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The San Francisco Earthquake, 1906
The terrifying rumble of an earthquake shattered the early morning silence of April 18 at 5:15 AM. The quake lasted only a minute but caused the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. Modern analysis estimates it registered 8.25 on the Richter scale (By comparison, the quake that hit San Francisco on October 17, 1989 registered 6.7).

The greatest destruction came from the fires the quake ignited. These ravaged the city for three days before burning themselves out. The maelstrom destroyed 490 city blocks, a total of 25,000 buildings, made over 250,000 homeless and killed between 450 and 700. Damage estimates topped $350,000,000.

Three eye witnesses described their experiences: "Of a sudden we had found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though my head were split with the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand. Ahead of me a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot - a laborer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arm." (P. Barrett).

"When the fire caught the Windsor Hotel at Fifth and Market Streets there were three men on the roof, and it was impossible to get them down. Rather than see the crazed men fall in with the roof and be roasted alive the military officer directed his men to shoot them, which they did in the presence of 5,000 people." (Max Fast).

"The most terrible thing I saw was the futile struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in burning wreckage. The helpless man watched it in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head." (Adolphus Busch).

Destruction in the city
Businessman Jerome B. Clark lived in Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco. He experienced a minor shake-up at his home in the early morning but this did not stop him from making his regular trip to the city. He describes what he saw as he disembarked from the ferry:

"In every direction from the ferry building flames were seething, and as I stood there, a five-story building half a block away fell with a crash, and the flames swept clear across Market Street and caught a new fireproof building recently erected. The streets in places had sunk three or four feet, in others great humps had appeared four or five feet high. The street car tracks were bent and twisted out of shape. Electric wires lay in every direction. Streets on all sides were filled with brick and mortar, buildings either completely collapsed or brick fronts had just dropped completely off. Wagons with horses hitched to them, drivers and all, lying on the streets, all dead., struck and killed by the falling bricks, these mostly the wagons of the produce dealers, who do the greater part of their work at that hour of the morning. Warehouses and large wholesale houses of all descriptions either down, or walls bulging, or else twisted, buildings moved bodily two or three feet out of line and still standing with walls all cracked.

The Call building, a twelve-story skyscraper, stood and looked all right at first glance, but had moved at the base two feet at one end out into the sidewalk, and the elevators refused to work, all the interior being just twisted out of shape. It afterward burned as I watched it.

Fires were blazing in all directions, and all of the finest and best of the office and business buildings were either burning or surrounded. They pumped water from the bay, but the fire was soon too far away from the water front to make efforts in this direction of much avail. The water mains had been broken by the earthquake, and so there was no supply for the fire engines and they were helpless. The only way out was to dynamite, and I saw some of the finest and most beautiful buildings in the city, new modern palaces, blown to atoms. First they blew up one or two buildings at a time. Finding that of no avail, they took half a block; that was no use; then they took a block; but in spite of them all the fire kept on spreading."

Panic among the survivors
As the fires gained momentum and the city's water system destroyed, survivors gathered where ever they could find water. All through the night victims huddled together in the open air as flames lit the sky. One observer found refuge in a plaza:

"The fire was going on in the district south of them, and at intervals all night exhausted fire-fighters made their way to the plaza and dropped, with the breath out of them, among the huddled people and the bundles of household goods. The soldiers, who were administering affairs with all the justice of judges and all the devotion of heroes, kept three or four buckets of water, even from the women, for these men, who kept coming all night. There was a little food, also kept by the soldiers for these emergencies, and the sergeant had in his charge one precious bottle of whisky, from which is doled out drinks to those who were utterly exhausted.

Over in a corner of the plaza a band of men and women were praying, and one fanatic, driven crazy by horror, was crying out at the top of his voice:

'The Lord sent it, the Lord!'

His hysterical crying got on the nerves of the soldiers and bade fair to start a panic among the women and children, so the sergeant went over and stopped it by force. All night they huddled together in this hell, with the fire making it bright as day on all sides; and in the morning the soldiers, using their senses again, commandeered a supply of bread from a bakery, sent out another water squad, and fed the refugees with a semblance of breakfast."

A Narrow Escape
The quake awoke G.A. Raymond as he slept in his room at the Palace Hotel. He describes his escape:

"I had $600.00 in gold under my pillow. I awoke as I was thrown out of bed. Attempting to walk, the floor shook so that I fell. I grabbed my clothing and rushed down into the office, where dozens were already congregated. Suddenly the lights went out, and every one rushed for the door.

Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.

I met a Catholic priest, and he said: 'We must get to the ferry.' He knew the way, and we rushed down Market Street. Men, women and children were crawling from the debris. Hundreds were rushing down the street and every minute people were felled by debris.

At places the streets had cracked and opened. Chasms extended in all directions. I saw a drove of cattle, wild with fright, rushing up Market Street. I crouched beside a swaying building. As they came nearer they disappeared, seeming to drop out into the earth. When the last had gone I went nearer and found they had indeed been precipitated into the earth, a wide fissure having swallowed them. I was crazy with fear and the horrible sights.

How I reached the ferry I cannot say. It was bedlam, pandemonium and hell rolled into one. There must have been 10,000 people trying to get on that boat. Men and women fought like wildcats to push their way aboard. Clothes were torn from the backs of men and women and children indiscriminately. Women fainted, and there was no water at hand with which to revive them. Men lost their reason at those awful moments. One big, strong man, beat his head against one of the iron pillars on the dock, and cried out in a loud voice: 'This fire must be put out! The city must be saved!' It was awful."

   Bronson, William, The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned (1986); Thomas, Gordon and Witts, Max, The San Francisco Earthquake (1971); Morris, Charles (ed.), The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire (1906).

How To Cite This Article:
"The San Francisco Earthquake, 1906," EyeWitness to History, (1997).