The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

About the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the history of the destruction and disaster.


California is earthquake country. More than 1,000 mi. of its coastline follow the Great Pacific Basin where 80% of the world's earthquakes originate. The State is laced with hundreds of faults that produce a thousand or more tremors annually. Fortunately, half of them go unnoticed except by animals, birds, and the seismograph, and only 30 are capable of minor damage. A major earthquake occurs about once every 100 years to take an awesome toll of lives and property. It was a once-in-a-century quake along the San Andreas fault that pounced without warning on an unsuspecting San Francisco early one spring morning. In minutes, buildings and homes were piles of rubble. Then fires broke out to turn the devastated city into a flaming funeral pyre.

When: At 5:13 A.M. on April 18, 1906.

Where: San Francisco, Calif.

The Loss: 600 dead; 300,000 homeless. Property damage above $400 million.

The Disaster: San Franciscans slept soundly on a typical spring morning in 1906. Their storybook city by the Golden Gate snuggled comfortably in a blanket of gray mist. A cool sea breeze rippled the waters of a placid bay and lapped gently at anchored ships. Deep in the bowels of the earth, San Andreas, the grand-daddy of California earthquake faults, began to grumble. Softly at 1st like muffled tympani, then crescendoing to a climactic burst of a million exploding cannons. The stomping feet of an unseen giant shook the city unmercifully. From Nob Hill to the waterfront, buildings began to crumble.

The $7-million city hall was among the 1st to go. Then the big glass dome of the Palace Hotel disintegrated in a shower of splinters. Half-awake citizens stumbled into the buckling streets to be bombarded by chunks of brick and concrete. Dazed and screaming, they sought safety, but there was none. Enrico Caruso, a towel wrapped about his famous throat, ran down Market Street gripping a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. Broken water and gas lines jutted into the air, assuming grotesque shapes. Sewer pipes erupted, adding an awful stench to the destruction. Everywhere fire was consuming the fallen city.

Throughout the day and night chaos reigned. Thousands tried to sleep in the parks. Others, too tired to run anymore, lay down in the path of the fire to sleep soundly. Firemen fought a losing battle with the flames. In 24 hours, san Francisco was rubble and ashes. The dead were at peace, but 300,000 homeless people wore a mask of blank despair.

Aftermath: While the city writhed in its final death throes, several babies were born in a hastily set up tent hospital in Golden Gate Park. From the ashes of destruction, a new San Francisco would rise to even greater heights. New concepts in earthquake safety would be developed, and in subsequent decades earthquake-proof buildings would be built.

Tomorrow: The complex nature of earthquakes has defied their accurate prediction, though seismologists have recently contended they are close to discovering how to pinpoint an approaching seism. Where and when will the next big one strike? Somewhere in California on some tomorrow.

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