Tom and Betty Holson were still newlyweds in the summer of 1952 when the earth moved beneath them — literally.
Living in what would later be known as The New Yorker apartments at 18th and F streets in downtown Bakersfield, the couple were asleep in their Murphy bed when it started hopping up and down as if the entire room had come to life.
"About 5 o’clock in the morning, we were awakened by loud noises, and our Murphy bed pounding up and down on the floor," remembered Tom Holson. "We leaped from bed amidst plaster and falling dust, and our belongings falling from cupboards and shelves. Through the windows we could see huge flashes of light from arcing power lines."
It was 4:52 a.m. on July 21, and the Holsons were experiencing the first in a series of powerful earthquakes that would change their lives and the character of their community for years to come. With an estimated magnitude of 7.5, the quake that morning would turn out to be one of the largest ever recorded in the history of California, the state’s most powerful since the great San Francisco quake of 1906.
"It was terrifying," Holson recalled in an email.
"We raced down the stairs amid the falling plaster and dust. One of the first things we realized was that some of our neighbors did not wear as much clothing to bed as we did."
Everyone in the building made it safely to the patio. And while it appeared that no one was injured, the building would require serious repairs.
Many witnesses reported seeing a mysterious red-orange glow and fiery flashes in the sky to the southwest. There was even talk of atomic war.
But it wasn’t a nuclear weapon that caused the earth to buckle beneath Kern County that morning. It was a massive displacement of the Earth’s crust along the White Wolf Fault, which cuts a gash in the earth in a northeasterly direction between Bakersfield and Tehachapi.
Kern County, its residents would soon learn, had been at the center of a seismic shift felt across some 160,000 square miles, from Mexico in the south to Sonoma County in the north.
For 45 seconds, an eternity to some, people in Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Arvin, Delano, Shafter and several other communities shared an experience most who survived would never forget.
Tragically for an unlucky few — most in Tehachapi — memory itself died that day.
But the destruction and suffering were not over. After a month of aftershocks, a second temblor, a powerful aftershock, would strike on the afternoon of Aug. 22 — exactly 65 years ago Tuesday — and Bakersfield would take the brunt of the destruction.
In August 1952, my father, Bill Connor, was working for the Santa Fe Railroad. He drove a freight train from Bakersfield to Barstow and back again.
On Aug. 22, he was the engineer on the train in the mountainous area between Bakersfield and Tehachapi . He was chugging along, leaving one tunnel and headed into another. Suddenly the earth shook and shifted.
A tunnel collapsed on one end of the train and a water tower fell across the other end. He and the fireman got the train stopped and checked on the brakeman in the caboose.
All three train men were OK, so they left the train. They hiked across a gully to Highway 58 and stuck out their thumbs.
Fortunately, one of the first cars to come by was a California Highway Patrol man. He picked them up and delivered them to Bakersfield safe and sound.
— Monica Connor-Young
The Kern County Earthquake of July 21 is commonly referred to as the Tehachapi Earthquake, and for good reason. The mountain community, which numbered about 1,500 in 1952, suffered terrible losses that day.
Twelve people, including five members of a single family, were killed. Dozens more were injured. While one of the dozen victims died of injuries in Bakersfield and another near Arvin, 10 of the deaths occurred in and around Tehachapi, most of them children.
Many never had a chance as the violent shaking caused unreinforced brick walls to crumble and collapse in upon them as they slept.
Much of the mountain community was left in rubble, as if a great military battle had been waged there. Close to 70 percent of the community’s business district was destroyed or heavily damaged. Train tracks between Tehachapi and Bakersfield were twisted into S-shapes as if they were wire coat hangers, not solid steel rails.
Stanley A. Beckham, who later in life would serve on the Tehachapi City Council, was a child of 9 when the quake struck. Beckham died in 2015, but his memories of the earthquake and its aftermath remained vivid when he spoke to The Californian in 2012.
"It was absolutely terrifying to see grown men and women who didn’t know what was going on," Beckham recalled. "The adults didn’t know what had happened."
He and his family were living in Monolith, near Portland Cement Co., in the hills just north of Tehachapi. "Back in those days, there were a lot of worries about the Russians," recalled Beckham. "There was a lot of tension in the air."
Later, as his father drove him through Tehachapi in the family car, Beckham recalled seeing families living in tents in the park, apparently frightened by the frequent aftershocks that continued for weeks.
Tehachapi Valley Hospital, at Green and E streets, was heavily damaged, forcing the removal of patients to other area hospitals or to temporary tents set up outside. The state prison outside of Tehachapi — in those days, it was a women's facility — was evacuated due to safety concerns. The 400 inmates were housed for weeks in tents outside the prison walls.
Beckham wondered aloud how Kern County would fare if it was again at the epicenter of another large quake.
"People don’t realize we’re living on some pretty serious fault lines,” Beckham said. "It could happen again."
Gerald Haslam, an Oildale native who would go on to become an award-winning writer and college professor, was 15 years old in 1952. The teen had been left home alone for the first time so he could participate in unofficial football drills with his Garces Memorial High School teammates while his parents spent a weekend at Jack Ranch.
"At first lurching, I thought the world was ending and I remained terrified in bed," Haslam, now 80, said in an email. "Then I sprinted out the front door and found most of my Oildale neighbors on their front lawns tip-toeing like rope-walkers, not knowing how to react to the instability.
"Our neighbor, Mrs Pruett, called from next door, 'Gerry, you're not dressed.'
"I looked down and realized I was wearing only underpants. Earthquake or no earthquake, adolescent modesty kicked in, and I sprinted back into the house and found jeans and a T-shirt, then emerged and remained outside all morning until I heard the phone ring inside our house and answered my concerned parents' call.
"'I'm fine,' I told them, adolescent bravado kicking in. 'I wasn't scared.'
Some witnesses told The Californian they thought a train had derailed. Others reported seeing cars parked on the street jumping up and down.
Several said they saw waves moving through the earth, like ripples in the soil. And one woman recalled that just before the temblor struck, the crickets outside her window went eerily silent, as if they felt what was coming before she did.
In east Bakersfield, Kern General Hospital — now Kern Medical Center — sustained major damage. Several area schools and downtown’s City Hall, which also housed the Bakersfield Police Department, were heavily damaged.
In the 200 block of A Street, near Roosevelt School, a water tower came crashing down in the neighborhood, sounding like a bomb going off.
When the tower hit the ground, the water inside shot outward with terrific force, witnesses said. It slammed into the bay window at the front of a nearby home and shattered it, scattering shards of glass across the room and soaking the carpet.
A 3-week-old infant, sleeping in a bassinet in that front room, was uninjured.
The July quake and the dozens of aftershocks that followed had area residents on edge for weeks. But as July rolled into August, one could excuse Bakersfield residents if they finally began to relax.
They couldn’t have known that the July temblor had offered just a preview of the destruction that would follow.
At 3:41 p.m. on Aug. 22, 32 days after the first quake, walls and ceilings in Bakersfield’s downtown business district began to fall.
Edna Ledbetter, a 26-year-old McFarland resident, had been shopping at Lerner’s Dress Shop on 19th Street when the masonry building crumbled, crushing her beneath tons of bricks and other debris.
Another victim, 67-year-old Patman Cozby, was inside Kern County Equipment Co. on East 19th Street when the quake struck. He never made it out.
Bricks and disintegrated mortar littered the sidewalks of downtown, forcing police to limit entry to the disaster zone. More than 90 square blocks were barricaded.
Some local businesses, including Brock’s Department Store, would conduct sales beneath large tents for months until their buildings were repaired and made safe.
In all, the July quake and magnitude 5.5 aftershock in August destroyed or damaged more than 400 buildings, most of them constructed with unreinforced masonry. Bakersfield’s iconic Beale Memorial Clock Tower, which had stood at the intersection of 17th Street and Chester Avenue since 1904, was determined to be unsafe and was soon demolished. A replica now stands at the Kern County Museum.
According to Californian archives, Rubin Brothers Men’s Furnishings had shattered plate glass all over the store. Gundlach Plumbing & Sheet Metal was described as "raining bricks from its walls."
The 40-year-old Kern County courthouse, an impressive structure that some said resembled the White House, was torn down and replaced by the boxlike court building that now stands at Truxtun and Chester avenues.
Nearby St. Francis Catholic Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in Bakersfield, also sustained heavy damage and had to be torn down. It was replaced by the church that now stands on H Street.
Southwest of Bakersfield, the Paloma oil refinery saw four of its 25,000-gallon tanks explode into flames following the first quake. The fire burned for two days, according to Californian archives, at times sending flames 300 feet in the air. The fire may explain the many accounts of flashes and glowing-red skies recalled by witnesses.
I was 8 years old when the earthquakes hit Tehachapi and Bakersfield. Although we were on vacation when the major quake happened on July 21, I saw the devastation of Tehachapi when we came back to Bakersfield.
It was very hard to take in as an 8-year-old as the town was not the same town I saw when we left earlier in July. Fortunately, our home in the Sunset-Oleander area was not harmed as only a few things were off the shelves.
However, I was here for the aftershock on Aug. 22. This date was my parents' 10th wedding anniversary. My mom, brother, sister and I had just picked up my great uncle at the Greyhound Bus Station downtown for his annual visit. From the bus station we drove to the Safeway grocery store on 24th and F streets (the current Pep Boys).
As soon as we all got out of the car, the earthquake hit. I remember the cars in the parking lot bouncing up and down, the Safeway building swaying, and a yellow sky! My mother told us to not get close to the store; however, my 6-year-old brother and I were very curious about what the store looked like inside so we went into the store.
What a mess! Foods were on the floor and there was broken glass everywhere. My uncle then told my mom to take him back to the bus station as he wanted to get out of Bakersfield! My parents still celebrated their anniversary and the fact that we were all safe!
— Nancy Stutzman Phillips, 73
Soon after the disaster, then-California Gov. Earl Warren, a Bakersfield native who would go on to become chief justice of the United States, visited his hometown and Tehachapi. Warren vowed to support emergency assistance to the region. He also recommended that each inmate at the women’s prison in Tehachapi receive a month off their sentence for exemplary conduct following the disaster.
Despite the widespread destruction, many who were young children that summer remembered the quakes, not as something to be feared but as something to be savored.
Filmore Bender, a 12-year-old farmer’s son who would grow up to become a university professor, fondly remembered sleeping outdoors in the back of a cotton trailer for several nights after the quake.
Bender, who died in 2014, told The Californian in 2012 that the maze of stars scattered across the black sky was his entertainment as he drifted off to sleep each night.
For Bender and thousands of others who witnessed the Kern County earthquakes of 1952, the destruction and loss of life were tragic and heart-rending. But the events themselves and the way local families and communities responded would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
A longer version of this story originally published in August 2017.