Shake, Rattle and Roll: The Whittier Earthquake of 8 July 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Many of us clearly remember the Whittier Narrows earthquake of 1 October 1987, which registered 5.9 on the Richter scale and the destruction that was wrought by that shaker, especially in places like Uptown Whittier which is filled with historic houses and commercial structures dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first recorded tremor along what has been called the Whittier fault and is now identified as one of two upper branches, along with the Chino fault (where a decent quake occurred just a short distance from my home in Carbon Canyon on 29 July 2008), of the Elsinore Fault Zone was on 8 July 1929.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph showing damage from the quake to the East Whittier School, which evidently was one of the most severely affected structures from the shaker.  Although it was later assigned a 4.7 magnitude on the Richter scale and, therefore, barely was above the 4.5 level considered as having potential for some substantial damage, the incident is significant in identifying a new fault on which the much larger 1987 tremor took place.

Whittier News, 8 July 1929.

It was about a quarter to nine in the morning (the 1987 event was at almost a quarter to eight in the morning) when the quake hit, lasting no more than ten seconds.  The Whittier News reported that “the path of the quake or fault seemed to be in the East Whittier District” and noted that there were no fatalities, though there several close calls from falling bricks and plaster.  Downtown, however, the “district was shaken enough, however, to cause a general exodus to the streets,” an obvious problem if large aftershocks were to have followed, which, evidently, did not occur.

The paper continued that “the East Whittier School building was badly shaken and damaged, and it has been roped off to prevent possible accidents.”    Further, “two of the corners are twisted to such an extent that the bricks have fallen out, and the interior of the structure is badly wrecked.”  Finally, it was stated that the school, situated on Whittier Boulevard west of where Colima Road now intersects after passing through the Puente Hills from Hacienda Heights and where the East Whittier School District office and middle school are now, required a careful survey to determine whether it could be repaired or had to be reconstructed.

The News added that two homes near the school were badly damaged, with one, built of frame and stucco materials, “twisted on its cement foundations” while “two chimneys [were] dumped into the yard.” Home owner Forest Velzy told the News that “his young son was playing the backyard . . . and missed the falling chimney because he ran close to the house.”  Opposite of that was the Steele residence, which “was twisted around on its brick foundation and the foundation itself was completely wrecked.”

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News, 8 July 1929.

Other nearby residences had chimneys collapse and walls damaged where fireplaces were shaken and a gas main running along Gunn Street, south of Whittier Boulevard and near the damaged houses, came apart.  Notably, as the article talked about some damage at the Santa Fe Spring oil field to the south, it observed, “the theory that the quake had some connection with the oil faults, is borne out by the fact that the area shaken the hardest lies over the oil fields.”

While the tremor most affected Whittier, the shaking was felt in Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Pedro and Santa Ana, among other regional locales.  One wag at the local office of the United States Weather Bureau cracked (!) that the quake was delivered especially for the attendees of the national convention of the Elks fraternal order in downtown Los Angeles.

The Monrovia News-Post reported that there were three homes destroyed along with the damage to the school and that Velzy’s home was considered totaled at a $6,000 loss, with total damage at $15,000.  Modest to be sure, but the incident was considered the strongest in the region in years, likely referring back to the Inglewood quake of 21 June 1920, covered here in a previous post.  As for Monrovians, they experienced swaying light fixtures and shifting furniture, but no appreciable damage was done.

Monrovia News-Post, 8 July 1929.

In its coverage later in the week, the Covina Argus tried a little levity when it noted that the unreliable measuring of the quake’s duration by locals was proof “that seconds are unreliable when the earth is moving in a little jazz step.”  It also took up the question of the effect of oil drilling at Santa Fe Springs, saying that “the peculiar action of the oil wells leads some to surmise that the tremblor was in reality a movement of gas and oil in the gigantic pocket that has made the Santa Fe [Springs] district a famous producer.”

It just so happened, however, that Perry Byerly, who was a seismology professor at UC Berkeley, was visiting his family in Duarte when the shaker took place and offered a statement to the Argus.  In it, Professor Byerly related that “the power of oil and gas movement is comparatively so small in relation to the incomprehensible amount of tonnage of earth to be moved, it would have no affect such as a general movement of the earth’s surface.”

Pomona Progress-Bulletin, 8 July 1929.

Moreover, he continued, “earthquakes are probably caused by rock readjustments, settling or crowding upward.”  He added that:

What we should do in California is build all structures so that they cannot be damaged.  This is quite possible, and would guard us from death, injury and property damage, so that reports of tremblors would have no bad effect . . .

Byerly was reported to have been in Covina and all other locales that felt the quake to make observations.  Meanwhile, Ralph Arnold, a geologist widely known in California’s oil industry and chair of the regional branch of the Seismological Association of America, was paraphrased as stating that the quake “was due to a slip along the southern base of the Whittier-East Puente Hills [known more commonly as the Puente Hills], a minor fault line.”

Covina Argus, 12 July 1929.

Two years later, the quake was the subject of an article in the Bulletin of the Seismological Association of America and it was noted that shocks were felt as early as 4 May, while aftershocks the 8 July shaker continued until early November 1930.  The authors were Harry O. Wood and Charles F. Richter, who developed the scale that bears his name.

In a later article in the same journal and dealing with a quake in Whittier that same year in late January 1941, Richter wrote that “the Whittier fault, passing through the hills to the north, is a thrust fault dipping northward” and added that “previous shocks in the same district are 1) the damaging Whittier earthquake of July 8, 1929” with others of note in 1933, 1935 and 1940 before the one that formed the basis for his piece.


The N.E.A. (News Enterprise Association) press photo in the Homestead’s collection from 8 July 1929 showing the damage to part of the East Whittier School including crop lines and “enhancements” on the cracks.

The magnitude assigned by Richter using his famous scale was 4.5 for the 1929 tremor, the same for the 1933 quake, 3.5 for both the 1935 and 1940 shakers and 4.0 for the 1941 incident.  The 1929 quake, however, has been usually denoted as a 4.7 magnitude temblor, while a United States Geological Survey press release from November 2016 notes an estimated 5.0.

More interesting, however, is that the USGS issued the press release because “a new study from the USGS suggests that some early 20th century earthquakes in southern California might have been induced (man-made) by past practices that were used by the oil and gas industry.”   Specifically, the 1929 Whittier quake and the much larger and deadly Long Beach shaker of 1933, which led to significant changes in building standards, because “withdrawal of oil was not balanced by injection of fluids, in some cases leading to dramatic ground subsidence, and potentially perturbing the sub-surface stress field on nearby faults.”

It was not until the mid-1900s that “water flooding” was employed to “compensate for oil withdrawal” as well as to get more production out of depleting fields.  Because of this, “the results of this study do not necessarily imply a high likelihood of induced earthquakes at the present time.”  Susan Hough, a seismologist for the USGS noted that  “our study further suggests that the rate of natural tectonic earthquakes in the Los Angeles basin for this time period might have been lower than previously estimated.”

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The cropped area of the photo.

As many of us have heard in the news of late, “earthquake rates have increased sharply in recent years in some parts of the United States, including in Oklahoma, where earthquakes were formerly infrequent. Extensive past research has supported the conclusion that much of this increase is due to disposal of wastewater into deep geologic formations.”  Finally, the paper, “Potentially Induced Earthquakes During the Early 20th Century in the Los Angeles Basin” appeared in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

So, it is very interesting that the dismissal of oil-related activities at the time of the July 1929 quake have been reassessed by current research.  As for the photo, it shows a badly damaged end of the school building, but you can also see how newspapers would crop and highlight certain features of photographs to bring out details more sharply for the reader.

The caption on the reverse reads:

An earthquake which jolted Southern California uncomfortably at 8:45 a.m. on July 8th apparently centered at Whittier, Calif., and while it did not major damage [well, a couple of home owners and the East Whittier School officials would disagree], it cracked a few walls, broke some windows, shook loose parts of roofs and otherwise gave citizens a few thrills.  The picture shows what it did to a school house near Whittier.

Not to make anyone nervous, but the “Big One” that we’ve been told may be coming is, by some lights, way overdue.  The last 8.0 or larger quake in our region took place in January 1857 and was along the famous San Andreas Fault, though some experts caution that more damage in greater Los Angeles might be caused by smaller shakers in local faults rather than a “big one” on the San Andreas.

The caption on the reverse.

In any case, if you don’t have a good earthquake fit with plenty of food, water, clothing, blankets, flashlights, and other essentials, consider getting one together as soon you can, “Big One” or not!


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