The Great Earthquake of 1906 That Destroyed San Francisco

By Robin Mei - January 22, 2017
Credits: Scientific principles were established following the quake that are still followed today.

Living on Top of Trouble

Credits: San Francisco is unfortunate neighbors with the San Andreas Fault line.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is remembered as one of the greatest natural disasters in America’s history. Its consequences were terrible and devastating, yet at the same time, many lessons were learned from it.

The city of San Francisco, along with a significant part of California, lies in an earthquake-prone zone caused by the active San Andreas Fault system which runs from Cape Mendocino all the way to the Mexico/U.S. border. Seismic tremors in this area are common, but the activity in 1906 was truly tragic.

San Francisco: The Epicenter of the Quake

Credits: What was left of the Union Street car line following the quake.

When it struck the epicenter of the great San Francisco earthquake was only three kilometers (two miles) away from the city in the Pacific Ocean, and its tremors were felt for a much larger distance. Tremors were reported to the north in Oregon, as far south as Los Angeles and as far east as central Nevada.

It is estimated that the magnitude of the quake was between 7.7 and 7.9 on the Richter scale, but its full intensity could not be precisely determined at the time

Just How Great Was the Quake?

Credits: Exactly how strong the quake was is hard to tell since the Richter scale had yet to be implemented.

Keeping in mind the historical period in which the earthquake occurred, it’s a challenge to state its real size.

It wasn’t until three decades later, in 1935, that the modern Richter scale for measuring earthquakes was developed, so the estimates of the strength of the San Francisco earthquake was made years later based on data recorded in observatories around the world.

The initial estimate was an 8.3 on the Richter scale, but the calculations were later revised.

The City Was a Major West Coast Hub

Credits: San Francisco played an important role in America's shipping economy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, many things (besides the methods for measuring the power of an earthquake) were obviously much different to what we know now, including the city of San Francisco itself.

1906 San Francisco had a population of about 410,000 people. It was the busiest port on the West Coast and had become a financial and cultural center of the Western U.S. The city was seen a the American gateway to the Pacific.

From the Bad Came Some Good

Credits: Santa Rosa's County Courthouse.

Knowing how large and significant San Francisco was in 1906, it’s not really that surprising this earthquake is still widely remembered and discussed after more than a century.

The fact that over 80% of the city was destroyed by the quake and the subsequent fires that resulted is more than worth looking back on. This event was absolutely catastrophic, but consequently it served as a major push forward for the positive change that would soon follow.

Tragedy Became an Unwanted Alarm Clock

Credits: The New Chronicle building and the damage it sustained.

It was at 5:12 a.m. Pacific time, April 18, 1906, when the earthquake occurred off the shores of San Francisco. A large portion of the city’s citizens were still asleep when San Francisco began to crumble.

The primary tremor lasted for about a minute and shook the city to its core, but the most horrifying part was yet to come. The cataclysmic destruction of buildings and the resulting collapse of infrastructure was only a prelude of things to come.

Not All of the Damage Was the Quake's Fault

Credits: As buildings teetered, fires erupted everywhere.

It is estimated that up to 90% of the total destruction in San Fran occurred not from the earthquake itself but as the result of the fires that broke out all over the city and furiously burned for days.

As if the quake wasn’t calamitous enough, uncontrolled fires, one of the most destructive forces in nature, hit the city. In the days following the earthquake, ruptured gas mains led to over 30 fires that destroyed 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.

Human Error Played a Part

Credits: House fires contributed to the general chaos.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the quake that caused some of the incendiary issues. One of the most notable fires even got its own name: the “ham and eggs” fire, which was started by the occupants of a home on Hayes Street who woke up shortly after the quake. Despite the circumstances, they decided to cook breakfast.

Unbeknownst to them, the earthquake had damaged their chimney. When their stove was lit, sparks erupted and the kitchen rapidly caught fire. It spread quickly through the home and eventually wiped out a city bloc.

A Fire Department Without a Fire Chief

Credits: A map of San Francisco’s fire after the 1906 earthquake.

The whole of San Francisco and its surrounding areas were affected by the earthquake on many fronts, and a large part of the city was in flames. Firefighters faced significant challenges tackling the numerous fires.

The city’s fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, died from injuries he sustained in the initial quake, leaving the city’s fire department without its leader.

Additionally, the earthquake damaged the city’s water mains, leaving firefighters without the water they needed to fight the blazes.

Fighting Fire With Fire

Credits: View of the ruined tower of San Francisco's City Hall.

Firefighters were ready to do anything to tame the fires, but some of the attempts were more damaging than helpful.

In one instance, firefighters attempted to use dynamite to demolish some of the buildings to create firebreaks. Unfortunately, the men were not trained in the use of dynamite, so the buildings they blasted sometimes caught fire as well.

In the end, despite the valiant work of those protecting San Francisco, the city burned for four days and nights.

Why Did People Burn Down Their Own Homes?

Credits: This is what remained of Sacramento Street.

We have already pointed out that the citizens of San Francisco bore a significant part of the responsibility for the outbreak of fire; some out of negligence, others the result of honest mistakes with good intentions and finall, as it later turned out, out of self-interest or necessity — it depended on who you were talking to.

Back in 1906, insurance companies would commonly insure a property for fire damage, but not for damage caused by an earthquake. This contributed to how much of the city’s destruction was blamed on the fires.

San Francisco Becomes a City of Homeless

Credits: For those in a panic, it made more sense to endure temporary homelessness than lose their insurance money.

Controlling the initial chaos that took over the city was almost impossible. There was evidence that some property owners deliberately set fire to their own earthquake-damaged properties so that they could claim the insurance money on them.

Either way, by fire or earthquake, the city was ravaged. Between 227,000 and 300,000 people (nearly three-quarters of the city’s population) were left homeless, many with only the clothing on their backs as they fled their homes.

Dealing With the Crisis

Credits: Image: As I Remember, by Arnold Genthe / Reynal & Hitchcock

The people who were left homeless were initially sheltered in tent cities in parks and open areas not affected as severely as other parts of San Francisco.

They stood in long lines for food rations and were forced to cook in the streets to minimize the risk of additional fires. Moreover, many of the remaining chimneys still standing were destroyed to prevent people from cooking inside in order to avoid a repeat of the ham and eggs fire.

Assistance Arrives

Credits: Immediately following the quake plans were already in the works to start rebuilding.

In the past, as now, the government is often the only organization big enough to respond to a crisis of this size. In this case, Congress enacted emergency appropriation bills to fund the relief supplies that the city would need in the weeks following the tragedy.

Food, water, tents, blankets and medical supplies were sent. In addition, funds were allocated to rebuild many public buildings which had been damaged or destroyed, helping to facilitate the reconstruction of the city.

The Dollar Figures Are Staggering

Credits: It wasn't easy, but vital supplies quickly made their way to the people who desperately needed them.

The damage to San Francisco was estimated at approximately $9.5 billion, adjusted for inflation. Funds were desperately needed, both for taking care of a great number of refugees who were left with nothing, and for the repair to the city’s inner workings to provide basic sanitary conditions.

Military and law enforcement officials were particularly efficient and reacted rapidly, bringing supplies and helping to organize relief camps. The job was never an easy one though.

What Was Done to Keep Law and Order

Credits: Looting became an issue, and everyone was doing it — even soldiers.

Besides the considerable effort that had to be taken establishing and maintaining hospitable living conditions right after the quake, those attempting to keep law and order intact had to deal with other issues.

Souvenir hunters and looters were a serious problem in the time following the quake. In addition, as part of the effort to stop the fires but also to minimize the risk of mob violence afterward, tens of thousands of dollars in liquor was destroyed by authorities.

The Quake's Casualties

Credits: Pine and Powell streets.

The quake not only left the city in physical ruins, it also caused huge damage to people’s lives. No matter their social or class standing, many were now living on the streets.

Casualties were also considerable, although the exact number has never been determined due to the lack of official records. San Francisco was home to the first Chinatown in North America, and fatalities in that area were poorly reported. Chinatown’s casualty numbers from the earthquake varies from approximately 700 people to over 3000.

Desperate Times Called for Desperate Measures

Credits: Souvenir hunters after the San Francisco earthquake.

Immediately after the disaster, the citizens of San Francisco were faced with shortages of every kind. Fresh water and food supplies were limited in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but people were determined to survive the tragedy any way they could.

While the authorities were trying to re-establish the basics of city life as much as possible, people were scavenging the ruins for various reasons. Some searched for their own belongings, some in pursuit of “souvenirs.”

Parks Became Mini Cities

Credits: The view of the destruction as seen from the Captive Airship.

Public spaces like parks and other green areas were soon transformed into living quarters with tents and other temporary facilities that served as shelters and provided much-needed initial help to those affected by the earthquake.

Still, as the rebuilding process took some time, refugees weren’t strictly limited to living in tents. In the months after the earthquake (and with winter coming), the army built 5,610 “relief houses” out of redwood and fir.

Tents and Emergency Housing

Credits: A massive camp set up by the military.

These new temporary homes were modest but sufficient for decent living. The houses were about 67 square meters (approximately 720 square feet) and reasonably equipped, taking the circumstances into account.

This settlement with little identical houses accommodated approximately 20,000 previously displaced people. The buildings were all painted navy blue, partially with an aim to blend in together and partially because that was a color the military had large quantities of on hand.

Forging Ahead

Credits: People affected by the earthquake wait in the bread line.

While the devastation of the earthquake was fast and fierce, so were the attempts to rebuild San Francisco. Despite initial setbacks and some general confusion getting things organized, the rebuild plowed ahead at a steady pace.

On June 30, 1908, two years after the quake, the last official refugee camp was closed. The navy blue relief houses continued to be used though, finding new lives and purposes, from serving as garages and storage space to being used as shops.

Physical Memories From the Quake Don't Come Cheap

Credits: What were once an affordable means to house a family now sell for huge prices.

Most of these temporary houses that served as homes to San Francisco earthquake victims, including those that were repurposed over the years following the quake, have been destroyed. Only a handful of the blue and white buildings are still standing today.

Reportedly, one of them was even sold in 2006 for $600,000, 12,000 times the purchase price of $50 being charged for people who wanted to buy one after the quake.

San Francisco Wasn't the Only City to Feel It

Credits: Damage wasn't limited to just San Francisco.

The San Francisco earthquake is almost always associated only with the city itself but the damage wasn’t limited to this city alone. The outskirts of the area were heavily damaged too, along with other neighboring towns.

Santa Rosa and San Jose experienced losses as well, but to a lesser degree. This included the roofs of some businesses falling in, gas lines being severed and the escape of patients from a local insane asylum that needed to be rounded up following damage to their hospital.

The Quake's Global Aftershocks

Credits: Financial markets were rocked by the earthquake as well.

Much like the aftershocks following an earthquake, there were some surprising consequences of the great quake which show how interconnected the world was, even over a century ago.

The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was a major contributing factor behind the economic crisis known as the Panic of 1907 (or the far more entertaining title for a very serious even: the Knickerbocker Crisis). The financial impact of the earthquake heightened issues with stock market instability that had started earlier in the year.

Businessman J.P. Morgan Stepped Up to Help

Credits: San Francisco's Call building on fire.

The massive amounts of money being paid out by insurers in the United Kingdom to policyholders in San Francisco and the surrounding area led the British government to raise interest rates, further stressing the money supply and creating a liquidity crisis, risking bank collapse.

The panic was finally halted through the personal intervention of J.P. Morgan, who pledged some of his own money to shore up the banking system, leading many other New York bankers to do the same.

What This Quake Did to Help Science

Credits: Embarcadero Street, along San Francisco's waterfront.

The results weren’t all bad though. One of the unexpected benefits of the earthquake was the wealth of scientific information that it offered.

For example, the San Francisco earthquake was the first natural disaster ever to have its immediate results recorded photographically. Thanks to that fact, the reconstruction of the event was much more detailed and accurate.

Speaking from a scientific viewpoint, the 1906 earthquake is one of the most important of all time, too.

So Strong it Changed a River

Credits: This statue of Louis Agassiz was embedded in the pavement at Stanford University.

Observers of the area were astonished by the physical displacement that had occurred. The magnitude of the San Francisco earthquake was so vast that it directly affected the flow of a river.

Namely, the Salinas River had changed its course, and the physical shift of the ground was obvious and extreme. It covereda 476 kilometer (276 mile) section of the San Andreas fault — a rupture length on a scale few people had ever experienced.

The Lessons Learned Have Been Good Ones

Credits: Scientific principles were established following the quake that are still followed today.

The information about the quake and how it impacted local geology helped Henry Fielding Reid, Professor of Geology at Johns Hopkins University, to develop his elastic rebound theory of earthquakes in 1910, which is still the principal model of the earthquake cycle over a century later.

While the 1906 earthquake caused significant damage and loss of life, the information it provided has helped us to avoid much more catastrophic damage in the time since then.

The Re-Birth of a City

Credits: A family home on Steiner Street on the verge of toppling over.

Natural disasters and other large-scale hazards can be truly devastating, but at the same time, as strange as it may sound, they present the opportunities for cities and their people to grow and develop.

It’s been mentioned already about how disasters can shape the evolution of cities. San Francisco’s earthquake was no different. In many ways, as horrible as this tragedy was, it is directly responsible for San Francisco becoming the city it is today.

San Francisco Rebuilds and Gets Organized

Credits: The Union Ferry building.

Prior to the earthquake and the devastation that followed, San Francisco was a bit of a mess by urban planning standards. Starting with the boom of the 1849 gold rush, the frontier city had grown in a bit of a haphazard fashion for almost 50 years.

While the earthquake and the fires that followed caused incredible human suffering, they created a unique opportunity for San Francisco to be rebuilt with a more centralized vision of urban design. The results were commendable.

The Changes That Were Made

Credits: The city's docks after the San Francisco earthquake.

The process was best described by Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte in an article celebrating the 100th anniversary of the earthquake:

“What emerged was a much different San Francisco. The old city was gray, the buildings darkened with coal smoke, a grimy city like turn-of-the-century London. Its cable cars were powered by horses, clattering down Market Street at 9 mph. The new San Francisco’s big buildings were white and sparkling. Modern electric streetcars ran on Market Street, as they still do.”

Source: 1906 San Francisco earthquake: Old photos offer new glimpses of devastation

"The City That Knows How"

Credits: Redwood City's Courthouse.

He also adds that the old city burned coal and dumped raw sewage into the bay, but the new one was a whole new story:

“The new San Francisco was lit by electricity and heated by gas. It was as if the Victorian age had been swept away in less than a week. Visiting President William Howard Taft was so impressed with the rebuilding after the quake that, in 1911 while lunching at the Cliff House, he toasted San Francisco as ‘the City that Knows How.'”

The Earthquake by the Numbers

Credits: St. Mary's church.

If we wanted to summarize the San Francisco earthquake aftermath in numbers, the result would be the following.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the total number of casualties in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is more than 3,000.

The U.S. Army relief operations report (Greely, 1906) stated that there were 498 recorded deaths in San Francisco, 64 deaths in Santa Rosa and 102 deaths in and near San Jose, but further research showed that over 3,000 deaths were caused directly or indirectly by this catastrophe.

Source: Casualties and damage after the 1906 Earthquake

Exactly How Many Buildings Were Destroyed?

Credits: Market and Geary streets

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that over 28,000 buildings were destroyed during the quake and also later in the ensuing fires.

“The 3-day conflagration following the earthquake caused substantially more damage than did the earthquake. The area of the burned district covered 4.7 square miles…”

The source further states that 24,671 wood buildings and 3,168 brick buildings were lost, which lead to the total number of 28,188 buildings damaged or completely destroyed in this dreadful tragedy.

The Dollar Figures

Credits: Grant Avenue, looking south to Market Street.

It was already noted that the population of San Francisco at the time was approximately 400,000. The great quake left more than half of them homeless.

Estimates go as high as 225,000 people having lost their homes. The tent cities added some relief, but reports state that some residents were being charged rates exceeding $50 to be driven to safety in other nearby cities.

Estimated property damage according to the NOAA report was approximately $400,000,000 in 1906 dollars from both earthquake and fire, $80,000,000 from the earthquake alone.

San Francisco Picked Itself Up

Credits: The Valencia Street Hotel.

Although it took nine years to rebuild the city completely, it is a testament to San Francisco citizens that the city was conducting business again (though not at the same scale) mere weeks after the disaster.

The great earthquake of 1906 both shook and shaped the evolution of a city. Through the courage and hard work of those who took part in rebuilding it, its tragedy became the foundation for the modern city we know and love today: a San Francisco which is known around the world.

The Positive Lessons Learned

Credits: The city is stronger for having made it through the events of 1906.

The city of San Francisco and its citizens managed not only to survive the great 1906 earthquake but to grow out of it stronger and renewed while never letting the memory of their great struggle slip away.

San Francisco still lies on the same seismologically unstable ground. The question of whether (or better said when) the next devastating earthquake will happen remains.

The United States Geological Survey says that large earthquakes can be expected in sometime in the future.

Could it Happen Again?

Credits: Despite its unfortunate geographical positioning, San Francisco is safe from another massive earthquake — for now.

“Based on models taking into account the long-term rate of slip on the San Andreas fault and the amount of offset that occurred on the fault in 1906, the best guess is that 1906-type earthquakes occur at intervals of about 200 years.” —United States Geological Survey.

According to the report of the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities, the chance of such an earthquake to occur in the next 30 years are quite small, only about two percent.

Source: When will it happen again?