ROBERT PRICE: 70 years ago, a defining earthquake shook Kern and a former sheriff put it well | Robert Price
The image must have been indelible: two Bakersfield police officers, powdered from head to toe in a cascade of white dust, answering one frantic call after another, crooked desks, floors littered with paper and bits of plaster fallen down.
Deputy Chief Charlie Dodge rushed into the police station, having passed through groups of anxious townspeople gathered on the lawns, some in their summer sleep clothes, too scared to go back inside and too stunned to be embarrassed by their appearances.
The pre-dawn quake had made Dodge’s wood-frame house creak mightily for a terrifying 45 seconds, and the streets in its immediate vicinity were wet from the collapsed water tank that had tumbled like a Goliath slain at 100 feet on the asphalt, sending a tumult of water and steel rivets gushing from the rue Bernard.
The hours and days ahead would be unlike anything he had seen before. The third strongest earthquake in California’s recorded history, then and still, struck at 4:56 a.m. that morning, July 21, 1952 – 70 years ago this week. The 7.3 magnitude earthquake, centered near Tehachapi, killed 11 people in the small mountain town and a 12th in the equally devastated Arvin. And the worst, in terms of structural and cultural loss, was yet to come.
Dodge called ahead that morning and asked for the desk sergeant. Edward Olson and Lt. Albert J. Mier, the night watch commander, to summon all reserve and off-duty officers. Then, disheveled after his hasty dash to the office, Dodge drove into what looked like the aftermath of a bombing. It was hard to see through the haze: the remnants of “gingerbread” crown molding that covered the edges of the building’s high ceilings had crashed to the floor, sending clouds of pulverized plaster and covering everything, including men in what had previously been blue.
While Olson and Mier barked out instructions and reassured each other over the phones and two-way radios, sometimes dodging the pieces of plaster that kept coming off, Dodge dealt with other issues, including an injured officer: Patrolman Lewis Moss was in the squad room. write reports of the previous night’s interactions when he was hit by a falling piece of plaster. He was taken to hospital with a minor leg injury.
Police Chief Horace Grayson, who had survived corruption charges by the city manager three years prior, was now facing the biggest public emergency of his career – and he had gone fishing in the high Sierra when she showed up. Dodge eventually managed to reach him, but until the chief could return to Bakersfield, the deputy chief was in charge.
Dodge joined the Bakersfield Police Department as a patrolman in 1937 and rose to the rank of deputy police chief, a position he held for 16 years. When, during Grayson’s impending retirement in 1966, it became clear that the incumbent leader would support another candidate, Jack Towle, Dodge took a three-month leave from the department to campaign for sheriff. He beat the incumbent and served two terms.
He established the county’s first helicopter patrol, was the first sheriff to operate Lerdo Jail, and created the first countywide narcotics task force. For decades after his retirement from public life, Dodge served as a key interlocutor for local historians, and 16 years after his death, his archived interviews remain an excellent resource. He spoke to archivists at Cal State Bakersfield Library and UC Berkeley, among others, as did his wife, Lt. Mary Holman Dodge, the city’s first female officer.
But Dodge’s most useful memoir might have been a little-known 100-page document, “Personal History of Bakersfield Police Chiefs 1933-1966,” written when Dodge was 77 (so circa 1987) and typed on a typewriter. handwriting by a dedicated 79-year-old retired sheriff’s department secretary. It highlights fascinating moments in time, and the 1952 earthquake – actually a series of seismic events that terrorized the county for 33 days – was one of those chapters.
The following are excerpts from Dodge’s story about how Kern County and the Bakersfield Police Department handled the crisis.
On July 21, 1952, the first of two summer earthquakes struck Bakersfield and Kern County. The first earthquake, which struck early in the morning, had a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale (later downgraded to 7.3) and lasted 45 seconds. The earthquake was felt from Modesto to the Imperial Valley. The epicenter was determined to be the White Wolf Fault in a cotton field about 20 miles southeast of Bakersfield.
The hardest hit populated area was the city of Tehachapi. The business district of this small town was almost totally destroyed. …
I clearly remember this morning event as if it happened yesterday. I was awakened by the movement of the rolling machine. I ran to my bedroom window and looked southwest just in time to see a large explosion at the Paloma Refinery located near what is now the Lake Buena Vista area. …
The Downtown and East Bakersfield business districts had almost all of the building’s glass windows shattered. There was a lot of structural damage, but most of it was not visible from the street. Regular officers and reservists responded without delay and no looting was reported in the city.
By noon almost all the windows had been boarded up and some of the officers were relieved to rest before returning for 12-hour night shifts. The only damage to residences was falling brick chimneys. Some old brick houses were structurally damaged for a full 24 hour period. There has not been a single recorded crime or car accident within the city limits.
Tehachapi State Prison was then an institution for female criminals. It was made of unreinforced bricks and suffered heavy damage. The navy provided tents, a field kitchen and other equipment and the 475 inmates were moved there to the outer courtyard of the prison. Governor Earl Warren came to the area to assess the damage.
Rail traffic was halted over the Tehachapi Mountains as many rail tunnels had collapsed and tracks were broken and twisted by the force of the earthquake. Rail traffic was not restored for several weeks. On July 23 at 12:45 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., the county suffered two major aftershocks measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, which caused more damage to already weakened structures. Damage to the county was measured in the millions of dollars.
City building inspector Larry Hensch ruled that City Hall (which then also housed the police department) had been damaged to the point that it was unsafe to be occupied there. City Manager Lee Gunn was reassigned (Dodge) to find quarters for the department. The building at 1300 17th Street, at the corner of 17th and L Streets, was vacant and Mr. Gunn approved it after the single-story structure received approval from the building inspector.
Chief Grayson was finally located on the day of the first earthquake and returned to town in the late afternoon. He had to approve the building on 17th Street. We started moving immediately, first installing radio and telephone communication equipment. The city manager’s office, the mayor – then Frank Sullivan – and the city attorney and his staff, who practically “sat on one knee” in this relatively small one-room structure, moved in with the police department .
Temporary bulkheads were installed by motor officers Harley and Alfred Kimball, who had been journeyman carpenters before joining the department. Other city offices moved to the Number One Fire Station at 21st and H Streets and after about a day all was business as usual in the downtown area.
Some of the older two- or three-story hotels were deemed unsafe and the occupants had to move. Many passengers and newcomers from the Midwest left the city to return to Oklahoma and other Midwestern states. They were tired of earthquakes in California.
At 3:41 p.m. on August 22, 1952, a second earthquake shook the city of Bakersfield. This earthquake, rather than being rolling in nature, was of an extremely violent and jolting type. It was determined to be a localized earthquake on the Kern River Fault, with the epicenter near the city limits.
Two people were killed by falling debris and brick walls in the city. A man was killed at the Kern County Equipment Company building in the 1600 block of East 19th Street. A customer was killed at Lerner’s clothing store on the 1400 block of 19th Street. Parapets and walls that had been weakened by the July earthquake and its aftershocks collapsed throughout Bakersfield’s east and west business districts. It was only after this earthquake that building inspectors realized the extent of structural damage that had been inflicted in previous earthquakes.
Regular reserves and emergency war reserves were called to duty. Officers were put on 12-hour shifts with all vacations and days off cancelled. For a period of three weeks after this disaster, the entire western city center was blocked off to all traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.
The temporary police headquarters building on 17th Street required minimal wall bracing and continued to be used throughout the period of the disaster in 1952.
Almost all second-story hotels, businesses, and professional structures in the city center were topped with a story. Many bystanders and others who lived in the numerous hotel rooms camped out in Central Park until they moved or found other shelter. The county courthouse was declared unsafe, and offices were moved to tents and other undamaged wooden structures at the fairgrounds. The county jail with all its steel bars retained and was still in use. But the front office section facing Truxtun Avenue needed to be reinforced. The old town hall was demolished by the use of cutting torches on the heavy steel frames that were found.
The city council, which had met in the courthouse since the July earthquake, moved to a new meeting location at Carpenters Hall, 911 20th St. The council authorized the demolition of the tower structure of the clock which was located in the middle of the intersection of 17th Street and Chester Avenue. This large, unlit structure had been hit by two vehicles after the quake, including a new 1952 model police car driven by patrolman Art Pellittieri. The Chief was the catalyst for removing this danger despite protests from historical groups. The cogs were saved and are now installed in the Pioneer Village tower replica.
It was the most devastating pair of earthquakes ever recorded in Bakersfield and Kern County. Virtually every public building and school in the city suffered severe damage and many had to be replaced. Downtown Bakersfield, with many cut second and third floors, has been changed forever.