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Julia McHugh: 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake: 95 Years Ago This Week
South on 101

Julia McHugh: 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake: 95 Years Ago This Week

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Old Santa Barbara Mission

This week marks the 95th anniversary of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that leveled most of Santa Barbara’s downtown and damaged the Old Mission. But that earthquake led to rebuilding in the unified Spanish Revival style seen today. 

By all accounts, it was an unusually hot and humid night in Santa Barbara, with no cooling ocean breeze. Those rising at dawn on June 29, 1925, later reported that pets and livestock seemed agitated.

At 6:42 a.m. the earthquake hit and the earth shook for 18 seconds. The Richter scale was not yet invented, but semiologists estimate the main shock was 6.3 magnitude and the epicenter located offshore.

It was felt as far as Watsonville to the north, Mojave to the east, and Santa Ana to the south – about 50,000 square miles of land.

Santa Barbara was no stranger to earthquakes. One in March 1806 wrecked the Presidio Chapel. In 1812, an earthquake lasting four minutes shook “so violently that it was difficult to stand.” The Old Mission and Presidio, both made of adobe, were severely damaged, and Mission La Pursima in Lompoc was leveled.

Locals felt the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake, a 7.9 temblor from 100 miles east, and the San Francisco 1906 Earthquake over 325 miles away, also 7.9 magnitude by modern measurements. The Santa Barbara Morning Press reported 18 shocks during the night of January 17, 1922, particularly in Montecito. Small tremors were also felt in March 1922 and 1923.

But the 1925 quake was, as the Carpinteria Herald breathlessly reported, “the greatest disaster that has befallen this section of the county since the advent of the white man here… The whole earth rose and seemed to shake itself with the motion of a spaniel fresh from the water.”

Quick-thinking engineers shut off the gas and electricity, saving it from fire, making the earthquake devastation visible. Along State Street from Sola Street to the ocean, 85% of the buildings were destroyed or damaged. Rubble of concrete, brick, and stone was so thick that streets were impassible by vehicles.

Hotels collapsed or partially collapsed, including the posh 250-room Arlington Hotel and downtown’s Hotel Californian. Exterior walls peeled off, revealing rooms where several guests escaped by using sheets tied together.

In the foothills, Sheffield Dam failed and sent a wall of water to the ocean. Oil bubbled up from the ocean floor, creating slicks in the Channel that spread for miles. The Old Mission lost both its façade and both towers.

Most homes were in relatively good shape, but nearly every chimney crumbled. Residents slept outside that summer as aftershocks rolled through the city – more than 260 in the first week alone.

The death toll was 13, which could have been much higher had the quake hit later in the day. Exactly one year later on June 29, 1926, a small boy was killed by a falling chimney during an aftershock.

It didn’t take long for city leaders to decide to rebuild using stricter building codes and requiring new buildings to conform to the uniform Spanish Revival style of architecture, creating the beautiful downtown of today.

See newsreels of the devastation at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s website (www.sbhistorical.org/quake-the-1925-earthquake-in-santa-barbara).

Julia McHugh can be reached at southon101column@yahoo.com.

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