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Life in a quake camp

April 7, 2006

Photo of Bob Holloway inside onf the tents at the quake camp exhibitOn April 18, 1906 at 5:12 a.m., the ground below San Francisco shook for 65 seconds that would change the lives of everyone who lived there. Soon after the earth cracked apart, fires began to rage across the city. Five hundred city blocks burned to the ground and more than half of the city's 400,000 residents became refugees.

Bob Holloway, a graduate student in museum studies, wondered what it was like to be one of the residents who fled their homes that frightening morning. For much of the past year, Holloway, a Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) park ranger, spent his weekends and evenings poring over historic photographs, newspaper articles and first-hand accounts in letters and journals. The result of his extensive research is "Survivors: Life in an '06 Quake Camp," a monthlong exhibit comprising three tents located outdoors next to the Presidio National Park Fire Station.

"There was not a lot written about their mundane, daily life," said Holloway, who investigated the life of 1906 earthquake refugees for his final creative work project for his museum studies degree.

Two hundred visitors braved the exhibit's rainy opening day on April 1 to step inside the tents and learn more about the quake and fire and how it affected the lives of those who wound up living in more than two dozen tent camps that sprang up in open spaces across the city.

"In lots of 1906 accounts you'll see all ethnicities together, the rich and the poor -- a leveling of racial and economic barriers. There was this sort of 'earthquake love' --everybody nursing their wounds together like one big happy family," he said. "But you'll also find that the Chinese were moved to five different camps until they were deemed not offensive and allowed to stay."

Inside one of Holloway's tents an elegant lady's hat with a flourish of feathers peeks out of a chest in the corner. He points out that "The Great Quake" occurred a few days after Easter Sunday; Many San Franciscans grabbed their newly acquired outfits for the holiday. "The wealthy people had more finery," Holloway said. "They wanted to look good. Some people were still in their dressing gowns. In photographs you'd see people without pants next to others with fancy hats and clothes with ruffles."

He found the majority of the exhibit's period toys, games, clothing and furniture at secondhand stores and flea markets. "The exhibit is atypical because I had to build the space where I would place the exhibits, find the exhibits, and create the text," said Holloway, who tracked down original Army-issue tents and built the wooden structures on which they hang. A Boy Scout troop helped him hoist the tents and bolt them down to a plywood floor. More help came from faculty members Linda Ellis and Ed Luby, who were "very supportive in guiding the planning and production," Holloway says.

The most challenging part of the exhibit was editing the text to include on the exhibit's plaques. "I had to slash and burn about 23 pages down to three and a half," he said, a task that was difficult because "I wanted the public to experience it all."

Holloway found a way around the limitations. Photos in his exhibit help tell the stories, as do recordings of people reading the firsthand accounts of survivors, which play inside the tents.

The Presidio is a change of scene for Holloway, who has worked as a GGNRA park ranger in the Marin Headlands since 1985, the same year he earned his undergraduate degree at SFSU in American studies. This month, in addition to fielding visitors' questions, Holloway has been conducting interviews with press near and far. He's received calls from China, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia.

"There's definitely international appeal to the San Francisco earthquake and fire," he said. "Natural disasters that cause suffering like this or Katrina or the [Indian Ocean] tsunami cross borders. People are interested in the human story."

"Survivors: Life in an '06 Quake Camp" is open to the public throughout April weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Halleck Street. Weekday tours are offered Monday through Friday, noon to 1 p.m. and group tours by appointment.

-- Adrianne Bee


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Last modified April 10, 2006 by University Communications