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The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

When an earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, Frank Leach was Superintendent of the U.S. Mint there. In the following excerpts from a book he published in 1917, Leach describes the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. As you read the excerpts, consider what living through such a natural disaster was like. What problems do you think people in San Francisco and surrounding regions faced in the days following the earthquake? What did the greatest danger turn out to be? In what ways do you think different people may have had different experiences with the earthquake and its aftermath?

View Chapter 15 of Leach's book, from which this excerpt was drawn, from California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

I was suddenly awakened soon after 5 o'clock on that memorable morning of April 18, with the hundreds of thousands of others who lived within a radius of a hundred miles of this section, to a realization of being shaken by an earthquake that seemed to threaten to tear our house to pieces. The building danced a lively jig, jumping up and down a good part of a foot at every jump, at the same time swaying this way and that; the walls and ceilings were twisting and squirming, as if wrestling to tear themselves asunder or one to throw the other down. Then there were the terrifying noises, the cracking and creaking of timber, the smashing and crashing of falling glass, bric-a-brac, and furniture, and the thumping of falling bricks coursing down the roof sides from the chimney tops. Now and then there would be a louder crash and roar, coming from some distance, that told, plainer than words, of the awfulness of the visitation and the greater destruction of property, if not life. . . . I confess that for a few seconds I was impressed with the idea that the end of the world had been reached. I did not get out of bed until the shaking ceased. . . .

. . . I was directed to go aboard one of the ferry-boats in the slip and was soon on the way to the city that was being ravaged by fires arising in almost every direction. I took a position on the upper deck as far forward as possible and tried to pick out the districts threatened by the flames. At this hour there were several distinct and separate conflagrations, which merged into one great, sweeping fire later in the day. The fires were started, no doubt, by the disturbance of electric wires, upsetting of stoves, etc., in half a dozen or more sections of the city, but more particularly in the wholesale district, the water front section, and the district through to the Mission from the bay. The earthquake had broken the water pipes in the streets in many places, therefore the mains were empty and no water was to be had by the firemen at any of the hydrants. They were helpless away from the water front. By getting water from the bay, the fire department prevented the flames from spreading to the docks and warehouses on the piers, and also saved considerable other property adjacent to the waterfront.

It was a terrible sight. Flames were leaping high in the air from places scattered all the way across the front part of the city. Great clouds of black smoke filled the sky and hid the rays of the sun. Buildings in the track of the rapidly spreading fire went down like houses of cardboard; little puffs of smoke would issue from every crevice for a brief time, to be suddenly followed by big clouds of black smoke which would hide things for an instant, as if in attempt to shut out the vision of the tragedy being enacted. . . . I could see that the devastation was going on in the very midst of the most important and costly part of the city--the wholesale, financial, and retail districts. How far the fire had extended I could not make out; whether the mint structure had yet been subjected to the fury of the flames I could not determine. The uncertainty increased my anxiety to reach the building. . . .

As soon as the minds of the people reverted to the subject of renewal of business and the reopening of the obstructed streets to permit the operation of the street railroad lines, the city authorities placed a crew of men in the burned district, blowing down standing ruins of brick buildings with dynamite, and other crews of men were set to work clearing the streets of debris. For the latter work it was difficult to obtain all the laborers needed, therefore citizens, regardless of station or occupation, were impressed, through aid of soldiers, and were made to donate about a half hour's labor before being released. Nearly everybody caught and put to work made light of the affair, but now and then some of the impressed created a scene. A young lawyer from one of our neighboring states, who had come to San Francisco to gratify his curiosity by viewing the ruins of the city, was one of the captured who was not excused from performing the task allotted to him. He made violent protest, and his feelings were so outraged that he did not miss an opportunity to denounce all officials, state and city, for several years thereafter.

The work of dynamiting was conducted in a most unskilful manner, doing considerable damage to the structures that had wholly or partially escaped destruction in the conflagration. It was necessary that the tottering walls remaining from the ruins of many of the large buildings along the principal thoroughfares should be leveled before the people could with safety use the streets, or the street cars be allowed to run. Nearly all the class "A" buildings were intact, so far as the walls and floors were concerned, and offered no menace. It was the buildings constructed before the introduction of steel frames that supplied the menacing piles of brick, and it was this kind of structures that predominated in the business section of the city.

The crew of dynamiters apparently had little knowledge of the use of explosives, and less experience. They seemed to work on the principle that, if a small amount of powder was good, a large amount would be better. . . .

For several weeks after the disaster the streets of that part of the city escaping the fire presented novel scenes arising from the fact that all housekeepers were obliged to cook their meals in the street. The city authorities would not allow lights or fire of any kind to be used in any of the houses until they were inspected. When all leaking gaspipes and damaged chimneys had been found and repaired, certificates were issued by the inspector permitting the use of lights and fires in the houses. . . . The rule was strictly enforced; the guards and police were given instructions to even shoot if necessary to secure compliance with the ordinance. The utmost vigilance was used to prevent the breaking out of fires in this part of the city until the water mains were repaired and the fire department re-established.
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View Chapter 15 of Leach's book, from which this excerpt was drawn, from California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Below are several photographs of San Francisco after the earthquake. To find and view more photographs of San Francisco following the earthquake, search Detroit Publishing Company and Panoramic Photographs . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

ruins of city hall

Ruins of City Hall

edge of Chinatown

Edge of Chinatown

Market Street toward ferry

Market Street Toward the Ferry

foot of Market Street

Foot of Market Street

ruins of San Francisco

Ruins of San Francisco, April 18 - 21, 1906

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To find and view more photographs of San Francisco following the earthquake, search Detroit Publishing Company and Panoramic Photographs. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.