The History Of The San Francisco Earthquake

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a major earthquake that struck San Francisco, California, and the coast of Northern California at 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906.[3] The most widely accepted estimate for the magnitude of the earthquake is a moment magnitude (Mw) of 7.9;[1] however, other values have been proposed, from 7.7 to as high as 8.25.[4] The main shock epicenter occurred offshore about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the city, near Mussel Rock. It ruptured along the San Andreas Fault both northward and southward for a total of 296 miles (476 km).[5] Shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and inland as far as central Nevada.[6] The earthquake and resulting fire are remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States[7] alongside the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The death toll from the earthquake and resulting fire, estimated to be above 3,000,[8] 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.[9]


At the time, 375 deaths were reported;[10] 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. This figure is still uncertain today, estimated to be roughly 3,000 at minimum.[11] Most of the deaths occurred in San Francisco itself, but 189 were reported elsewhere in the Bay Area;[3] nearby cities, such as Santa Rosa and San Jose also suffered severe damages. In Monterey County, the earthquake permanently shifted the course of the Salinas River near its mouth. Where previously the river emptied into Monterey Bay between Moss Landing and Watsonville, it was diverted 6 miles south to a new outlet just north of Marina.
Houses damaged by the earthquake
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.[12]
The earthquake and fire would leave a long-standing and significant impression on the development of California. At the time of the disaster, San Francisco had been the ninth-largest city in the United States and the largest on the West Coast, with a population of about 410,000. Over a period of 60 years, the city had become the financial, trade and cultural center of the West; operated the busiest port on the West Coast; and was the “gateway to the Pacific”, through which growing US economic and military power was projected into the Pacific and Asia. 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 Barness”, 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).

Damage to other towns
Although the impact of the earthquake on San Francisco was the most famous, the earthquake also inflicted considerable damage on several other cities. These include San Jose and Santa Rosa, the entire downtown of which was essentially destroyed.[14][15][16]

The San Andreas Fault.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was caused by a rupture on the San Andreas Fault, a continental transform fault that forms part of the boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. This fault runs the length of California from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino to the north, a distance of about 800 miles (1,300 km). The earthquake ruptured the northern third of the fault for a distance of 296 miles (476 km). The maximum observed surface displacement was about 20 feet (6 m); however, geodetic measurements show displacements of up to 28 feet (8.5 m).[17]
A strong foreshock preceded the mainshock by about 20 to 25 seconds. The strong shaking of the main shock lasted about 42 seconds. The shaking intensity as described on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale reached VIII in San Francisco and up to IX in areas to the north like Santa Rosa where destruction was devastating. There were decades of minor earthquakes – more than at any other time in the historical record for northern California – before the 1906 quake. Widely interpreted previously as precursory activity to the 1906 earthquake, they have been found to have a strong seasonal pattern and have been postulated to be due to large seasonal sediment loads in coastal bays that overlie faults as a result of the erosion caused by “hydraulic mining” in the later years of the California Gold Rush.[18]
[edit]Subsequent fires

Burning of San Francisco, Mission District
As damaging as the earthquake and its aftershocks were, the fires that burned out of control afterward were even more destructive.[19] It has been estimated that up to 90% of the total destruction was the result of the subsequent fires.[20] 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.[21] 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. Capt. Leonard D. Wildman of the U.S. Army Signal Corps[22] 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.”[21]
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.
One landmark building lost in the fire was the Palace Hotel, subsequently rebuilt, which had many famous visitors, including royalty and celebrated performers. It was constructed in 1875 primarily financed by Bank of California co-founder William Ralston, the “man who built San Francisco.” In April 1906, the tenor Enrico Caruso and members of the Metropolitan Opera Company came to San Francisco to give a series of performances at the Grand Opera House. The night after Caruso’s performance in Carmen, the tenor was awakened in the early morning in his Palace Hotel suite by a strong jolt. Clutching an autographed photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, Caruso made an effort to get out of the city, first by boat and then by train, and vowed never to return to San Francisco. He kept his word. The Metropolitan Opera Company lost all of its traveling sets and costumes in the earthquake and ensuing fires.[23]
Some of the greatest losses from fire were in scientific laboratories. Alice Eastwood, the Curator of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is credited with saving nearly 1,500 specimens, including the entire type specimen collection for a newly discovered and extremely rare species, before the remainder of the largest botanical collection in the western United States was consumed by fire.[24][25] The entire laboratory and all the records of Benjamin R. Jacobs, a biochemist who was researching the nutrition of everyday foods, was lost.[26] Another treasure lost in the fires was the original California flag used in the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma, which at the time was being stored in a state building in San Francisco.[27]
[edit]The Army’s role in the aftermath

Thank God for the Soldiers, a period piece depicting U.S. Army soldiers bringing in critical supplies for the survivors.
Soldiers of the 22nd Infantry Regiment looting during the fire
Displaced victims of the earthquake, in front of a temporary tent shelter. Other tents can be seen in the background at right.
One of the eleven temporary housing camps in 1906
The city’s interim fire chief (the previous fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, was injured when the earthquake first struck; he later died from his injuries) sent an urgent request to the Presidio, an Army post on the edge of the stricken city, for dynamite. General 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 nearby 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 like 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.” [28] In addition, accusations of soldiers themselves engaging in looting also surfaced.[29]
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[30] 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.[29]
[edit]Relocation and housing of displaced

The Army built 5,610 redwood and fir “relief houses” to accommodate 20,000 displaced people. The houses were designed by John McLaren, and were grouped in eleven camps, packed close to each other and rented to people for two dollars per month until rebuilding was completed. They were painted olive drab, partly to blend in with the site, and partly because the military had large quantities of olive drab paint on hand. The camps had a peak population of 16,448 people, but by 1907 most people had moved out. The camps were then re-used as garages, storage spaces or shops. The cottages cost on average $100 to put up. The $2 monthly rents went towards the full purchase price of $50. Most of the shacks have been destroyed, but a small number survived. One of the modest 720 sq ft (67 m2) homes was recently purchased for more than $600,000.[31] The last official refugee camp was closed on June 30, 1908. [32]
[edit]Aftermath and reconstruction

Property losses from the disaster have been estimated to be more than $400 million.[33][34] An insurance industry source tallies insured losses at $235 million (equivalent to $5.73 billion in 2010 dollars[35][33]).
People leaving the city in 1906
Political and business leaders strongly downplayed the effects of the earthquake, fearing loss of outside investment in the city which was badly needed to rebuild.[33] In his first public statement, California governor George C. Pardee emphasized the need to rebuild quickly: “This is not the first time that San Francisco has been destroyed by fire, I have not the slightest doubt that the City by the Golden Gate will be speedily rebuilt, and will, almost before we know it, resume her former great activity.”[36] The earthquake itself is not even mentioned in the statement. Fatality and monetary damage estimates were manipulated.[33][37] In the rush to rebuild the city, building standards were first made much more stringent, but after about a year, they were in fact lowered, instead of strengthened, “by upwards of 50%” according to historian Robert Hansen. The History Channel International series Mega Disasters attributes the rollback of the strict codes to complaints by contractors under duress from city fathers for the slow rate of reconstruction.[33] In the report, the building codes were taken back off the books in only 13 months, while the official death toll was placed at a mere 379[33]—which estimates raised plenty of eyebrows even at the time, as it was undoubtedly the most photographed disaster then known to mankind, and the damage suggests far more would have been trapped as is backed by anecdotal stories of many being trapped in fallen buildings then consumed by flames.[33] For over forty years now, research by a San Francisco librarian has amassed a death toll well in excess of three thousand, and she has opined the effort will go on for years more.[33] Part of the rush to rebuild was the desire to be ready for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition set to be hosted in 1915, and indeed by that year there was almost no visible damage to be seen in the city. The total disregard to earthquake safety plagues the city today, as a majority of buildings now standing in the city were built in the first half of the 20th century to the lax codes. Building standards did not reach even 1906 levels until the 1950s.[33] A detailed analysis of the city today estimates that an earthquake less powerful than the 1906 quake would completely destroy many sections of the city and result in thousands of deaths.[33]
Almost immediately after the quake (and even during the disaster), planning and reconstruction plans were hatched to quickly rebuild the city. Rebuilding funds were immediately tied up by the fact that virtually all the major banks had been sites of the conflagration, requiring a lengthy wait of seven-to-ten days before their fire-proof vaults could cool sufficiently to be safely opened without risk of spontaneous combustion. The Bank of Italy, however, had no vault and evacuated its funds to the country and was the only bank able to provide liquidity in the immediate aftermath. Its president also immediately chartered and financed the sending of two ships to return with shiploads of lumber from Washington and Oregon mills which provided the initial reconstruction materials and surge. In 1929, Bank of Italy was renamed and is now known as Bank of America.[33]
William James, the pioneering American psychologist, was teaching at Stanford at the time of the earthquake and traveled into San Francisco to observe first-hand its aftermath. He was most impressed by the positive attitude of the survivors and the speed with which they improvised services and created order out of chaos.[38] This formed the basis of the chapter “On some Mental Effects of the Earthquake” in his book Memories and Studies.[39]
The grander of citywide reconstruction schemes, however, required investment from Eastern monetary sources, hence the spin and de-emphasis of the earthquake, the promulgation of the tough new building codes, and subsequent reputation sensitive actions such as the official low death toll.[33] One of the more famous and ambitious plans came from famed urban planner Daniel Burnham. His bold plan called for, among other proposals, Haussmann-style avenues, boulevards, arterial thoroughfares that radiated across the city, a massive civic center complex with classical structures, and what would have been the largest urban park in the world, stretching from Twin Peaks to Lake Merced with a large atheneum at its peak. But this plan was dismissed at the time as impractical and unrealistic.
For example, real estate investors and other land owners were against the idea due to the large amount of land the city would have to purchase to realize such proposals. City fathers likewise attempted at the time to eliminate the Chinese population and export Chinatown (and other poor populations) to the edge of the county where the Chinese could still contribute to the local taxbase.[33] The Chinese occupants had other ideas and prevailed instead. Chinatown was rebuilt in the newer, modern, Western form that exists today. In fact, the destruction of City Hall and the Hall of Records enabled thousands of Chinese immigrants to claim residency and citizenship, creating a backdoor to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and bring in their relatives from China.[40][41][42]
View from the Ferry Building tower, looking southwest on Market Street.
While the original street grid was restored, many of Burnham’s proposals inadvertently saw the light of day, such as a neoclassical civic center complex, wider streets, a preference of arterial thoroughfares, a subway under Market Street, a more people-friendly Fisherman’s Wharf, and a monument to the city on Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower.
The earthquake was also responsible for the development of the Pacific Heights neighborhood. The immense power of the earthquake had destroyed almost all of the mansions on Nob Hill except for the Flood Mansion. Others that hadn’t been destroyed were dynamited by the Army forces aiding the firefighting efforts in attempts to create firebreaks. As one indirect result, the wealthy looked westward where the land was cheap and relatively undeveloped, and where there were better views and a consistently warmer climate. Constructing new mansions without reclaiming and clearing old rubble simply sped attaining new homes in the tent city during the reconstruction.[33] In the years after the first world war, the “money” on Nob Hill migrated to Pacific Heights, where it has remained to this day.
Reconstruction was swift, and largely completed by 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition which celebrated the reconstruction of the city and its “rise from the ashes”.
Since 1915, the city has officially commemorated the disaster each year by gathering the remaining survivors at Lotta’s Fountain, a fountain in the city’s financial district that served as a meeting point during the disaster for people to look for loved ones and exchange information.