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Blue streak

1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire 100 Years Later

San Francisco Photographs—Before, Then and Now

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April 18, 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of the famous San Francisco earthquake and fire.

As one of the most destructive natural disasters impacting a U.S. city and first to be documented with photography the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was important to the modern scientific study of earthquakes and the science of seismology.

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In order to provide some idea of what San Francisco was like before and immediately after the 1906 earthquake and fire in comparison with how it appears today I've combined images from the postcard collection at (with permission), the National Archives and photos I recently shot showing the same areas today.

San Francisco 1906 Earthquake and Fire

At approximately 5:12 am on April 18, 1906 an earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area. The earth quake was later estimated to have a moment magnitude of from 7.7 to 8.25.
The ground shifted as much as 21 feet along more than 270 miles of the San Andreas fault. Buildings partially or completely collapsed, gas and water mains broke and hundreds of people were killed.
Numerous fires broke out in San Francisco, joined together and raged out of control for four days because of the severed water lines.

Before - City Hall postcard picturewhite spacerThen - City Hall after the 1906 earthquake and firewhite spacerNow - San Francisco's City Hall in 2006

"Suddenly, as sharply and as abruptly as it had begun, the end of the temblor came…A cloud of deep dust hung tenaciously about the City Hall…The dome appeared like a huge birdcage against the morning dawn. The upper works of the entire building laid peaceably - if that term can be used - in the street below." Fred J. Hewitt

The earthquake and following fire almost completely destroyed San Francisco leaving as much as three quarters of the population homeless. While early estimates put the death toll at 478 it is now believed that at least 3000 and possibly as many as twice that number died including some who were shot when mayor Eugene Schmitz issued an edict allowing police and army personnel to shoot looters.

Before - Lotta's Fountain and the Pacific Hotel postcard picturewhite spacerThen - Market Street as the '06 fire burnswhite spacerNow - SF's historic streetcar passes Lotta's Fountain and the Palace Hotel

"I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel…I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean…I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children…the plaster on the ceiling has fallen in a great shower, covering the bed and the carpet and the furniture…" Enrico Caruso

The above pictures show Lotta's Fountain—given to The City by Lotta Crabtree—and the view down Market Street before the '06 Quake and Fire, immediately after and now. The Palace Hotel is the large building on the other side of the street.
Looking west from Lotta's Fountain you can see the Call (Claus Spreckels) Building at Third and Market Streets. Both the Palace Hotel and Call Buildings survived the quake but later were severely damaged by the fire.
The Call Building, which began to burn at 2:00pm on April 18, 2006 is hardly recognizable today as a result of renovation. I initially walked right past it thinking a building further down the street with a similar dome to the original building was the building built in 1898 by Claus Spreckels who owned the newspaper The Call.

Before - Call Building postcard picturewhite spacerThen - Call Building on Market Street burnswhite spacer

"…walking up Market Street. The sight I looked upon was appalling! Everywhere my eyes could reach were collapsed buildings, and the whole street was piled high with fallen bricks and masonry. And the South of Market area was ablaze on a wide front. …I saw little of the living — a soldier on horseback and two or three men scurrying in and out of still-standing buildings. But I saw more of the dead — half a dozen or more men who had been killed, evidently by collapsing walls, lying where they had been struck; and as there was no one to remove the bodies, they were undoubtedly cremated in the advancing flames." Charles Kendrick

Fairmont Mansion still standing on Nob HillAs the fire spread people tried to save whatever they could. Some were successful, most were not. The Mark Hopkins mansion on Nob Hill—a Gothic-style palace completed after Hopkin’s death—was given to the San Francisco Art Association by his widow’s second husband. Known in 1906 as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, the building, along with the Stanford Mansion next door, was destroyed in the fire.
The Mark Hopkins Hotel now stands on the site with the Stanford Court Renaissance Hotel next door. Nearby the Fairmont and Flood Mansions were both gutted but remained standing. Additional pictures can be found on my Nob Hill page.

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"The Fairmont Hotel has been advertised as the first fireproof building in the West; and right across the street from it in the Mark Hopkins Art Institute is some of the finest art in the world…spent the next couple of hours carrying paintings, statuary, bronzes, bric-a-brac and ceramics across the street to the Fairmont…when I saw the Fairmont a week later it had been gutted to its bare bones, and all those priceless art treasures were ashes." Charles Kendrick

Many eyewitness accounts survive including those by Jack London—for Collier's Weekly, Enrico Caruso—the great operatic tenor on tour in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake, Frank Aleomon Leach—former newspaper reporter and superintendent of the United States Mint in San Francisco, Brigadier General Frederick Funston—commander of the Presido—and Arnold Genthephotographer of San Francisco, Japan and Europe who influenced Dorothea Lange along with many others.
Other photographers came to San Francisco to document the ruins including George R. Lawrence who had developed a method of taking photographs from a camera suspended below a series of kites. Lawrence shot several panoramic images of San Francisco shortly after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.
Two 1906 refugee cottage, built to house homeless San Franciscans, are on display in the Presidio.

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