Post-earthquake Mission, a high priority for rebuilding as soon as possible | Courtesy Eldon Smith Collection photos

June 29, 1925, was the day the earth shuddered in Santa Barbara and changed the place forever. The janitor at the Daily News, n, observed, “The twisting of the earth was like a violent storm at sea.”

What follows are a few news reports from anonymous Associated Press reporters that give a glimpse into the immediate response to the great earthquake that caused so much damage to the downtown buildings — and cleared the way for an architectural re-do as it rose from the rubble.


Hotel Californian was described as “swaying sickeningly back and forth.” | Courtesy Eldon Smith Collection photos

The story of Los Angeles businessman W.H. Scott, who had been staying at the California Hotel: “He was awakened by the first shock, and saw the walls of his room shaking. He continued: ‘They swayed sickeningly back and forth with the same motion as is imparted to an accordion when it is played. I leaped out of bed and rushed downstairs, clad only in my pajamas. In the lobby I overtook a man struggling toward the door with a small child. Just as they reached it the building gave way. Debris and wreckage piled upon them, dived through a window into the street.

“‘When I looked back the hotel was a gaunt ruin, its outer wall had fallen to the street. And standing on a heap of wreckage on the third floor I saw a man, apparently crazed with fear, screaming at the top of his voice for a taxicab. Later I found most of the guests of the hotel huddled, in scanty attire, in a vacant lot nearby. They had fled the building as soon as the shocks began.’ Still pajama-clad, Scott met an automobilist bound for Hollywood. The man invited him to come along and together they fled the city without pausing to gather additional garments.”


Telegraph operators scramble to produce the post-earthquake news. | Courtesy Eldon Smith Collection photos

“Movies, Filming Fake Earthquake, Find Real Thing: A moving picture company which was making an earthquake film found the Santa Barbara disaster made directly to hand. During the afternoon the company was “on location” making earthquake thriller scenes from the genuine article. At the same time the movies played an important part in the rescue work, supplying electrical apparatus and searchlights to illuminate the ruins where the night rescue work was in progress.”

Challenges for Reporters: “The obstacle of lack of light, due to the collapse of the electric power-house, was surmounted by backing an automobile up to the door of The Associated Press bureau and stringing a wire with a tiny bulb attached from the machine’s battery to the operating table. Across the street the city firemen had established a lunch counter and between cups of steaming black coffee, the sweat-bathed begrimed staff men of The Associated Press pounded out the story of Santa Barbara’s disaster and her heroic plan for recuperation. Emergency headquarters manned by staff writers and telegraph operators, filed a steady stream of news on the seaside temblor through the day and into the night, checking and rechecking lists of dead and injured, estimating and re-estimating from the best available data the material loss to the community. From here the staff men ranged the stricken area from the Arlington Hotel to the waterfront in never-ending expeditions to get the facts to the outside world.”

Sky Pilots: “From the time that the news reached San Francisco a stream of airplanes carrying newspaper correspondents and photographers flew over this city on their way to Santa Barbara, several returning north over the city in the afternoon. Reports from Santa Barbara yesterday said that automobiles were being stopped from entering the city unless they had business there, thus preventing an influx of the curious.”


 In a widely distributed press release regarding film footage of the earthquake and its aftermath, Fox Film Corporation official Howard Sheehan announced, “A careful survey of facts indicates that accounts of the earthquake are grossly exaggerated, and we have fixed a policy not to add propaganda to the already widespread exaggerated reports. We feel that the citizens and residents of California are entitled to this consideration.” 

Reinforcing the embargo, movie theater magnate Sid Grauman issued a series of telegrams to mayors across the state to use their influence to prevent movie houses from showing footage of the quake. He feared the images would give a “black eye” not only to Santa Barbara, but to the Los Angeles area and all of California, causing a drop in tourism that would result in a statewide loss of revenue.

The Blue Lake Advocate in Eureka reported Mayor Lord’s reaction to the missive: “It was looked upon as an audacious piece of Southern California propaganda and noted as the most peculiar request ever made of a local official.”

The County Jail, where prisoners easily escaped | Courtesy Eldon Smith Collection photos

But some footage remained local, as reported in the Morning Press: “The earthquake pictures were secured by airplane in order to be presented to Cabrillo Theatre patrons last night, and will be an added feature to the program to and Including Saturday. They not only show ruins of the quake but the cleaning up process as well, one view picturing [politician] William Gibbs McAdoo assisting at the Red Cross headquarters.”

“Turned Loose: The city and county jails were completely demolished. Prisoners in both institutions were given’ their liberty, Police explained there was nothing else to do with the jails destroyed.”

By a Whisker: “An open-air barber shop with four chairs opened in the public square this morning and did a rushing business. A line of twenty men sat on the curb awaiting their turn. Joking about the relative length of their beards. When a slight temblor hit the city at 10:03, the barbers continued their work and displayed their skill by not cutting anyone.”

“Slump in Marriages Result of Quake,” reported the Lompoc Review in August of 1925. “Quake conditions in Santa Barbara marked slump in the marriage license business at the county clerk’s office during July, which is usually a record month. The total of licenses issued for July is fifty. Under ordinary conditions the number would have been between two and three times that.”


“There will be no more earthquakes in Santa Barbara for a hundred years,” declared Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, who had helped secure the Carnegie Foundation funding for so much improvement in Santa Barbara. The story was complete, the images controlled. Santa Barbara would rise from the destruction of the earthquake that simply provided the long-needed demolition of the “shabby buildings, dusty streets and lack of landscaping” that had left Pearl Chase embarrassed and ashamed just eighteen years earlier.

Cheri Rae is a longtime neighborhood advocate and the author of A String of Pearls: Pearl Chase of Santa Barbara. She is a board member of the Pearl Chase Society, and the longtime editor of the society’s newsletter “The Capital,” where this article first appeared. Email Cheri at or visit

Premier Events

Get News in Your Inbox


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.