1906 San Francisco Earthquake in Photos
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake's notoriety rests in part that it was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be captured by photography.
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."
The earthquake 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.
The fire 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 Francisco Bay.
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.
Property 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 resources.
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 damage.
Captain Leonard 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 Oakland.
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 shops.
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.
Earthquake shocks 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.