The Unbelievable Devastation Of The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, America’s Deadliest Disaster Ever

Published April 18, 2016
Updated July 29, 2019

This unbelievable image captures the unprecedented devastation of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, one of America's deadliest disasters.

San Francisco Earthquake 1906

Looking down Sacramento St. in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been over a century since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 tore the city apart, but the proverbial shockwaves from this colossal disaster still reverberate across time. On a seemingly normal Wednesday morning, citizens were treated to one of America’s deadliest disasters in history.

The incident lasted a mere 45 seconds, but what the tectonic shift left behind was unprecedented devastation, thousands dead, and 80 percent of the city destroyed. According to ThoughtCo, the 7.8 earthquake rippled through San Francisco’s foundations at 5.12 a.m.

Back in those days — just a few years removed from the end of the Wild West — cities like San Francisco were comprised of wooden and brick buildings. These were terribly vulnerable to natural disasters like this, though nobody had quite seen such a powerful, natural force in the first place before.

The damage was irrevocable and apparent almost immediately. When the shockwaves ceased and citizens could focus on their surroundings without holding on to something nearby, the chaos became blatant. Buildings toppled, and 50 fires erupted across the city within half an hour due to broken gas pipes and downed power lines.

It’s estimated that 500 city blocks — comprised of 28,000 buildings — were reduced to husks of their former selves or rubble entirely that morning. 3,000 people lost their lives in a terribly short amount of time. More than half of San Francisco had become homeless in the seeming blink of an eye.

The San Francisco Earthquake Arrives

At 5.12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 a foreshock hit the city. It was a precursor for the truly destructive quake to strike San Francisco 20 to 25 seconds later. Because the epicenter of the earthquake was close by, the entire city was directly affected.

Walls caved, chimneys toppled, gas lines broke, and streets ripped open and moved as fluidly as waves in the ocean. One of the biggest cracks in the city’s asphalt was 28 feet wide. All in all, the earthquake’s rupturing spanned 290 miles of the planet’s surface.

Perhaps most stunning, besides the astonishing destruction produced within minutes, is the fact that the San Francisco earthquake was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the sudden nature of it — as well as its unprecedented magnitude — left people dead from falling debris before they could even get out of bed or understood what was occurring. Buildings collapsed and roofs caved in without warning, before the sun was even up.

San Francisco Earthquake Houses

National ArchivesAn estimated 28,000 buildings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

The fires springing up across town didn’t help matters. Many of those lucky enough to crawl out of the wreckage of their buildings — most people dressed in pajamas or varying states of undress — were greeted with a presumably terrifying scene of ripped open streets, crumbled buildings, and blazes scattered around their field of vision.

Glass littered the streets, and many of the buildings miraculously still standing had their facades torn off — making them look like doll houses. Fortunately, as is often the case in moments immediately following devastation, survivors began to mobilize and help anyone they could.

Neighbors and friends, strangers and people crying for help — the people of San Francisco started aiding people who were trapped, and came together to do so. People also returned to their homes in order to salvage things sentimental or valuable to them from the wreckage.

With the sudden creation of thousands upon thousands of homeless people, food and water were immediately in high demand. In addition to desperate scavenging for anything they could find, people wandered through town in search of a safe place to rest, and hopefully have a hot meal.

The San Francisco Earthquake Fires

The fires that sprang up from the city’s broken gas lines, as well as from stoves that had fallen during the quake, rapidly spread across the city. The San Francisco fire chief had already died from falling debris. With absent leadership and infernos continuing to rage, things quickly worsened.

The Market Street fire was being combatted by fireboats on the east that doused the flames with saltwater. Nonetheless, with the fire hydrants being out of commission, the fire spread north and west. The northern fire was threatening Chinatown and a significant commercial area. Firefighters tried using dynamite to make firebreaks in order to stop the blaze, to little avail.

Some of these fires stemmed from rather absurd scenarios. The Ham and Eggs Fire, for instance, began when a survivor of the quake tried to cook breakfast for her family. Little did she know that the chimney was damaged, leading to sparks setting the kitchen on fire.

St Francis And Fairmount Hotel

National ArchivesThe St. Francis Hotel and Fairmount Hotel (in the distance) remained standing due to their class A steel components.

This utterly unnecessary blaze turned into a sizable fire that threatened both City Hall and San Francisco’s Mission District. Yet another food-related fire started when soldiers tried to make dinner in the rubble of the Delmonico Restaurant. This blaze, too, grew larger and spread through the neighborhood.

Most unfortunate was that countless buildings left standing after the earthquake were now engulfed by fires San Francisco’s citizens were unable to extinguish. People’s businesses, hotels, and even City Hall all fell victim to the unstoppable flames.

It took a stunning four days for the fires to die out. Survivors took refuge in city parks, but even those seeming oases had to be evacuated as the flames made their rounds. The aftermath would prove a challenge for survival of its own entirely.

The San Francisco Earthquake — Aftermath

When a semblance of tranquility returned to San Francisco’s streets on April 22, the final figures regarding the disaster’s destruction were staggering. Around 3,000 people had been killed. 28,000 buildings were obliterated, and 225,000 people had become homeless.

Since the instruments used to measure earthquakes weren’t as advanced in the early 1900s as they are now, debate about the quake’s actual magnitude rage on to this day.

Scientists are still arguing whether or not it was as strong as generally believed, most are confident it was between 7.7 and 7.9 on the Richter scale. Some have even argued that it was stronger than that, and reached as high as 8.3.

City Hall San Francisco Earthquake

National ArchivesThe Ham and Eggs Fire caused City Hall’s destruction, when an non-contained kitchen blaze spread through the neighborhood.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was historical not only because it was the first big natural disaster where the aftermath was thoroughly recorded via photographs, but because it helped scientists better understand earthquakes.

The elastic-rebound theory sprang forth from the incident. It essentially explains the numerous causes of why and how this phenomenon occurs, and the theory is a direct result of the 1906 disaster. According to Business Insider, the photography captured that April was rather spontaneous.

Amateur photographer Louis P. Selby was working at his family business when the quake hit San Francisco. Selby left the Market Street confectionary shop with his camera and started photographing his disastrous surroundings — which had only been published over a century later by his grandson.

Golden Gate Park Post Earthquake

National ArchivesA tent city set up by the military in Golden Gate Park.

Ultimately, the San Francisco earthquake left hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens without food, water, or shelter. The U.S. Navy brought drinkable water and milk on ships, and set up relief stations were it handed out blankets, tents, and food alongside the U.S. Army.

Countless people lost friends and relatives in a matter of minutes. It remains one of the most destructive natural disasters in the history of the United States, with all that’s left to remind us unaffected onlookers being Selby’s photographs.

For more on the world’s worst natural disasters, see the unbelievable aftermath of the Nepal earthquake of 2015. Then, check out 55 stunning San Francisco 1960s photos.

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