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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

One hundred fifteen years ago last Sunday, on April 18, 1906—a Wednesday—a devastating earthquake struck the northern coast of California at 5:13 a.m. local San Francisco time. High-intensity shaking was felt from Eureka to Salinas, and as far inland as the Sacramento Valley.

As the first terrible trembler subsided, dazed San Franciscans scurried outside in their nightclothes, only to see that their neighborhoods were ablaze with pillars of flame shooting skyward from ruptured gas mains. Also, the violent, 48-second shaking had caused either severe structural damage—or the complete collapse—of a large number of the city’s buildings, and many people had been horribly maimed by falling walls or badly burned. The Central Emergency Hospital, which occupied a portion of the City Hall basement, was partially buried in rubble as the earthquake sent the colossal pillars of City Hall, followed by its thousands of tons of bricks, crashing down in a mountain of debris.

Across the street from City Hall was the still standing, immense Mechanic’s Pavilion building. At 5:30 a.m. it was commandeered as a hospital and morgue for the injured, the dying, and the dead. At this improvised hospital more than 300 injured persons were treated by medical personnel who rushed in to help, although one out of every ten patients died while on the operating table. Other volunteer helpers broke into drug stores for medical supplies, or ransacked retail stores for pillows and mattresses.

But the quake and its aftershocks had destroyed the city’s water mains as well, leaving firefighters with no means of extinguishing the fires. Unchecked, the firestorm spread in all directions: to the business and retail districts, the residential neighborhoods; the shipping docks and warehouses along the shoreline. Scenes of horror were everywhere as people rushed frantically through the streets, looking for missing relatives. Women fainted; frightened children wailed. Men daringly re-entered dwellings, hoping to retrieve blankets to cover their wives and children when the nights turned cold, and possibly even enough foodstuffs to last a few days.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, as the fire relentlessly swept toward the Mechanic’s Pavilion location, living patients and corpses alike were hurriedly transported elsewhere. The wounded were taken to Golden Gate Park—the only place not in the immediate danger zone—and laid upon the grass. They escaped just in time, for the flames razed the 18,000-square-foot, wooden Mechanics Pavilion to the ground within fifteen minutes.

With the water supply entirely cut off, authorities decided that the only possible chance to stop the inferno, and save the city, was to use dynamite to demolish buildings that were in the path of the fire. The plan raised false hopes, for its implementation met with little success: the flames simply leapt through the gaps that yawned after a building was blown to smithereens. Yet: in desperation the demolition efforts continued, obliterating (on average) three structures at a time, adding the thunder of dynamite to the crackling roar of the fire demon.

By six p.m., most of the city lay in smoldering ruins. Gone were the 18-story Call Building, the offices of Levi Strauss and Company, Zellerbach and Company, Holbrook, Merrill and Stetson, the Bancroft Building . . . in fact, every structure in the business district. Gone, too, was the entire complex of St. Ignatius Church, and the elegant, famous Palace Hotel, where Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who only the night before had performed in “Carmen,” was staying for his scheduled appearances at the Grand Opera House. Caruso managed to escape unscathed, but the Grand Opera House, indeed all of San Francisco’s best playhouses, were destroyed. Other hotel guests weren’t so lucky. The Terminal Hotel at the foot of Market Street fell on the morning of the 19th, burying twenty incinerated, unidentifiable persons under the debris. Of the fabulous Nob Hill mansions, the only one left standing was the gutted shell of the brownstone mansion owned by silver baron James C. Flood.

After darkness fell, hordes of now homeless residents seeking shelter made their way to the relative safety of Golden Gate Park. At nine o’clock, under a special message from President Roosevelt, the city was placed under martial law. Hundreds of federal troops patrolled the streets to discourage looting, while hundreds more assisted police and fire personnel in assigning civilians to work details to assist in rescue efforts, or to remove rubble.

Although all newspaper plants had been rendered useless, on April 19 the editors of the Call, the Examiner, and the Chronicle pooled their talents and resources to publish a special edition of the Call. The issue, which briefly described selected events, reported that 200,000 destitute residents (about half of the city’s population) were crowded together in Golden Gate Park, and confirmed that every document of city government had been destroyed when City Hall collapsed the day before.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in the United States, a rupture of the San Andreas Fault that extended both northward and southward for a total of 296 miles. More than 80 percent of the city of San Francisco was destroyed, either by the quake itself or the subsequent fires, which burned for several days. The cities of Santa Rosa and San Jose also suffered severe damage, but because the event occurred three decades before the Richter scale was developed, the magnitude of the quake remains undetermined. The most widely accepted estimate is a magnitude of 7.9, although values as high as 8.3 have been proposed. Lower-intensity ground shakings were felt from Oregon to Los Angeles to Central Nevada. And in Monterey County, the earthquake permanently shifted the course of the Salinas River, diverting its mouth six miles south to a new channel.

More than 3,000 people died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history, and more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed. Property losses are estimated at $400 million in 1906 dollars, equivalent to $11.4 billion dollars in 2020.

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