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:
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.)
- View the aerial photographs taken by George Lawrence using a captive airship shortly after the earthquake.
- Explore photographs of the fires and the damage, as well as glimpses into life for the people of San Francisco in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- See images related to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915.
- Watch films of San Francisco before and after the earthquake and fire from the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division.
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.