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San Francisco: Before and After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

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Nearly half a million people lived in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, April 18, 1906.  The majority of them were fast asleep when the world began to shake apart.  At 5:12 a.m. the city was struck by a massive earthquake, one which modern science estimates at anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale. The series of shocks brought down buildings and split open streets. In a stroke of terrible luck, the earthquake also broke the water mains that served a city where most residences were made of wood, and dozens of fires erupted even as the shaking subsided.

For the next four days, San Francisco burned. With little water available, the fire department resorted to dynamiting buildings in an attempt to slow the fires. By the time the last fires burnt out on Saturday, April 21, this was San Francisco:

Ruins of San Francisco after earthquake and fire, April 18 – 21, 1906. Photo by Lester C. Guernsey, 1906.

The devastation was overwhelming:

  • Over 28,000 buildings were burned, and over 500 city blocks destroyed
  • An estimated 3,000 people lost their lives
  • More than 200,000 people were left homeless

However, the city flag of San Francisco featured a phoenix rising from the ashes for good reason.  In the fifty years since becoming a part of America, the city had burned several times, and been shaken by many earthquakes, large and small.  And each time, the city rebuilt.  The earthquake and fires of 1906 left a far larger task behind, with widespread destruction on a scale the people of San Francisco had never seen before.

And yet, they did rebuild, and they rebuilt quickly.

In a show of resilience and civic pride, the city not only rebuilt itself, it invited the world to visit as the host of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. In fact, rubble from the 1906 earthquake was used to create the land needed for the site of the exposition’s impressive structures.  On the ashes of the past, the city rose again.

Witness San Francisco’s growth and transformation from 1851 to 1922 through the slideshow below. (Click anywhere on the images to begin.)

Learn More:

San Francisco, April 18, 1906. Photo by Arnold Genthe, 1906.

Sources & Bibliography:

Burkhart, David. Earthquake Days: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire in 3-D. San Bruno, CA: Faultline Books, 2005.

Harris, David, Eric Sandweiss, and Eadweard Muybridge. Eadweard Muybridge and the Photographic Panorama of San Francisco, 1850-1880. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1993.

Saul, Eric, and Don DeNevi. The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906. Millbrae, Calif: Celestial Arts, 1981.

Winchester, Simon. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Comments (75)

  1. occasionally the paintings fall off the walls, perhaps the lights go out once in a while. The last biggy was in 89. One of my friends was scared of the Bart so he took the bridge. The bridge fell into the bay. The Bart system was just fine.

  2. I have been to California 20 years ago.
    I cannot imagine it that we had an earthquake in 1906.
    It is still a clean town.

  3. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful information specifically the final phase 🙂 I deal with such information much. I used to be seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

  4. so wut happened before the earthquake?

  5. This is great!!
    I need some info about San Francisco’s Earthquake in 1906 for school and this is great. Thanks.
    🙂 keep up the good work! (thumbs up)

  6. WOW im learning about it it was bad

  7. This is a great site that i found a lot of great information on it, i love it so much thanks to whoever made it i found it really helpful!! 🙂

  8. this is a very interesting site

  9. lol this is a good and awsome 🙂 😉

  10. this is awsome

  11. i feel bad because my great grand father was in it

  12. but this is a great site and has cool facts

  13. this is one of the coolest site i have ever been on

  14. this a nice site and i got alot of facts from it and i thank who ever made this site and your facts made since to me and me thanks

  15. nice site and facts thanks

  16. I am doing this for school to and i think im going to get an A for the project 🙂

  17. it doesn’t really tell what happens after the earthquake

  18. doesn’t really tell what happens after

  19. I like this information because i get to know a lot of new facts. This is also shocking and sad and interesting because some people died and kids and children. And it is shocking that some people survived from all of that disaster.

  20. How many people went missing?

  21. this site is awsome i never new a bout this

  22. wow

  23. this is good

  24. this is a good site but does not have much info it does not talk about the facts

  25. Loved this blog helped me so much with my gifted project

  26. The City that Knows How

  27. In the days following the earthquake, officials destroyed an estimated $30,000 worth of intoxicating liquors. Whoa… I feel bad


  29. Hey nice site, makes it easier, you know, calmed.

  30. doesn’t really tell what happened after the earthquake

  31. this is really great for my school assignment

  32. thats really crazy

  33. Thx this is awesome!!!!

  34. This article doesn’t really state what happened afterwards in any detail, my question was how did everyone react to the “event” and all it says here is they rebuilt and grieved a little. I didn’t have my question answered so you might want to include more things, like how did people react, how did people recover, how many injured over all, just some more facts would be helpful, thanks for reading this comment/review.

  35. This article was useful to me, thank you

  36. this was very helpful helped for my school asitment not copying any one by the way hi

  37. it was at 5:18 a.m not 5:12

  38. a-some

  39. what happened after the earthquake did they rebuild more citys

  40. Love this website , you guys have me a lot of information keep up the great work.♥

  41. this happened on my bday

  42. I was searching trying to see how people/bodies were detected in the crumbled up buildings and I haven’t been able to find anything on this I was hoping to find it here but I’ve looked everywhere… maybe I just read passed it?

  43. good job thnx

  44. I love earthquake and I want to be in a big one

  45. I want to know what it feels like to be in an earthquake

  46. I saw this site and when i read that more than 3,000 ppl were killed i was amazed at how many ppl died. This was a great site and it helped me with my social studys

  47. I saw this site and when i read that more than 3,000 people were killed i was amazed at how many people died. This was a great site and it helped me with my social studys. (^_^)

  48. When was San Francisco rebuilt?

  49. well done pal

  50. This is a good site. I need this for school so thanks to whoever made it!

  51. This site is so helpful for my projects! Thanks!

  52. You didn’t touch upon before the Earthquake at all and it literally says in the title BEFORE and AFTER the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

  53. Thank you so much. That was so helpful

  54. this did not help me i want too know how they coped

  55. really helpful and i got an a for my class project. keep up the good work.

  56. I learned new things about the San Francisco earthquake, but I also wanted to know what happened during the earthquake, still I loved it!:)

  57. wow dude

  58. I wanted to know how did it affect the city, but at list I got some information

  59. I need this for a project and it worked out well. I need to do a slideshow about it and there is a lot of facts that i wrote. Thumbs Up!! *claps* 🙂

  60. It was helpful a little bit it doesn’t really tell me what happened after the earthquake and fire

  61. Had to use this for my science project about the SF earthquake and fire

  62. I need to find 2 pictures of the earthquake effects to today

  63. What a tragedy – the earthquakes that destroyed the city more than once, I might add, killed thousands of people. While a lot of the dead were recovered, there are most likely still hundreds more buried that were not. I’m sure there are lots of reported hauntings around the city. The deaths coupled with tragedy results in restless spirits.
    Look it up on Google – san francisco hauntings. The biggest quake is yet to come. If you live there, make plans to escape once it happens. Believe me, it’s not a matter of ‘IF’ it’s a matter of ‘WHEN’.

  64. Very useful website good job :))))) (THUMBS UP!!!)

  65. This was very helpful.You did great writing this. Keep up the good work.


  66. oof that sucks

  67. ;-; dat sad

  68. WoW, i did not know nothing about the San Francisco earthquake this helped alot thanks:):):):):):):):):)

  69. thanks this website is really helpful for the book were making

  70. oh my god i love this so much, this helped me out with my san fransisco earthquake speech and i love this website, keep up the good work, thanks. :3

  71. So wut happened before and where’s the after too?

  72. Very nice site. I am a fourth generation resident of SF and a big local history buff. I still remember the Loma Priest quake vividly. I often refer to your site to see what buildings were lost to us, and what was able to be restored.

  73. Thanks! I’m working on this for a geography assignment and it helps.

  74. this helped so much for my project thank you

  75. My grandfather lived on Telegraph Hill in 1906. When the earthquake hit the brick chimney collapsed and trapped his sister in her room. They had to dig her out.
    Also my mother’s uncle had a large collection of photographs of SF after the earthquake which was stolen at a meeting. Some of his photographs may have been credited to others.

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