How the 1906 Earthquake Changed San Francisco

Disaster leveled "the Paris of the West" a century ago — and its aftermath echoes through the city today.

Modern-day Californians are well aware of the fact that they’ve struck a delicate bargain with the ground beneath their feet. Scientists now know that the tectonic plates grinding together along the state’s fault lines are so active that, 16 million years from now, Los Angeles will be north of the Bay Area.

San Francisco, city, Golden Gate Bridge, California

San Francisco, city, Golden Gate Bridge, California

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The nearly 400,000 men, women and children who called San Francisco home in 1906 had no such knowledge, of course, and when a massive earthquake struck in the early hours of April 18th, their world fell apart in an instant.

Just after five o’clock in the morning, the San Andreas Fault slipped 32 feet and rattled the city for nearly a minute. Homes collapsed, gas lines ruptured, and the fires that sprang up as a result destroyed an estimated 25,000 buildings over nearly 500 city blocks. Deployed by a national magazine to report on the devastation, Jack London described scenes that were more harrowing than his adventure novels:

The earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of walls and chimneys. But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone.

His account of the disaster — published mere weeks after the quake — ended on a hopeful note. “The bankers and business men hare [sic] already set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco,” London wrote — and rebuild they did. Don Wildman went west to speak to the experts who know those efforts most intimately; on the eve of The Deadly 1906 Earthquake: A Mysteries at the Museum Special, we’re revisiting the city that rose from the ashes. Here are a few of the ways its face changed.

Populations Displaced



Photo by: NARA


The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as many as 225,000 of the city’s residents were left homeless as a result of the quake and the fires it sparked. The San Francisco Relief Corporation, the San Francisco Parks Commission and the U.S. Army constructed 26 tent camps and thousands of "earthquake cottages" to house the refugees; while most of those structures disappeared in the months and years that followed, two of the cottages still stand in the Presidio near Golden Gate Park. (Other displaced San Franciscans relocated to Los Angeles, where the population swelled almost 212% between 1900 and 1910 — and while some returned, many did not.)

Abandoned Avenues (and Victorians Preserved)

In 1904, civic leaders invited Daniel Burnham — a celebrated designer who contributed ideas to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1901 plan for Washington, D.C.’s National Mall — to reimagine San Francisco. The report he delivered a year later called for broad boulevards and sweeping green spaces around the city, and would have required widespread demolition of existing buildings (including many of the ramshackle Victorians that give the city its character today). The Board of Supervisors printed 3,000 copies of Burnham’s plan, most of which awaited distribution in City Hall… and were destroyed when the earthquake struck on April 18th. The most ambitious parts of Burnham’s scheme disappeared in the rubble.

Chinatown Transformed

Chinatown in San Francisco

Chinatown in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Chinatown existed long before disaster struck in 1906, but as the historian Judy Yung told NPR, the neighborhood owes its contemporary “Oriental Disneyland” look to a Chinese businessman who convinced his countrymen to rebuild in an Eastern-influenced style that would attract tourists. (Ironically, that construction was undertaken by American architects who had never visited China.) The mashup that resulted was so successful that “Chinatowns” around the world followed suit.

World-Class Waterworks

While the 1906 earthquake came as a great shock to the city, the fires that raged in its aftermath were hardly unprecedented; in fact, San Francisco had burned five other times since 1849. In response to public outcry, city engineers undertook the design and construction of the Auxilary Water Supply System (AWSS), a high-pressure network that can cover a city block with 25 feet of water in one day. Nearly a century after its completion, the AWSS remains the only system of its kind in the United States — and it remains in use.

Grand Exhibits

Strictly speaking, San Francisco welcomed the world to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal. In practice, the immense 1915 fair gave the city an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate that it had recovered from tragedy — and it did so, at a cost of nearly $50 million, by creating a 635-acre “city within a city.” Over 10 months, almost 19 million people visited the “grand citadel of 11 exhibition palaces, 21 foreign pavilions, 48 state buildings, and… 65-acre amusement zone.” While most of those structures were razed, the Exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts remains one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks.

Join Don Wildman for the premiere of The Deadly 1906 Earthquake: A Mysteries at the Museum Special on Travel Channel at 9pm ET on Wednesday, February 20th.

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