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Shaken to the Core

This is a guest post by Sonia Kahn, Library Technician in the Geography and Map Division.

At 5:12 a.m. on a typical Wednesday morning, most San Franciscans are probably sleeping. Perhaps they are just brewing their first cup of coffee, or gearing up for a jog. Maybe they are just stepping foot out the door on their way to work. Nothing out of the ordinary. But 115 years ago at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, San Franciscans had anything but a typical mundane morning.

The earthquake that hit San Francisco on that morning quite literally shook the community to its core. Despite the shaking lasting no more than a minute, the damage it caused would devastate the city for years to come. While the earthquake itself destroyed many structures, even more damage was caused by the fires it ignited. The fires raged for three days following the shaking and in the end wound up burning a whopping 4.7 square miles which amounted to nearly 500 city blocks.

Being that the majority of San Francisco’s structures at that time were of wooden construction, the impact of the fires was catastrophic. This 1904 map of San Francisco shows just how little of the city was impervious to flames. Only the shaded light brown areas seen here were considered fireproof structures. The pink and blue areas, which indicate brick and stone construction respectively, may have stood a better chance against the fires but were not earthquake resistant. The empty white blocks were filled with mostly wooden constructions. That left much of the city susceptible to the two-pronged disaster which would ultimately befall it. Over 28,000 structures would be destroyed by the fire and the quake that preceded it.

A building level map of downtown San Francisco that shows many brick and wood constructions.

This Sanborn fire insurance map from 1904 indicates the limited number of fireproof constructions throughout San Francisco before the 1906 disaster. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from San Francisco, California. Sanborn Map Company, Sep 1904. Geography and Map Division.

This photo taken in the midst of the tragedy shows the extent of the damage on just one city street. Taken from Telegraph Hill, a point of higher elevation in the northeastern part of the city, you can see the ruins of the buildings on Kearny Street.

Black and white photo looking down street in San Francisco. A man is walking up the street amid ruined buildings.

Cal. – San Francisco – Earthquake & Fire, 1906: Kearney St. from Telegraph Hill. 1906. Prints and Photographs Division.

Detail of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from San Francisco, California. 1904. Purple arrow and circle added.

If we take a closer look at the map from above we can see just how few buildings on Kearny Street were designated as fireproof, a reality that is made wistfully apparent in the photograph. In this case, the image pictured here would have been taken roughly somewhere within the purple oval (seen on left), and our view corresponds with the direction of the purple arrow which is pointed south. These frame buildings can be seen in detail in the San Francisco Sanborn Volume 1 from 1899, sheets 30-33.

Black and white photograph showing a man sitting among a group of tents with the destruction of San Francisco in the background.

Over refugees’ Camp Lake showing edge of unburned district. International Stereograph Co., 1906. Prints and Photographs Division.

The earthquake and fires which plagued San Francisco 115 years ago was undoubtedly one of the worst natural disasters in American history. The calamity left immense misfortune in its wake. At least 650 people in San Francisco and the surrounding regions were lost in the disaster, though some estimates place that number as high as 3,000. Even those who survived could hardly be considered lucky, as more than half of the city’s population of 400,000 was left homeless. Many were forced to live in tents, as seen on the right, as they waited for help to arrive and for the city to rebuild.

But despite all this, San Franciscans persevered. Within just two years of the disaster, much of the city was in the process of being rebuilt. The map below outlines the area burned by the fires in red. The solid black markings indicate new construction as of April 1908.

Map of part of San Francisco, California, April 18, 1908 : showing buildings constructed and buildings under construction during two years after fire of April 18, 1906. California Promotion Committee, 1908. Geography and Map Division.

If we zoom in once again, to the location of our first photograph, we’ll see just how much was already being reconstructed on Kearny Street in just 24 months. Nearly the entire street was being given new life after having been burned to rubble.

The 1906 disaster in San Francisco is a testament to the resilience of the city’s people. Despite facing an unfathomable tragedy fraught with loss of life and property, the citizens of San Francisco persevered and rebuilt. San Francisco quite literally, rose from the ashes, proving that with patience and determination it was possible for the Golden City to shine again.

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  1. Edward Hennessy
    April 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    As a retired RE appraiser I used these old maps as a source of defining hazardous waste sites.
    Mainly old gas stations or dry cleaners sites! I loved the details and the care these represent.
    Thanks for showing!!

  2. Scott Kleyla
    April 19, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    A lifetime of masonry experience building municipal centers, churches, schools, librarys, city works facilities, residential and commercial buildings, and understanding the time and energy to accomplish major scale city projects, to say the effort rebuilding such calamity inspiring is an understatement. Phenominal and super human is more fact.

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