The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fires of 1906

The Great 1906 Earthquake & Fires of San Francisco

two survivors sit in the foreground of city hall

Early morning April 18, 1906, a violent shaking roused San Francisco's population from their beds. The 40–second tremor moved furniture, shattered glass, and toppled chimneys. The shaking paused for 10 seconds, renewing with another stronger tremor for 25 more seconds. Then it was over. Pandemonium ensued: streets filled with stunned residents, cries rang out from injured and trapped victims, and many believed the end of the world had come.

The 1906 disaster, a major earthquake estimated at between 7.8 and 8.3 magnitude, resulted from the North American and Pacific tectonic plates moving past each other by more than 15 feet (annual average is two inches).

A City Stunned

Aftershocks persisted and within a few hours, fires broke out across the city destroying many of the remaining structures. By mid–morning, a large–scale disaster engulfed the West Coast’s most populous city and leading economic and cultural center.

The event caused widespread destruction and loss of life that

spectators observe fires slowly consuming city

Within 30 hours of the earthquake’s first jolt, a firestorm descimated all the familiar buildings of San Francisco; infernos swept through the city for three days. In all, more than 3,000 people died. Property damage has been estimated at $235–500 million 1906 dollars — equivalent to the entire 1906 federal budget — and which today would be between $4.8 and $10 billion, although some estimates place the figure even higher, at $28.2 billion.