1906 San Francisco Earthquake History

By , Chief Content Officer
Aftermath photo of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

The aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake


    Photo of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

    Library of Congress Used under public domain Photo of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

    Used under public domain

The cool spring morning of April 18th started off as a normal day in 1906 San Francisco earthquake history. Shortly after sunrise, there began an unusual sound. The city was filled with a rising echo of howling dogs. For those Franciscans who were already beginning their day, it was the first indication that something was amiss.

What the dogs sensed was the impending disaster about to unfold the vibrant gold-rush city of San Francisco, a city that was about to change … forever.

The Root of Trouble in 1906 San Francisco Earthquake History

The source of the massive earthquake occurred as slippage along the San Andreas Fault, twelve miles east of San Francisco. The quake itself rocked all of Northern California, and was felt as far away as Oregon.

This certainly wasn't the first time in San Francisco earthquake history the fault has caused trouble. Milder quakes had hit in 1856, 1872, and 1898, all creating minor building damage. Even though these warnings caused the city dwellers to rebuild their structures stronger each time, nothing had prepared them for the morning of April 18th, 1906.


While the earthquake was the catalyst, the fires following the shaking were what caused the majority of the ultimate destruction. Although most who know the 1906 San Francisco earthquake history believe it was the earthquake that caused the mass devastation, it was actually the fires which instigated the most damage.

With a quake time of less than two minutes, the event created three days of flames and fire that reached a mile high above the city.

A Shocking Day in San Francisco

It all started at approximately 5:15 a.m. when the massive quake first hit. But by 9 a.m. most of the city was engulfed in flames amongst the collapsing buildings. It was as if Mother Nature had set war against the city and panic was in high gear.

Observers on the street as the earthquake hit describe the roads becoming like waves in the ocean. Large buildings swayed during the movement, with many of them creating falling bricks and glass. Most people who were still sleeping were literally thrown from their beds into a wakeful bad dream. San Francisco citizens from all walks of life ran about the streets in their nightclothes as if the whole place had gone mad.

Due to the crumbling earth, the city's main water pipes were crushed and water flow had dropped to minimum capacity. With the pressure too low to put out the fires, San Francisco firefighters were forced to simply wait for the fires to die back on their own.

Finally the Mayor stepped in with a plan. They would stop the spreading fires with a little war-like material of their own. A firebreak fashioned at Van Ness Avenue through explosions of dynamite and gunpowder eventually halted the majority of the fire's power. After three days of heat and smoke, a torrential rainfall began and the fire was finally put to rest.


With a city of only 400,000 people, the quake and fires left 300,000 completely homeless. Over 18,000 people ended up in mock camps where they used tents and boxes as shelter. At least 70,000 escaped on ferry boats across the Bay to Oakland. The rest were left to wander aimlessly through the rubble. After the dust began to settle and the smoke rage, refugees left the city in droves, carrying the little that was left of their most prized possessions.

While no one is exactly sure, the estimated death toll from the quake and proceeding fires was 500. The heart of the downtown city was flattened, with over 3,000 acres completely demolished.

The police and the military initially took control over the ravaged city - helping to fight the fires, rescuing the injured and maintaining order with a command to shoot all looters.

Within a week of the quake, supplies from around the nation began to arrive. The city started to piece itself back together. Electricity was turned back on; street cars were running; and the telephone system was once again functioning. Within six years, the entire city was rebuilt, stronger and more beautiful than ever before, hiding the scars of the 1906 disaster.


Of course the threat of earthquakes never leaves the residents of San Francisco, although all but a few that remember the 1906 San Francisco earthquake history have passed from this earth. Major earthquakes still rock the area and scientists still warn residents that a bigger more deadly quake could still occur.