History of San Francisco

1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Arnold Genthe's famous photograph, looking toward the fire on Sacramento Street

Major earthquake struck San Francisco, California, and the coast of Northern California on Wednesday, April 18 1906 at 5:12am. The main shock epicenter occurred offshore about 2 miles (3 km) from the city, near Mussel Rock. Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada. The earthquake and resulting fire are remembered as the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States alongside the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The death toll from the earthquake and resulting fire, estimated to be above 3,000, is the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California's history. The economic impact has been compared with the more recent Hurricane Katrina.

Panorama of San Francisco in ruins, taken via kite photography approx. 2,000 feet (609 m) above San Francisco Bay overlooking water front. Sunset over Golden Gate. May 28, 1906 by George R. Lawrence


At the time, 375 deaths were reported; the figure was fabricated by government officials who felt that reporting the true death toll would hurt real estate prices and efforts to rebuild the city; additionally, hundreds of casualties in Chinatown went ignored and unrecorded. Today, this figure has been revised to an estimate of at least 3,000. Between 227,000 and 300,000 people were left homeless out of a population of about 410,000; half of the people who evacuated fled across the bay to Oakland and Berkeley. Newspapers at the time described Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, the Panhandle and the beaches between Ingleside and North Beach as being covered with makeshift tents. More than two years later in 1908, many of these refugee camps were still in full operation.

Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire. Though San Francisco would rebuild quickly, the disaster would divert trade, industry and population growth south to Los Angeles, which during the 20th century would become the largest and most important urban area in the West. In addition, many of the city's leading poets and writers retreated to Carmel-by-the-Sea where, as "The Bohemians", they established the arts colony reputation that continues today.

The 1908 Lawson Report, a study of the 1906 quake led and edited by Professor Andrew Lawson of the University of California, showed that the very same San Andreas Fault which had caused the disaster in San Francisco ran close to Los Angeles as well. The earthquake was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be documented by photography and motion picture footage. Furthermore, it occurred at a time when the science of seismology was blossoming. The overall cost of the damage from the earthquake was estimated at the time to be around US$400 million ($9.5 billion in 2009 dollars).

Burning of San Francisco, Mission District

Burning of San Francisco

As damaging as the earthquake and its aftershocks were, the fires that burned out of control afterward were even more destructive. It has been estimated that up to 90% of the total destruction was the result of the subsequent fires. Over 30 fires, caused by ruptured gas mains, destroyed approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks. Worst of all, many were started when firefighters, untrained in the use of dynamite, attempted to demolish buildings to create firebreaks, which resulted in the destruction of more than 50% of the buildings that would have otherwise survived. The city's Fire Chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, who would have been responsible, had died in the initial quake. The dynamited buildings themselves often caught fire. In all, the fires burned for four days and nights.

Due to a widespread practice by insurers to indemnify San Francisco properties from fire, but not earthquake damage, most of the destruction in the city was blamed on the fires. Some property owners deliberately set fire to damaged properties, in order to claim them on their insurance; this ultimately served no purpose, as wealthier citizens of the city shouldered the costs of repairing an estimated 80% of the city. Capt. Leonard D. Wildman of the U.S. Army Signal Corps reported that he "was stopped by a fireman who told me that people in that neighborhood were firing their houses... they were told that they would not get their insurance on buildings damaged by the earthquake unless they were damaged by fire."

As water mains were also broken, the city fire department had few resources with which to fight the fires. Several fires in the downtown area merged to become one giant inferno. Brigadier General Frederick Funston, commander of the Presidio of San Francisco and a resident of San Francisco, tried to bring the fire under control by detonating blocks of buildings around the fire to create firebreaks with all sorts of means, ranging from black powder and dynamite to even artillery barrages. Often the explosions set the ruins on fire or helped spread it.

Soldiers of the 22nd Infantry Regiment looting during the fire

The U.S. Army's Role

The city's interim fire chief (the original one was killed when the earthquake first struck) sent an urgent request to the Presidio, an Army post on the edge of the stricken city, for dynamite. Funston had already decided the situation required the use of troops. Collaring a policeman, he sent word to Mayor Schmitz of his decision to assist, and then ordered Army troops from as far away as Angel Island to mobilize and come into the City. Explosives were ferried across the Bay from the California Powder Works in what is now Hercules.

During the first few days, soldiers provided valuable services patrolling streets to discourage looting and guarding buildings such as the U.S. Mint, post office, and county jail. They aided the fire department in dynamiting to demolish buildings in the path of the fires. The Army also became responsible for feeding, sheltering, and clothing the tens of thousands of displaced residents of the city. Under the command of Funston's superior, Major General Adolphus Greely, Commanding Officer, Pacific Division, over 4,000 troops saw service during the emergency. On July 1, 1906, civil authorities assumed responsibility for relief efforts, and the Army withdrew from the city.

On April 18, in response to riots among evacuees and looting, Mayor Schmitz issued and ordered posted a proclamation that "The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to kill any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime." It is estimated that as many as 500 people were shot dead in the city, many of whom, it has been suggested, were not looting at all, but were attempting to save their own possessions from the advancing fire. In addition, accusations of soldiers themselves engaging in looting also surfaced.

Early on April 18, 1906, recently retired Captain Edward Ord of the 22nd Infantry Regiment was appointed a Special Police Officer by Mayor Eugene Schmitz and liasioned with Major General Adolphus Greely for relief work with the 22nd Regiment and other military units involved in the emergency. Ord later wrote a long letter to his mother on the 20th of April regarding Schmitz' "Shoot-to-Kill" Order and some “despicable” behavior of certain soldiers of his former 22nd Regiment from the Presidio who were looting. He also made it clear that the majority of soldiers served the community well.


Earthquake, Fire department, US army