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The impact of that April dawn a century ago was as impossible to foresee as the cataclysm itself.

After the ground stopped convulsing at 5:12 a.m., a messenger hurried off in a railroad handcar with orders to keep pumping his way south until he could deliver to San Francisco a shocking dispatch and a plea for help.

"Earthquake. Santa Rosa in ruins and burning. Many injured and probably many killed."

One day, Santa Rosa was a market town of 6,700 pushing into a new century with the same pluck as the electric car line cutting through its bustling business district.

The next -- April 18, 1906 -- some 20 square blocks in the center of Luther Burbank's "chosen spot of all the earth" had been laid to waste by a 7.8 temblor. Only an occasional church spire could be seen rising upward from the heaps of brick and crumbled mortar.

"The destruction was so bad," one survivor would recall, "you could scarcely see where the streets were, as the debris from the buildings filled the streets and covered the car tracks."

At least 100 people perished; some laid to rest in the old Rural Cemetery in anonymity, including an entire family. Apocryphal stories bespoke the terror: a young lady pinned under the timbers of a collapsed hotel, her hair turned instantly gray; dairy cows "gone dry" from fright; a man trapped beneath rubble crying out for someone to shoot him -- a merciful death compared to being burned alive by advancing flames.

But news that a massive earthquake had leveled a small farm country town to the north would get little attention in the shadow of a city grappling with its own disaster. San Francisco itself was on fire.

The Gold Rush Town just beginning to blossom into a powerhouse of West Coast culture and commerce caught the horrified eyes of the world. What still stands as the second fiercest temblor in U.S. history and one of its greatest natural disasters would indelibly be inscribed as "The San Francisco Earthquake."

Writer Jack London made his way down Sonoma Mountain from his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen to what he called "the doomed city," describing a once cosmopolitan place where "all the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds twitching of the earth's crust."

But for all the words he devoted to the conflagration in San Francisco, London dashed off to a relative this often overlooked historical footnote: "Santa Rosa got it worse than S.F."

Historians and geologists agree. In the history of The Big One, Santa Rosa suffered more death and destruction per capita and square block than San Francisco, where more than half the population was left homeless, 28,000 buildings destroyed and, by contemporary estimates, at least 3,000 died.

A century later, the two vastly dissimilar cities 50 miles apart commemorate the same crucible with a kinship of survival and a shared story of resurrection.

A San Francisco newspaper headline after the quake said it all: 'Waterfront destroyed. Business to resume at once.'

The earthquake of 1906 would shape the future, the face and, one might argue, the spirit not only of the Bay Area, but of an entire state balancing precipitously on the shaky ledge of the Western Frontier.

The quake, said Beach Alexander, a retired California State Parks Historian and author of the book, "San Francisco: Building the Dream City," sobered the debased Barbary Coast and pushed it out of its prolonged adolescence.

"The city was raucous and full of beans. Their parents risked their necks to come out West. You had to have dynamite in your blood to have the nerve to come out to San Francisco and it showed in the people," he said.

That Forty-Niner bravado fueled a rapid reconstruction -- some have argued perhaps a little too fast, missing an opportunity presented by a barren landscape to not just rebuild but redesign the city.

Stephen Tobriner, a professor of architectural history at UC Berkeley, said his own grandfather boasted throughout his life that he had consciously rebuilt his home in Pacific Heights to withstand any violent shaker. Some remarkable landmarks rose from the ashes, including the Humboldt Bank Building on Market Street and the city's new auxiliary water system, a marvel of quake-resistant engineering.

"They did wonderful and enlightened things and of course screwy and wrong things as well. But looking back, what they did was amazing," he said.

Santa Rosans just as quickly swept away the debris and got on with the business of rebuilding a city more suited to the 20th century. Merchants dug out whatever they could salvage and set up primitive shops in vacant shacks.

"It was more practical and more philosophical to shovel brickbats and ashes onto a platform car," one historian wrote in 1911, "than to stand around sadly contemplating the ruin of office and shop."

Santa Rosa's strong agricultural economy remained largely intact and the farmers' dependence on the city for goods and services helped propel it forward. Narrow streets were widened to make way for the automobile. The City Council passed new building codes. Fire escapes were added and the building material of choice became firm basalt blocks quarried locally rather than the bricks and mortar that had crumbled so easily.

Santa Rosa over the years would downplay its own painful earthquake history, as if the detritus of that day could be made to disappear under the new streets. And in some respects the stiff upper lip and fervid boosterism that led one travel bulletin to dub it "the pluckiest city in California" worked.

"If you go back and look at newspapers 50 years ago, they devoted only two columns, two inches long, to remembering the quake. Go back 75 years and there was barely a mention," said Terry Oden, a member of the Santa Rosa Earthquake Centennial Committee and a docent at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery where so many victims lie.

Santa Rosa however, is now reclaiming its painful history, with a series of events to mark the loss and raise public awareness of the importance of being as prepared as possible for the next cataclysmic quake.

"For the first time, this city is coming together in its myriad parts to commemorate it," said Oden, "to stop pretending it didn't happen."

Denial and determination, nonetheless, are not characteristics peculiar to Santa Rosa or the Bay Area.

The geological forces that make California a risky place to live, also make it a place of spectacular and near unparalleled natural wonder. It's a powerful force of attraction despite the fact that scientists predict there's a 62 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 quake socking the Bay Area sometime in the next 30 years.

David Burkhart, author of the "The San Francisco Earthquake & Fire in 3-D," lives within a half mile of San Andreas Lake in San Bruno. He says he's reminded of a poem written by Lawrence Harris after the quake that speaks to why California remains the promised land for so many, despite the powerful forces churning beneath its soil.

We may be in ruins, it says, "...but they're the damndest, finest ruins gazed on anywhere."

News researchers Vonnie Matthews and Teresa Meikle contributed to reports throughout this section.

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