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[Detail] U.S.S. Alert. Photographer - W H Jackson, 1901 or 1902

5) The 1906 California Earthquake

Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a violent earthquake rumbled through the San Francisco Bay area with shocks lasting up to one minute at a time. Tremors occurred over approximately 375,000 square miles from Oregon to Los Angeles and inland to central Nevada. The earthquake destroyed buildings and trees, sparked a fire that burned for four days, leveled San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood, and killed more than 3,000 people. Another consequence of the tragedy, however, was the establishment of new processes to predict earthquakes and minimize the risk of future events. Additional information and films regarding the tragedy are available in the American Memory collection, Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916.

A search on the term, earthquake, produces images of earthquake damage including photographs of Market Street, "Ruins of City Hall," and "The Heart of Chinatown." Chinatown's general population consisted of immigrants who maintained their native dress, language, and customs--attributes that often led to misunderstanding and discrimination.

Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants were targets of restrictive laws and community ordinances that prohibited them from working for federal, state, and local governments and from educating their children in public schools. Many birth, death, and marriage certificates were lost in the earthquake and ensuing fire. When residents were asked to complete new documents, some Chinese immigrants claimed to have more children than they really did. This fraud allowed family members, neighbors, and total strangers to enter the U.S. from China as "paper sons."

  • Why do you think that people documented the destruction caused by this earthquake and fire?
  • How do you think that the government and the general public might have responded to the destruction of Chinatown?
  • How do these materials compare to contemporary documents of a natural disaster?