Shake it Off: How San Francisco Rebuilt Itself-Fast

Photo taken by  Arnold Genthe.
Devastation after the earthquake. Photo taken by Arnold Genthe.

The city of San Francisco was destroyed in the spring of 1906 after a violent earthquake shook the city to the ground on Wednesday, April 18. The infamous quake was certainly damaging, but a series of 2,700 degree fires lasting three days after the quake, consumed or multiplied the damage. So overwhelming was the aftermath, many people simply left the city for good. Seventy five thousand of the 400,000 San Franciscans left for nearby cities like Berkeley and Oakland. The remaining population stayed to turn devastation into opportunity.

Image by Arnold Genthe
A view of the damage on Sacramento Street. Photo taken by Arnold Genthe.

The damage was almost incomprehensible. Insurance claims calculated a total loss of $252 million, not including the destruction caused by the earthquake since many policies did not include that type of coverage. In today’s money, this number equates to $6.2 billion and back then, the amount was equal to the federal budget in 1906! Banks weren’t functional for the six weeks following the quake, causing the city business needed to counterbalance the financial damage to come to a screeching halt. Some money was saved, but the banks fire safes could not be accessed until the safes cooled a week later. San Franciscans had a choice to make, sulk or work.

Photo taken by George Williford Boyce Haley.
Workers search through destruction for reusable bricks. Photo taken by George Williford Boyce Haley.

Rebuilding a City…Fast and Different

In order to save the city’s place in the nation, the leading officials understood it had to be rebuilt quickly. It was. Citizens were drafted to clear debris from the streets in the days following the quake, making the job more manageable for the professionals who dumped the rubble into Mission Bay. Skilled workers poured into the city – within 4 days there were already 300 plumbers ready to get to work. Building skyrocketed; 500 homes and 300 saloons/dance halls were built within the year. The quake also affected residential architecture in the city, aiding in the transition out of the Victorian architectural styles like Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Stick (1860—early 1900s) and into the Edwardian architectural styles like Arts & Crafts, Shingle, Tudor Revival and Mission Revival.

Example of the Victorian period homes in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Photo Urban.
Example of the Queen Anne style homes in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Queen Anne is one style that spanned both Victorian and Edwardian architectural Styles. Photo taken by Urban.


By 1909 a staggering 20,000 buildings had been built in the recovering city! The officials and citizens of San Francisco had pulled off what seemed to be impossible. In just three years time, the city had recovered from a devastating blow. Despite much difficulty, displaced San Franciscans of 1906 rallied together, with the help of aid to pull off a modern miracle.

Made available by theLibrary of Congress.
A view of the rebuilt city from Grant Avenue at Market Street in 1915. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

To showcase their accomplishments, San Francisco hosted the Portola Festival in 1909 and the larger Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The Portola Festival boasted five days of parades, spectacular city lighting, a crowded auto race, warships from all over the world and gained the attention of one million attendees. The Exposition of 1915 opened in February and lasted the remainder of the year. The nineteen million people who attended the event proved that San Francisco had risen from the ashes to an international level of grandeur.

Extravagant lighting system at 1915 exposition. Photo made available via Wikipedia.
Extravagant lighting system at 1915 exposition. Photo credit: Project Gutenberg Archives.
A remastered depiction of the exhibit palaces at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Photo originally published by ,a href=",_San_Francisco,_aeroplane_view,_1915.jpg">Pacific Novelty Co.
A remastered depiction of the exhibit palaces at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Photo originally published by Pacific Novelty Co.

About The Author

Alex Pirela is story teller fascinated with the exploration of the human condition through various forms of writing.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *