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Shortly after the 1906 disaster, Southern Pacific's publicity bureau began the task of rewriting the history of the San Francisco earthquake.

The railroad, at the time, was the biggest political power in California, and the state's economy was of great importance to the company.

This circular from the Stockton Chamber of Commerce quotes James Horsburgh, Jr., General Passenger Agent for Southern Pacific. He was also in charge of "Sunset Magazine" devoted to extolling the wonders of California, and was a promotion tool for the railroad. After the earthquake, "Sunset Magazine" pages were filled with propaganda articles that stressed the upbuilding of the city, and casually dismissed the earthquake. Issues of "Sunset Magazine" of that era cannot be relied upon for accurate post-earthquake information. Incidentally, the "Sunset Magazine" of today bears no relationship to the magazine of the 1906 era except for its name. SP's version of the disaster is neat, simple, sanitized and deliberately inaccurate.

Eastern Lecturers Will Be Set Straight in the Matter

General Passenger Agent Horsburgh of the Southern Pacific Makes
Suggestions Which the Stockton Chamber of Commerce Adopts.

The Stockton Chamber of Commerce received the following communication to-day from James Horsburgh Jr., General Passenger Agent of the Southern Pacific Company, relative to correcting the false impressions in the East regarding the recent disaster:
I am inclined to think you can do more good through the newspapers and magazines than through any other medium of publicity. There will be a great many people giving lectures upon the fire and earthquake who, because of the interest attached thereto, will dwell upon the dramatic features of the situation. In so far as possible, I would suggest your organization attempting to reach every one of these lecturers and get them to make the story complete -- that is, not only to represent the vivid details of the catastrophe itself, but to give over to least the latter half of the lecture to views and data showing how quickly and wonderfully San Francisco and California recovered from the effects, and how thoroughly and systematically they began with the work of reconstruction. Let the whole idea be that the main thing in connection with the event was the clearing of a pathway to a greater San Francisco and the awakening to an even greater California.

You may be able to secure this result, so far as lectures are concerned, by controlling those lecturers who are going into the field on a commercial basis, rather than by sending out lecturers who might be looked upon in some degree as glossers over of the real facts. Any attempt to disguise the truth will result in failure, but every effort should be made to bring forth prominently the sunshine that is to follow the storm.

We stand read to co-operate with you in every way practicable to keep California and San Francisco from being misrepresented by the sensation mongers.

We do not believe in advertising the earthquake. The real calamity was undoubtedly the fire. In press matter [news releases], I would call attention to the small area of the State which was affected by the earthquake and the relatively small results in the way of destruction, and point out the great buildings of the business section of San Francisco and the residence portion of the city that escaped burning as proof that San Francisco did not suffer greatly from the earthquake. I would plainly and accurately describe, without any undue prominence, the area and strength of the temblor, and remark that except in a few cities which happened to lie directly in its pathway, practically no damage was done. Point out that an earthquake of equal strength covering an equal area in some unsettled part of the State such as the north coast or the mountains or the desert, would have attracted comparatively little attention.

Point out too that no part of the world is exempt from earthquake shocks so far as we know, but that their recurrence in violent form is so infrequent that no city in the temperate zone has ever been twice affected in a serious way by an earthquake. If you desire, dwell on the fact that the California coast is heavily timbered, making lumber inexpensive; that San Francisco, in part was an old city; that it was a wooden city outside of the business section, closely built, with narrow streets for the most part, and as a result was peculiarly susceptible to destruction by fire. You might describe how the water supply came from a system established many years ago, which had one main line of connections up the peninsula. Now, this line being broken by subsidence of old swamp land, cut off the water supply. Then I would dwell on the new city of San Francisco, explain how it is to be beautified, how, by a salt water system of reservoirs, it is to be made fireproof, and so on.

Inasmuch as the prosperity of San Francisco and your section of the country are so closely interlinked, it is, to my mind, entirely within your province to cover the details of the situation in San Francisco as in the interior in your publicity work in connection with this affair.

Your organization knows as well as I how to reach the different press bureaus, newspaper lists, magazines, etc., and I do not know that I can offer any new ideas in that direction. I shall be pleased to co-operate with you in any way that may occur to you as the work proceeds. The chamber has already commenced work on the line suggested, having received inquiries from two Eastern lecturers regarding earthquake news, together with lantern slides.

The following reply has been sent to Mr. Horsburgh:

We wish to thank you for your well-thought-out letter of suggestions, just received. We have at once taken up some of the matters contained herein and have written V.P. Randall, No. 120 Myrtle street, Detroit, Mich., and to J.F. Jenness, No. 326 Walnut street, Ottawa, Kan., explaining to them that the recent disaster in San Francisco was chiefly due to fire and not to earthquake; that the area affected was limited; that San Francisco was to be at once rebuilt, larger and finer than ever, and urging them to make this a strong feature of the lectures they were about to give.

These letters to Randall and Jenness are in answer to letters to us asking for colored slides. It may be that you would want to supplement our letters to them.

We are in accord with your suggestion to attempt to control lecturers already in the field rather than send out lecturers of our own, and this after careful consideration of your letter and others along the same line.

We are in hearty sympathy with the suggestion in your letter in which you say: "Inasmuch as the prosperity of San Francisco and your section of the country are so closely interlinked, it is, to my mind, entirely within your province to cover the details of the situation in San Francisco as well as in the interior in your publicity work in connection with this affair."

We have already taken the liberty of giving your letter to the local press.

Stockton Chamber of Commerce circular - 1906
From the California State Library, Ms. Collection Box 927
Return to the 1906 Exhibit

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