San Francisco Mission District burning in the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
In the spring of 1906, San Francisco had a population of 410,000 people — a world-class metropolis whose citizens, at the turn of the century, looked forward with civic pride and growing confidence.
The very existence of San Francisco was a triumph of imagination over reality. In 1846, the area was mostly barren sand dunes fringed by wind-stunted oaks and inhabited primarily by billions of fleas that tormented both man and beast.
In 1846, the scraggly little village of Yerba Buena, named after a local shrub, was clustered near the lip of San Francisco Bay’s Yerba Buena Cove. The discovery of gold in 1848 would change everything.
The Gold Rush aided Yerba Buena, now known as San Francisco, in its transformation from sleepy hamlet to ‘instant city.’ Thousands of gold seekers from all over the world descended on California, increasing the city’s population from around 500 in 1847 to 30,000 in 1851. This rapid expansion continued throughout the nineteenth century.
Market Street was San Francisco’s main thoroughfare as one 1906, a 120-foot-wide thoroughfare that featured some of the city’s most impressive landmarks. Americans were astounded by what had been accomplished in just 60 years.
The Union Ferry Depot, affectionately known as the ‘Ferry Building’ by most locals, stood at the eastern end of Market. Because San Francisco was located on the tip of a peninsula, the Ferry Building was one of the city’s main entrances.
Its clock tower, inspired by the Giralda Bell Tower in Seville, Spain, protruded from the sky above the waterfront like an exclamation point.
The Palace Hotel, the largest and most luxurious hotel on the West Coast, was another jewel in Market Street’s crown. When it first opened in 1875, it had 800 well-appointed rooms and stood an impressive seven stories tall.
Most visitors were taken aback by the interior, which featured a central grand court surrounded by tier after tier of columned galleries and crowned by an amber-colored glass domed ceiling.
William Ralston, one of San Francisco’s early boosters, conceived of the hotel. Ralston, a hardheaded businessman, robber baron, and dreamer, was well aware that the area was prone to earthquakes.
Temblors had shook the Bay Area in 1865 and 1868, and Ralston was determined to protect his creation from the capricious forces of nature. The 2-foot-thick walls were reinforced with three thousand tons of ‘earthquake proof’ iron banding.
Ralston was also aware of the dangers of fire, so he left nothing to chance. A 358,000-gallon subbasement reservoir was located beneath the grand court, as were six water tanks on the hotel’s iron roof.
Hoses were kept on each floor so that bellboys could fight any fires that arose. As a finishing touch, 12 fire hydrants near the hotel on Market and New Montgomery streets were linked to the roof tanks.
As one visitor passing by the 18-story Call/Spreckels Building at Third and Market would soon arrive at a triangle of land bounded by Market, Larkin, and McAllister streets. This was the civic center, with San Francisco’s new City Hall as its focal point.
The city contracted for the building in 1871, but ‘cost overruns’ — seasoned with massive corruption — delayed its completion for decades.
During that time, the partially completed building, with its exposed steel girders resembling a forlorn skeleton, was quickly dubbed ‘The New City Hall Ruin.’ By 1900, it had been completed and was fully occupied.
Turn-of-the-century San Francisco was a cosmopolitan city with one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country. Only a few blocks north of Market Street was Chinatown, widely regarded as the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.
The official census of 1900 recorded 11,000 Chinese living in Chinatown, but the true figure was likely 25,000 or higher. Chinatown was both a thriving, self-sufficient community and a gilded ghetto, a bastion of Chinese culture and an expression of white racism that forbade Asians from living anywhere else.
To most whites, Chinatown was an exotic place of oriental mystery, where one could shop for Chinese trinkets, gawk at real or alleged opium dens, eat at a Chinese restaurant, or simply stroll the streets admiring the colorful shops and temples festooned with Chinese characters and bulbous lanterns.
But Chinatown was also a man-made construct, and any Asian who ventured beyond its boundaries risked a severe beating — or worse — at the hands of ever-vigilant white street thugs.
Most Chinese did not have the comfort of family life because they were forbidden by racist laws from becoming naturalized citizens. Due to restrictive immigration laws, Chinatown had a population of only 1,300 women.
San Francisco’s new maturity was evident in the arts, where it competed with Chicago and even New York. Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor, debuted in Carmen at the Grand Opera House on Mission Street on April 17, 1906.
He had a performance of La Boheme the following day, Thursday, and a performance of Faust the following Saturday. Carmen was a smashing success, and Caruso returned to his suite at the Palace Hotel ecstatic.
People watch as the Winchester Hotel burns in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
San Franciscans were rudely awakened at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, by a sharp jolt that lasted about 45 seconds. This was a foreshadowing, an overture to a dreadful symphony of devastation.
After about 10 or 12 seconds, the city was rocked by a far more powerful temblor that lasted 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquakes were caused by the San Andreas fault, a 600-mile-long fissure in the earth’s crust.
Scientists could only speculate on the causes of earthquakes in 1906, but thanks to the study of plate tectonics, we now have a better understanding of the forces that had been unleashed.
The San Andreas fault divides the earth’s North American Plate to the east and the Pacific Plate to the west. The Pacific Plate is moving north, while the North American Plate is moving south, at a rate of about 2 inches per year.
Continue Reading 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Sometimes the plates lock, leaving no room for further movement. The earth, on the other hand, is a dynamic entity, and as the plates continue to shift, incredible strain is produced.
When the strain finally reaches a breaking point, the two plates lurch forward, often overlapping, releasing massive amounts of pent-up energy in the process.
Although techniques for measuring the intensity of earthquakes had not been invented by 1906, modern estimates place the San Francisco earthquake damage at about 7.9 on the current Richter scale.
The shaking was terrible, accompanied by a ‘freight train’ rumble that will live on in the memories of survivors. Buildings swayed wildly, facades collapsed, draft horses galloped in terror, and brick walls tumbled into the street, creating acrid clouds of choking dust.
Caruso awoke to a rude awakening at the Palace Hotel. ‘Everything in the room was going round and round,’ recalled the legendary tenor. The chandelier was attempting to touch the ceiling, and the chairs were chasing each other. Crash-crash-crash! It was a horrible scene.’
One of the first casualties was Fire Chief Engineer Dennis T. Sullivan, who was killed when a chimney from the California Theater smashed into the fire station where he was living without warning. Faced with the greatest crisis in its history, the fire department was effectively decapitated.
The majority of the city’s residents were still sleeping when the earthquake struck, but a few police officers, delivery wagon teamsters, and other early risers witnessed the initial impact.
When the shaking began, San Francisco Examiner reporter Fred Hewitt had just finished speaking with two police officers. Fissures appeared as streets rose and fell and rose again in a rolling motion, the undulations giving the impression that the earth itself was ‘breathing,’ as Hewitt reported.
African American families on street during the San Francisco Earthquake Damage 1906
To the untrained eye, the quake damage appeared arbitrary, a whim of nature’s capriciousness. Some structures were virtually undamaged, while others were severely damaged. Much depended on construction techniques, materials used, and, most importantly, the composition of the ground beneath.
Parts of the bay had been filled in during the Gold Rush to make way for new development. This’made ground’ was essentially landfill that had performed poorly in previous major earthquakes.
When shaking occurred, the made ground consisted of loose earth, old timbers, rocks, and other debris, and this hodgepodge lacked cohesion. Strong earthquakes transformed landfill into a soft, unstable ‘pudding,’ a process known as liquefaction in science.
The Greco-Roman columns that surrounded the dome collapsed along with much of the masonry facade in a matter of seconds, reducing City Hall to a ruin.
The building site was once a marsh, and the soft ground made any large structure built there vulnerable in the event of a major earthquake. Nature, in this case, had been aided by the greed of city officials and contractors over the nearly 30-year span of the building’s construction.
Shoddy materials were purposefully used to save money and pocket government funds. The building materials had been contaminated with old newspapers and trash.
Even before the great quake, internal sewage had seeped into City Hall’s basement, forming a stinking pool of filth. The stench of sewage was a perfect metaphor for the stench of corruption that seeped from behind the city’s beautiful facade.
The densely populated South of Market neighborhood was also hard hit. It was primarily a working-class neighborhood filled with small businesses, rooming houses, and restaurants. During the Gold Rush, much of the area was a marsh. The four-story Valencia Hotel became synonymous with the South of Market disaster.
Before the entire structure collapsed on itself, three stories had sunk into the marshy soil. Only the fourth story remained above ground, its walls twisted crazily. Although heroic rescue efforts saved about a dozen victims, nearly 30 died in the hotel. Many people are likely to have drowned because a nearby water main flooded the already mushy soil.
Troops walk east along Market Street after the devastating san francisco earthquake damage 1906
Because City Hall was destroyed, a temporary command post was established at the Hall of Justice near Portsmouth Plaza. Mayor Eugene Schmitz was at his home at 2849 Fillmore St., a short ride from the Hall of Justice, when the earthquake struck, so he didn’t waste any time reporting for duty.
He’d been under fire recently, accused of graft and accepting bribes, and this disaster presented an opportunity for political redemption. Schmitz was the president of the local musicians’ union at the time, but in city affairs, he was really second fiddle to political boss Abraham Ruef.
Ruef was a Republican Party organizer who switched to the newly formed Union Labor Party because he saw more opportunities for wealth. Ruef, a master manipulator, used Schmitz’s good looks and Irish Catholic-German ancestry to win votes.
Schmitz was a lightweight who did the bidding of his ‘puppet master,’ Ruef, despite being a charismatic speaker and charming family man.
Since the entire slate of Union Labor candidates was elected in 1905, that party now had complete control of the board of supervisors, with predictable results.
Ruef, who was no stranger to accepting ‘fees’ for political favors, referred to his rapacious bosses as “the paint eaters” because they “were so greedy that they would eat the paint off a house.” The San Francisco Bulletin’s crusading editor Fremont Older had begun printing a series of exposés on the corruption, and Schmitz was heavily implicated.
The earthquake provided Schmitz with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove his worth and confound his critics. When the mayor noticed some looting on his way to the Hall of Justice, he decided to take immediate action.
He issued a proclamation declaring that “Federal Troops, Regular Police Officers, and all Special Police Officers have been authorized to KILL any and all persons engaged in looting or…any other crime.”
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Meanwhile, large and small fires had erupted throughout the city, with some estimating as many as 60 blazes. Broken chimneys, overturned stoves, crossed electric wires, and shattered gas mains were among the causes of these fires.
However, when desperate firemen attached hoses to hydrants, they discovered that there was little or no water available. Before running completely dry, most hydrants only produced a weak, sporadic trickle.
Crystal Springs and Pilarcitos reservoirs, located miles to the south in San Mateo County, were the city’s major reservoirs. All of the water conduits that brought water to San Francisco were either near or crossed the San Andreas fault.
Even if the reservoirs and aqueducts had survived unscathed, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Within the city limits, there were over 300 water main breaks.
Several military bases, including the historic Presidio and Mare Island, were located in the San Francisco Bay area. When the tremors struck, Brigadier General Frederick Funston was on the scene and found himself in command of the Department of California because his superior, General Adolphus Greeley, was away in Washington. D.C. Funston, who stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed only 120 pounds, was a diminutive and brash officer determined to save the city by any means necessary.
While Funston was issuing orders to Army units, the Navy was mobilizing its own forces. Preble was temporarily commanded by Navy Lieutenant Frederick Newton Freeman, who sailed the destroyer and two tugboats, Active and Leslie, to the devastated city.
Freeman, who would go down in history as one of the tragedy’s heroes, recognized that water was the key to San Francisco’s survival. There were several tugboats along the waterfront, and they all did heroic work under Freeman’s command.
The tugs pumped seawater from the bay into hoses used to fight fires along the waterfront. Freeman also pumped 5,000 gallons of fresh water from the tanks of the tug Sotomoyo into the boilers of the fire engines, which were desperately fighting the blaze.
And the lieutenant had the foresight to keep 200 gallons of water in barrels for thirsty San Franciscans who were ‘pitiously crying for water.’
When the waterfront fires were extinguished, Freeman offered assistance that helped save the area around Montgomery and Jackson streets, which is now known as Jackson Square. From the tug Leslie, a hose snaked up and over Telegraph Hill, through Broadway to New Montgomery (now Columbus Avenue), and finally to the Jackson area.
Leslie’s precious conduit of saltwater stretched over 11 city blocks, and Freeman later commented that his men did their “best work” here. Because of Freeman and his men, a number of Gold Rush-era buildings, including some of San Francisco’s oldest, have survived to this day.
Funston had sent messages to the Presidio and Fort Mason a few hours before Freeman arrived, instructing the troops to report to San Francisco Police Chief Jeremiah Dinan at the Hall of Justice.
The troops dispersed throughout the city, guarding vulnerable structures, restoring order, and preventing looting. In many cases, however, the soldiers caused more harm than good by forcing thousands of people to flee their homes, ostensibly to save lives. However, many of these people were physically fit and eager to help save their homes and businesses.
The story of Dr. J.K. Plincz is a prime example. He was a young surgeon living in an octagonal house at 1027 Green St., and he and a few neighbors — and a few others — decided to save their homes.
They worked hard, wetting blankets, rugs, and carpets with water that had been painstakingly collected and using them to smother small fires and extinguish sparks before they could spring to life.
A soldier appeared and ordered Dr. Plincz to leave right away. Orders were orders, and defying an armed soldier seemed foolish. If you say the wrong thing, you might end up on the receiving end of a bayonet-tipped Springfield rifle.
Plincz, on the other hand, chose a different path. He was friendly and talkative, and he poured the soldier several glasses of fine wine. The doughboy gave in and let the Green Street defenders stay. Five houses, including Dr. Plincz’s, were spared.
Because the fire department had few resources to combat the blazes, it was agreed that firebreaks would have to be built by ruthlessly dynamiting buildings in the path of the raging inferno.
Officials from the fire department supported the new and desperate tactic, and Funston insisted it was ‘the only way.’ Mayor Schmitz was skeptical, especially since the properties in question belonged to some of his supporters.
In the end, Schmitz was persuaded, but orders were given to wait until the last possible moment before blowing up a building. Unfortunately, both civilian firefighters and soldiers had little or no experience with explosives, and their clumsy efforts contributed to the spread of the fire.
Funston made an effort to consult with Schmitz, but he acted in a high-handed, arbitrary manner at times, effectively disregarding civilian authority. Although martial law had not been declared, the general issued orders as if on a campaign.
He became more convinced that dynamiting was the city’s only hope, despite the fact that the strategy was clearly flawed by the second day.
When his dynamite supplies ran out, Funston became obsessed with finding more. He didn’t seem to notice or care that the tugboats along the waterfront were supplying water to fight the fire.
The general directed that all such vessels be removed from the firefighting line and dispatched for more dynamite. In one case, Funston ordered the tug Pricilla’seized,’ placed it under the command of 1st Lt. Raymond W. Briggs, and then dispatched it to Point Pinole to pick up more explosives.
41 days after the Great 1906 San Francisco earthquake damage and resulting fires. (Library of Congress)
Lieutenant Freeman was obviously hesitant to criticize his superior officer, but he did state that Pricilla was the “only tug available in my vicinity.” His report also used the words “seize” and “seized,” with the implication of force being a strong, albeit oblique, criticism of Funston.
The fabled Palace Hotel, an iconic symbol of Bay City, survived the earthquake only to be destroyed by fire. Guests such as Caruso were shaken, windows were broken, and some interiors were destroyed, but the building appeared to be structurally sound.
Fears that the Palace would collapse and its floors would ‘pancake’ were quickly dispelled. Ironically, the fire department diverted all of the Palace’s water resources to fight waterfront fires, leaving the building as helpless as its neighbors when the flames engulfed it.
The Call Building was also destroyed by fire. Steel-framed buildings, in general, fare well in earthquakes, and the Call building was no exception. Unfortunately, it was also gutted.
Casualties must have been high in Chinatown, one of the city’s most densely populated areas. Because the majority of the Chinese were from Kwantung (Guangdong), the shouts and pleas for help were in Cantonese. They screamed, ‘Aeeya! dai loong jen!’ ‘The earth dragon is wriggling!’ says the narrator.
Residents fled the damaged buildings, but the picturesque narrow streets and alleys of Chinatown were potential deathtraps due to falling cornices and other debris. Hundreds of Chinese fled to the relative safety of Portsmouth Square, where they congregated in large numbers.
In some ways, the Chinese were more vulnerable than the rest of San Franciscans. Because of ‘heathen Chinee’ stereotypes and the prevailing racism of the time, they would receive little assistance and sympathy from the city’s overburdened officials.
Most Chinese were afraid to seek food, medical attention, or shelter from city aid stations because of traumatic memories of white persecution.
Soldiers evacuated Chinatown, along with the rest of the city, and the dynamiting began. Lieutenant Freeman, despite his other heroic qualities, shared the common prejudices of the time.
Some Chinese remained behind, and according to the naval officer, ‘at least 20 Chinese, opium fiends and drunks, were blown up by dynamite.’ Another report stated flatly that several mangled Chinese bodies could be seen in the ruins, and that ‘at least one building 5 or 6 bodies were thrown 50 feet into the air and back into the flames.’
The fires merged into three major blazes: one south of Market, one north of Market, and one in Hayes Valley, west of the shattered City Hall. Fanned by high winds, this malevolent trio quickly coalesced into a raging firestorm.
The blaze grew so hot that temperatures reached over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The flames crackled and roared, creating a massive column of black smoke that some claimed rose five miles into the sky. The great bay city seemed doomed, immolated on its own funeral pyre.
Van Ness Avenue, a broad north-south thoroughfare, was a ‘natural’ firebreak and the city’s last major line of defense. There were still residential areas west of Van Ness that had escaped the earthquake relatively unscathed — but would they succumb to the fire?
The great inferno jumped Van Ness in a couple of places, but exhausted firefighters held the line. The fire had essentially burned itself out by Saturday, April 21. Soon after, a deluge of rain fell, too late to put out the fire but welcome nonetheless.
The top priorities in the coming months were relief and reconstruction. A total of 514 city blocks, or four square miles, had been destroyed by fire. The great fire destroyed an estimated 28,000 buildings, with property damage losses ranging up to $500 million. City fathers downplayed the number of casualties, fearing that future investors would be put off.
Various figures were floated, but they all had one thing in common: they were suspiciously low, at least in comparison to the magnitude of the disaster. According to one early estimate, 667 people were killed and 352 were missing.
Gladys Hansen, a San Francisco City Librarian, conducted pioneering research that estimated the death toll at over 3,000 people, while recent researchers estimate it at around 4,000. Everyone agrees that 250,000 people were made homeless.
San Francisco officials attempted to relocate Chinatown to Hunter’s Point, a remote location barely within city limits. The plan was thwarted in part because of the construction plans of local businessman Look Tin Eli.
Eli was ABC (American-born Chinese), and he hired architects to make his remodeled store look more exotic and ‘Asian.’ The concept caught on, and pagoda roofs and other Chinese motifs contributed to the restored Chinatown becoming a major tourist attraction.
The disaster, ironically, had an unexpected silver lining for the Chinese. City records, including birth certificates, were completely destroyed by the earthquake and fire.
Because the only way for a Chinese person to become a citizen was to be born in the United States, hundreds of people came forward after the quake to obtain new documents, claiming their birth certificates had been destroyed by the flames.
Many were successful, but the authorities eventually caught on. Each Chinese woman in San Francisco’s Chinatown would have had to have given birth to 500 children if every citizenship claim had been true!
San Francisco has a long history of surviving natural disasters. Between 1849 and 1851, the city burned down six times during the Gold Rush period. The phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, was chosen as its symbol.
San Francisco did recover, and by 1915, it was hosting the Panama Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco survived because of its citizens’ bravery, endurance, and unfailing sense of humor.
Not long after the disaster, a sign appeared that mocked an East Bay rival while encapsulating the San Francisco spirit. ‘Eat, Drink, and Be Merry,’ read the slogan, ‘Because Tomorrow We Might Have to Go to Oakland.’
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