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San Francisco, California
1906 04 18 13:12:21 UTC
Magnitude 7.8

1906 Earthquake

The San Francisco Cow —
Did She or Didn't She?

by Mary Hill
U.S. Geological Survey
Menlo Park, California

No one has suggested that Mr. Shafter's nameless cow was the cause of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but she has been the source of as persistent a rumor as Mrs. Murphy's Chicago cow. Since 1906, "the cow that fell in the crack" has been a favorite subject of humorous speculation. Large earthquakes have always produced large exaggerations, and, although it is difficult to exaggerate the terror humans feel in an earthquake, many scientist have said that much of what witnesses said they witnessed they did not witness at all. Huge, gaping cracks that legend says open and close in the earth, swallowing whole cities, are among those earthquake features. True, soil may "snap open and shut," but most earth scientists do not think that the cracks are wide enough or deep enough to accommodate houses.

Offset fence on Skinner Ranch, Olema, California, 1906. Photograph by J.C. Branner.

Tree thrown down at time of earthquake. Photograph by G.K. Gilbert, 1906.

The idea is not wholly fiction, however. As reported by the U.S. Army, Far Eastern Command, in volume 11 of the 1949 report, "The Fukui Earthquake, Hokuriku Region, Japan, 28 June 1948," at least one woman was killed by falling in a fissure. She was working in a rice paddy during the 1948 earthquake in Fukui, Japan; as she fled the rice paddy, she fell into a 1.2-meter (4 foot) wide fissure which then closed.

As most Americans know, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake holds the national record for fatalities. About 500 people — no one ever could make an exact count — lost their lives in the shake and subsequent fires. The time was 5:12 am PST, April 18, 1906, when the earthquake struck the coast of California. The San Andreas fault moved visibly along a 360-kilometer (225 mile) stretch from San Juan Bautista to Point Arena, where the fault passes out to sea; an extension of the fault moved at Shelter Cove, Humbolt County, for a total length of surface movement of about 430 kilometers (270 miles).

At Shelter Cove, the movement was vertical, but at the epicenter (near the Golden Gate) and along most of the fault, the movement was horizontal, with a maximum offset near Tomales Bay of more than 6 meters (20 feet).

Offset fence, and ground breakage, Shafter Ranch, Olema, California, April 1906. Photograph by J.C. Branner.

Tomales Bay was the cow's home country. The cow lived — and died — on the Shafter Ranch, one of two ranches, Skinner and Shafter, side-by-side on a tract of land south of Tomales Bay on the San Andreas rift zone. Immediately after the earthquake, the story was current that a "cow fell in an earthquake crack on the Shafter Ranch. The crack closed and left just her head and tail sticking out." So common was this tale that the Seismological Society of America Bulletin, in illustrating how earthquake reports should be prepared, soberly reported "one cow was buried in a crack which opened and closed again."

But was it true? We offer here two versions of the story, both "primary" documents in the historical sense. Yet scientists and historians will both note that neither letter writer was an eye-witness of the cow's mishap.

The following letter is excerpted from a copy in the collection of Helen Van Cleave Park, Mill Valley, California:

Sunday April don't know
the day of the month

My dear Mrs. Benton,

I have neither pen, ink, or paper of good quality but we must hope it is legible enough to read. Did you escape injury? With us the shock was tremendous. Payne and I were alone in the front part of the house. The destruction here was beyond conception. The earth opened for miles, right back of the house it swallowed up a cow — all that could be seen of it was the end of its tail. The dairy building was demolished and the house — it is indescribable. . . .

Chaos confounded our fine crockery and glass ware in heaps on the floor, a few things even saved, even the legs of furniture twisted off but everybody has a sad story to tell, a fearful experience. . . .


Mary I. Jackson

A letter — of which part is reproduced below — was originally addressed to Robert Iacopi, author of "Earthquake Country," and published by permission of Messrs. Howard and Iacopi.

Nov 17, 1966

Dear Mr. Iacopi:

My family, my grandmother Emma Shafter Howard, owned the Skinner Ranch among others, and our cousins the Shafters owned the adjacent property. Before and after my grandmother died my father Frederic Faxom Howard tried to run this property, and for a time I lived on the Skinner Ranch, or "W" ranch as we called it. One lovely warm day (I can remember this quite plainly though I was very young for this could not have been later than about 1912 or 1913) my father and I were sitting on a bench in the garden by the path on the east side of the house, when our cousin Payne (Paine?) Shafter rode up on his horse. Paine was very old at this time (and doubtless seemed much older to a little boy) and I remember that Father said he was nearly blind but no matter for the horse knew the way.

In all events, there sat Paine astride his horse facing us, his hat down over his eyes, and Father and I on that bench. The two men talked briefly and then for no reason I can remember my Father said to Paine (I paraphrase), "Payne, why on earth did you tell those reporters that time that your cow was swallowed up by that crack in the earth?" To which Payne replied (I again paraphrase), "Look Pax, the cow had died, and we had to bury her. That night along came the earthquake which opened up a big crack and tipped it in, with the feet sticking out. Then along came those newspaper reporters and when they got the idea that the cow had fallen in we weren't about to spoil a good story. Why spoil it now?"

I haven't the foggiest first hand knowledge as to what actually did happen, but I know for certain that the conversation described took place because I head it and heard my Father laugh about it a number of times afterward.


H.H. Howard

Ground breakage from San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Photograph by G.K. Gilbert.

View along the trail of the San Andreas fault on the Shafter Ranch, Olema, California, 1906. Had the cow fallen into the fault, it would have been near here. Photograph by J.C. Branner.

Our own guess is that Mr. Howards' version is correct, and that Mary Jackson, although she was writing almost immediately after the earthquake, did not actually see the event but was reporting what she had heard Payne Shafter tell the reporters.

There are, of course, other possibilities. Perhaps the whole cow is a fiction; perhaps the story is exactly true.

Today, the two ranches form the nucleus of the Point Reyes National Seashore administered by the National Park Service. Park headquarters are on the old Skinner Ranch.

On April 18, 1974, a self-guided "Earthquake Trail" was dedicated. The trail was developed by Timothy N. Hall of the faculty of Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, California, and his students and was completed by the staff of the National Park Service. Speaking at the dedicatory ceremonies were California State Senator Peter H. Behr of Marin County (where the national seashore is located), Robert E. Wallace, chief scientist of the Office of Earthquake Studies, U.S. Geological Survey, who had mapped this portion of the San Andreas fault in great detail, Dr. James S. Fitzgerald, President of Foothill College, and officials of the National Park Service.

Margot Patterson Doss, a local columnist, led the first walk over the new trail, taking her fellow pedestrians along a one-half-mile-long trail that exhibits, among other earthquake features, the fault break, a fence offset, and a tree knocked down by the 1906 earthquake. Along it are trail markers with geological explanations.

The trail starts by the barn, runs off through the fields where the fault is marked by a row of blue posts, and ends near a pair of signs identifying the "Pacific plate" and "North American plate" — modern ideas about an old cow pasture.

Abridged from Earthquake Information Bulletin, May-June 1976, Volume 8, Number 3.

Offset fence and fault zone just south of Skinner Ranch barn. Photograph by J.C. Branner.

Offset fence and San Andreas fault zone just south of Skinner Ranch barn. Photograph by J.C. Branner, 1906.

View north along the San Andreas fault near the Shafter and Skinner Ranches. Photograph by G.K. Gilbert, 1906.