San Francisco, kauri and quakes

Taking a break from felling a giant kauri

Taking a break from felling a giant kauri

While reading the Te Ara entry on kauri forest, the comment: ‘after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, [kauri] was used in rebuilding’ sparked my interest and surprise. I emailed the San Francisco public library’s ‘Ask a Question’ facility and heard back from librarian Tom Carey who wrote in part that ‘as San Francisco had access to its own redwood lumber from northern California, it strikes me as odd that we would rely on a supply from outside our shores, or that it would be cheaper.’

Tom made follow-up suggestions which led me to the California gold rush of 1848–1850s and a New Zealand trade in prefabricated houses. William Toomath’s book Built in New Zealand (p. 79) clarified; it cited a letter from Auckland timber dealer Thos Macky, who wrote that the houses he had shipped over to California ‘were expected to sell for five times their cost; but, by the time of their arrival, immense quantities coming from the eastern states caused a loss, the sale of 20 recovering only the cost of three’. Mike Roche, in his History of New Zealand forestry (pp. 47–49) corroborated with figures showing a rise in timber exports to California in 1850, which subsided as timber arrived in quantity from other sources.

That did not, however, get close to the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 quake. New Zealand statistics were silent – plenty of kauri gum, no timber. Searching the digitised issues of one California newspaper, the San Francisco Call, drew only the indirect finding that Americans knew nothing about kauri – the lengthiest discussion was on a children’s page in an April 1912 issue of the paper.

I was about to settle for a ‘no finding’ when a browse of the pages of a book on the Basin Reserve (the historic Wellington cricket ground) turned up a photo of a large group of people gathered at the Basin, holding up a sign on which was written ‘Save San Francisco!’ This photo, which can easily be found at Timeframes, the online database of images from the Alexander Turnbull Library, appeared in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper in April 1906. Clearly it was recording a fund-raising venture triggered by sympathy for the plight of the quake-stricken city. This in turn dovetailed neatly with the account in Joanna Orwin’s Kauri: witness to a nation’s history (pp. 90–91), that three Weber brothers, all saw-millers, travelled from Auckland to San Francisco after the earthquake, to help rebuild the latter city.

So yes, some kauri went to San Francisco during the gold rush years. And some individuals, money – and maybe even some timber – headed that way after the 1906 earthquake. But the chances of finding a kauri timber house in San Francisco would appear always to have been small – which means, if you do find one, we want to know!.

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Kerryn || August 16th, 2010

    Perhaps some kauri made it over to San Francisco during an exposition – one was held there in 1915, in part to celebrate the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. I wonder if NZ was represented at that event?

  2. Comment made by Paul || April 28th, 2017

    A TV programme shown here in NZ showed an area of San Fransisco where ” many houses were built from NZ kauri sourced following the 1906 fire” The programme aired some time in the past ten years.

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