When Robert Louis Stevenson Was One Of Us

Out of an agonizing American experience, the frail Scots author mined a treasure and carried it away with him

 

 

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Scotland and spent the last years of his life in Samoa, but for a year he lived in California, and that year was a turning point in his life. It is not too much to say that he belongs at least as much to us as he does to Scotland or to Samoa. Read more »

How The Hurricane Got Its Name

It’s more than just whimsy

Our hurricane-naming system evolved much the same way our baby-naming system did. Just as it’s easier to say “Jane Q. Smith” than to reel off a list of her identifying characteristics, so forecasters in the nineteenth century grew tired of referring to every big storm by its longitude, latitude, and date of origin. But that was the official protocol until the early 1950s, and more than once it led to dangerous mix-ups.Read more »

Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

There is something uniquely chilling about a natural disaster, the uncontrolled, unpreventable fury of normally benign elements: a blue sky now black exploding in water and electricity; the air around us suddenly quick, weaponized; a resort lake bewitched into a ferocious wall of water; the solidity of the very ground belied. In these moments nature proves its dominance, as if to remind us that there are some things in its arsenal before which we will always be powerless.

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Splendid Survivors

How to get a drink or a meal or a night’s sleep before April 18, 1906

Finding traces of pre-earthquake San Francisco is a bit like a treasure hunt, a fascinating but not impossible challenge. “The Big Quake” and fire may have leveled three-quarters of the city, but incredibly, some landmarks were salvaged and restored and have kept their turn-of-the-century flavor. Few of the following locations were left completely (or even mostly) intact after the earthquake and fires, but with a little imagination, one can be transported back to the Barbary Coast (or belle époque, depending on one’s perspective), if only for a moment.Read more »

San Francisco Then And Now

On the 100th anniversary of the 1906 calamity, a student of earthquakes seeks its traces in the city he loves most.

The scale of the disaster is hard to comprehend. A government report listed 28,188 buildings destroyed. The official number of dead or missing was 674, though a reassessment years later put it closer to 3,000. People had fled in so many directions that it was impossible to get a reasonable estimate of the number of homeless, but most historians agree it was somewhere between 225,000 and 300,000.Read more »

Liberalism Overthrown

THIRTY YEARS AGO A HARD-FOUGHT gubernatorial campaign heralded the third great political upheaval of our century

IT WAS A FUNERAL TO REMEMBER. The rain had been pelting for hours when the mourners gathered in St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, in the Sunset district, but now the skies cleared as four National Guard helicopters clattered overhead in a “missing man” formation ” as scores of dignitaries—governors and representatives, senators and aides from Sacramento and Washington, Los Angeles and New York—stared gravely at the casket, draped in the red and white state flag. It was February 17, 1996, and Edmund G.Read more »

Shanghaied!

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, but right on into this century sailors were routinely drugged, beaten, and kidnapped to man America’s mighty merchant marine

William Davis, a cabinet-maker, left his home near Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory in the mid-1870s and headed for Northern California, a fast-growing region where he hoped to earn up to six dollars a day by adapting his expertise to ship carpentry. He made the eight-hundred-mile trek with his wife, Isabelle, and three small children, the youngest of whom was just six weeks old. Read more »

Westward On The Old Lincoln Highway

I had been driving across Pennsylvania’s hills and valleys for five hours when suddenly my destination for the evening appeared ahead. On a high, level clearing in the state’s mountainous southwest quarter, just beyond the immaculate little town of Bedford, stood the Lincoln Motor Court, a roadside lodging almost exactly the way it looked when travelers passed by in Hudson Hornets and Studebaker Land Cruisers. Read more »

Search And Destroy

The United States Army has always been secretive about its defense installations. In the summer of 1864 a breach of security took place on the tiny island fortress of Alcatraz that reverberated all the way back to the War Department in Washington.

Alcatraz Island, squatting in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is the twenty-two-acre cork in the mouth of the Golden Gate. Read more »

Post Haste

The urge to move documents as fast as possible has always been a national pre-occupation, because it has always been a necessity. Fax and Federal Express are just the latest among many innovations for getting the message across.

Reaching out and touching someone hasn’t always been easy—especially if it was necessary to hand that person something in the process. Yet there have always been Americans who absolutely and positively had to have it the next day, week, month, at any cost, and this in turn has always drawn others with the dollars and determination to make it happen.Read more »