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Introduction

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake and subsequent fires devastated San Francisco, California, leaving more than 3,000 people dead and destroying more than 28,000 buildings. The quake ruptured the San Andreas fault to the north and south of the city, for a total of 296 miles, and could be felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and inland to central Nevada.

The earthquake occurred at 5:13 a.m. local time, with its epicenter offshore of San Francisco, which then had a population of approximately 400,000 people.

The greatest devastation resulted from the fires that quickly followed the quake. The initial tremors destroyed the city’s water mains, leaving firefighters with no means of combating the growing blaze, which burned for several days and consumed much of the city. More than 3,000 people perished and more than 28,000 buildings were destroyed in the disaster. Additionally, some 250,000 of San Francisco’s residents were made homeless. Damages were estimated at around $500 million (in 1906 dollars). The famous writer and San Francisco native Jack London (1876-1916) noted, “Surrender was complete.”

Despite the utter devastation, San Francisco quickly recovered from the earthquake, and the destruction actually allowed planners to create a new and improved city. 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 were able to 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 San Francisco Bay, making room for a population boom arriving from other parts of the United States and abroad.