On Wednesday, April 18, 1906 a little after 5 o’clock in the morning, the bustling city of San Francisco was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Lasting forty to sixty-five seconds, the mainshock was caused by a rupture along the San Andreas Fault. The earthquake was felt along the Pacific coast from Coos Bay, Oregon to Los Angeles, and as far inland as Nevada. It was not the strongest earthquake to hit California, or the United States, but the devastating fires that broke out because of it killed around 3,000 people and left over 80% of San Francisco in ruins.
The city streets heaved up and down before settling into twisted mounds of broken road and rubble. The Valencia Street Hotel went from being four stories high to one, trapping most of its crowded occupants. The San Francisco City Hall seemed to crumble down like a cookie. “In the space of a minute a building that was architecturally the largest and most pretentious in the State of California was shaken to the ground almost like a pack of cards,” noted a newspaper. “Its walls and pillars collapsed, its copper dome remained standing on its skeleton steel pillars above a chaos of destroyed masonry.” Police Sgt. Jesse Brown Cook later remembered the scene in downtown San Francisco as total chaos.
In the south, the Agnews State Hospital near San Jose crushed one hundred and twelve patients and staff members to death, resulting in the largest single death toll by faulty construction. The region that was damaged by the earthquake, and subsequent aftershocks, extended from the southern part of Fresno County to Eureka, about 400 miles. It also affected 25 to 30 miles on either side of the fault zone. Near Loma Prieta in Santa Cruz County Dr. John C. Branner of Stanford University described how the earthquake uprooted or broke trees near the fault. “The forest looked as though a swath had been cut through it two hundred feet in width,” he noted. He also counted 345 earthquake cracks in the ground in less than a mile.
All about us houses were tumbling, and falling walls and chimney,s and cornices were crushing men and horses in the street. The district at that hour was crowded with produce wagons, and through the uproar of the earthquake you could hear the cries of people and the whinnying of horses that were hurt or terrified.
Back in San Francisco the first round of army troops came around 7 A.M. from Fort Mason. An hour later, more troops arrived to take up patrol downtown. People were still in a state of panic while search and rescue was underway to try to free the trapped people in toppled buildings. Troops patrolled, assisted with the fire department and helped to keep the public safe.
Looting often goes hand-in-hand with natural disasters and this case was no different. It became such a big problem that on April 18, Mayor Eugene Schmitz released the following “Shoot-to-Kill” order.
However, looting was not just an issue for the public. Soldiers themselves engaged in looting. Members of the U.S. Army were charged with looting after the earthquake. Storeowners around Montgomery Block, in unburned areas, began to send Major General Adolphus Greely (the Commanding Officer of the Pacific Division) demands for payment. He rejected the reports but it was a known fact that certain soldiers of the 22nd Infantry, as well as some others, were openly looting.
A major issue that had to be address was what to do with the refugees. While rebuilding was underway, refugees could rent “relief houses” at two dollars a month. These “houses” were built by the Army out of redwood and fir. Over 5,500 were created that would house 20,000 people. They were grouped in eleven different camps and painted olive drab. By 1907, most people had moved out of the camps and, on June 30, 1908, the last official refugee camp was closed.
The damage during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires was substantial. Estimated at $500,000,000 in 1906 dollars, the rebuilding started immediately. On April 23, 1906, Governor Pardee told a newspaper reporter, “The work of rebuilding San Francisco has commenced, and I expect to see the great metropolis replaced on a much grander scale than ever before.” San Francisco was to be the host of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, so there was a rush to rebuild the broken city. By 1915 most of the reconstruction was complete and there was almost no visible damage to be seen from the deadly earthquake and destructive fires.
Renee Montagne, “Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” npr.org, April 11, 2006.
The Bancroft Library, “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire”
The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, “The Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire”
National Park Service, “1906 earthquake and the Army”