The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fires of 1906

Arnold Genthe & the 1906 Earthquake

Arnold GentheOriginally trained as a classical scholar, Arnold Genthe (1869–1942) taught himself photography soon after emigrating from Germany to America in 1895. Intrigued by San Francisco's Chinatown, he shot a series of photographs documenting life there before the destruction of the city in 1906. About 200 photographs in the series survive. Genthe established a studio in San Francisco and went on to become famous for his photographic portraits of artists, dancers, and theater personalities including Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Genthe attended the performance of Carmen on the eve of the earthquake and then went out with friends, arriving home very late. He had been asleep for only a few hours when he was awakened by the earthquake. Thirty years later, in 1936, he published an account of his experience in his memoir, As I Remember.

Genthe's Reactions & Observations

It seemed as if I had scarcely been asleep when I was awakened by a terrifying sound—the Chinese porcelains that I had been collecting in the last years had crashed to the floor… . The whole house was creaking and shaking, the chandelier was swinging like a pendulum, and I felt as if I were on a ship tossed about by a rough sea. "This can't go on much longer," I said to myself. "When a house shakes like this, the ceiling is bound to collapse. As soon as the plaster begins to fall, I'll cover my head and accept what comes."

An ominous quiet followed… . I looked at the clock, the time was a quarter past five. I looked out of the window and saw a number of men and women, half-dressed, rushing to the middle of the street for safety… .

The streets presented a weird appearance, mother and children in their nightgowns, men in pajamas and dinner coats, women scantily dressed with evening wraps hastily thrown over them. Many ludicrous sights met the eye: an old lady carrying a large bird cage with four kittens inside, while the original occupant, the parrot, perched on her hand; a man tenderly holding a pot of calla lilies, muttering to himself; a scrub woman, in one hand a new broom and in the other a large black hat with ostrich plumes; a man in an old–fashioned nightshirt and swallow tails… But there was no hysteria, no signs of real terror or despair.