Today in 1906, San Francisco and much of the coastal area of northern California was struck by a devastating earthquake. The story of the quake remains alive in the city to this day and serves as a cautionary tale for architects and engineers. It remains the most deadly natural disaster in the history of California.
In 1906, San Francisco was the largest city on the West Coast and the ninth-largest in the US; nearly 410,000 people called the city home. It served as a trading center and a financial hub for the entire Pacific region. At the beginning of the century American interest in Asia was on the rise, and San Francisco was in just the right place to serve as a staging area for the military and an economic storehouse for the money pouring into the area. It was a bustling, energetic city with a bright future.
A foreshock of 25 seconds and a mainshock of 48 seconds measuring 8.25 on the Richter scale changed all of that. The epicenter of the earthquake is now believed to have been located about two miles offshore, near Mussel Rock. The San Andreas Fault rumbled and moved from that point in a north and south direction for nearly 300 miles. The movement was felt as far north as Oregon, as far south as Los Angeles, and as far east as central Nevada. When it was over, many homes and public buildings were left severely damaged. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Natural gas mains, which fed almost the entire city, were broken open by the quake. The combustible product inevitably met with open flames or sparks, causing many fires to spring up in both damaged and undamaged buildings. It has been estimated that more than 80% of the city's damage was caused by fire, but the exact numbers remain clouded. One reason for this is insurance-related: many people had fire protection, but had no policy covering earthquakes. As a result, some of the house and building fires were set intentionally so that a claim could be made against an earthquake-damaged building.
San Francisco's fire department was quickly overwhelmed by the number of fires and hampered by busted water mains. Before long, more than 500 city blocks were on fire and the inferno was completely out of control. At the Presidio, an Army post just north of downtown, Brigadier General Frederick Funston took the decision to use his troops to stop the fire and help the civilian population. He received no orders to this end, a fact that earned him later criticism from those who believed that he overstepped the line between the military and local government. Regardless, Funston mobilized the troops under his command and headed for the city with explosives. His plan was to blow up buildings in front of the fire to create a break and deprive the inferno of fuel. With the use of copious amounts of dynamite and even artillery barrages, his plan was effective in keeping the fire from spreading further west inside the city.
With the arrival of the Army, many citizens assumed that martial law had been declared. This was not the case; in fact, the soldiers were soon following orders issued from the mayor's office. However, Mayor Eugene Schmitz did issue an order permitting soldiers and policemen to shoot looters on sight. More than 500 people were shot and killed for supposedly looting, although some eyewitnesses claimed that people were killed while trying to remove valuables from their own homes.
The fire burned for four days. When it was over, more than a quarter-million people were homeless. Some left the city, while others made due in Army tents spread out anywhere there was room. Eventually, local workers and soldiers built over 5,600 small wooden "relief" houses about the size of a modern shed. They were painted Army green and packed closely together in camps. Nearly 20,000 people lived in the houses, some for more than a year.
The local media, in an effort to keep investment money coming into the city, reported that there were only 375 deaths as a result of the earthquake and fires. In truth, the number was probably well over 3,000; we will never know for sure. Various insurance companies paid out more than $235 million, a sum that today would be $4.9 billion.
The citizens of San Francisco were quick to rebuild, so quick, in fact, that many of the new buildings were less protected against earthquakes than the structures they replaced. There are still concerns today that if another 1906-sized earthquake hit the area, many of the older buildings in the city would be completely destroyed.