The 1906 San Francisco earthquake's
notoriety rests in part that it was the first
natural disaster of its magnitude to be captured
One of the most
appalling disasters that has ever been recorded in American
history befell San Francisco over a hundred years ago this month,
when an earthquake struck the California city on the early
morning of April 18, 1906.
Fires broke out
and ravaged with merciless ferocity the larger part of the
city. One journalist at the time wrote that readers
elsewhere should understand that it was not a fire in San
Francisco, but rather "a fire of San Francisco."
was estimated to be approximately 7.8 on the Richter Scale.
Foreshocks and the main quake occurred at about 5:12 in the
morning along the San Andreas Fault, with an epicenter close
to the city. The violent shocks of the quake were felt from
Oregon to Los Angeles, and as far as central Nevada.
The City Hall,
the Palace Hotel, the San Francisco Hotel, the palatial
residences on Nob Hill, the great department stores, and
numerous churches were thrown down as though made of paper
or were burned by fires raging with unquenchable fury.
ultimately destroyed over 500 city blocks of the downtown
core from Van Ness Avenue, an arterial thoroughfare that
bisects the center of the city, to the docks at the San
At the time only
478 deaths were reported, a figure concocted by government
officials who felt that reporting the true death toll would
hurt real estate prices and efforts to rebuild the city.
This figure has been revised to today's conservative
estimate of over 3000 people. Some have put it as high as
6000 with most of the deaths occurring in San Francisco.
estimated to the amount of $400,000,000 was destroyed.
Buildings, in some cases with people still in them, were
dynamited, while military rule was enforced about the
streets, looters being shot on sight.
A scene of
indescribable destruction, misery and panic prevailed where
only a few hours before a great city reposed complacently in
its pride of architecture and fancied security of material
Fires broke out
in many parts of town, some initially fueled by natural gas
mains broken by the quake. Other fires were the result of
arson, and campfires set by refugees. Some property owners
set fire to their own damaged buildings, because most
insurance policies covered fire losses while prohibiting
payment if the building had only sustained earthquake
D. Wildman of the U.S. Army Signal Corps reported that he
"was stopped by a fireman who told [him] that people in that
neighborhood were firing their houses...They were told that
they would not get their insurance on buildings damaged by
the earthquake unless they were damaged by fire."
On the fire fast followed famine and the
problem of feeding the destitute and homeless crowds of
people in and about San Francisco. Between 225,000 and
300,000 people were left homeless, out of a population of
about 400,000. Half of these refugees fled across the bay to
Newspapers at the time described Golden Gate
Park, the Panhandle, and the beaches between Ingleside and
North Beach as covered with makeshift tents.
The US Army built 5,610 redwood and fir
"relief houses" designed to accommodate 20,000 of the
displaced residents of the area. They were grouped in eleven
camps, packed close to each other and rented to people for 2
dollars per month until rebuilding was completed. They were
painted olive drab, partly to blend in with the site, and
partly because the military had large quantities of olive
drab paint on hand. The camps had a peak population of
16,448 people, but by 1907 most people had moved out of the
camps, which were then re-used as garages, storage spaces or
Appeals were sent out by Mayor Schmitz,
Governor Pardee and President Roosevelt. President Roosevelt
advised that contributions be sent to the American Red Cross
for distribution. Congress passed an appropriation bill of
$1,000,000 for the poor people of the stricken region.
Train loads of provisions were rushed across
the Continent from the Atlantic coast; contributions that
were solicited from all over America — and Europe, too.
The value of the
U.S. Army was demonstrated by the fact that the War
Department was able at once to put into San Francisco a
thousand troops under General Funston, who kept order,
protected buildings, aided the needy and fought the fires.
It was partly through the efforts of the soldiers that the
U. S. Mint, containing about $39,000,000 of gold, was saved.
also did damage in other parts of California; one-fifth of
the state was affected. In Santa Rosa, in particular,
great damage was done, and ten thousand people were made
homeless. Some of the buildings of Stanford University
were also destroyed.
An insane asylum
near San Jose was totally wrecked, many of the inmates being
killed, and others being freed, to wander around the country
terrorizing the inhabitants.
The loss of
property at Salina was estimated at one million dollars.
Lesser shocks were felt and lighter damage was wrought at
Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton and other places.
The earthquake's notoriety rests in part that
it was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be
captured by photography. Shown are detail images created
from panoramic photographs and stereographs available at the
Prints & Photographs Reading Room (Prints and
Photographs Division) of the Library of Congress.