115 Years Ago, the City by the Bay Shook and Burned!
On the morning of April 18, 1906, a young Chesley Bonestell was awakened at 5:12am by an estimated 7.9 Richter scale earthquake that struck San Francisco, where he was living with his grandfather.
The eighteen-year-old artist had been out drinking the night before with friends. In an interview given decades later with journalist Anne Papineau of the Carmel Pine Cone, he recalled watching buildings across the street undulate and thought, “This is my cue to give up drinking.”  What Chesley was experiencing was no hangover.
The damage caused by the quake was almost beyond comprehension. In our award-winning documentary Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, historian James Dallesandro, author of the novel 1906, takes us back to the devastation: “The entire coastline of Northern California was reconfigured. San Francisco was the hardest hit. Within minutes, fifty-one fires broke out all over the city. The water supply was destroyed. It was the perfect storm of chaos and nature’s wrath.” Catherine Newell, author of Destined for the Stars adds, “Most people know that the city itself was destroyed by an earthquake, but they didn’t actually realize that it was the fire that followed the earthquake that wiped out most of the city.”

To see a fascinating excerpt from our documentary, click on the picture below:
An aerial view of San Francisco after the earthquake
At that time, there were 410,000 people living in San Francisco. In a matter of minutes, between 227,000 and 300,000 people were left homeless. Property losses are estimated to be $11.4 billion in 2020 dollars. At least 3000 people lost their lives. Chesley and his family were lucky; they survived, but his grandfather’s house did not. Lost in the fire that consumed it was all of Chesley’s artwork, which included his first space painting.  He made it after hiking with a friend up to nearby Lick Observatory, where he saw Saturn through one of its telescopes. In the early 1970’s, Chesley presented space artist Don Davis, whom he mentored, with this reproduction:
Courtesy of Don Davis                                    
Saturn by Chesley Bonestell
Chesley never made any paintings of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but the memory of his personal experience seems to turn up in his work.  During the Cold War of the 1950’s and 60’s, for example, Chesley did a number of paintings for magazines like Collier’s, Look, and This Week depicting the horror of nuclear explosions.
The New York Historical Society
Atom Bombing of New York City (1950) by Chesley Bonestell
Our film includes other perspectives on the impact of this era and Chesley’s art, given by Oscar-winning Sound Designer Ben Burtt, space artist and author David Aguilar and Wyn Wachhorst, author of The Dream of Spaceflight.  The Blu-ray edition of Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future includes a Bonus Feature on Chesley’s atomic bomb paintings. It’s hosted by Nebula Award-winning author and nuclear physicist Gregory Benford, who also knew Chesley personally. For more information about where to purchase DVD and
Blu-ray editions or how to view our film, please click on the image below.
Visit our website at www.chesleybonestell.com
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