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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906

The event that spurred this entire Earthquake Week was when I came across a book recently about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and subsequent fire. I had heard it mentioned before and seen some pictures and knew it was bad, but didn’t know really anything more than that. So I decided this was something I needed to know more about.

There are some FANTASTIC resources on line to learn about this disaster and believe me I took advantage of many of them – and I think I didn’t go to Wikipedia once! First let me give you some facts about this disaster – in case you are as clueless as I was about 2 weeks ago!

The earthquake struck on 5:13 AM on April 18, 1906. It is believed to have been close to an 8.7 on the Richter scale. This quake lasted for approximately 1 minute but was enough to shift the land about 20 feet in some places and knock many buildings down. The worst of the destruction was still to come from the fires that followed and ravaged the town for three days. In the end over 400 city blocks were destroyed – that’s roughly 25,000 buildings – and over 200,000 were homeless. The number that is harder to pin down is the number of deaths. The official report said somewhere around 400 dead – but this number is up for A LOT of speculation. The city officials wanted to play down the number of deaths in order to make the disaster not look so bad to the nation. And let’s not forget the thousand or so Chinese who lived in China Town that they didn’t count who lost the lives. They also wanted to destruction to look like it came from the fire rather than the earthquake – for insurance reasons.

There are many reasons for the extent of the damage and destruction. There was a very corrupt political machine government at the time. A shoot to kill order was put out to the army and police for anyone looting buildings – but some of those killed were just trying to save their own possessions. Many buildings were destroyed by dynamiting – supposedly to create firebreaks that would stop the fire, but they really created more fires from the flying debris. There were many problems with the water mains and they couldn’t pump a lot of water. Plus – we are talking a major lack of building codes and safety features that are common today.

Pictures of the destruction are impressive – I will be having a photo montage coming up later this week. Some of the best photos to show the widespread damage are the panoramic shots.

One historian, Gladys Hansen, has worked hard to try and put together a much more comprehensive list of those who perished in the fire. Through correspondence with families and other reports she has compiled a list of over 3,000 who died due to this disaster and is still working on the project.

If you are interested in learning more about this disaster let me recommend some great sites to you.

The Encyclopedia of Earth provides a wealth of information on the actual earthquake – seismograph information, where the fault was, scientific lessons, will it happen again?, etc.

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco provided the most information about the disaster. I spent hours searching around this site. They have segments of the website dedicated to the Earthquake, Gold Rush, and Golden Gate Bridge, among other topics. In the Earthquake section there are links to the register of who died, photos, newspaper clippings, eyewitness accounts, and various reports from police, fire department, and Army and Navy.

EyeWitness to History focuses on firsthand accounts of disasters. They have three separate accounts of what it was like to live through the earthquake and fire.

Exploratorium has a feature that walks you through the disaster. It integrates images, firsthand accounts, and historical details as you click through it.

I also wanted to share this video clip that I have found:

This one is in my opinion the most interesting. It is a side by side comparison of two films – the one on the left was filmed 4 days before the earthquake and the one on the right was filmed after the disaster. Both of these films are traveling down the same stretch of Market Street and are synced up pretty good.

Hope this adventure has taught you something and made you interested in checking out some of these great resources!

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Wow -- loved this post for all the meaty resources and the wonderful visuals!! The panoramic shots are jaw-dropping -- and that vid -- wow. I'm showing it to my coworkers because they wanted to know what I was gasping about. Wonderful post, Heather -- thanks for pulling this together. I've known abt this earthquake but never really understood the enormity of the damage.

  2. Audra - it's the video awesome? I totally came across it on accident. I never would have thought there was video footage - I was shocked enough by all the photos! It really helps to put the damage into perspective, because I had no idea what it looked like before!


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