It’s early on an April morning in 1906 in San Francisco, California. Most of the city is still asleep, but suddenly, the peace is shattered by an almighty roar. For miles around, buildings begin to shake and crumble, as the streets are rent apart by one of the greatest disasters to ever hit the United States. And now, the true scale of the tragedy has been revealed.
Then as the shock of the earthquake subsides, something even worse springs up to take its place. And for four days, a deadly fire ravages the broken city. By the time that the flames are finally extinguished, the face of San Francisco has changed for good. Indeed, hundreds of blocks have been reduced to a smoldering ruin.
But despite the scale of the destruction, the American people remained undaunted by the disaster. And as they mourned an estimated 700 victims, they focused on rebuilding the Golden City. Years later, however, the death toll was estimated to be over 3,000 – and the incident is remembered as the deadliest quake that California has ever seen.
Despite all the scientific research that has gone into understanding them, earthquakes remain one of our planet’s most frightening natural disasters. Simply put, they occur when bursts of energy known as seismic waves are released into the lithosphere, or outer shell, of the Earth. And as a result of this activity, the ground begins to crack and shake.
According to experts, these bursts of seismic activity can be triggered by a variety of factors. Typically, they occur in regions known as faults – areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates have collided with one another. Apparently, when these sections of the planet’s crust most past each other they can sometimes become stuck, creating pressure which is eventually released in the form of seismic waves.
Nevertheless, there are other things that can cause the ground to shake – such as volcanic activity, nuclear testing or landslides. However, it is these tectonic earthquakes that are the most widespread. Unfortunately, they are also the most extreme. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s deadliest quakes have been the result of seismic activity deep underground.
Terrifyingly, these earthquakes have the ability to wreak destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. And before modern science began devising structures that could withstand their impact, the situation was even worse. For example, back in 1556 a staggering 830,000 people died when a fault erupted in what is now the Shaanxi province of Northwest China.
But despite advances in technology, earthquakes are still deadly today. And as recently as September 2017, hundreds of people lost their lives in a 7.1 magnitude eruption that struck the Mexican state of Puebla. Meanwhile, southern California is hit by more than 10,000 quakes hit the state every year – although most are too gentle to be felt.
According to experts, California sits above a particularly volatile section of the Earth’s crust. In fact, it’s located in something known as the Pacific Ring of Fire – a seismically active region at the edge of the Pacific Plate. Amazingly, this area is the source of almost 90 percent of earthquakes on our planet.
But it’s not just the frequency of earthquakes in this region that’s a cause for concern. At the point where the Pacific Plate meets the North American Plate sits one of the biggest fault lines on Earth – the San Andreas Fault. And when this erupts, the resulting tremors cause death and destruction across the state.
Today, many Californians live in fear of what they refer to as the “Big One.” This refers to a future earthquake that will measure eight or over on the Richter scale and devastate cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. And with scientists claiming that such an eruption is inevitable, residents of the region treat their quakes with understandable trepidation.
On July 4 and July 5, 2019, two quakes measuring 6.4 and 7.1 on the Richter scale struck Southern California. And soon, scientists were speculating that these eruptions could trigger the “Big One” along the San Andreas Fault. Thankfully, however, that cataclysmic event has yet to occur. And luckily, the lack of population near the epicenters meant that no one was harmed.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case back in 1906, when a deadly disaster tore through San Francisco. At the time, the city was home to some 410,000 people, making it the biggest on the entire western coast of the United States. And since the 1840s, it had grown exponentially to become a bustling hub of finance, culture and trade.
Unfortunately, the growth of San Francisco was about to be stunted by an unavoidable disaster. At around 5.12 a.m. on April 18, the San Andreas Fault erupted and a strong foreshock was felt across the city and beyond. Then, between 20 and 25 seconds later, a devastating earthquake hit.
For up to 60 seconds, the streets of San Francisco shook as the San Andreas Fault ruptured beneath the city. In fact, the quake was felt all the way from Los Angeles to Oregon, stretching east to the inland state of Nevada. At the time, the Richter scale had not been invented, but today’s scientists estimate that the eruption could have registered as high as 8.3.
For many years after the quake, experts believed that its epicenter had been located near Olema, a small town some 35 miles northwest of San Francisco. However, in later years many came to suspect that the eruption had been centered around a point off the Californian coast. Moreover, experts were later able to determine that the rupture had stretched for more than 300 miles.
Meanwhile, as the earthquake shook San Francisco, the great city began to collapse. Reportedly, witnesses described the chaos as sounding like “the roar of 10,000 lions.” And soon, iconic buildings like City Hall were reduced to ruins. Elsewhere, the glass roof of the luxurious Palace Hotel shattered into pieces and tumbled to the ground below.
Although the worst of the earthquake was confined to San Francisco, its powerful tremors caused damage in other cities as well. Some 50 miles away in San Jose, for example, a number of people lost their lives and the business district was all but destroyed. Meanwhile, over in Santa Rosa, there were more than 100 deaths as the downtown crumbled to ruins.
In San Francisco, however, the damage was made far worse by what came after the quake. In the days following the disaster, a series of fires broke out across the already devastated city. And it’s estimated that around 90 percent of the destruction typically associated with the eruption was actually caused by these blazes.
Incredibly, more than 30 fires broke out across San Francisco over the course of three days, eventually resulting in the destruction of some 25,000 buildings. But how exactly did the city turn into such an inferno? Well, according to experts, the reasons were manifold.
Apparently, one of the biggest blazes was accidentally started by a woman cooking in the aftermath of the earthquake. This triggered what became known as the “Ham and Eggs Fire.” Elsewhere, firefighters attempted to slow the process of the inferno by creating inflammable obstacles in its path. However, things quickly went wrong.
Tragically, Dennis Sullivan, San Francisco’s fire chief, had been fatally injured in the earthquake itself. And without his supervision, the firefighters used dynamite to bring down buildings and slow down the blaze, despite not having used it before. However, the flames often spread to these structures, adding to the destruction instead of slowing it down.
Elsewhere, some citizens of San Francisco knowingly contributed to the inferno. At the time, it was difficult to make an insurance claim on a property that had been damaged by an earthquake. However, the same limitations did not apply to destruction that had been caused by a fire.
With this in mind, it’s believed that many citizens intentionally set fire to their earthquake-damaged properties in the hopes of seeing a return on their insurance. In fact, in the aftermath of the disaster, much of the recorded damage was blamed on the inferno that swept the city – rather than the eruption itself.
As the fires continued to rage across San Francisco, the authorities resorted to desperate measures. And soon, Frederick Funston, a general who had fought in the Philippine-American War, took charge of the situation. Under his orders, troops flooded into the city, keeping looters at bay and providing assistance to the thousands of citizens now displaced across the city.
Eventually, the fires died out – and before long, the scale of the destruction became apparent. Among the losses were irreplaceable historic artifacts and scientific research, as well as significant buildings such as the Palace Hotel. In all, it’s estimated that the city sustained some $400 million in damages – more than $11 billion in today’s money.
Initially, it was believed that around 700 people had lost their lives in the earthquake and fires combined. However, later reports estimated up to 3,000 or more – with the vast majority of casualties occurring within San Francisco itself. Meanwhile, an estimated 80 percent of the city was leveled by the disaster.
For those that survived, conditions in San Francisco were tough. Shockingly, as many as 300,000 people were made homeless by the disaster – a number that equated to roughly three quarters of the population. And while some fled to nearby communities such as Berkeley and Oakland, many remained in the devastated city.
With nowhere else to go, San Francisco’s refugees settled in makeshift camps across the city. Soon, beaches and leisure grounds such as Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle had become temporary homes for displaced residents. And shockingly, some of these remained operational for over two years.
But despite the devastation, plans to rebuild San Francisco had begun before the fires were even out. In fact, the British writer H.G. Wells, who was visiting New York at the time, remarked on the extreme resilience of the American people in response to such a disaster. He wrote in his 1906 essay The Future in America: A Search After Realities, “It does not seem to have affected any one with a sense of final destruction.”
“Everyone is talking of it this afternoon, and no one is in the least degree dismayed,” Wells continued. “I have talked and listened in two clubs, watched people in cars and in the street, and one man is glad that Chinatown will be cleared out for good; another’s chief solicitude is for Millet’s ‘Man with the Hoe.’ But there is no doubt anywhere that San Francisco can be rebuilt, larger, better – and soon.”
At first, attempts to rebuild San Francisco were hampered by the fact that most of the city’s banks had been caught up in the disaster. And as such, would-be funders were forced to wait as long as a week before the metal vaults were cool enough to open. Meanwhile, the inhabitants adjusted surprisingly well to life on the burned-out streets.
Apparently, because of the potential fire hazard, a temporary ban was placed on cooking indoors. And in response, makeshift restaurants sprung up on the city streets – some of them ironically bearing the names of fancy hotels and other establishments. Meanwhile, residents gathered around outdoor ovens in order to prepare their food in safety.
Desperate for funding to reconstruct the city, officials downplayed the role of the earthquake in the disaster. And George Pardee, the governor of California, offered his reassurances in a statement at the time. He said, “This is not the first time that San Francisco has been destroyed by fire. And I have not the slightest doubt that the City by the Golden Gate will be speedily rebuilt…”
Moreover, some believe that the desire to attract Eastern investment played a role in the initial underestimation of the death toll of the disaster. Nevertheless, it worked – and San Francisco began to rise from the ashes. Indeed, soon enough, the Army had built thousands of temporary homes to accommodate those who had been displaced.
Over the years, much of San Francisco’s grid system was restored. However, planners also took the opportunity to make some long-vaunted improvements a reality. And from Fishermen’s Wharf to Pacific Heights, many of today’s tourist attractions first emerged in the aftermath of the disaster.
On a more sinister note, some sought to use the earthquake as an excuse to push San Francisco’s Chinese population to the margins of the city. However, they stood their ground, and Chinatown was eventually rebuilt in the style that remains today. Moreover, many members of its community took advantage of the fact that the Hall of Records had been destroyed, seizing the opportunity to become citizens.
In the aftermath of the disaster, much of the trade and industry that had flourished in San Francisco migrated to Los Angeles some 380 miles to the south. However, by 1915 the city was on the up once more. And that year, it hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, welcoming almost 20,000 visitors to witness its impressive rebirth.
Interestingly, the theory of plate tectonics would not be widely accepted until the 1950s and ‘60s. So this meant that the residents of San Francisco did not fully understand what had happened in 1906. However, studies of the Earth’s crust after the disaster allowed scientists to develop their understanding of the phenomenon. And today, it ranks as one of history’s most significant quakes, thanks to the wealth of knowledge that it helped to reveal.
Meanwhile, San Francisco has grown into one of the United States most populous cities. Some 880,000 residents now call it home – more than twice the amount that lived there when the earthquake struck. But even though warning systems are far more advanced in the 21st century, many still live in fear that the “Big One” will hit – and the city will fall even harder than it did in 1906.