At 5:12am on April 18th, 1906, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 cataclysmically rocked California’s western coast. Newly booming metropolis San Francisco was at the heart of the shaking, and unfortunately it wasn’t just the earthquake that wreaked destruction there — flames were responsible for 90 percent of the overall damage.

Below are 13 photos of the disastrous event. Scroll on to see smoke-choked skyscrapers, skeletal infrastructure and — eventually — a community intent on rebuilding.

A single wall left standing in an unknown location

SF earthquake wall Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp13.045.jpg

Buildings weren’t the only things irrevocably changed by the earthquake. Amazingly the mouth of the Salinas River shifted six miles south, and is now just north of Marina, California.

Ruins of the original Palace Hotel

SF earthquake palace hotel 1 Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp13.275.jpg

Built in 1875, the grandeur of the Palace Hotel was irreparably damaged by the earthquake. A new and much swankier hotel was constructed by 1909 in the same location.

“Drunken houses” on South Van Ness Avenue and 18th Street

SF earthquake drunken houses Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp15.202.jpg

At the time of the earthquake, San Francisco was the largest city on the west coast, but after it took place some trading and population were diverted to Los Angeles. Who knows what San Francisco would be like now if it had been left to grow unfettered by natural destruction.

Ruined fire engine on Post Street near the Sloan Building

SF earthquake fire engine Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp13.053.jpg

The city’s fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, received critical injuries during the earthquake, and died a few days later. Fires burned for four days and nights across the city due to untrained firefighters using dynamite to demolish buildings.

View of the city burning from 19th Avenue and Sanchez Street

SF earthquake burning Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp13.039.jpg

To date, the earthquake is still one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of the US. It resulted in the highest recorded natural disaster death toll in all of California at approximately 3,000 victims.

Encroaching fire on Market Street

SF earthquake main street Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp15.752.jpg

Some citizens with entrepreneurial spirits — and insurance that protected them against fire damage rather than earthquake damage — set fire to their own homes in order to collect.

Market Street burning with a view of the Ferry Building

SF earthquake market street Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp15.738.jpg

The earthquake’s shaking lasted a full minute. A strong foreshock preceded the main shock and lasted 20 to 25 seconds, and then the main shock lasted about 42 seconds.

Spectators from Lafayette Square

SF earthquake lafayette square Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp15.773.jpg

The number of those displaced was staggering. Between 227,000 and 300,000 were left homeless out of a population of about 410,000.

Billows of smoke at the Palace Hotel

SF earthquake palace hotel 2 Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp27.0118.jpg

Some developers and land owners saw the destruction of Chinatown as a chance to push out their unwanted neighbors. Ultimately, their efforts were thwarted and an even larger Chinatown was rebuilt — it’s now the largest Chinatown in the US.

In addition, the ruin of City Hall and the Hall of Records allowed thousands of Chinese immigrants to claim residency and citizenship and bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Crowds gather on Stockton Street to watch the approaching fire

SF earthquake stockton street Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp27.0117.jpg

The Pup Restaurant, shown near the encroaching smoke coming from Market Street, was the unofficial headquarters for San Francisco “boss” Abe Ruef.

Man stands alone among brick rubble

SF earthquake rubble Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp14.3188.jpg

Writer H.G. Wells, who was visiting New York City from England at the time of the earthquake, remarked, “[b]ut there is no doubt anywhere that San Francisco can be rebuilt, larger, better, and soon. Just as there would be none at all if all this New York that has so obsessed me with its limitless bigness was itself a blazing ruin. I believe these people would more than half like the situation.”

Reconstruction on California Street and Battery Street

SF earthquake california street Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp15.754.jpg

Makeshift tents quickly covered Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, the Panhandle and the beaches between Ingleside and North Beach. Some lasted more than two years.

Dolores Park refugee camp

SF earthquake dolores park
Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp14.0611.jpg

The army built 5,610 redwood and fir “relief houses” to accommodate 20,000 displaced people. The little city of relief houses hit a peak population of 16,448.

Developments featured in this article

More Like This

Facebook Chatter