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The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in photos

About the Author: Donatien Laisne 5-6 minutes 11/11/2021

On the early morning of 18th April, an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.8 struck the coast of Northern California. It proved hazardous for the city of San Francisco, then a sprawling metropolis of 410,000 inhabitants.

San Francisco represented a triumph in urban development at the time. In 1846 the site was primarily barren dunes scarcely ornated with wind-stunted oaks and overwhelmed by billions of fleas that made living conditions miserable.

A scruffy little village called Yerba Buena, named after a local shrub, was nestled near the lip of Yerba Buena Cove in San Francisco Bay; between 1846 and 1848, the village was transformed as the California Gold Rush attracted more people and businesses. The village transformed into an “instant city,” so to speak. An intense growth of its urban boundaries and population continued through the rest of the 19th-century.

Some of the architectural jewels of this period included the landmark Union Ferry Depot, one of the city’s major gateways, with a clock tower inspired by the Giralda Bell Tower in Seville. Another was the Palace Hotel, billed as the largest and most luxurious hostelry on the West Coast.

Chinatown resembled one of the most exotic places in the city where people could shop for Chinese trinkets, gawk at mysterious opium dens, try Chinese food or take a walk around the district’s colorful stores and temples ornated with bulbous lanterns and Chinese characters. Unsurprisingly for the era, however, visiting Chinatown remained a privilege reserved only for whites. At the same time, it was the only place where Asians were allowed to live.

When the notorious San Andreas Fault ruptured in 1906, it expanded both northward and southward for as much as 296 miles (476 km); the impact battered much of San Francisco. Scientists knew little of the fault, and the exact whereabouts of the devastating earthquakes were established much later.

The earthquake caught most citizens unprepared, still in bed. The exact time the sharp jolt was felt was 5:12 am and lasted about 45 seconds. The quake caused fires throughout the city that could not be extinguished for days, reducing to rubble the old architecture. Wrecking chaos, buildings swayed, facades collapsed, brick walls tumbled onto the ground, and draft horses galloped in blind terror. Acrid clouds of choking dust rose above the hilly streets of the city.

Most devastation however resulted from the raging fires following the earthquake. The quake destroyed San Francisco’s water channels, incapacitating firefighters to fight the spreading flames of fire.

“The city was virtually cut off from communication with the rest of the continent, owing to the collapse of all the telegraph wires except one, all the lighting arrangements were thrown out of gear, and save for the fires which broke out in numberless streets the whole place was in darkness,” a news report from The Guardian archive depicts the horror.

It’s estimated that at least 3,000 people died in the 1906 earthquake and fires of San Francisco. Around 250,000 residents were left homeless, while the estimated damage climbed to $500 million (over $10bn today). The death toll remains the most significant loss of life from a natural hazard in the history of California.

Seismographs on the U.S. east coast recorded the earthquake some 19 minutes later; some early death estimates exceeded 500.
Billowing smoke overwhelms the Market district in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.
Crowds gather as the Winchester Hotel continues to burn. The building on the left (Hearst Building) was dynamited to use as a fire break between the fire and the rest of the city.
People observe the city fire from Telegraph Hill; the view is looking south.
Ruins and devastation in the vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue
Entire districts were leveled to the ground. The background of this photo reveals the extent of the damage.
View from the Ferry Building tower, southwest down on Market Street.
The Agassiz statue in front of the Zoology building (now building 420), Stanford University

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