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Earthquake shook Half Moon Bay in 1906

Wooden buildings survived, adobe did not

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Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2012 2:07 pm

The quiet development of Half Moon Bay was interrupted and changed on the day in 1906 that the great earthquake shook Northern California.

The Coastside had been slowly growing as it rolled past the turn of the century. All of America was powering into new wealth with the industrial revolution. New and improving machines were leading American farmers, manufacturers and merchants alike into new ways of working and living.

Gold had made San Francisco an instant big city. But it was business and commerce that fueled its growth into the next century. The ripples of business and prosperity moved from the city and around its bay. They moved down its Peninsula and over the little mountain range to the town just across the Pilarcitos Creek Bridge. Half Moon Bay was also building itself.

The agriculture of the Coastside is what brought the businesses. There were saloons, general stores, farm suppliers, and offices for doctors and lawyers.

Community leaders soon came to the front to develop the town for the common good. Schools were built and staffed, the roads and bridge improved, a fire department formed, and a citywide water system was developed for all to use. The town even managed to attract the key to future wealth — a railroad.

“Around five o’clock in the morning, we awakened to a terrible trembling and shaking of the earth, which was followed by cries from the first floor of the house. Grandmother picked me up out of bed, threw me over her shoulder and carried me to the top of the staircase. We arrived there at the moment of the second quake, which threw her off balance and we both tumbled down the stairs,” Ellsworth Quinlan, a young boy living on his family’s farm, wrote of that night in Half Moon Bay. (Dr. Quinlan grew up to be a respected San Francisco dentist.)

In 1906, Half Moon Bay still had some of the early styles of building brought by the Spanish and Mexicans — the adobes. Most of the community was built with the plentiful wood that came from the nearby redwoods. Fires were an occasional problem in the new town. Several of those structures had been lost to fires. They were highly flammable, the water service was modest, and the volunteer firefighters not always able to suppress advanced fires. That is why some of the more successful business leaders began to use more expensive, but more durable, bricks and mortar. Brick buildings were strong, and they had the look of success. One of the new brick buildings was the new Half Moon Bay Bank. The other was Estanislao Zaballa’s general store.

Zaballa — who had also built a fine wooden house a few feet away from the Main Street Bridge — sold that store to the newest, and perhaps most influential, merchant in town, Joseph Debenedetti. Debenedetti, with a partner, operated the store below and had living space above the store.

Debenedetti was also one of the powerful local politicians. He was a county supervisor. He was the man responsible for the major city’s most prominent single improvement, the reinforced concrete Main Street Bridge over the creek at the entrance to town.

That April morning, the 7.9 earthquake on the Richter scale hit the Coastside hard. The bridge in front of the Zaballa house survived the shaking. The 1908 State Earthquake Investigation Commission said, “The bridge over Pilarcitos Creek, north of the town of Half Moon Bay … was badly cracked, as were the approaches at both ends. Just south of the bridge, several small cracks in the low ground west of the road permitted water to spout up, bringing sand with it.”

The bridge did not collapse. But in town, there was destruction. Not one house was left unscathed. Some were thrown off balance. Windows broke and chimneys fell. Despite the damage, all of the wooden buildings of the town survived — as did the Zaballa house right at the bridge’s entrance. It was twisted around its wooden foundation, but stayed upright.

Sadly, the original Mexican adobe homes did not do as well. The only fatalities recorded in Half Moon Bay came during the collapse of landgrant owner Tiburcio Vasquez’s family adobe. It had stood for more than 50 years on the other side of the creek — near the intersection of today’s Main Street and Route 92. Three lives were lost there that morning.

It wasn’t only the ancient Mexican construction adobe method that utterly failed. Both of the town’s new brick buildings completely fell apart. The bank building went down to the ground, and the general store was destroyed.

The living quarters above the store hung by a hair over its ground floor. This was more a pile of rubble than a building.

“Mr. Debenedetti was not at home or he would have gone out too. His bed was in the corner where the second floor dropped, ” recalled Ethel Knapp Neate, granddaughter of prominent local plow maker, carriage builder and newspaper editor R.I. Knapp.

The nighttime brought the sight of the horrifying signs of San Francisco burning in the distance.

“Many of the people seeing the flaming sky over the mountains to the northeast thought the world had come to an end and all that remained was the little Coastside area with its hills, valleys, and of course, the sea,” Quinlan wrote.

“I clearly remember seeing flames lick up to the sky. And cinders were said to reach Redwood City,” Neate recalled.

The man who had arranged for the town to have an earthquake-proof, steel-reinforced bridge built was the same man who lost his own fragile brick building in the quake. Debenedetti immediately rebuilt. The Debenedetti Building (400 Main St.) was the first building on the Coastside to use steel reinforced concrete.

Now, of course, all of Half Moon Bay — all of California — is built to a different standard. And the Debenedetti Building is something of a Half Moon Bay monument to earthquake awareness.

— Half Moon Bay History Association

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