francisco earthquake at a distance of what,
As far as a future earthquake is concerned,
-is it a question of if or when?
-It's a question of when.
Using scientific knowledge gained in the centuries since 1906,
research engineers are now better equipped
to prepare Californian architecture
for the high probability of an earthquake.
Grace Kang is going to show me
the university's ground-breaking test equipment.
-Good to see you. Thank you for coming.
-Good to see you.
Is this, then, the famous shaking table?
This is the shaking table at UC Berkeley.
It is the largest six degree-of-freedom shaking table
in the United States, and actually, it was constructed in 1972.
-What is it used for?
-The purpose of this table is to actually
test specimens under realistic earthquake motions
so that we don't have to wait for the next earthquake to occur
before we find out how buildings behave. We can do that in the lab.
When you acquire that information,
what's the practical application of it?
The practical application of that information is that we can
find out what designs work well, we can experiment
and create improvements on designs, and then, once again,
validate that information on the shaking table itself.
Well, do you mind if we give your table a shake?
Oh, we'd love to show it to you.
Concrete base is rising.
Here we go.
The earthquake has begun. GRACE LAUGHS
Now, up and down and side to side...
An incredibly sharp jolt that time.
-Quite a jolt.
Here we go again.
Great roll as though of thunder,
very vigorous movements from side to side,
-and up and down.
-Up and down too.
But to think, you know,
that is the earth beneath your building, that is...
An appalling prospect.
And this is scary, what we've see here today,
but I suppose the hope is that by this sort of experiment,
better buildings can be designed for the future?
Yes, that's our goal here, Michael.
At Richmond station, I'm resuming my travels with the Amtrak network
on the San Joaquin line.
I'll be making a 90-minute journey,
ploughing east to my next destination.
My next stop will be Stockton, California,
which Appleton's tells me is situated
at the head of tide navigation of the San Joaquin river.
"Compactly built, with handsome public buildings
"that indicate enterprise and taste."
Well, one enterprising citizen
was to set rough terrain vehicles on a new track.
Thanks for the ride. Bye, now.
Stockton was the first Californian city to acquire a name
that was neither Spanish nor Native American.
With its strategic location on several waterways,
the city flourished as an important transport gateway
during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.
By the early 20th century,
Stockton was well known for producing farm machinery
that would revolutionise equipment for agriculture,
road-building and construction.
To gain an insight into the man responsible for those machines,
I've arranged to meet Dave Stewart
of the San Joaquin Historical Museum.
Dave, who was Benjamin Holt?
Well, he's gone down in history as really the person that perfected
the tracked vehicle.
Was there a eureka moment for Benjamin Holt?
Well, he first took a steam traction engine,
this big behemoth steam-powered wheeled tractor,
and took the wheels off and put his first design of tracks on it.
Tested it, and it worked,
so they took it to their farm out in the delta,
on Roberts Island, and used it all winter.
And it was successful, and that really became
the start of what we know now as the caterpillar.
Holt manufactured these caterpillar-tracked machines
to work the deep peat soils of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.
The metal oblong tracks were better than wheels
in areas where heavy vehicles might sink,
because the weight was distributed over a larger contact area.
I think of tracked vehicles as being used by the military,
and eventually as a tank, of course.
Did the military see the potential quickly?
The Holt 75 was immensely successful.
They built over 4,000 of those, and half of those were used
in Europe in World War I, and the British quickly realised
they could import these tracked vehicles for hauling ammunition
and artillery, and so on, and it was a huge breakthrough.
They weren't armoured initially,
but just as transportation vehicles, they were very valuable.
You know what would make my day?
-If you had one of these machines that worked.
What is this lovely machine?
This is a Holt 210, 1925.
-May I take it for a spin?
-You certainly can.
I'll give you a crank.
ENGINE STUTTERS TO LIFE
Turning this two-tonne beast
is hard work!
Appleton's urged people to take to the tracks.
But I didn't have this in mind!
I'm leaving the tracks to make an unmissable detour east,
to an area that looms large in the history of conservation.
Following the advice of my Appleton's,
I'm destined for Yosemite,
a crown jewel of America's national parks.
I'll be excited to explore in the morning, bright and early.
"The Yosemite Valley," says Appleton's,
"with walls a mile high,
"rivers pouring in wonderful waterfalls over the edge,
"its domes and lakes and valleys equal the Alps
"in grandeur and beauty."
And this morning at dawn, I would tend to agree.
Ranger Jamie Richards has offered to drop me
in the depths of Yosemite Valley, along the route that would have
greeted the late 19th-century traveller.
If you think about, you know, 1870s to 1890s,
you're coming in the stagecoach, you've picked up a guide,
you're coming in from a train,
and you're coming into Yosemite National Park for the first time.
-Many people had never seen anything like this before.
-I'm sure not.
What's the geological explanation of these very sheer cliffs?
The granite cliffs that tower over our heads and the way
the valley was carved out, glaciers formed, slowly receded.
Through weather, water and time, we have this lovely valley form.
My guidebook describes in great detail the varied sites,
dazzling colours, and fragrance of the park.
In the southern reaches, the giant Sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove
are noted as reaching heights in excess of 300 feet.
Appleton's also remarks on the striking peculiarities
found here in Yosemite Valley.
Beautiful stag. Not, apparently, at all nervous of me.
Quite small, but with wonderful antlers.
I think I counted 10 or 12 points.
One of the tallest mountains in Yosemite, El Capitan,
an enormous face of bare rock, beautifully illuminated by the sun,
and two intrepid climbers, tiny against the enormous mountain.
-Are you getting good photos?
-We're trying to, yeah.
-It's a beautiful place.
How are you finding it?
-Really, really amazing. Incredible.
First time here, and we really love it.
How far have you come? Where are you from?
-We're from Belgium.
-Ah, Belgium. Right.
-Is it as good as you hoped it would be?
Makes us feel small.
Yeah, we're insignificant by comparison, aren't we?
-I'll let you enjoy it.
-Thank you very much.
Before the first tourists, early white settlers in Yosemite
were seeking gold during the middle 19th century.
Indigenous tribes were killed
or driven out of their ancestral homelands onto reservations.
Then came a peaceful crusade that would blaze
a trail for the conservation movement.
Scott Gediman has been a park ranger here for 20 years.
Scott, this is such a magnificent place.
-Do we know what significance it had for Native Americans?
We think that Native Americans have lived in Yosemite Valley
and around for upwards of 9,000 years.
And as sacred as we find this place right now,
the Native Americans found it just as sacred during that time,
and they're still living in the area.
And then, the white settlers who came,
they presumably quickly understood its beauty?
They did, and so when people started coming to the area,
it was to seek their fortune, and so it wasn't necessarily
for the beauty, but once people saw
the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias,
and they came here to Yosemite Valley,
people were instantly struck with its beauty.
And then, did that attract artists?
I'm just wondering were images of all this travelling
back to the east, and to Europe, for that matter?
So, there was a particular photographer by the name of
Carleton Watkins, who took a lot of the early photographs
of the park, and so it was these photographs
that were shown to President Lincoln,
that prompted him to sign the legislation that established
Yosemite as a forest reserve at the time,
which was the first time in the history of the world
that a piece of land had been set aside for preservation.
Abraham Lincoln had designated Yosemite
as a public recreational area.
But increased tourism began to degrade the wilderness.
John Muir, a Scottish-born naturalist and writer,
campaigned passionately for greater protection,
persuading the US Congress in 1890 to pass a bill
establishing Yosemite as a National Park.
This offered federal government protection,
including the services of the US Army - in particular,
African-American cavalry known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Shelton Johnson is a ranger
committed to keeping their story alive.
-How are you, sir?
-Mind if I get down?
-You get down, please.
-This is a cavalry uniform that you're wearing?
-Yes, sir, it is.
What is the connection between the old Buffalo soldiers
and the Rangers of today?
Well, the connection is just, basically, it's the same thing.
It's just the separation of 100 years.
Because they were performing the duties that wilderness rangers,
or mountain wilderness rangers, patrol today.
In the aftermath of the Civil War,
several all-African-American army units were formed
from enlisted union soldiers. But due to racial prejudice,
they could serve only west of the Mississippi river.
Up to 500 were entrusted with protecting
California's National Parks.
October 1, 1890, it changed everything.
Now, this was not just a place you could ride up
whenever you wanted to and do whatever you wanted to do.
Now, it was a National Park,
and cutting the trees down got itself a new name.
You cut trees down, you're called a timber thief.
You shoot the deer, you're called a poacher.
Before policing the country's National Parks,
Buffalo Soldiers played a key role in westward expansion,
building infrastructure, protecting settlers,
and fighting Native Americans on the frontier.
Well, Buffalo Soldiers is a name that was given to the troops
during the Indian wars.
So the two people who got the most in common,
the Indians and these coloured soldiers,
are the very two people who are trying to kill each other,
not because they want to, but because there's some things
in this life you've got no control over.
So they were the ones who saw the hair on our head was just
liked the matted cushion between the horns of the buffalo,
and because the buffalo was sacred to them,
that's why we consider the name Buffalo Soldier a term of respect.
It may not have been intended to be, but we took it.
We laid claim to it,
and now we think of it as something that's good.
The Army protected Yosemite until 1916,
when the National Park Service was created.
John Muir, who had been so instrumental in safeguarding
America's natural landscapes, also founded the Sierra Club,
one of the first major conservation bodies, still active today.
Early club members were introduced to hiking trips known as outings.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Muir encouraged,
and I'm compelled to follow his advice.
-Yeah, thank you.
Yosemite offers pretty good mountaineering opportunities,
-Yeah, absolutely! Look at this place.
And what would you recommend for someone of advanced years
who's hardly ever climbed a rock before?
I would say rock climbing is good for everybody.
There's always something for everybody,
and you look pretty darn fit to me.
Maybe you should try rappelling.
So, spread your legs a little bit, lean back.
You want your legs about perpendicular from the rock.
Looks easy, huh?
And just go on down like so.
-Scared of heights?
-All right. I'm going to let go of the weight of the rope.
-OK. Here we go. Holding that hand there, not letting go.
-And over the edge I go.
-Go, go, go.
-Feeling OK at the moment, Dave.
Does the rope make it all the way to the ground?
I don't know that! THEY LAUGH
-By very gently letting the rope through there...
-Looks great to me.
-Keeping my legs apart...
I don't want to go down too fast.
Perfect. There you go.
Getting a little bit steeper now.
-Yeah, you're in the steepest bit there.
Nice and smooth and steady.
-And you've got me if I do anything wrong?
My mouth is so dry, I can't...
Good job. Are you safe?
-Portillo to Mission Control. The eagle has landed!
A more effortless way to enjoy the park
is at the cold-as-ice water's edge,
which reflects the grandeur of this untamed wonderland.
A key point of conflict between the white settlers
and the Native Americans was that the latter group, in the main,
had no concept of private property.
For the pioneers, winning the West was all about grabbing land
by driving your stake into virgin soil.
So the idea of land held in trust like a National Park
didn't sit easily with American political philosophies
like individualism and small government.
Perhaps the Scottish-born John Muir
was less encumbered by such ideological baggage.
Anyway, today there are 59 National Parks like Yosemite,
where the glories of the American wilderness are protected.
Next time, my head will grapple with California's Japanese heritage...
It's a very odd feeling, being hit on the head repeatedly!
..I'll marvel at the world's tallest trees...
People come from all over the world to enjoy these trees.
-To see them from the train, Bill, is special.
-Oh, it really is.
I never tire of the view.
..and face total wipe-out.
Michael Portillo's rail voyage continues through northern California, moving east in search of the state's greatest national treasures. To unearth the region's dangers deep underground, Michael visits the seismology department at UC Berkeley and hears the story of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Experiencing the country's largest multidirectional shaking table in action, he learns how engineers today strive to prepare for the high risk of an earthquake.
Alighting at Stockton, Michael delves into California's pioneering agricultural technology and buckles up on a caterpillar tractor the likes of which revolutionised farming and construction equipment around the world. And following the advice of his Appleton's, Michael immerses himself in the sublime beauty of Yosemite National Park, learning about the committed 19th-century conservationists who campaigned for federal protection. He gets up close to the magnificent fauna and flora, attempts a rock climb and comes across a 'Buffalo Soldier' patrolling the wilderness.