April 18

This Day in History

Old West

Apr 18, 1906:

San Francisco earthquake

A devastating earthquake begins to shake the city of San Francisco in the morning hours of this day in 1906.

The first of two vicious tremors shook San Francisco at 5:13 a.m., and a second followed not long after. The quake was powerful enough to be recorded thousands of miles away in Cape Town, South Africa, and its effect on San Francisco was cataclysmic. Thousands of structures collapsed as a result of the quake itself. However, the greatest devastation resulted from the fires that followed the quake. The initial tremors destroyed the city's water mains, leaving overwhelmed firefighters with no means of combating the growing inferno. The blaze burned for four days and engulfed the vast majority of the city.

By the time a heavy rainfall tamed the massive fire, the once proud city of San Francisco was in shambles. More than 28,000 buildings burned to the ground and the city suffered more than $500 million in damages. The human toll was equally disastrous: authorities estimated that the quake and fires killed 700 people, and left a quarter of a million people homeless. The famous writer and San Francisco resident Jack London noted, "Surrender was complete."

Despite the utter devastation, San Francisco quickly recovered from the great earthquake of 1906. During the next four years, the city arose from its ashes. Ironically, the destruction actually allowed city planners to create a new and better San Francisco. A classic western boomtown, San Francisco had grown in a haphazard manner since the Gold Rush of 1849. Working from a nearly clean slate, San Franciscans could rebuild the city with a more logical and elegant structure. The destruction of the urban center at San Francisco also encouraged the growth of new towns around the bay, making room for a new population boom arriving from the U.S. and abroad. Within a decade, San Francisco had resumed its status as the crown jewel of the American West.

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