San Francisco literally rose from dust. The journey across the United States from the east to San Francisco is characterized by this element, as the settlers of the city had to shake the dust out of the creases of their clothes as it invaded their bodies, attaching itself to the intimate space of San Franciscans. Roger Orrin’s diary entries from 1864 to 1866, among many other accounts of the westward trek, provide descriptions of an infiltrating, bothersome dust. Orrin writes, “The day was very hot and dusty, filled with alkali. We were completely filled and covered with dust.[2]” Mark Twain describes an “alkali dust so thick it caked the skin.[3]” The tales of dust present the exterior elements gathering and sticking onto the interior, filling a space inside them. The dust was not only an element that made the journey difficult, but also one that crossed the boundary of the body, fusing with all who came across it.

As the frontier men and women established a city upon this dust, the alkali remains a part of the San Francisco’s foundation. The dust observed the building of the city, providing a physical base for the metropolis that will flourish and fall, in an apparent series of cycles. Dust makes itself more visible certain moments, reminding us of its intrinsic, basal position.

Broadly speaking, alkali dust is chemically defined as “a substance (a hydroxide or carbonate of an alkali metal) having marked basic properties”[5]. These basic properties allow alkali to naturally combine with various elements to form a base. They neutralize the acid in the foreign elements to form common hydroxides such as Calcium Hydroxide, or builder’s lime. Alkali will take on the properties of the elements it combines with, physically masked, but chemically vital.[6]

The alkali dust constitutes the civilizing of the West as a basic foundation, acting as both the physical ground and the “ground of the West”. Culturally, dust represents a lack of order and cleanliness, an unwanted intruder of the home, place of business, and the city streets.[7] Dust is constantly circulating, as there is no way to eliminate it. The physical world constantly decomposes, leaving its base behind. This base becomes more apparent at specific moments in San Francisco’s history, marking them as more basal than others and reminding inhabitants of the essential.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.[8]” Reading through the metaphors of Christianity, dust has been linked to the core of human identity. In Genesis, we learn that God formed Adam out of the dust from the ground[9]. Our western origin stories also posit dust as a basic symbol, as it represents the elemental beginning of all life.

The word alkali comes from the Arabic word for ashes, al-qili, where the oxides of the alkali metals that they form where first found.[10] First used in the 14th Century, alkali denotes a saline substance derived from the ashes of various plants.[11] Alkali dust is in fact, an ash. Both dry, fine, pulverized particles of matter, ash and dust have similar physical compositions, though the word ash implies a process of burning or destruction that has disintegrated a previously intact material, wood or a body, into ash. Ash is what is left when everything else is burnt away, the non-combustible essence of what was before. Both ash and dust are granular, multiple, and ephemeral, while simultaneously defined as essential and basic. The base cannot be eliminated, remaining when all else is destroyed.

Dust and ash embody the frontier foundation that San Francisco was built upon.  They physically remain after its destruction in the earthquake and fire, as the essence of what was lost. On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 A.M., an estimated Richter scale 8.25 force earthquake shook San Francisco and the surrounding areas. The tectonic plates that make up the earth’s surface slipped as much as twenty-one feet into the weak San Andreas Fault, causing buildings miles away to collapse into dust.[12] Underneath the bustling city, the shaking of the earth destabilized the city that San Francisco had become, bringing its buildings to the ground. Sam Faix was staying at the Valencia Hotel, where an estimated 30 to 80 people were crushed during the building’s collapse. He describes the chaos, “…when the whole floor, everything -- crashed into the basement with a roar. God, what a noise that made! They had a big party the night before there, and the majority was still asleep -- so they slept there for good.[13]” Not only buildings, but bodies also return to dust as the earth returns itself to its foundational granularity.

The quake had set off fires from gas jets and chimneys; more than fifty small fires started almost simultaneously across San Francisco. The distributing water mains had burst when the earth shook so the water reserves could not be accessed to contain the fire.[14] San Francisco became a city engulfed by flames, characterized by an intense heat caused by firestorms. As buildings literally burst into flames, the fire incinerated almost everything in its path. When a material burns, it releases gases as the compound molecules that make up the substance break apart. These compounds are not bound together as closely as the unburnable, simpler molecules that will make up the ash that remains, such as potassium and calcium[15]. The molecules that remain represent what is left of a civilization when everything else is gone. San Francisco returns to its foundation, though the foundation has been added to. The dust left after the earthquake remains a base to be built upon, but never to be covered up. It contains the horror of the earthquake and fire: the flames of the fire, the mourning of lost lives. The dust remains, a granular base of the life of the city.

 The modern office building downtown were thought to be able to withstand the flames, but burned like the older buildings. The Call Building had been built only ten years before the fire. Considered the city’s most famous and beautiful structure, it housed the offices of the popular newspaper the San Francisco Call. San Francisco’s first skyscraper, and tallest building west of Chicago, the Call Building represented the pride of San Franciscans, a monument known and loved by the people.[16] It caught fire around 10:30 AM, its elevator shafts acting like flumes. The last telegraph sent out of San Francisco presents the destruction of the city:

2:30 p.m. The city practically ruined by fire. It's within half a block of us. The Call Building is burned out entirely. The Examiner Building just fell in a heap. Fire all around us in every direction. Destruction by earthquake is something frightful. They are blowing up standing buildings that are in the path of flames with dynamite. No water. It's awful. I want to get out of here or be blown up.[17]

The earth’s movement and the fires alone would have leveled the city to a state of dust, but the people of San Francisco aided in the destruction with the use of dynamite. They attempted to demolish large buildings before the fire reached them, but the black powder and dynamite employed by inexperienced men only spread the fire faster. The 1906 destruction of San Francisco stemmed from the shifting earth, the uncontrollable flames of civilization, and man-made explosives.

Three days later, the fire had burned itself out. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, arrived in what was left of San Francisco. He wrote:

The hills rolled to the seas as bare as when the pioneers landed in '49. But now they are a blackened waste. North to the bay, west to the Mission -- nothing but ruins. The wholesale district is destroyed, the manufacturing district, the financial district, and the waterfront section -- all destroyed. I will not attempt any description of this scene; I do not believe that any words of mine could convey the slightest comprehension of the wreck and ruin.[18]

But the people of San Francisco quickly rebuilt from the ashes and dust. Volunteers on the clean up crews took up the refrain: "In the damnedest finest ruins I'd rather be a brick than live anywhere else but San Francisco.[19]" Instead of moving away and settling somewhere less dusty, those who remained in San Francisco were connected to the dust of its foundation, choosing to embody a small piece of a ruined San Francisco building than to live anywhere else, choosing to live amongst the dust of the city. A low point in San Francisco’s cultural history is simultaneously a high point for dust’s visibility, allowing for the choice to remain with the essential elements of the city rather than escape to somewhere less basic.

The bodies, streets, buildings, newspapers, business records, and family keepsakes of San Francisco were all equalized into a dust that the people breathed into their lungs. It is impossible to haul away dust, as its microscopic, granular quality resists its removal. Even when the dust left behind by the quake is not visible, it is present. It gets picked up by wind and circulates throughout the city and surrounding areas. As 20,500 buildings replaced 28,000 destroyed ones, this dust swirled around them, settling to combine with the dust formed by the industrial rebuilding projects. The larger rubble was hauled away or used to create new buildings, as the clean up effort left the essential base behind as a foundation for a new San Francisco.

In most instances, what remained of the buildings was destroyed, as San Franciscans chose to start anew rather than repair the tremendous damages. Thousands of walls were torn down as the Palace Hotel was demolished though its structure remained intact. San Francisco rose from the dust, as a phoenix rises from ashes in its rebirth. Though they attempted to replace memories of the earthquake and fire with a vision of a new city, San Franciscans continue to live in and with the dust and ash of all that came before. It is this dust that has formed the city, as the dust retains only was is basal and necessary for rebirth, those elements that cannot by destroyed when a firestorm rages through them.

This base is the spirit of the people of San Francisco, those who braved the stage-car journey, choosing to settle at the frontier where something new could be built. The politics of western expansion dictate the importance of the novelty of the West, the dust characterizing the naturalness of the land yet to be tamed by future San Franciscans. The alkali dust and the dust from the earthquake and rebuilding of San Francisco contain the history of the spirit of individualism that has characterized San Francisco throughout its existence as a place.

Just nine years after the earthquake, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition’s World’s Fair. Working with the world’s top architects, artists, and designers, as well as native San Franciscans invested in the new vision of the city, the World’s Fair was a marvelous display of mechanical, artistic, and architectural beauty and triumph. The phoenix stepped on the world’s stage, presenting visitors with its revitalized look – a scene of wonder for those who got to experience it. Behind this wonder is its foundation, the history of a city that continually rises from its ashes.

The exposition closed forever on December 4, 1915. Nearly all of the buildings were demolished or moved, leaving a new dust in their wakes. This dust acts a mark of the controlled building and purposeful demolishing of the glorious buildings that left visitors in awe. The effort of San Francisco to rise from the ashes is returned to a dust.

The remnants of the World’s Fair fuse with the remaining particles of incinerated bodies from the fire of 1906 and the alkali dust in the creases of a gold miner’s shirt. The dusts of multiple periods cannot be separated from each other, as the conception of San Francisco cannot ignore its dusty past. The dust settles on top of history books, rests in the cracks of the Victorian houses, and blows through City Hall. It will uncover itself again in the future. We cough it up and attempt to sweep it away, but our base remains, as we can go no further than the molecular ground level of our history that will forever be around. The tiny microcosms of the past and present deny their insubstantiality with permanence.

[1] Taylor, excerpt of poem (taken out of order).
[2] Orrin.
[3] Tarnoff, 9.
[4] Taylor, excerpt of poem (taken out of order)..
[5] Oxford English Dictionary
[6] Alkali is a very reactive element, often found in nature combining with other elements. This combination is not a result of the experimentation, as alkali will readily lose its outermost electron to form cations with a charge of +1 (“Alkali Metals”).
[7] Many newspaper articles dating from 1866 to 1910 reveal a public concern for the dust in San Francisco. Municipal reports spanning these years also meticulously document street repairs as to better deal with the dust and mud in the streets. Most of the street imporivements were paid for by property owners.
[8] King James Bible, 2000, Ecclesiastes, 12:7.
[9] Gen 2:7
[10] “Alkali Metals”
[11] Oxford English Dictionary
[12] Dicker, 34.
[13] The Great San Francisco Earthquake transcript.
[14] Dicker 34.
[15] “How Does Fire Work?”
[16] Klages.
[17] The Great San Francisco Earthquake transcript.
[18] The Great San Francisco Earthquake transcript. Narrator
[19] The Great San Francisco Earthquake transcript. Narrator
[20] Taylor, excerpt of poem (taken out of order).

                                                             Works Cited

"Alkali." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

"Alkali." : Definition of in Oxford Dictionary (British & World English). Oxford English Dictionary, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

"Alkali metals." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 4th ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2008. 132-134. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

"Device to Rid City of Dust: Test to Be Made on City Front -- Board Will Extend Seawall." The San Francisco Chronicle 19 Feb. 1910: 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.

Dicker, Laverne Mau. "The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Photographs and Manuscripts from the California Historical Society Library." California History 59.1 (1980): 34-65. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Ewald, Donna, Peter Clute, and Herb Caen. San Francisco Invites the World: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1991. Print.

"Emma M. Burke 1906 Earthquake Eyewitness Account." Emma M. Burke 1906 Earthquake Eyewitness Account. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Fine, Gary Alan and Hallett, Tim. "Dust: A Study in Sociological Miniaturism." The Sociological Quarterly 44.1 (2003): 1-15. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

"How Does Fire Work?" How Does Fire Work? Energy Quest California, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <>.

Klages, Ellen. "Call Building 1906: Burned but Still Standing." The Argonaut 4.1 (1993): n. pag. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.

Orrin, Roger, 9 August 1965, box 21, file 31, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, written journal entries transcribed by great granddaughter, Joyce Marie Sayler Kruse.

"Protest Against Dust in the Mission: Unclean Streets Cause of Much Worry." The San Francisco Chronicle 1 Apr. 1910: 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 16 Jan. 2015.

Taber, Stephen. "Some Local Effects of the San Francisco Earthquake." The Journal of Geology 14.4 (1906): 303-15. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Tarnoff, Ben. The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Taylor, D. Wooster. "The Dust of Frisco Town." Pacific Wine and Spirit Review [San Francisco] 31 Aug. 1907: 30. Print.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake. American Experience. PBS, n.d. Digital film. 30 Nov. 2014.

True Latimer, Tirza. "The Art of Starting Over: San Francisco Artists and the Great Quake of 1906." American Art 20.1 (2006): 96-107. JSTOR

"Will Analyze Mud and Dust: Expects to Ascertain the Nature of Bacteria in Burned District." The San Francisco Chronicle 14 Mar. 1907: A1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

The dust of Frisco town, say man
Do you know how that dust was made?
It was ground from the sand of that pioneer land
Whose memory will never fade.[4]

The dust of Frisco town, say man,
Do you know what that dust is worth?
It’s full of the life and soul and sand
Of the Best Little Town on Earth.[1]

Ashes to Ashes
The Indestructible Molecular Base of San Francisco’s History

"Bohemian Rhapsodies"

Centennial Celebration for the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, 1915

kathryn barulich

curating. writing. research.

Burning of the Call Building during the 1906 Earthquake, San Francisco.

It’s full of the blood and bone and brick
Of the men who stood staunch in her fall;
And despite every kick, that courage will stick
For there’s grit in that dust, that’s all.[20]