The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 17, 2016

April 17, 2016
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Photo of devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco
San Francisco, April 18, 1906. Library of Congress.

A jolt, some rattling, the sensation of rolling; a second or two later, it stops. That’s an earthquake, mostly. Unless it lasts for two and a half minutes, feels like a terrier shaking a rat, lays waste to 490 city blocks, topples 28,000 buildings, and causes a fire which lasts three days. Then that’s the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 – estimated to have been as high as 8.3 on the modern Richter Scale – which took place 110 years ago today. Over 3,000 people died, a quarter of a million more were left homeless – and yet, when it happened, all anyone outside of the Bay Area really knew, as Secretary of War Taft in Washington D.C., writes later that day, was one awful fact. “An earthquake,” he despairs, “has almost destroyed San Francisco.” This letter tells that shocking story…

5:12 a.m., Wednesday, April 18, 1906, not quite light, and in the ocean two miles west of San Francisco, maybe six or maybe twelve miles below the sea, where along the San Andreas Fault rocks had been grinding together for decades, something suddenly gave.

Way below, two tectonic plates – one, underlying the Pacific Ocean and the other, harboring the North American landmass – were, as usual, floating past each other, at a stately inch or two a year; so that millimeter by millimeter, day by day, minute by minute, the zone of rocks above moved incrementally or, as was the case right off the Golden Gate, barely moved at all, stuck. It was the not moving that was the problem. A jiggle here, a jostle there, and pressure built, infinitesimally, over the decades and the centuries, until that pre-dawn morning in San Francisco when, for a minute or two, the hitherto unmovable rocks finally, with a lurch, shifted – at a force of 7,000 miles an hour. The earth broke all the way down to the lower crust: it shook as far south as Anaheim, where the first Disneyland would be built; it swayed east in Nevada, north in Oregon, and at its epicenter, San Francisco, it destroyed the largest American city west of the Mississippi.

William Howard Taft using a telephone
William Howard Taft. George W. Harris, Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

There was, first, a deep and terrible rumbling. It sounded, some said, like thunder, or a monstrous train roaring by. Then the earth rose up and fell, rolling like the sea, and the buildings shook and tumbled, and the streets opened wide, cratered, and sometimes, water came up from below – pipes breaking – as electric wires fell everywhere, and the ground went on swaying and rocking, with things large as City Hall and small as teacups, shattering. Horses bolted stables, dogs ran wild with fear, and even a herd of long-horned cattle stampeded down Mission from the direction of the docks. People appeared in the streets half-dressed, but the dust of crashing brickwork made it impossible to see. When, finally, the clouds of dust lifted, the sky began to fill with smoke.

At first the fires had names: the Chinese Laundry Fire, the San Francisco Gas and Electric Fire, the Hayes Valley Fire – until, by mid-day, fires large and small took hold, making a wall of flame a mile and half long, and half the heart of the city was gone. The fires lasted, though. It took three days before there was nothing left to consume, or firefighters had found the few freshwater pumps whose supply pipes hadn’t fractured, or the soldiers called in by Secretary of War Taft eventually managed, using dynamite, to create firebreaks (and not just more fires). Then the weather turned cold and damp; it rained. The last fires were snuffed out. It was over. Yet, even as it began, with almost none of the facts known outside the ravaged city, the immensity of the devastation was glimpsed… Writing from Washington, D.C. on the day of the quake, and as the fire raged unchecked, Taft wrote:

Smith has just arrived in San Francisco, and is at the Palace Hotel. We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco. The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information. I sincerely hope that Judge Smith suffered no damage. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.

The 800-room Palace Hotel – which was famously hosting the opera star Enrico Caruso that week – managed to withstand the earthquake, only to perish in the fire (despite having been considered, with its 700,000-gallon water tank under its roof, fireproof). And Taft needn’t have worried about Associate Justice to the Supreme Court of the Philippines James Francis Smith. He not only survived, but soon enough filled Taft’s old shoes as Governor-General of the Philippines. But Taft, when writing, knew nothing of this: the wires were, indeed, down. It wasn’t until past 9:00 that night, that Taft was able to get through, somehow, to the (acting) commander of the army’s Pacific Division, based in the Presidio by the Golden Gate. Wiring Brigadier General Frederick Funston, Taft asked what actions had been taken, how many people needed supplies, and too, that the press be allowed into the area to report. By 11:40p.m., he heard back. “We need thousands of tents and all the rations that can be sent,” Funston replied. “100,000 people homeless. Fire still raging. Troops all on duty assisting the police. Best part of residence district not yet burned.” Taft, in his capacity as Secretary of War – and, coincidentally, President of the American Red Cross! – immediately took charge of getting aid to San Francisco. So great was his efficiency, in fact, that his presidential stock began to rise, guilelessly, in the dust and ashes of the fallen city.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT. 1857 – 1930. The 27th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, as Secretary of War, annotated in autograph and marked at top, “Personal & Confidential”, 3 pages, quarto, The War Department, Washington. D.C., April 18, 1906. To the Governor-General of the Philippines, Henry Clay Ide, in Manila.

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