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1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake Rocked a Community That Would be Reborn from Its Rubble

Interactive Santa Barbara Historical Museum exhibit ensures 90th anniversary of deadly — and transformative — quake won’t go unnoticed

The 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake destroyed hundreds of buildings, many of them downtown. Vintage photographs are among the items marking the quake’s 90th anniversary on display at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Click to view larger
The 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake destroyed hundreds of buildings, many of them downtown. Vintage photographs are among the items marking the quake’s 90th anniversary on display at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

A thunderous earthquake rattled Santa Barbara 90 years ago Monday.

Here’s how radio reported the news:

“We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. A major earthquake has struck Santa Barbara, California, at 6:44 this morning. Thirteen people have been reported killed with 30 injured and major damage to the downtown business district.”

On June 29, 1925, the 6.3-magnitude earthquake shook the city to its core. The epicenter was off the coast, where the Mesa and Mission Ridge faults meet. Californians felt the quake from Orange County to Watsonville.

While Santa Barbara’s spirit may have been shaken, it could not be destroyed. Out of the rubble emerged the Historic Adobe, Mission Revival, Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean styles of architecture that the community is known for today.

You can experience an interactive earthquake exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St., through July 5.

The exhibit — “​Quake! The 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake” — includes vintage news broadcasts, newspaper clippings and survivor accounts.

The earthquake lasted for 18 seconds, followed by four sudden jolts. Another 200 aftershocks were recorded over the next months.

Father Augustine Hobrecht was superior at the Santa Barbara Mission, where he taught theology. His account offers a vivid description of what transpired that morning.

“Beginning with a thump that seemed to come from a subterranean explosion, the earthquake shook those mighty walls and made them sway,”​ Hobrecht is quoted in the exhibit’s video as saying of the mission.

“The noise was deafening, subsiding for what seemed for a brief second. Then the rocking began with greater violence, so I expected to see the building crumble at any moment.”

The mission sustained major damage, but Hobrecht led efforts to rebuild the church, which had served Santa Barbara since 1786.

Downtown, three people died when the three-story San Marcos office building on State Street collapsed. Two others died at the Arlington Hotel when a water tanker suspended in a tower collapsed on the floors below.

Capt. G. Allen Hancock — philanthropist, oil tycoon and namesake of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria — had checked into the hotel the night before with his son, Bertram.

A newspaper headline from Fargo, N.D., captures the impact of the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. Newspaper clippings and other vintage material are on display at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum as part of an exhibit marking the 90th anniversary of the quake. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)
A newspaper headline from Fargo, N.D., captures the impact of the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. Newspaper clippings and other vintage material are on display at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum as part of an exhibit marking the 90th anniversary of the quake. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“It all happened in a minute,” Hancock says in the video. “The crash of falling timbers and steel beams and the walls of the hotel made an indescribable inferno of sound that dazed me.

“From the time I leapt from the bed until I was crawling from under the collapsed building seemed but a moment. My son probably never awakened from his sleep.”

Hancock suffered critical injuries in the quake, which killed his 22-year-old son.

The earthquake busted open Sheffield Reservoir, which poured out 40 million gallons of water and flooded Santa Barbara’s Eastside.

The most concentrated quake damage, the video states, took place downtown, where multistory brick and mortar, mixed wood and masonry composition toppled.

“State Street when we came to it seemed to be blocked with debris throughout its entire length,” Edward Selden Spaulding, founder of Laguna Blanca School, says in the video.

“The south wall of the California Hotel lay as a pile of rubble. The Potter Theatre was a pile of rubbish and the Arlington Hotel was a fearful site. It was obvious not all of the guests there had escaped with their lives.”

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum video also explains how alert citizens shut off gas and electricity lines to avoid fires, unlike the case in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

In all, more than 400 buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Santa Barbara quake.

The exhibit’s video ends with “​The Santa Barbara Earthquake Song,” sung by Vernon Dalhart: “It’s just another warning, from God up in the sky, to tell all you good people that He still reigns on high. You cannot tell the moment, when He will call us home and we should all be ready before the time has come.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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