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The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: The Largest In Continental U.S. History

1900s | April 18, 2020

More than 28,000 buildings were destroyed. (britannica.com)

On this day, 114 years ago, the residents of San Francisco were jolted out of their beds in the early morning hours by the biggest earthquake in the history of the continental United States. By the time it—and the raging fires it caused—finished its rampage, more than 3,000 people were dead and about 80% of San Francisco was in ruins. It remains one of the United States' worst natural disasters to this day. Let’s take a closer look at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

Earthquake damage, followed by devastating fires. (britannica.com)

San Francisco In The Early 1900s

Around the turn of the century, San Francisco was called "The Paris of the West." More than half a million people lived in the city, which was full of grand hotels, opera houses, stately mansions, universities, and of course, its iconic cable cars. Some of the era's greatest authors spent time in San Francisco, including Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. Renowned Italian opera star Enrico Caruso performed in San Francisco the night before the earthquake struck. 

Chinatown was hard hit. (theatlantic.com)

The Earthquake

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake occurred about 30 years before the introduction of the Richter Scale, but seismologists have determined from photographs, geological evidence, and firsthand reports that it may have measured as high as an 8.3. The initial rumblings that roused San Franciscans at 5:12 A.M. on April 18, 1906 only lasted about 42 seconds, with strong aftershocks lasting between 20 and 30 seconds, but it was felt as far away as Oregon to the north, Los Angeles to the south, and central Nevada to the east. 

California Street was reduced to rubble. (latimes.com)

Damage Report

Although the initial damage report from the quake was bad, the worse was yet to come. That short event left hundreds dead, buildings damaged or destroyed, and roads and train tracks in ruins. It wasn't known in the immediate aftermath, but the city's gas lines and water mains had also been destroyed. Then the fires started.

Broken gas lines causes as many as 30 fires to break out. (sf.curbed.com)

Fires Sweep Across San Francisco

Thanks to the ruptured gas lines, as many as 30 different fires soon raged across the city. Fighting these fires was nearly impossible due to the busted water mains, and many roads were impassable, so firefighters couldn't reach some of the burning buildings even if they had something to throw on them. The winds from the Pacific and the buildings' dry wooden frames helped the fires to quickly spread from structure to structure until much of the city was ablaze. They burned for three days as firefighters resorted to demolishing some buildings with dynamite in an attempt to stop the fires.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake remains one of the country's biggest natural disasters. (skyalertusa.com)

By The Numbers

After taking into account the initially overlooked casualties in the city's Chinatown neighborhood and those who perished in the fires, an estimated 3,000 people were killed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More than 28,000 buildings in San Francisco and the surrounding area were leveled, and about half of the city's population was left homeless. The city reported damaged exceeding $500 million, equivalent to $6.4 billion today. 

About half of San Francisco's residents were left homeless after the quake. (businessinsider.com)

Rebuilding The City

Certainly, no one would have traded their lives or homes for better urban planning, but there were upsides to the destruction of San Francisco. Rooted as it was in the Gold Rush, the city sprang up and expanded in a haphazard way, but after the earthquake leveled the place, city planners had a fresh start. They laid out a more organized and coherent urban center with grand architecture, stunning green space, and the potential for new towns to be built around it. A few decades later, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was erected across the Bay. City planners also took steps to mitigate the damage from future earthquakes. Buildings were constructed further apart from each other, water mains and gas lines were more protected, and streets were wider. What emerged from the rubble was a shining, new, modern city. 

Tags: 1900s | disaster | the great san francisco earthquake

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.