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Earthquake and fire destroy much of San Francisco

This Day in World History

April 18, 1906

Earthquake and fire destroy much of San Francisco

Shortly after 5:12 A.M. on April 18, 1906, and for as long as a minute, the earth shook violently along nearly 300 miles of the San Andreas Fault in California. The violent earthquake, estimated around 8 on the Richter scale, caused severe damage from Salinas, south of San Francisco, to Santa Rosa, north of the city. People as far away as southern Oregon, Los Angeles, and central Nevada felt its tremors.

The quake is often called “the San Francisco earthquake” because of the terrible destruction that resulted in that most city. Buildings crumbled “as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand,” one eyewitness said. The worst damage, though, came from the fires that resulted — and that raged through the city for three days. As one survivor recalled, “In every direction from the ferry building flames were seething, and as I stood there, a five-story building half a block away fell with a crash, and the flames swept clear across Market Street and caught a new fireproof building recently erected.”

Photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and approaching fire, 18 April 1906.

Nearly 500 city blocks were destroyed, including the city’s downtown. More than 250,000 people were left homeless. San Francisco suffered the great majority of the earthquake’s 2,000- to 3,000-person death toll.

Rebuilding began days after the quake, as plumbers began working on restoring underground water systems. Citizens were recruited to begin hauling away the billions of bricks that had come down. Temporary housing was built, and some streetcars started running again in weeks. Three years later, with 20,000 new buildings constructed, San Francisco held a three-day party to congratulate itself on rebuilding.

The great earthquake of 1906 has been surpassed by others in strength, but the quake has been an important source of information about earthquakes. Geologist Harry Fielding Reid used his study of this quake to develop his elastic rebound theory to explain why earthquakes occur. That theory remains accepted today.

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