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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

The Turn of the Century in California

California had become part of the life of the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century--an exotic land of untold promise on the distant Pacific Coast. At the beginning of the twentieth century, California seemed less exotic, and the land's promises seemed more limited. And these developments resulted from many factors other than the end of the rush for gold and easy mineral wealth.

Much of California's mystery arose from the state's geographical position, a region facing squarely west across the Pacific, with its mountainous "back" turned to the rest of the nation. By 1900, American settlement had filled in the pockets of unmapped land in the Far West. Washington State and Oregon were admitted to the Union, and the Pacific Coast was occupied by three states running south from Canada to Mexico. While a few territories remained to be organized into full-fledged states, the United States could now be truly said to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And Alaska, far to the North on the Pacific Coast, had replaced California as a mysterious frontier land with riches of gold.

Further, the Pacific and the lands west of California were becoming more fully a part of the life of the United States. Trade to Japan and China had been opened in the second half of the nineteenth century. Chinese immigrants and their descendants, once confined entirely to California, were slowly beginning to create "Chinatowns" in cities further east.

Even more important, the United States was assuming responsibility for the government of more and more Asian peoples across that Pacific. The Spanish American War of 1898 left the United States the custodian of the Philippine Islands. And in 1900, Hawaii, whose population included native tribes and descendants of immigrants from many Asian nations, became the United States' last organized territory. The increased importance of Asia and Asian affairs for the United States was recognized when President Theodore Roosevelt played a key role in mediating the end of a war between Russia and Japan in 1905.

If California had lost much its special nature as America's outpost on the Pacific, the new century also reminded observers around the world that California could no longer be regarded as an uncomplicated paradise of easy living. This lesson was brought home with terrible force on the morning of April 18, 1906, when an earthquake shook the proud city of San Francisco for two full minutes. The quake and the fires that followed for three days left 500 San Franciscans dead and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings--more than a third of the homes, offices, and stores in the entire city.

Although damage was greatest in San Francisco, its effects were felt in every city from San Juan Bautista to the coast at Mendocino. San Francisco would be rebuilt, and Californians would learn to construct homes and stores that could better withstand future disasters. But no one could afford to forget what had happened that week in April, and no one could pretend that California's bountiful natural resources somehow made the state or its residents immune to nature's equally generous capacity to destroy.

California faced the new century with a new maturity and sense of reality earned at a terrible cost.