San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Introduction

From Views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire and Chinese in San Francisco The earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of walls and chimneys. But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property. There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling- houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.

Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco's burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working- class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water- mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds' twitching of the earth-crust.

By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.

Wednesday night saw the destruction of the very heart of the city. Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire- fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory....

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go- carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco's history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror....

Surrender was complete. There was no water. The sewers had long since been pumped dry. There was no dynamite. Another fire had broken out further uptown, and now from three sides conflagrations were sweeping down. The fourth side had been burned earlier in the day. In that direction stood the tottering walls of the Examiner building, the burned- out Call building, the smoldering ruins of the Grand Hotel, and the gutted, devastated, dynamited Palace Hotel....

It was at Union Square that I saw a man offering a thousand dollars for a team of horses. He was in charge of a truck piled high with trunks from some hotel. It had been hauled here into what was considered safety, and the horses had been taken out. The flames were on three sides of the Square and there were no horses....

On Mission Street lay a dozen steers, in a neat row stretching across the street just as they had been struck down by the flying ruins of the earthquake. The fire had passed through afterward and roasted them. The human dead had been carried away before the fire came. At another place on Mission Street I saw a milk wagon. A steel telegraph pole had smashed down sheer through the driver's seat and crushed the front wheels. The milk cans lay scattered around....

All day Thursday and all Thursday night, all day Friday and Friday night, the flames still raged on.

Friday night saw the flames finally conquered. through not until Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill had been swept and three- quarters of a mile of wharves and docks had been licked up.

The great stand of the fire-fighters was made Thursday night on Van Ness Avenue. Had they failed here, the comparatively few remaining houses of the city would have been swept. Here were the magnificent residences of the second generation of San Francisco nabobs, and these, in a solid zone, were dynamited down across the path of the fire. Here and there the flames leaped the zone, but these fires were beaten out, principally by the use of wet blankets and rugs.

San Francisco, at the present time, is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped tens of thousands of refugees At the Presidio alone are at least twenty thousand. All the surrounding cities and towns are jammed with the homeless ones, where they are being cared for by the relief committees. The refugees were carried free by the railroads to any point they wished to go, and it is estimated that over one hundred thousand people have left the peninsula on which San Francisco stood. The Government has the situation in hand, and, thanks to the immediate relief given by the whole United States, there is not the slightest possibility of a famine. The bankers and business men hare already set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco.

From "The Story of an Eyewitness" by Jack London
Collier's Special Correspondent, May 5, 1906.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

STANDARD 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3B: The student understands how a modern capitalist economy emerged in the 1920s.

5-12: Explain how principles of scientific management and technological innovations, including assembly lines, rapid transit, household appliances, and radio, continued to transform production, work, and daily life. [Examine the influence of ideas] 
9-12
: Analyze the new business downtowns, the development of suburbs, and the role of transportation in changing urban life. [Explain historical continuity and change] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: [St. Francis Hotel partially destroyed and blackened from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: Exterior view of St. Francis Hotel partially destroyed and blackened from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Parts of nearby buildings in ruins and a pile of rubble surround the hotel. Pedestrians are walking nearby.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  2. DESCRIPTION: [Pedestrians walking up Nob Hill past the ruins of buildings toward the Fairmont Hotel after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the hotel's exterior wall is partially blackened from the fire ].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: View of Pedestrians walking up Nob Hill past the ruins of buildings toward the Fairmont Hotel after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. One of the hotel's exterior walls is partially blackened from the fire. 
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  3. DESCRIPTION: [Building with a dome in partial ruins following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  4. DESCRIPTION: [Chinatown buildings in ruins following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: View of Chinatown buildings in ruins following the earthquake in 1906 San Francisco, California
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  5. DESCRIPTION: [Earthquake ruins]: From Views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire and Chinese in San Francisco
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: ca. 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

  6. DESCRIPTION: [Earthquake ruins]: From Views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire and Chinese in San Francisco
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: ca. 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

  7. DESCRIPTION: [Earthquake ruins]: From Views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire and Chinese in San Francisco
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: ca. 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

  8. DESCRIPTION: [Eathquake ruins]: From Views of the San Francisco earthquake and fire and Chinese in San Francisco
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: ca. 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Chinese in California, 1850-1925
    REPOSITORY: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

  9. DESCRIPTION: [Soldiers guarding the Western National Bank, which was open for business after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  10. DESCRIPTION: [Two men pulling a safe out of a building's ruins while a crowd of people watches from the sidewalk nearby after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  11. DESCRIPTION: San Francisco earthquake and fire, April 18, 1906
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [United States : s.n., 1906?]
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: This film shows the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, and the devastation resulting from the subsequent three-day fire. The 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck at 5:12am and was centered along the San Andreas Fault, which slices through coastal California. Most of the cities of central California were badly damaged. San Francisco, with thousands of unreinforced brick buildings - and thousands more closely-spaced wooden Victorian dwellings - was poorly prepared for a major fire. Collapsed buildings, broken chimneys, and a shortage of water due to broken mains led to several large fires that soon coalesced into a city-wide holocaust. The fire swept over nearly a quarter of the city, including the entire downtown area. Dynamite was used with varying success to prevent the fire from spreading westward. Over 3,000 people are now estimated to have died as a result of the disaster. For the surviving refugees, the first few weeks were hard; as aid poured in from around the country, thousands slept in tents in city parks, and all citizens were asked to do their cooking in the street. A severe shortage of public transportation made a taxicab out of anything on wheels. Numerous businesses relocated teporarily in Oakland and many refugees found lodgings outside the city. Reconstruction of the city proceeded at a furious pace and by 1908, San Francisco was well on the way to recovery. The scenes in the film are preceded by titles, many of which are sensationalized. One entire scene showing a family eating in the street was almost certainly staged for the camera. The film was probably made in early May, as one scene can be precisely dated to May 9, and another to sometime after May 1.
    PLAYBACKInformation about Video Playback
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Copies of Films
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEBefore and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

  12. DESCRIPTION: Scenes in San Francisco, [no. 1]
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: This film is a compilation of views and pans among the ruins of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire and dates from Wednesday, May 9, 1906. The film was shot in the downtown area along Market and Mission streets.
    PLAYBACKInformation about Video Playback
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Copies of Films
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEBefore and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

  13. DESCRIPTION: Scenes in San Francisco, [no. 2]
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1906.
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: This film is a compilation of panoramas filmed in the ruins of downtown San Francisco and outlying refugee camps following the 1906 earthquake and fire. The film dates from Wednesday, May 9, 1906.
    PLAYBACKInformation about Video Playback
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Copies of Films
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEBefore and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

  14. DESCRIPTION: [Refugee camp of tents and shanties at end of Market Street in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  15. DESCRIPTION: [Victorian houses damaged by the 1906 earthquake are partially collapsed and leaning to the side toward neighboring houses along a residential street in San Francisco, pedestrians are walking by the houses].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: Exterior view of Victorian houses damaged by the 1906 earthquake are partially collapsed and leaning to the side toward neighboring houses along a residential street in San Francisco, California. Pedestrians are walking by the houses.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  16. DESCRIPTION: [Two women cooking on makeshift brick grills in the middle of a road in front of a shantytown with a young girl watching and two other women standing nearby].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: Portrait of two women cooking on makeshift brick grills in the middle of a road in front of a shantytown with a young girl watching and two other women standing nearby. This image was probably taken in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
    REPRODUCTIONS
    How to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  17. DESCRIPTION: [Refugee dentist moving equipment from his shop with a small cart following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, other men stand nearby on the street in front of buildings in ruins].
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1906
    SUMMARY FROM AMERICAN MEMORY: Informal portrait of a refugee dentist moving equipment from his shop with a small cart following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California. Other men stand nearby on the street in front of buildings in ruins.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEPhotographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933
    REPOSITORY: Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL

  18. DESCRIPTION: Proclamation by the mayor Dated April 18, 1906 [regarding earthquake]
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: April 18, 1906
    NOTES: "The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime. I have directed all the Gas and Electric Lighting Co.'s not to turn on Gas or Electricity until I order them to do so. You may therefore expect the city to remain in darkness for an indefinite time. I request all citizens to remain at home from darkness until daylight every night until order is restored. I WARN all Citizens of the danger of fire from Damaged or Destroyed Chimneys, Broken or Leaking Gas Pipes or Fixtures, or any like cause."
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEAn American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

  19. DESCRIPTION: Photo of the only newspaper issued in San Francisco on April 18, 1906 after the earthquake.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: San Francisco, 1906.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEAn American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

  20. DESCRIPTION: Over 500 Dead, $200,000,000 Lost in San Francisco Earthquake
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: April 18, 1906
    SOURCE: New York Times on the Web

See also: 

Additional Media Resources

The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. From USGS, Menlo Park

1906 San Francisco Earthquake. From Museum of the City of San Francisco

"The Great Shake: San Francisco, 1906". From the Exploratorium's online exhibit about Life Along the Faultline 

Additional Instructional Resources

1906 San Francisco Earthquake Online Lesson. From LearnCalifornia.org.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake Offline Lesson. From LearnCalifornia.org

Secondary Resources

Bauer, L.A. and J.E. Burbank. "The San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, as recorded by the Coast and Geodetic Survey Magnetic Observatories." National Geographic (May 1906): 298-299.

Dean, Dennis R. "The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906." Annals of Science (November 1993): 501-521.

Hansen, Gladys and Emmet Condon. Denial of Disaster: The Untold Story and Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire or 1906. Cameron & Company, 1989.

Jeffers, H. Paul. Disaster By the Bay: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. The Lyons Press, 2003.

Kurzman, Dan. Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Harper Perennial, 2002.

Lawson, Andrew C. and A. O. Leuschner. "The California Earthquake." Science (Jun. 29, 1906): 961-967.

Redway, Jacques W. "Some Notes on the San Francisco Earthquake." The Geographical Journal  (Apr., 1907):  436-440.

Trippett, F. "First the Shaking, then the Flames." Time (Oct. 30, 1989): 50-51.

Winchester, Simon. A Crack in the Edge of the World : America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. HarperCollins, 2005.

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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