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Western Railroad Discussion > Tehachapi Quake Remembered

Date: 06/02/02 14:11
Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: karldotcom

Mighty '52 Quake Took Toll in Tehachapi

June 2 2002

Clocks stopped at 4:52 a.m. on Monday, July 21, 1952, in the small railroad town of Tehachapi, nestled in the mountain range separating two Californias. The earth shivered an hour before dawn, when the summer sun would rise over Walker Pass like a burning ball to sear the Mojave.

The epicenter of the rolling temblor measured 7.7 on the Richter scale and centered on White Wolf Fault southwest of Bakersfield. It was the most powerful earthquake to hit Southern California in the 20th century and the largest in the nation since San Francisco's in 1906.

Pat Gracey, then 23, was living with her mother in a 70-year-old-home when six subsequent jolts, some as big as magnitude 5, followed within moments and hours. "The aftershocks felt and sounded like galloping horses right there in the house," Gracey, now 73, said in a recent interview. She still lives in town, and her niece lives in that very house.

Screams and children's cries came from a toppled two-story unreinforced brick building across the street from Gracey's home. One adult and eight children died there, tearing at the heart of the town. The earth shook so convulsively that a nearby yellow school bus bounced in the air like a rubber ball.

Along with the Red Cross and other rescue workers, more than a dozen long-robed members of the WKFL Fountain of the World--the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love cult in Ventura County--braved the aftershocks to bandage the injured and feed the homeless.

Awakened by the temblor and plaster falling from his bedroom ceiling, Police Chief Hugh Ernst dressed and went into the streets to assess the damage. In a town with fewer than 2,000 residents, the toll was frightening: 12 people dead and 35 injured, some critically.

Ernst's fear--along with that of most townsfolk--was what might have happened at the California Institution for Women, south of town. At the time, it was the state's only prison for female felons, with more than 417 inmates.

Seventy guards ushered the sleepy convicts out of the wreckage without incident. The women spent a day on the lawns in front of the warden's Tudor-style mansion as members of the military pitched tents to shelter them for several weeks. Eventually, they were moved to a newly constructed prison at Frontera, near Chino. Gov. Earl Warren issued each woman a "good conduct" reward, entitling her to subtract one month from her sentence.

The railroad, the town's reason for existence and once one of its largest employers, didn't get off as easily.

Two tunnels with 18-inch-thick walls collapsed east of town, blocking all train travel for days. Railroad inspectors said that an eight-mile section of the tracks was "twisted like a licorice stick" and a 30-foot chasm yawned in the right-of-way.

The Southern Pacific Railroad's water tank bounced off its 15-foot perch, crushing and flooding the home of railroad worker Woodrow Newton and his family, who barely escaped.

Police Officer Kirby Bezzo was putting up a pedestrian crosswalk sign near Gracey's house when he saw his patrol car slide more than 70 feet across the intersection.

Then he heard the blood-curdling screams of Louis G. Martin: "Help me, help me!" Martin's red-brick, two-story furniture store had collapsed atop his one-story attached apartment, where his family slept. Another one-story house, where 16 people lived, also was crushed. For four hours, neighbors, friends and rescue workers dug through the three collapsed structures with shovels, hammers, pocketknives and bare hands. All the while, they listened to the anguished cries of the buried children. Three of Martin's children, along with one of his children's friends, were found dead in the rubble.

Martin's neighbor, Pete Quintana, 40, and his oldest daughter, Ruth, 17, managed to crawl out. They huddled together near the wreckage, looking for a sign that the rest of the family would somehow emerge from the mountain of brick and timber. Quintana's wife, Blanche, 36, and their nine children had just arrived the day before from New Mexico, ready to begin a new life in Tehachapi.

One of the children pinned in the rubble worried more about the rescuers than herself. "Watch out, men, don't get hurt. Because I'm hurt, don't get hurt yourself," she cautioned.

Four of Quintana's children and two other relatives finally were freed. But before rescuers could reach his wife, who was crushed to death under a wooden beam, the last faint cries of one of the children faded into nothing. Soon, the four remaining children, some still breathing, were found together in the same bed. Those who were still alive then died soon after from injuries and dust-filled lungs.

Quintana's brother-in-law escaped injury by leaving the house moments earlier to get a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. But another brother-in-law wasn't so lucky. He was injured when a flying brick hit him in the head as he slept under a nearby tree.

In Cummings Valley, about 12 miles west of Tehachapi, 16-year-old Florence Fillmore, a student at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, was crushed to death when the walls and roof of a 100-year-old guest house crumbled. Florence, a descendant of Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States, had served as maid of honor at the wedding of her sister, Sophia, before the quake wreaked havoc on the family and wedding guests. Others sleeping in the same room escaped harm.

The 45-second temblor claimed two other victims: Walter Nolan, who was scheduled to open his new shoe-repair shop that morning, was hit by a falling beam in the Summit Hotel. And Ramon Tescador, who lived over the hill in the town of Arvin, died when he opened his gas-powered refrigerator, which exploded.

The road into town, California 58, buckled, cracked and wrinkled, making transportation difficult. The quake triggered landslides in the canyons and set oil refineries ablaze near Bakersfield, Newhall and even Long Beach, about 100 miles south of the epicenter.

Brick and adobe buildings were hit hard by the temblor, which damaged or destroyed 75 homes and 25 businesses. The Tehachapi Hospital was badly damaged and later torn down. Landmarks such as the 1907 Masonic Temple, the Juanita and Summit hotels, and the Tehachapi Inn collapsed. In all, the quake inflicted $60 million in damage in today's dollars.

"The thrust of the Tehachapi earthquake was equal to 1,000 billion-horsepower engines running for one hour," Caltech seismologist John M. Norquist said.

Within two months after the quake, Caltech had recorded 188 aftershocks of magnitude 4 and higher. Shock waves were felt throughout the state and in western parts of Arizona and Nevada.

Structural engineers and university researchers learned little from the Tehachapi earthquake, because there were no seismic measuring instruments that far out. There are now. Tehachapi set about rebuilding, christening itself the land of four seasons to highlight its snowy winters and mild summers. Now, the town has a population of more than 11,000 and the Tehachapi Museum, where visitors can view photographs and a film of the 1952 earthquake.

Date: 06/02/02 15:21
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: nycman

Thanks for that. We moved (from NY) to the Palmdale-Lancaster area in 1961 and people were still talking about the Tehachapi quake. Lived in the Antelope Valley for 35 years and visited Tehachapi often, to camp, railfan, buy apples, or just get out of the desert heat. It's still a neat town.

Date: 06/02/02 15:57
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: Kajax9

I remember the quake. I was 5 years old at the time, living in El Monte, CA in the San Gabriel Valley, East of Los Angeles. I was sleeping in the top bunk and I remember a loud noise and the bed swaying. I thought at the time that my younger brother was making the noise and shaking the bed. That is until my Dad stumbled into the room to make sure we were alright. It was a real rollercoaster ride for a 5 year old.

Work & Play Safely,


Date: 06/02/02 16:48
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: unclegene

I was at Camp San Luis Obispo at the time, and though I had been in California since 36, it was the first quake I felt. I remember being disapointed they didn't send us to the area to help in the cleanup, because my unit was doing nothing.

Date: 06/02/02 17:16
Author: DaveL

Try this URL...the RR pics are astounding !!



Date: 06/02/02 17:40
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: saltus

I was 6 years old living in Ventura at the time and remember waking up to the house shaking.

The story refers to highway 58. In 1952 it was numbered highway 466, The Blue Streak Highway.

Date: 06/02/02 20:11
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: qlives

I was still 7 years in the future. It was interesting to see the cnanges the quake brought in the tunnel 4 and Cliff areas ( Got to fan that area in the good old days). How quick that the railroad was up and running again was a tribute to the construction gangs given the technology of 1952.


Date: 06/02/02 20:25
Author: rustedflange

Obviously, the Coast line was quite busy. Even the Santa Fe sent trains up that way.

Date: 06/02/02 20:37
Re: 1952 Kern County quake
Author: Paul_H

I don't remember it personally because it was a little before my time (Sept 1953). But there's a similar photo of the tracks wedged under the tunnel wall (and ones of other damage) in the first edition of Sunset's book "Earthquake Country."

Also, Video Rail's "Tehachapi Loop" video has some color footage of damage to the tracks and the town of Tehachapi, as well as the repair work (shoofly, tunnels daylighted, etc.) and a steam passenger special not long after that.

=== Paul H! in AtasCal

Date: 06/02/02 21:23
Re: Tehachapi Quake Remembered
Author: graybeard1942

That was a more powerful earthquake than I thought!!

I guess they decided to never rebuild those two tunnels EAST of Tehachapi 'cuz there is a lot of daylight on the way to Mojave.

One of John Signor's books has some excellent descriptions of the actual earthquake damage and the efforts to rebuild the line. There are also some really great B/W photos. Somebody will post the title.
> Two tunnels with 18-inch-thick walls collapsed east of town,
> blocking all train travel for days. Railroad inspectors said
> that an eight-mile section of the tracks was \\"twisted like a
> licorice stick\\" and a 30-foot chasm yawned in the
> right-of-way.

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