BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Seventy years ago at 4:52 a.m., one of the largest earthquakes in the nation’s history devastated Tehachapi and Arvin. The shaker was, in fact, felt all across the vast expanse of Kern County, toppling water towers in Bakersfield and cracking asphalt in Taft, and beyond. Taller buildings swayed in Phoenix and a pendulum clock near Winnemucca, Nev., slowed to a halt as the quake exploded across the West.

As frightening as that earthquake might have been that day – July 21st, 1952 – it was but a prelude. Seismic activity shook chandeliers and nerves for 33 long days that summer, culminating in what we remember today as the Bakersfield earthquake of August 22, 1952, the Tehachapi quake’s deadly bookend.

What happened over that uncertain, nerve-testing 33-day stretch, and how did it change the face of Bakersfield? How did it affect the physical appearance of our city? And how might the earthquakes of 1952 affect us even today?

Welcome to earthquake country

Welcome to earthquake country. California averages one magnitude-6 earthquake per year, a distinction shared in the United States only by the state of Alaska. 

California is home to some of the most iconic quakes in the nation’s history – the 1971 Sylmar-San Fernando earthquake, which killed 65 and injured 2,000; 1989’s Loma Prieta quake, which felled Bay Area freeway interchanges, interrupted a World Series and caused $10 billion in damage; and most infamously the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which devastated the capital of the California Gold Rush, killing as many as 3,000 and displacing nearly a quarter of a million.

In between those three natural disasters, and ranked in magnitude right behind the 1906 quake, was the seismic event that changed the face and the future of this city—the 1952 Kern County Earthquake, which was actually a series of seismic events that shook the region daily for more than a month.

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was an estimated magnitude 7.8: the second largest in California since scientists first began measuring these dramatic seizures of the earth’s tectonic plates. The Kern County mainshock of July 21st, 1952, centered near Tehachapi, was 7.5 by some estimates–the state’s fifth strongest and the equivalent in sheer power, scientists said at the time, of 2,000 atom bombs. And, in those tense, early-Cold War days, that’s exactly what some initially feared had shaken the earth for those 45 terrifying seconds.

Like most earthquakes, the initial Kern County shaker was followed by a series of aftershocks  – at least 20 of them magnitude 5.0 or greater. The last major aftershock is the one we now call the Bakersfield earthquake – magnitude 5.8. It hit on August 22nd, 1952. 

The Bakersfield Earthquake

On that day, roofs, chimneys and building facades already weakened by the July 21st earthquake and its aftershocks lost their last fiber of structural integrity and collapsed or broke off. Those facades and building ornamentations tumbled into the street, creating scenes of destruction and chaos most had seen only in newsreel footage from war-ravaged Berlin seven years earlier.

The month-long series of earth-shocks damaged perhaps  a thousand buildings in Kern County, 260 of them significantly. At least 90 were deemed unsafe and eventually torn down.

Those quakes left indelible marks on the brick-and-mortar character, and the psyches, of the communities they hit. Perhaps even worse, they represented a giant, missed opportunity for urban reinvention.

In the name of cost savings, convenience and perhaps the misguided pursuit of something, quote, “modern,” Bakersfield leaders opted to tear down historically significant, classically designed buildings that might have been salvageable, and replaced them with the more mundane rectangles typical of 1950s and 60s architecture – or worse. Then they covered surviving buildings with stucco, plaster or paint to hide their original character to better match the mundane.

In Santa Barbara – to name one California city ravaged by a memorable earthquake of its own – city leaders took a different approach. The contrast, to state the obvious, is jaw-dropping.

The Bakersfield earthquake of 1952 didn’t just damage and destroy buildings. It affected people and the opportunity to be something more. This is the story of those buildings, those people and that missed opportunity.

Out from under untrustworthy roofs

At 4:52 a.m., four minutes before sunrise, Monday, July 21st, 1952, a flash of blue light shot across the eastern horizon and the White Wolf Fault, previously considered less consequential than other California fault lines, introduced itself with a violent and prolonged spasm. Houses shook, roads split, lives changed.

Sandi Souza, 8 years old, was asleep in bed with her little sister at their home 40 miles west of the epicenter, in Bakersfield. Their double bed – on wheels – spun across the uncarpeted floor like young Dorothy’s in the black-and-white tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz.

“My mom grabbed me and my one sister,” Souza said. “We went outside with all the neighbors[…]Our neighbors – that’s my biggest memory, is neighbors sleeping outside. They’d take their mattresses and laid them on the ground ‘cause they didn’t want to sleep in the house.   

Yes, outside, out from under untrustworthy roofs. The terror didn’t just evaporate. It lingered for hours, days. One’s own house, the place people felt most secure, suddenly held danger.

“The thing that you really felt after you went back to bed, after you got the nerve to go back to bed, and not be there with your parents, was the aftershocks,” said Loretta Blankenship. “They were pretty heavy.”

Bakersfield Californian columnist Jim Day, whose column Pipefuls was published for 40 years, captured some of the humor of the otherwise terrifying first moments of the quake. He wrote about one unidentified couple who burst out of their home completely naked and only after sprinting some distance down the street stopped and realized what they’d revealed to the world. Another woman, he wrote, darted out of her home dressed only in a purse. Still another couple was spotted sitting on their still-vibrating front lawn with a bird cage – and its resident bird – situated protectively between them.

For most others, the moments after that pre-dawn earthquake were considerably more serious. At least four elevated water storage tanks came crashing down, two in Tehachapi and two in Bakersfield.

Ken Vetter was 22 years old on July 21st 1952 when a few minutes before dawn he was jolted awake by the Kern County earthquake. He bolted to the door and opened it just in time to be met by a wave of water. The 100-foot-high elevated water tank across the street had come crashing down and threw him back like a rag doll. He returned to that same apartment 70 years later to remember that morning.

Some could not be saved. In Tehachapi, which took the brunt of that first earthquake, 12 people were killed – most in a horrific building collapse.

Six adults and 18 children were asleep in the rear of a two-story furniture store when it imploded, burying them under tons of bricks and timber. Nine died, eight of them children – three from the family of Mr. and Mrs. Louis G. Martin, four from the family of Pete and Blanche Quintana, visiting from New Mexico. Mrs. Quintana and a 13-year-old girl, a friend of one of the Martin girls – also perished. Their blanket-covered bodies were stored in a makeshift morgue at the Tehachapi fire station until the county coroner could get there. 

It took authorities some time to locate all of the survivors of the furniture store collapse, in part because some were hospitalized under misspelled names. Pete Quintana was found two days later, wandering the streets of Tehachapi in a daze.

Others had narrow escapes. Betty Chambers, a young mother of two, was staying in Tehachapi with her teenage brother Donnie while their parents vacationed out of state. Donnie was sleeping directly beneath a huge hunting trophy, mounted on the wall.

“The deer head he had right over his bed fell off and just missed him, and it was a big, several-horned thing. And it just missed stabbing him. So he was pretty lucky there,” Chambers said.

Downtown Tehachapi looked like it had been bombed.  Dirt, bricks, debris everywhere, power lines down, gas lines broken. 

“We walked downtown and the hotel on the corner was completely demolished and downtown, where the Roundup bar was, that whole block was gone,” Chambers said.

Cars were flattened like pancakes. The two-story Juanita Hotel was open on all four sides and beds were hanging over the exposed lip of the upper floor. Walter Nolen, a 50-year-old hotel guest, was crushed. Seven miles away, 16-year-old Florence Ann Fillmore of Los Angeles was sleeping in a stone-and-concrete milkhouse at a Brite Valley ranch, where she was a guest. When the earthquake hit, the water tank built over the top of the milkhouse came crashing through the roof and killed her.

A second shock, magnitude 5.0, hit at 8:55 a.m. that day, four hours after the jarring first quake, sending Tehachapi residents still dazed by the first quake running down the street screaming. Walls of buildings weakened four hours earlier started coming down. 

The main quake injured 700, and at least 35 were hospitalized, including 29-year-old Julia Self, who was driving a bus crushed under a collapsing water tank. Another water tank came crashing down on the Newton family home, where Alta Newton was just putting on the morning coffee. She, husband Woodrow and their children crawled out to safety mostly unscathed.

Giant cracks, 10 to 20 feet wide, appeared where the earth was ripped open along an 18-mile strip of isolated Tejon Canyon. Horsemen returning from the quake-shaken area reported landslides and giant boulders changed the topography in places, quote, “almost beyond its former appearance.” 

The movement of the earth caused underground rock formations to shift in such a way that the flow of water at Democrat Hot Springs and Miracle Hot Springs actually stopped for several hours. The underground streams, suddenly blocked, fought to find new channels to the surface and eventually emerged, looking much as they had before. But another hot spring in what is now Hart Park, east of Bakersfield, slowed to dribble and never came back.

The highway to Mojave was closed by rock slides, forcing those desperate enough for supplies to bring them in on horseback by way of Cameron Canyon.

The cataclysm made national news. 

“All over the country this huge, big earthquake. Every time you would hear it on the news, nobody could pronounce Tehachapi,” Pat Parsons said. “They would be giving a news report from New York or somewhere, they’d call it Ketchapi, or weird names.”

Quakersfield

Locals still refer to the July 21st seismic event as the Tehachapi earthquake but Arvin was hard hit as well – so much so that several families of farm laborers left town without bothering to quit their jobs. One family was in such a hurry they left without packing their belongings.

In fact, it was in Arvin that the 12th and final victim of the July 21st earthquake was fatally injured. 52-year-old Ramon Tescador, an Arvin ranch hand, was one of three men severely burned when a natural gas-powered commercial refrigeration unit exploded. He died two days later.

The quake damaged the Tehachapi women’s prison so seriously it was condemned. The 417 inmates were forced to move into tents, but they apparently accepted the inconvenience quite well. The newspaper quoted the prison superintendent: “The girls,” she said, “have been swell about sleeping in the open.” Governor Earl Warren, who returned to Kern County to survey the damage to his hometown, proposed giving them each a month’s credit on their sentences as a reward for their cooperation.

Three days later, aftershocks were still shattering windows from Mojave to Bakersfield. By this time the terror had given way to resignation. The Bakersfield Californian put it this way: “In Tehachapi, sad-eyed residents of the quake-torn little town ignored the rumbling and kept at their tasks of clearing up rubble.” The paper described similar scenes in nearby Arvin. 

Seventy percent of the buildings in Tehachapi were declared, quote, “worthless” by a team of building inspectors. Seven of the area’s 15 train tunnels were damaged and one 300-foot section caved in. Two of those tunnels were suddenly eight feet shorter than before. Repairs to one section of concrete-reinforced Southern Pacific tunnel between Bealville and Keene proved more difficult to repair because aftershocks kept spooking the workers, who scrambled out of the tunnel every time they felt the earth move.

Aftershocks, including seven of at least magnitude 5.2, were still rattling the region a week later. 

Jittery locals – proving they still had some sense of humor – started calling their ravaged town “Quakersfield.”

The next 22 days

Elsewhere the world turned as before. It was a presidential election year: California Governor Earl Warren was preparing to play spoiler at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, where Dwight Eisenhower would ultimately and memorably promise him the first open seat on the Supreme Court in exchange for his support. 

Bakersfield police commissioner Rex Whittemore, meanwhile, was at the Democratic National Convention, also in Chicago, where he was punched to the ground in a brawl among fellow delegates. “Unlike Evictus my head is neither bloodied nor bowed,” he told the hometown Bakersfield Californian. “(But) there are a dozen young Commies who are sadder but wiser for having met the Irish patriot.”

That summer of 1952, a young musician named Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, playing a Fender Telecaster guitar he purchased, used, the year before for $35 – was making a name for himself at honky-tonks like the Blackboard. College football All-American Frank Gifford, four years out of Bakersfield High School, was preparing for his rookie season with the New York Giants. And the Korean War raged on. Seven boys from Bakersfield had been killed thus far.

Back in Kern County, nerves were on edge. CalTech seismologists had sought to ease fears by proclaiming that the worst was over. “Danger of Another Big Earthquake Believed Past,” the Bakersfield Californian newspaper announced. The aftershocks were unrelenting but were widely dispersed – some centered as much as 50 miles from the epicenter of the main shock so they seemed more mild to those living in populated areas. “The aftershocks will probably continue,” CalTech said on July 30th, but “there is no telling where they will strike next.” Indeed there was no telling.

Three weeks later, however, after a 22-day lapse in significant activity, the aftershock we’ve come to know as the Bakersfield earthquake: a magnitude 5.8 event at 3:41 p.m., on August 22nd.

Seven-year-old Fuschia Ward’s family had just moved to southeast Bakersfield from Arkansas, where they had experienced brutal discrimination and long days in the cotton fields. They hoped those days were over. But then this.

“We were out in the back yard when we heard all this shaking, and whatever, going on. And my grandmother says get out from under the wires, get out from under the wires,” Ward said. “We were going, what’s going on, what’s going on, because at that time I never heard of an earthquake. My grandmother said it’s an earthquake, it’s an earthquake. Ok …”

Hank Webb was 12 years old on Aug. 22, 1952, 33 days after the initial Kern County earthquake. It was mid afternoon when the most violent of the aftershocks, the one we now call the Bakersfield earthquake, struck with a vengeance.

Edna Belle Ledbetter, a 26-year-old mother from McFarland, was shopping with her younger sister Lily Hobbs at Lerner’s Dress Shop on 19th Street, one door east of Chester, when the building started shaking violently. The customers screamed; teen girls ducked under dress racks. Ledbetter made a dash for the door and had almost reached it when a side wall came down, crushing her beneath tons of bricks and debris. Her sister was injured but survived. The dress shop was eventually demolished. Today it’s a parking lot.

Another victim, 67-year-old Patman Cozby, was inside Kern County Equipment Co. on East 19th Street when the roof caved in on him. That building, across the street from the present day location of Woolgrowers Basque Restaurant, had to be razed; today it’s a fenced-off industrial yard. 

Ken Brenneman, the longtime now retired bartender at Bill Lee’s restaurant, was 8 years old on August 22nd, 1952, the day of the last significant and most violent of the aftershocks of the Kern County earthquake. He was at the California Theater on Chester Avenue with his brother and a friend to see King Kong, and he thought he’d better use the restroom upstairs before the show started.

Tommy Hays, a Bakersfield Sound-era guitar player, was at a finance agency selling his motorcycle to fellow musician Lewis Talley on August 22nd, 1952, when the most violent aftershock of the Kern County earthquake hit Bakersfield.

And with the buildings went the economy…

In the days that followed businesses salvaged what merchandise they could and evacuated their damaged buildings. Montgomery Ward, a catalog store on Chester Avenue, was so seriously damaged managers set up shop in tents on F Street. Brock’s Department Store did the same. City and county governments, suddenly needed more than ever, set up tent headquarters at the fairgrounds and elsewhere. Some government functions even moved outdoors. Here, a Kern County Superior Court  judge hands down a prison sentence to a convicted man – in a city park.

Among their most pressing duties, after providing food, shelter and medical attention – the most basic human needs – was, what to do about all the damaged buildings.

Bakersfield City Hall was abandoned and marked for demolition as was most of Kern County General Hospital. So was the Beale Memorial Clock Tower, which since 1904 had occupied the intersection of 17th and Chester. The City Council had voted to remove it in 1912 to make way for a new streetcar system and backtracked after a public outcry – but now the council had its justification. Even then, preservationists claimed the damage to the clock tower was cosmetic. To appease them, a replica was commissioned at the Kern County Museum, safely to the side of the road, where it remains to this day.  

Also condemned were both Kern County Courthouses – the 1896 building, which had been converted into the city jail, and its 1912 replacement. The August earthquake damaged them both to the point where little was deemed salvageable. One noteworthy exception was the 1912 courthouse’s four, striking limestone Warrior Maidens – Trojan Women, as they were called at the time – each 8 feet tall and positioned 65 feet above the street. They were carefully removed with cranes and preserved for some later purpose – which turned out to be their own exhibit at the Kern County Museum.

Entire blocks were destroyed — in East Bakersfield, two adjacent blocks of businesses had crumbled and the remains demolished. 

Bob Parsons, an industrial arts teacher at Bakersfield High School, gathered fallen bricks to create a sort of earthquake commemoration, according to his wife Pat.

“We had been building this little house and he wanted to build a fireplace so he went out and collected bricks from everywhere. And he built a fireplace,” said Pat Parsons.

That fireplace still stands at the Parsons’ old house near the corner of Bank and Oleander.

“At one time after he built it I could have told you where each one came from,” Pat Parsons said. “There were bricks from every place in that fireplace.”

{Several houses of worship including the Episcopal Church were sentenced to demolition as were at least four schools: Fremont, Emerson, Lincoln and Fairfax. 

“It was just heartbreaking to me because I lived here, not all my life, all my growing life. It just made me sick to see some of the buildings,” said Twill Carlson Klassen.

The Kern County Jail at Truxtun Avenue and Q Street was so damaged Sheriff Tom Kelly had to move 50 tons of files to the basement to relieve weight on the damaged upper floors. The building was eventually condemned and its two distinctive stone lions at the entrance auctioned off – the winning bid $175, to a college fraternity in Reno.

The earthquakes cost Kern County’s two leading industries millions of dollars. Hundreds of oil wells were damaged – some, their casings crushed, stopped producing altogether. Some started spitting out sand or salt water – although one well inexplicably doubled its output. Oil operations returned to their normal level of operation in two or three weeks, however, with the Paloma refinery, south of the city, on Millux Road, the only significant and long lasting casualty. It lit the July 21st dawn with the orange glow of a $2 million-dollar fire, visible from the center of town, but was repaired and remains online today. 

Faring far worse was the ag industry, which took nearly a decade to regain its momentum. Aqueducts throughout the county cracked and split apart, washing out rural farm roads, drying out irrigation lines and depriving thirsty grapes and cotton of water at a crucial point in the growing season. The result was a $12 million drop in 1952 crop value from the previous year, the first such decline since 1940. The next year saw a further decline of $24 million; crop values did not surpass the county’s pre-earthquake level for eight years. 

The presence of so many oil company-affiliated geologists made the Tehachapi earthquake and its aftershocks the most thoroughly studied seismic incident in human history.

…And the history

Over the next several years, the look of the city was transformed – and not, as many critics say – in a good way.  Gone were the Art Deco, Neo-Gothic buildings featuring decorative finials, patterns, scalloping and moldings with heavily arched windows. Gone were the Beaux-Arts, the Neo-classical French and Italian, and other influences that, building upon each other by the decade, effectively told the city’s story. In their place came the minimalist, rectangular architecture of the 1950s, a jarring departure that changed the city’s identity.

Consider the 1912 courthouse and its boxy 1959 replacement at Chester Avenue and Truxtun Avenue, built just three years before the city’s whimsical, teal-ringed, Jetsons-inspired convention center – the architectural antithesis of the city’s preeminent pre-earthquake entertainment venue, Scribner’s Opera House – built in 1899 and still standing, under untold coats of plaster and paint, the same empty building that between the ‘20s and ‘60s was the California Theater.

The top floors of many two- and three-story buildings were demo’d following the earthquake, leaving much of the downtown area single-story. Some of the hardest-hit businesses were brothels, which occupied small, second-story hotels, especially along 19th Street. Some of those operations eventually became call-girl businesses, with customers arranging meetings by phone at local motels, usually outside the city limits. 

One of the taller downtown buildings spared the wrecking ball was this four-story office building at 19th and Chester, the Hopkins Building, built in 1904 and remodeled in 1919. The top three floors were deemed unsafe for occupancy and remain so today – three ghost floors that still have the names of their tenants on the doors – lawyers, dentists and advertising agencies, etched in smoked glass, just as they were when time stood still 70 years ago.

In what may have been an overambitious push for renewal, some buildings that may have been salvageable were razed. 

“We had some beautiful buildings and we aren’t much about keeping them anymore. ….  So many of our buildings were just knocked down instead of preserved for their historical value,” said Patricia Puskarich.

Did they need to knock down so many of them?

“No! No, they didn’t in my opinion,” Puskarich said.

Structural engineers considered the damage inflicted on Bakersfield’s damaged government and commercial buildings and determined — no doubt accurately  – that it would cost more to stabilize and repair than to raze and build from scratch. That sort of cost-benefit analysis, however, weighs numbers against numbers – and doesn’t factor art, tradition, sentiment, sense of place or the very real economic benefits of identity – the kind of identity buildings of consequence can bestow on a city. If Bakersfield had reinforced and preserved more of those damaged buildings, it would surely look different now. And it would feel different. 

Bakersfield did more to preserve and protect buildings, in some cases: 125 older structures, most of them downtown, are inspected after every significant seismic event; the most recent was 2018. Another 25 are vulnerable and, by state law, must either be used strictly for storage or post notices near their door advising visitors that buildings are unreinforced. 

We checked a half-dozen such buildings, however, including the old Granada Theater on East 21st Street and found only this unoccupied building with the required posting. 

Two of the buildings we checked–a church and an auto body shop–were open for business.

Phil Burns, Bakersfield’s building director, said the 1952 earthquake was the impetus behind the creation of certain building codes.

“What happened after that was the push to bring buildings up to a current code. Back then they didn’t really have earthquake codes. It was later, much later, more into the ‘80s and ‘90s, that there was a push to make these buildings safer,” Burns said.

Rebuilding

Many unreinforced masonry buildings are identifiable from the street by these bolted metal plates, which are attached to threaded metal rods that run through attic space and are similarly secured on the other end. The rods are connected to the building’s interior framing so they act as part of the structure. No URM or unreinforced masonry building is earthquake proof, certainly not old brick buildings fortified with metal rods, but they help.

“The purpose is to provide time so that if people are in an URM, you start getting an earthquake, to get out. That’s one that I want to stress, you know you’re in an URM building, you have an earthquake, this is not one where you want to tuck and roll under a table, you want to get out,” Burns said.

Some businesses go the extra mile  – businesses like Two Goats and the Goose, a Wall Street Alley restaurant, where these huge vertical steel beams seem capable of at least slowing a worst-case avalanche of brickwork that dates to 1901.                  

That’s what Santa Barbara officials did following that region’s 1925 earthquake, a magnitude 6.5 shaker that lasted 19 violent seconds. 

Santa Barbara’s business district had been a hodgepodge of architectural styles – Victorian, Moorish, Tunisian, Spanish Colonial. The earthquake devastated 36 blocks, requiring substantial demolition and reconstruction. City leaders, according to Santa Barbara historian Neal Graffy, saw it as an opportunity. They rebuilt in a unified, themed style that created and preserved a distinct sense of place. 

“Very quickly after the earthquake, these people got together and came up with plans in a Spanish style or what the newspapers called the Santa Barbara style. And they offered these plans for free, for the facades, for most of these buildings along State Street. And if it was free, the owners of the buildings quickly grabbed them. And so we were able to rebuild in this beautiful style, this uniform building code,” Graffy said.

Victorian buildings suddenly had Spanish tile roofs and hacienda balconies. 

When Santa Barbara suffered seismic damage 27 years later – ironically, from the much larger Kern County earthquakes of 1952 — it rebuilt again, where necessary, with the same focus on Santa Barbara style. One permanent gift to Santa Barbara from the Kern County earthquakes of 1952: The rotating neon Fox Theater spire on what is now the Arlington Theater stopped rotating – and hasn’t rotated since.

Perhaps Bakersfield will have another opportunity for earthquake-aided urban renewal. Not that the city should be anticipating with any sort of eagerness the sort of devastation that cost so much in terms of lives lost and landmarks destroyed 70 years ago. But the fact is, Bakersfield is situated on and near a network of faults that shift with regularity, and shift violently. Survivors of the 7.1 magnitude Ridgecrest earthquake of 2019 can attest to that.

So could Bakersfield pioneer Edward Fitzgerald Beale, the driving force behind the development of the Fort Tejon Army Outpost in 1854. Three years later, in 1857, Fort Tejon, in southern Kern County, was rocked by the largest earthquake in recorded California history – magnitude 7.9. The moral of this story? Remember and learn. California is, after all, earthquake country. And we in Bakersfield are right in the middle of it.