The 1906 Earthquake: The Day San Francisco Was Destroyed

  • Image: George R. Lawrence (1869-1938), George R. Lawrence Co.

    San Francisco lies in ruins on May 28, 1906, about six weeks after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

    On April 17th 1906 the people of San Francisco went to bed as usual. The city was a bustling hive of life, a burgeoning metropolis barely 60 years old that had already become known for its colourful style, grandiose mansions, majestic hotels and blooming arts scene. Little did the city’s people know upon retiring for the night that, just before dawn, their lives – and their city – would be changed forever.

    At 5:12 a.m. the next morning, a brief foreshock hit the city. Doors and windows rattled in their frames and loose plaster crumbled from walls. But, this was a mere taste of things to come, for a mere half minute after the initial tremor, the real earthquake struck. With the epicentre only three miles from San Francisco herself, the city was hit hard indeed.

  • Image: Arnold Genthe

    Aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake

    The apocalyptic energies of tectonic movement would make some think Armageddon had come and that the world’s end was close at hand. For many unfortunate souls this was true, for the brutal power of the earthquake was to bring an abrupt end to many lives. The colossal seismic upheaval would last barely a minute, but the devastation it wrought would be regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.

  • Image: Unknown

    Work horses killed by a collapsed building on April 18th, 1906, during the San Francisco Earthquake.

    Buildings quivered and fell, ejecting bricks in all directions. Huge cracks appeared in the previously smooth asphalted roads. People, carts and animals disappeared into vast chasms that suddenly opened in the ground beneath them. Chimneys toppled like felled trees. Rows of buildings collapsed like houses of cards caught in a sudden draught. It all happened so fast that some people were killed while still in their beds. The entire city was rocked by the massive power of an earthquake that could have registered as high as 8.25 on the Richter Scale.

  • Image: Bobster855

    The only newspaper able to publish in San Francisco the day of the earthquake.

    P. Barrett, an eyewitness:

    “We could not get to our feet. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot.”

    The earthquake was so strong that it was felt as far away as southern Oregon, Los Angeles and as far inland as central Nevada.

    An un-named night clerk described his lucky escape from the Valencia Street Hotel where he worked:

    “The hotel lurched forward as if the foundation were dragged backward from under it, and crumpled down over Valencia Street. It did not fall to pieces and spray itself all over the place, but telescoped down on itself like a concertina.”

  • Image: G.K. Gilbert

    Train thrown down by earthquake of April 18, 1906. The train was standing on a siding. Beyond are the buildings of the Point Reyes Hotel; and at the extreme right the ruin of a stone store which was shaken down.

    It is said that those lucky individuals that had rented rooms on the fourth floor simply stepped out onto the street, while those resident in the floors below were crushed. A hundred people may have died, crushed amid the rubble.

  • Image: Roebling Construction Company

    Photograph of the Palace Hotel, San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake from a study done by the Roebling Construction Company.

    G.A. Raymond was awoken by the earthquake. He fled his room at the Palace Hotel and relates what he saw outside:

    “Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

  • Image: Harry Sterling Hooper

    A line of fire three miles long creeps through the city.

    Says eyewitness G.A. Raymond:

    “I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come. At places the streets had cracked and opened. Chasms extended in all directions. I saw a drove of cattle, wild with fright, rushing up Market Street. I crouched beside a swaying building. As they came nearer they disappeared, seeming to drop out into the earth. When the last had gone I went nearer and found they had indeed been precipitated into the earth, a wide fissure having swallowed them. I was crazy with fear and the horrible sights.”

  • Image: US Archives

    San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Bird’s-eye view, surrounding Ferry Building. Looking west on Market Street.

    Businessman Jerome B. Clark describes the carnage and tumult:

    “In every direction from the ferry building flames were seething, and as I stood there, a five-story building half a block away fell with a crash, and the flames swept clear across Market Street and caught a new fireproof building recently erected. The streets in places had sunk three or four feet, in others great humps had appeared four or five feet high. The street car tracks were bent and twisted out of shape. Electric wires lay in every direction. Streets on all sides were filled with brick and mortar, buildings either completely collapsed or brick fronts had just dropped completely off. Wagons with horses hitched to them, drivers and all, lying on the streets, all dead, struck and killed by the falling bricks, these mostly the wagons of the produce dealers, who do the greater part of their work at that hour of the morning. Warehouses and large wholesale houses of all descriptions either down, or walls bulging, or else twisted, buildings moved bodily two or three feet out of line and still standing with walls all cracked.”

  • Image: Pillsbury Picture Company

    The Fires Rage. View from St. Francis Hotel.

    As if the tectonic devastation wasn’t enough, the situation was immediately compounded by the outbreak of numerous raging fires. Fractured gas pipes, spilled oil lamps and upturned ovens conspired to fuel what became a ferocious inferno. In some cases, the flames were even encouraged by fraudulent homeowners hoping to collect insurance payouts, as their policies covered them for fire but not earthquake damage.

  • Image: Unknown

    Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right).

    Not only had the gas lines ruptured, but also the water mains were shattered in many places, and one of the early victims of the earthquake was the fire chief himself. Leaderless, and with limited water to fight the myriad blazes, the fire-fighter crews were in disarray.

  • Image: Unknown

    US Army soldiers from the Presidio pose for a group shot, with their Springfield 03 rifles, in front of the ruins of the Hall of Justice. The troops aided the local police force in keeping order and protection for the citizens of the devastated city.

    As fires began to rage out of control 2,000 federal troops arrived on the streets. With their help, the fire crews began dynamiting entire blocks with the intention of creating fire breaks. But, this use of explosives did not go according to plan. Dust from the many detonations filled the air, choked the lungs of the soldiers and firemen and clouded their vision. Flaming debris from the explosions caught in virgin timbers and sparked new fires into life. Worse still, the fire breaks didn’t stop the original fires spreading, either.

  • Image: Unknown

    Soldiers looting shoes during 1906 San Francisco fire, after the earthquake. Location listed as “Market St. between Seventh and Eighth.”

    Jerome B. Clark continues:

    “Fires were blazing in all directions, and all of the finest and best of the office and business buildings were either burning or surrounded. They pumped water from the bay, but the fire was soon too far away from the water front to make efforts in this direction of much avail. The water mains had been broken by the earthquake, and so there was no supply for the fire engines and they were helpless. The only way out was to dynamite, and I saw some of the finest and most beautiful buildings in the city, new modern palaces, blown to atoms. First they blew up one or two buildings at a time. Finding that of no avail, they took half a block; that was no use; then they took a block; but in spite of them all the fire kept on spreading.”

  • Image: Unknown

    The library of Stanford University is reduced to ruins after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

    The inferno raged for almost four days, incinerating more than 28,000 structures and destroying more than three-quarters of the entire city. Some 490 city blocks were reduced to ash, their scorched walls skeletal in appearance. The mayor issued a shoot-to-kill order for anyone found looting, and some 500 luckless looters were shot dead by the police and military forces.

    Initially, less than 400 deaths were reported by the authorities. Government officials held back the real (and much higher) figures in fear that the true death toll would hurt property values and hamper efforts to rebuild the city in the earthquake’s aftermath. Additionally, the hundreds of deaths and injuries sustained by residents of Chinatown were essentially ignored and unrecorded. Today, the figure of 400 has been revised to an estimate of at least 3,000. The number continues to grow as new research comes to fruition. Some 225,000 people were injured. This was first large-scale natural disaster to be documented by photography and film footage.

  • Image: Philbert Gray

    Ferry Building San Francisco after the 1906 Earthquake.

    Most of the city had become an unrecognisable mass of semi-collapsed buildings and charred rubble. Amid the bedlam, thousands of citizens ‘dressed in layers upon layers of their best clothes, began making their way on foot to the ferryboats to evacuate across San Francisco Bay to Oakland or to tent camps scattered throughout the city.’

    Before the earthquake hit, San Francisco’s population had been 410,000; the ninth largest city in the US. Out of this number, the catastrophic events of 1906 left between 227,000 and 300,000 people homeless. Makeshift tents and encampments sprang up on the city’s safer outskirts. Many residents would occupy the tents for years to come.

  • Image: Introvert

    The original seismographic record of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on display at the Lick Observatory, in California.

    As news of the disaster spread across the globe various US businesses and other countries donated money to help relieve the plight of San Francisco’s battered populace. Among countless others, London raised an amount totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars; the Bank of Canada gave $25,000; Andrew Carnegie, that great Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist, donated $100,000; John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil gave $100,000. Soon, a sum of over $5,000,000 had been raised.

  • Image: George Raymond Lawrence

    This photograph, taken in 1908 was designed to show the reconstruction that had taken place since the 1906 earthquake and fire.

    Food and medical supplies were rushed to the city, but with such a large amount of people having lost everything the emergency provisions were, predictably, not enough. ‘The burden was placed on wealthier members of the city, who were reluctant to assist in the rebuilding of homes they were not responsible for. All residents were eligible for daily meals served from a number of communal soup kitchens and citizens as far away as Idaho and Utah were known to send daily loaves of bread to San Francisco as relief supplies as co-ordinated by the railroads.’

    The overall cost of the damage from the earthquake was estimated at the time to be around $400,000,000.

  • Image: moonlightbulb

    San Francisco today

    Though San Francisco was to rebuild relatively quickly, the disaster would inevitably divert a great deal of trade and industry to Los Angeles, which ‘during the 20th century would become the largest and most important urban area in the West’. Thanks to a massive rebuilding effort (with somewhat relaxed building regulations that still plague the city today) the San Francisco rose from its own ashes so rapidly that by 1915 there was almost no evidence of the ‘Great Shake’ to be seen.

    The 1906 earthquake’s centenary was commemorated in 2006, and attended by the eleven survivors.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Matt Forde
Matt Forde
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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