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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Wikipedia.co website.
- The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Historynet.com website.
- The Great 1906 Earthquake and Fires of San Francisco. Buffalo.edu website.
- Portola Fest. 1909. John T. Freeman. Postcard.org website.
- San Francisco Preservation Bulletin No. 18. . SF-planning.org website.
- Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Wikipedia.com website.