The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fires of 1906

Quick Facts about the 1906 Earthquake and Fires

The 1906 earthquake:

  • ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in US history and one of the most significant earthquakes of all times.
  • affected 375,000 square miles, half of which were in the Pacific Ocean.
  • ruptured the ground surface along the San Andreas Fault for about 290 miles; the 1989 Loma Prieta quake ruptured about 25 miles.
  • shifted the ground at an estimated 4 to 5 feet per second, while the rupture traveled at about 5,900 miles per hour.
  • caused 24 feet of lateral surface slippage near Point Reyes Station.
  • devastated northern California areas including Santa Rosa, San Jose, and Santa Cruz.
  • caused estimated property damage of $400 million, or more than $8 billion in today’s dollars.
  • was the world’s first major natural disaster to have its effects recorded by photography.

After the earthquake,

  • over 225,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents were homeless.
  • fires destroyed about 28,000 buildings and 500 blocks – ¼ of San Francisco.
  • in the first 19 months, San Francisco spent $90 million on reconstruction.
  • fires burned for three days and three nights; some were as hot as 2,700°F. The fires were more catastrophic than the earthquake itself.
  • the Navy contributed to putting out fires by running water lines and providing water to the city’s fire department for their steam engines.
  • a San Franciscan cooking breakfast on a stove whose chimney was damaged during the quake, started the 24-hour-long "ham and eggs fire" which destroyed a 30-block area, including parts of City Hall and Market Street.
  • San Francisco received approximately $9 million in relief from individuals, cities, states, the federal government, and other countries.
  • city officials attempted to permanently relocate Chinatown in order to seize its valuable real estate, but failed.
  • the San Francisco Red Cross and Relief Corporation and the Army were the primary relief administrators.
  • many countries helped in the relief effort. China and Japan made significant donations of about $250,000 each, but racial prejudice kept these funds from reaching Chinese– and Japanese–American quake victims.
  • the Presidio and Golden Gate Park hosted the two largest refugee sites.
  • the Army – which ran 21 official refugee camps – distributed food, clothing, and other necessities to quake victims.
  • discrimination forced Chinese–American refugees to be shuffled from camp to camp: first from Van Ness to the Presidio, and then to Fort Point.
  • the grand jury committee found that some insurance companies had used doctored photographs to coerce policy holders into settling claims at a discount.
  • shack-type cottages were built six months after to replace tents in the refugee camps at the Presidio, Fort Point, Golden Gate Park, and elsewhere.
  • relief cottages were available to earthquake refugees who were:
  • first, permanent camp residents
  • second, in tents and makeshift buildings
  • third, in cellars or staying with friends and
  • last, San Franciscans forced to live outside the city.
  • there was great pressure to log Redwood Canyon's lumber to rebuild San Francisco, prompting William Kent to seek permanent protection for what later became Muir Woods National Monument.
  • insurance companies were only liable for buildings that remained standing after the earthquake, not those that burned.
  • the magnitude was originally estimated at 8.3 on the Richter scale, but recent studies have revised it downward to 7.8.
  • the Rossi Forel Scale – one of the first to measure earthquakes using a “1 to 10” format– gave the 1906 earthquake a 9 rating.

And, a few more tidbits:

  • To eliminate refugee camps, relief administrators offered refugees a lease-to-buy option. For $50, a refugee could own a cottage, which would then be moved to a rental lot; the fees were $3 to $15 per month.
  • General Frederick Funston, who essentially established martial law without proper authorization, was one of the earthquake’s heroes as well as one of its controversial figures.