San Francisco 1906: Earthquake and Fire – Part 1

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High on the wall of the rotunda of San Francisco’s City Hall are inscribed the words which are among the finest of the literary legacies that Mayor Edward R. Taylor (who served from 1908 to 1910) bequeathed to his city.

They read as follows:

”San Francisco, Glorious City of our Hearts, which has been tried and not found wanting — go Thou with like Spirit and make the future Thine.”

The reference is to the four fateful days, April 18-21, 1906, during which the City by the Golden Gate was subjected to its most severe trial and time of testing: a destructive earthquake which was followed by several days of fires.

Before turning attention to this San Francisco ’quake, remember that earthquakes are an integral part of the earlier history of California. These lines are from a book, published in San Francisco in 1876:

So far as is known, California has always been ”shaky on her pins.” The Spanish records make mention of earthquakes in the latter part of the last (18th) century and an account of a very severe earthquake shock that occurred in 1812 is among the Spanish archives. This shook down the tower of the old Spanish Mission, San Juan Capistrano, burying a number of natives in the ruins. Always, for a few days succeeding any severe shock, there are numerous slight tremblings at intervals of a few hours.  … The average number of shocks per year in San Francisco is probably fifteen. Some are scarcely perceptible, while others are sufficiently vigorous to remind one of the old Jesuit prophecy that foretold the sinking of the whole peninsula, and engulfing a large city beneath the waves of the ocean …

The authors of the Annals of San Francisco, published in 1855, recorded an earlier mention of this same phenomenon; in the light of subsequent happenings, the lines seem almost prophetic:

It may be mentioned that since the earlier earthquakes of 1812, 1829, 1839, no serious occurrences of this nature have happened at San Francisco. . . . God help the city if any great catastrophe of this nature should take place. Her huge granite and brick palaces, of four, five, and six stories in height, would indeed make a prodigious crash, more ruinous both to life and property, than even the dreadful tires of 1849, 1850, and 1851. This is the greatest, if not the only possible obstacle of consequence to the growing prosperity of the city . . . such a terrible calamity, however, as the one imagined, may never take place. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof! This maxim satisfies the excitement-craving, money-seeking, luxurious-living, reckless heaven-earth-and hell-daring citizens of San Francisco.

While it is evident, then, that earthquakes are not exactly new in California, it must also be observed that there were, and are, “earthquakes and earthquakes.”

For example, those which shook San Francisco on Sunday, October 8, 1865, and on Wednesday, October 21, 1868, were two of the greatest seismic disturbances ever recorded in California. Lights and Shades in San Francisco furnishes vivid details of both earthquakes; that of 1868 was much the more severe but neither was minor, either in impact or in the fright each inspired in San Franciscans. In B.E. Lloyd’s colorful and even florid language:

The quake (of 1868) continued for forty-two seconds and was even more vigorous than the shock of ’65. The excitement was intense. Mothers could be seen in their night garments wringing their hands and weeping, while the little bright-eyed babies at their breasts cooed and clapped their tiny hands in an ecstasy of joy (!) Strong men grew ashy pale and quaked with fear, for there was a power manifesting itself with which it were useless to contend. O that was a sad day for the inhabitants of San Francisco! … There was not one, perhaps, in that city of 150,000 souls but felt for the moment that they had finished their work and would now be hurled into Eternity. …

Since 1906 was to witness a considerable amount of damage from earthquake and the many fires that broke out immediately afterwards, it should be mentioned here that the earlier “preview” of 1868 resulted in the deaths of five or six killed outright by falling walls or cornices, while the number of injured was recorded at between forty-live and fifty. The estimated damage to property was about $400,000.

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog, History

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