At 5:12 am local time on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, when nearly half a million people lived in San Francisco, California, of which the majority of them were fast asleep experienced major shaking. The city was struck by a massive earthquake – estimated between 7.9 and 8.3 on the Richter scale, which wasn’t invented then. The initial shaking in the 20 seconds was nothing but a foreshock compared to what they experienced for the next 45- 60 seconds. What was to go down as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States, known as “the great San Francisco earthquake. The epicentre of the quake was about 2 miles from the city of San Francisco, in Mussel Rock, but the shaking was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles and as far as central Nevada. A major aftershock occurred at 8:14 am, sending survivors into panic and causing the collapse of already damaged buildings.

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View of San Francisco in 1860_© Library of Congress

Barrett, an earthquake survivor, describes the day. 

“All of a sudden, we found ourselves staggering and reeling. It was as if the earth was slipping gently from under our feet. Then came the sickening swaying of the earth that threw us flat upon our faces. We struggled in the street. We could not get on our feet. Then it seemed as though our heads were split by the roar that crashed into my ears. Big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one’s hand. Ahead of me, a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot – a labourer in overalls on his way to the Union Iron Works with a dinner pail on his arms.”

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The Great San Francisco Earthquake – Damage and Aftermath_© National Archives, n.d

The massive earthquake damaged a wide area of Northern California. The series of shocks brought down buildings and split open streets. Massive in strength, this earthquake caused the death of around 3000 people. The actual earthquake itself was not all the residents of San Francisco had to survive. As a result of the earthquake, gas lines and water mains that served the city were ruptured, multiple fires broke out in San Francisco: the city burned for at least four days. The residences were made of wood, the toppled gas stoves, open gas flames, and ruptured lines; there was little the firefighters could do to control the flames. The inferno devoured people and property alike.

People standing on Sacramento Street watching the fire in distance_© Library of Congress

The water pipes gave away, making the water extremely scarce and almost unavailable. Dealing with such monstrous flame would have already been a difficult task for the fire department both in terms of – manpower and logistics capabilities under normal circumstances, but now there were more problems – the fire chief of San Francisco died due to mortal injuries incurred, leaving the department leaderless, and the destroyed underground water mains left the hydrants and thus the city waterless. It was estimated that the firestorm had burned around 490 city blocks and destroyed 28,000 buildings causing up to 400 million dollars in damages, half of the population – or 250,000 residents had become homeless. It was on Saturday morning firefighters were able to bring fires to a standstill at Van Ness Avenue. Helped by the favourable winds, they had finally succeeded in creating a firebreak by blowing up still untouched houses using dynamites; as a result of inexperience, though, it initially brought more harm than good. Some of the city’s finest and most beautiful buildings, new modern places, were blown to pieces.

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Aftermath San Francisco earthquake 1906_© Encyclopedia Britannica

At the time of the disaster, San Francisco had been the ninth-largest city in the United States and the largest on the country’s West Coast. It was the hub of commercial activity in California. It was a kind of ‘Gateway to the Pacific’. In the fifty years since becoming a part of America, the city had burned several times and had been shaken by many earthquakes, large and small. And each time, the city was rebuilt. The earthquake and fires of 1906 left behind a far larger task, with widespread destruction on a scale the people of San Francisco had never seen before.

And yet, they did rebuild, and they rebuilt quickly. The city flag of San Francisco featuring a phoenix rising from the ashes stands for a good reason. San Francisco did not die, but the city that rose from the ashes was a very different place from what the writer Will Irwin called “The City That Was.”

After brief chaos, an order was restored. By the week, hundreds of thousands of people left the city by ferry or train. This departure was encouraged by the authorities because fewer people meant fewer security problems and reduced the chances of an outbreak of infectious diseases. However, this migration from San Francisco did not result in a lasting reduction of the city’s population. Although those who fled never returned, the city was back to 375,000 registered residents by July 1906

In May and June, attention shifted from grappling with the immediate consequences of the catastrophe to restoring the foundation of urban life: water and electrical service were restored in outer districts, the transit system was repaired, rubble was carted away- indeed, San Francisco temporarily became the scrap dealers and economic activity resumed. Banks opened their doors once more, and businessmen returned to wheeling and dealing. The rebuilding of the city was underway by the early summer of 1906.

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Ruins of San Francisco, Nob Hill in the foreground, from Lawrence Captive Airship, 1500 feet elevation, May 29,1906_© Library of Congress

San Francisco had an amazing opportunity to rebuild the city following the disaster. Not only was much of the urban landscape levelled, but there was also a far-reaching city plan finished by a popular urban planner named Daniel Burnham just days before the earthquake. The plan included the widening and redirecting of many streets and the inclusion of more parks throughout the city. Burnham also envisioned a large civic centre from which a radial network of streets would emanate. Although there was much debate about seizing the opportunity to rebuild according to the plan proposed, the only significant change was carried out near the civic centre, where several blocks were taken for the city’s use. The discussion of the city’s future was summed up in the headline of the May 1 San Francisco bulletin: “Dreams will not rebuild San Francisco”. The land acquired for Burnham’s plan and resettling those displaced would have been more costly for rebuilding and also delayed the time.

According to Kahn, “In San Francisco, a strong commitment to private property rights prevented the expansion of public authority.” In a rush to rebuild, businessmen were eager to revive trade, and landowners were not agreeable to giving up portions of their property for the sake of reorganizing the city’s layout. The episode provides evidence that preferences for widespread change in infrastructure were dominated by private interests.

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Home life among refugees – a street of tents in the Presidio_© California Historical Societ

Many citizens left for nearby areas, and some migrated even as far as Los Angeles. The remaining individuals were housed in temporary camps constructed throughout the city, where 50,000 people lived in June and 17,000 by the fall of 1906 (Douty (1977)). According to Tobriner, thousands of people remained homeless several years after the earthquake, suggesting that the city’s developers did not hastily rebuild to house the homeless but instead rebuilt to reflect the expectations for permanent housing demand.

Another important question that arises is – Did the city rebuild in a largely free-market setting, or did regulation somehow influence the change? While several changes to the city’s building code were proposed, few were implemented. Amongst the most important is the expansion of the city’s fire limits where buildings were required to be non-combustible materials, a new fireproof roof area where building roofs to be non-combustible, and legal permissibility of concrete in buildings. Height limitations and fire-resistant walls in wood-frame buildings were also proposed but either defeated or ignored. As a result of these regulatory changes, these areas became more costly to construct relative to buildings constructed outside these limits. In the end, as many have criticized, the city was largely left to rebuild itself with little interference from the city’s building department.

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San Francisco, three years after, April 1909_© Library of Congress

A lot of important changes were also proposed in the building code, most of which were ignored in a rush to rebuild. Perhaps most important was the adoption of concrete in load-bearing walls. Before the earthquake, concrete was viewed with suspicion and was questioned vigorously by the bricklayers association, but engineers and architects proved all the suspicions false. But ultimately, wood remained the main material in the reconstruction of San Francisco as it was cheap and was considered a safer option in case of earthquakes.

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View of exposition grounds, three months before the opening day of Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1914_© Library of Congress

In a show of resilience and civic pride, the city did not only rebuild itself only nine years after it invited the world to visit as the host of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition – a fantastic city of domes and pastel-coloured towers built in Marina. It showed the world that San Francisco was back. For a fact, the rubble from the 1906 earthquake was used to create the land needed for the site of the exposition’s impressive structures. Upon the ashes of the past, the city rose again.

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View of Tower of Jewels at the Panama Pacific International Exposition _© Library of Congress

In a rush to rebuild the city, building standards were at first relaxed “by upwards of 50%,” according to historian Robert Hansen. Building standards did not reach even 1906 levels until the 1950s. This means the city blindly went ahead and built structures even weaker than 1906 standards, Risa A. Palm points out.” The vulnerability of buildings is not only their function but also their construction. Steinbrugge estimates that about 13% of all California structures are in this category.” A detailed analysis of the city today estimates that an earthquake less powerful than the 1906 quake would destroy many sections of the city. This alone is enough to send shivers up the spine of a San Franciscan.

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View of San Francisco business district from California Street, April 28, 1922_© Library of Congress

Cities “are among humankind’s most durable artefacts”. The sudden movement of earth, of the very foundation of human existence, leaves people with no time for preparation. They put societies in an extraordinary situation in which established political, social, economic, and cultural structures are put to a severe test. It leads us to the question, “Can disasters serve as a starting point for reinvention, a new beginning, or is it mostly about reconstruction, a recreation of the past?”

Today, the vigilance against earthquakes has increased manifold. A timely warning can help mitigate the number of casualties. No doubt the 1906 massive earthquake left behind it a grim trail of death and destruction but also a realization that ignorance can cause great harm while awareness and knowledge can help us save our lives to a great extent. No doubt, it is beyond human hands to stop the earthquakes, but it is well within human reach to escape the destruction of earthquakes through proper precautions and preparedness.

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San Francisco, April 13, 2020_© San Francisco travel


Nolte Carl (2006), The Great Quake: 1906-2006 / Rising from the ashes. Sfgate

Strupp Christoph (2009), Dealing with Disaster: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Finefield Kristi (2017), San Francisco: Before and After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Library of Congress.

Boulton Terynn (2013), when San Francisco was almost wiped off the map. Today I Found Outfeed your brain.

Siodla James (2012), Razing San Francisco: The 1906 Disaster as a Natural Experiment in Understanding Urban Land Use.

Wells Fargo Stories. 2022. Helping San Francisco rise from the ashes. [Online] Available at:



I am a person with varied interests and curious nature and architecture has provided me opportunities to grow and develop myself. The depth and vastness of the field has kept me on my toes and always want to explore, learn, understand and contribute to the field. I a fresh graduate believe every place and space has a lot of stories to tell and I wish to tell some of those.