On April 18th 1906, at 5:13 am., an earthquake estimated at about 8.0 on the Richter scale struck San Francisco, California, killing hundreds of people as it toppled numerous buildings. The quake was caused by a slip of the San Andreas Fault over a segment about 275 miles long, and shock waves could be felt from southern Oregon down to Los Angeles.
A second strong tremor struck not long after. The quake was powerful enough to be recorded thousands of miles away in Cape Town, South Africa, and its effect on San Francisco was cataclysmic. Thousands of structures collapsed as a result of the quake itself. However, the greatest devastation resulted from the fires that followed the quake. The initial tremors destroyed the city’s water mains, leaving overwhelmed firefighters with no means of combating the growing inferno. The blaze burned for four days and engulfed the vast majority of the city.
At 7 am, U.S. Army troops from Fort Mason reported to the Hall of Justice, and San Francisco Mayor E.E. Schmitz called for the enforcement of a dusk-to-dawn curfew and authorised soldiers to shoot-to-kill anyone found looting. Meanwhile, in the face of significant aftershocks, fire fighters and U.S. troops fought desperately to control the ongoing fire, often dynamiting whole city blocks to create firewalls. On April 20th, 20,000 refugees trapped by the massive fire were evacuated from the foot of Van Ness Avenue onto the USS Chicago.
By the time a heavy rainfall tamed the massive fire, the once proud city of San Francisco was in shambles. More than 28,000 buildings burned to the ground and the city suffered more than $500 million in damages. The human toll was equally disastrous: authorities estimated that the quake and fires killed 700 people, and left a quarter of a million people homeless. Most of the city’s homes and nearly all the central business district were destroyed. The famous writer and San Francisco resident Jack London noted, “Surrender was complete.”
By April 23rd, most fires were extinguished, and authorities commenced the task of rebuilding the devastated metropolis. Reconstruction was swift, and largely completed by 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition which celebrated the reconstruction of the city and its “rise from the ashes”.
Since 1915, the city has officially commemorated the Great San Francisco Earthquake each year by gathering the remaining survivors at Lotta’s Fountain, a fountain in the city’s financial district that served as a meeting point during the disaster for people to look for loved ones and exchange information.