1906 Earthquake and Fire Destroy San Francisco
It was early on a Wednesday morning, with most of the residents of San Francisco peacefully sleeping, when disaster suddenly struck the City by the Bay. At 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, an earthquake tremor for about 20 seconds was followed by a major 7.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the city for over 40 seconds, jolting terrified residents awake as buildings collapsed around them. Worse still, the powerful quake twisted and broke gas and water lines. Huge fires erupted and burned continuously for three days. Without water, firefighters were helpless to stop the inferno. In their desperation they resorted to dynamiting buildings to create firebreaks, but these explosions caused additional fires, causing more harm than good.
At the time of the disaster San Francisco was the greatest city on the West Coast, the nation’s ninth largest with a population of 410,000, a bustling center of commerce and art. Three days after the earthquake struck, 500 city blocks—over 25,000 buildings—had been smashed or burned; the earthquake and fire combined to destroy over 80 percent of the city. Because so many bodies burned in the fierce, towering flames that leapt from building to building, the actual death toll will never be known, but it is estimated that over 3,000 people died. Around 300,000 people, or nearly three out of every four residents, were left homeless. The city would of course rebuild, but many beautiful buildings and civic treasures, and thousands of residents, were gone forever.
News of the earthquake flashed over the telegraph wires before the city’s telegraph buildings were destroyed. This news report was published by the Evening Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island) on the front page of its April 18, 1906, issue:
Earthquake Levels San Francisco
A Thousand Persons Reported to Be Dead
City Is in Flames and Firemen Helpless—Water Mains Burst, Leaving Buildings at Fire’s Mercy—Seven Million Dollar City Hall a Mass of Flames and Hotels Are Demolished
San Francisco, April 18.—(9 a.m. Western Time).—Shortly after daylight, while the residence portion of the city was slumbering and the streets were practically deserted save for those whose duties required their presence at the break of day, there came a rumbling that startled the sleepers from their beds and in a moment more the buildings were crumbling about their heads.
Pandemonium ensued. Half-clad men and women rushed from their houses, many of the latter dragging shrieking children by the arms. In many cases the refugees met death in the streets.
The Department Helpless
In the meantime, buildings in the business districts were crumbling; the fire department was called out, but the water mains had burst and the department was helpless. Dynamite was resorted to to check the conflagration and building after building in the path of the flames was blown up in vain.
The city was in a state of frenzy at 8:15 o’clock, when a second earthquake was felt. This proved of short duration, however, and the survivors of the disaster united their energies in the work of exhuming the dead, caring for the wounded and striving to check the progress of the flames.
The list of the dead cannot be compiled until all of the ruins have been thoroughly examined. One report is that a thousand have perished, and the officials think that is not far from the number of victims.
City One Great Morgue
The city is one great morgue.
The flames are still burning fiercely. The seven million dollar City Hall is a wreck; a number of the newspaper buildings are in ruins; the Grand Opera House is damaged; the fire is eating its way to the Palace and Grand Hotels; the Valencia Hotel, toppling, buried 75 guests; business houses have been destroyed by the wholesale; the Hall of Justice is momentarily expected to fall.
The loss is already in the millions.
There is no way of estimating the dead.
Before nightfall the entire city may be in ruins.
No water is obtainable and fires are all over the city.
All wires except one are gone.
The City Hall, costing seven millions, is in ruins.
Modern buildings suffered less than brick and frame.
Terror and excitement are indescribable. Most people were asleep and rushed into streets undressed.
Buildings swayed and crashed, burying occupants.
A great panic in downtown hotels.
Lick House is badly damaged but no loss of life there is reported.
1000 Persons Perish
Kansas City, April 18.—At 9:15 the Postal Telegraph Company here had received the following information from Los Angeles:
It is reported that 1000 lives have been lost in the earthquake at San Francisco.
Both the Postal and Western Union telegraph buildings in that city have been destroyed.
A disastrous fire is eating its way up from the south side of Market street and at last accounts was within three blocks of the Palace Hotel. Water mains were bursting and the fire department is absolutely helpless. Business has been entirely suspended.
Frisco Wires Fail
New York, April 18.—A report reaches here that a severe earthquake wrecked many buildings and caused loss of life in San Francisco this morning. The shock was felt at 5:13, San Francisco time. Following the wrecking of buildings, numerous fires broke out. The Postal Telegraph office was wrecked and communication was lost at 8:50, New York time.
The First Reports
At about 9:40 the Postal Telegraph Company had communication with their San Francisco office, but lost the connection again almost immediately. In the brief period that the wire was working the San Francisco office reported that a number of buildings had collapsed and that the dead and injured were being taken from the ruins as rapidly as possible.
At the time the message came through the principal danger was from fires, a number of which had started and were making great headway, owing to the lack of water.
The Western Union Telegraph office at Fresno says that it is the most severe shock ever known. They have no further details.
The Postal Telegraph Company learned that the fire is eating its way along Market street. The water mains were burst by the earthquake, so that there is no means at hand for fighting the conflagration. The electric lighting plant of the city has failed and gas mains are disrupted. The damage extends throughout the entire city. The Postal building was badly wrecked and the operating room cannot be used.
Sacramento, Cal., April 18.—A severe earthquake shock occurred here at an early hour this morning. There is great confusion. No loss of life is yet reported.
The Water Mains Burst
San Francisco, April 18.—(6:50 a.m.)—A disastrous fire has broken out on the south side of Market street and is now within one block of the Palace Hotel. The water mains have burst and the fire department is practically helpless.
The utmost confusion exists.
All business is suspended. At this moment there is only one wire out of San Francisco, a Postal wire. The Postal building is badly damaged. The operating room is a wreck. The power of every kind is gone and there are no lights, either gas or electricity. Neither the Palace Hotel nor the St. Francis are gone, that is, as far as the outside goes, but the inside plastering, etc., is greatly damaged.
Fire Is Burning Fiercely
Between the post office and the water front there has been great damage by fire, which is burning fiercely and there is little or no water. The fire is burning both on the east and south side of the Postal Telegraph building.
The damage by the earthquake apparently extends all over the city. The shock occurred at 5:35 this morning and lasted three minutes. The streets are blockaded.
Citizens Are Frantic
The Palace and St. Francis Hotels stood the shock. People flocked to the telegraph offices to send messages to friends and were frantic because there were no wires. The greatest damage was done to buildings south of Market street, where mostly there were frame and tenement houses. Fires occurred in every block in that district.
The People in Flight
Kansas City, April 18.—At 8:35 this morning the Postal Telegraph Company here stated that the only information obtainable from the West was that their operators at San Francisco had left their building in that city and reported that many buildings were collapsing and many fires breaking out with no water available to fight the flames. People were fleeing from the affected districts.
Earthquake Reached across the Continent
Washington, April 18.—The San Francisco earthquake has reached across the entire continent.
The seismograph at the weather bureau here showed such a violent agitation about 8:30 o’clock this morning that the pen passed off the recording sheet.
The instrument at 12 o’clock was still under vibration, showing that the earthquake has not ceased.
After some of the refugees had gotten safely out of San Francisco, their stories started to appear in the press. This account was published by the Charlotte Daily Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina) on April 20, 1906:
Story of a Refugee
Chicagoan Arriving at Los Angeles from San Francisco Describes Panic Following Earthquake—Thousand Clawed Iron Ferry Gates and Then Turned on Each Other
Los Angeles, Cal., April 19.—Albert H. Gould, of Chicago, was one of three persons to arrive in Los Angeles on the first train from San Francisco, which reached here today.
“I was asleep on the seventh floor of the Palace Hotel,” he said, “at the time of the first earthquake. I was thrown out of bed and half way across the room. Immediately realizing the import of the occurrence and fearing that the building was about to collapse, I made my way down several flights of stairs and into the main corridor. I was the first guest to appear. The clerk and hotel employees were running about like madmen. Within two minutes after I had reached the corridor other guests began to flock into the court. Almost all wore night clothing only. Men, women and children stood as though fixed. Children and women cried. The men were hardly less affected.
“I returned to my room and got my clothing; then walked to the offices of the Western Union in my pajamas and bare feet to telegraph to my wife in Los Angeles. I found the telegraphers on duty, but all the wires were down. I sat down on the sidewalk, picked the broken glass out of the soles of my feet and put on my clothes. All this I suppose took 20 minutes. Within that time, below the Palace Hotel, buildings for more than three blocks were a mass of flames, which spread to other buildings.
“People by the thousands were crowded around the ferry station. They clawed at the iron gates like so many maniacs. They sought to break the bars, and failing in that turned on each other. After a maddening delay, we got aboard the boat and crossed the bay.”
In that same issue, the Charlotte Daily Observer published another article providing further details of the earthquake and fire:
Robbing the Dead
Vandals and Ghouls at Work Despite the Vigilance of the Police and Soldiers
San Francisco, April 19.—Despite the vigilance of police and soldiers many places were pillaged in the wholesale region. The liquor stores were broken into and vagabonds were lying in the streets.
The ruin in the commission and the wholesale quarters is complete, the flames of last night having completed the paralyzing work of the morning.
Under the debris were killed and buried hundreds of horses hitched to vegetable wagons which were ready to receive the day’s supplies.
The dead horses were piled high and the wreckage blocked the streets until the advancing conflagration turned all that section of the town into a vast funeral pyre.
Last night hundreds of firemen and rescuers were prostrated by the strain of the continual fight since early morning. In the crowds at many points people fainted and in some instances dropped dead of shock.
The Mechanics Pavilion was turned into a hospital with a corps of 100 physicians. It was later destroyed by the fire but not until all the patients had been removed.
Down on the harbor front the earth seems to have sunk from 6 to 8 inches and great cracks appear in the streets. The car tracks were twisted into all shapes and the buildings, before they were destroyed by the fire, were seen to be out of plumb. The flames swept in sheets across Front street and the street cars and Southern Pacific rolling stock, together with mail cars, were burned to their truck wheels.
All of San Francisco’s best playhouses, including the Majestic, Columbia, Orpheum and Grand Opera House, are a mass of ruins. The earthquake demolished them for all practical purposes and the fire completed the work of demolition. The handsome Rialto and Casserty buildings were burned to the ground, as was everything in that district.
Scene of Sadness
The scene at the Mechanics Pavilion during the early hours and until noon, when the injured and dead were removed because of the threatened destruction of the building by fire, was one of indescribable sadness. Sisters, brothers, wives and sweethearts searched eagerly for some missing dear one. Thousands of persons hurriedly went through the building inspecting the cots on which the sufferers lay, in the hope that they would find some loved one that was missing.
The dead were placed in one portion of the building and the remainder was devoted to hospital purposes. After the fire forced the nurses and physicians to desert the building the eager crowds followed them to the Presidio and the children’s hospital, where they renewed their search for missing relatives.
Morgues Go Up in Flames
Temporary morgues were improvised at many points only to be razed by the flames. The city resembles one vast shambles with the red glare of fire throwing weird shadows across the wan and panic-stricken faces of the homeless who are wandering the streets or sleeping on piles of mattresses and clothing in the parks and on the sidewalks in those districts not yet reached by the fire. Thousands have fled the city. Forgetting for a moment the terrible sufferings, physical and financial, that trails in the wake of the disaster, the scene presented by the flames is one of unspeakable grandeur.
In Newspaper Offices
The stereotypers and the pressmen of The Examiner and The Call, as soon as the shock was felt, rushed out of their buildings and found that the coffee house at Stevenson and Third streets had collapsed. They immediately set to work with axes and other implements to rescue those inside.
The pastor of St. Francis church, on the slope of Telegraph Hill, a few blocks from the raging furnace below, gathered his flock about him on the sidewalk, where all knelt in prayer.
The Chinese were greatly alarmed and, though not in apparent danger, many of them flocked to the public squares with their families.
The tower of the hall of justice was greatly damaged. In the basement of the building, Mayor Schmitz established his headquarters, using candles for light.
The Story Incomplete
It will be many days before the complete story of the ruin wrought by the double calamity of earthquake and fire that visited San Francisco will be written and then there will still remain untold countless tales of woe. The exact loss of life will never be known, as hundreds of unfortunates have been in the flames which made the rescue of those buried under the toppling steeples and falling walls impossible.