Link to jump to start of content The Seattle Times Company Jobs Autos Homes Rentals NWsource Classifieds
The Seattle Times Nation & World
Traffic | Weather | Your account Movies | Restaurants | Today's events

Saturday, April 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Ripples from 1906 San Francisco quake felt even today

Knight Ridder Newspapers

SAN FRANCISCO — The rubble has long since been cleared, the cities rebuilt. Its images — the charred ruins of San Francisco, the wrecked buildings of Stanford University — exist now only as vintage photographs.

Yet as the 100th anniversary of America's most devastating earthquake approaches, its ripple effects continue to shape the state.

The Bay Area's drinking-water supply. The Bank of America. The rise to prominence of Los Angeles. Scientific understanding of how earthquakes occur. Carmel's artist culture. The clear-cutting of Northern California's redwoods. All are little-known legacies of the 1906 quake.

"Besides the Gold Rush, the 1906 earthquake and fire was the most dramatic and historically lasting event in California history," said Philip Fradkin, author of "The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906."

"The consequences affected the whole state and the West."

Facts and figures

Some numbers behind the 1906 Great Quake and ensuing fires in San Francisco:

The Associated Press

5:12 a.m.

The quake struck at first light on April 18, 1906.

296 miles

The length of the rupture in the San Andreas fault.

3 days

of fires stoked by unseasonably warm weather raged through April 20. Firefighting efforts were hampered by ruptured water lines and the loss of Chief Dennis Sullivan, who died in the quake.


of San Francisco's 53,000 buildings were destroyed.


of San Francisco's nearly 400,000 residents were left homeless.

$400 million

in estimated property damage (equivalent to $8.2 billion in today's dollars).

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, California Earthquake Authority

Rumbling ruin

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault ruptured for almost 300 miles from Point Arena in Mendocino County to San Juan Bautista. Buildings, roads and trees were violently jolted during 45 seconds of upheaval. A road near Point Reyes in Marin County moved 21 feet.

Geologists now estimate the magnitude at 7.9, a release of 30 times more energy than the 6.9 Loma Prieta quake in 1989.

San Francisco bore the brunt. The quake was bad enough, but fires that burned for three days — caused by broken gas pipes, overturned coals, Army troops dynamiting buildings in an attempt to slow the flames and a lack of water due to broken pipes — created a historic calamity.

More than 490 city blocks burned, from Van Ness Avenue to the Ferry Building on San Francisco's waterfront. In the end, the quake and fires killed at least 700 people, although some estimates place the number as high as 3,000. About 28,000 buildings, including City Hall and nearly all schools, stores and libraries, were destroyed. More than half the city's 400,000 residents were left homeless.

The aftermath

"Outside of the Civil War, there had never been an American city devastated like San Francisco was in 1906," said Kevin Starr, professor of history at the University of Southern California and former state librarian. "You have to go forward 99 years to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to find a major American city that was nearly wiped out."

What followed were scenes of heroism and cruelty.

Rescuers risked their lives to pull victims from collapsed buildings, and residents patiently endured months in shabby tent cities. But city officials also tried unsuccessfully to move Chinatown from its central location to a remote outpost.

An immediate campaign began to sanitize events: City officials called the disaster "The Great Fire," excising the word "earthquake." Headlines boasted of the recovery, and for years the official number of disaster dead was set at 478 — a figure widely accepted even though no list was ever compiled.

The rebuilding was rapid and extravagant, including a gilded City Hall, and a reinvented San Francisco unveiled the result in 1915 with its Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Altered landscape

From the ashes came other changes.

The fires, for instance, finally spurred Congress in 1913 to approve building a huge reservoir at Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. City leaders were denied in 1902. But after the quake they carried the day over the passionate objections of Sierra Club founder John Muir — even though broken pipes, not lack of water, doomed the city, noted Stephen Tobriner, professor of architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley.

Today Hetch Hetchy provides drinking water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents from San Jose to San Francisco. Environmentalists still hope to drain it, store the water elsewhere and restore the scenic valley.

The quake also changed American finance.

In 1904, San Jose native Amadeo Peter "A.P." Giannini opened a small bank he named the Bank of Italy in a former North Beach saloon with loans from friends. Having worked in his family's produce business, Giannini saw how major banks refused loans to immigrants and laborers. So he built his business around them.

When the earthquake hit, as fires raged, Giannini, 36, borrowed a horse wagon filled with vegetables and raced to the building. Amid street chaos and looting, he emptied $2 million in gold and securities from his vault, hid them under the vegetables and slipped through the mobs to safety.

Within days, as larger banks stayed closed, he reopened on a San Francisco wharf with a plank and two barrels for a desk. He immediately began making loans vital in rebuilding the city to anxious shopkeepers and homeowners.

Over the years, Giannini's bank grew and acquired other banks, including New York City's venerable Bank of America. He democratized American banking by creating new products — from auto loans to home mortgages.

Beyond San Francisco, the quake devastated smaller cities from Santa Rosa to Hollister. At Santa Clara's Agnews State Hospital for the mentally ill, 112 patients and staff died in a hail of collapsing brick.

As Bay Area towns rushed to rebuild, loggers clear-cut vast redwood forests from Santa Cruz to Oregon to supply lumber.

And culture changed as well.

After the quake, Carmel developer Frank Devendorf offered lots in his sleepy seaside village to displaced artists for $10 down. Painters, artists and writers flocked in, including Mary Austin, Jack London, Armin Hansen and Upton Sinclair. A century later, Carmel remains an art-gallery mecca, though real-estate prices have driven many artists away.

The rising south

As tiny towns changed, so did the state's major cities.

In 1906, San Francisco was the largest American city west of the Mississippi River, a colossus of finance, culture and political power. With the quake, gone in an instant was the colorful outpost of the Barbary Coast and railroad barons. In its place, 20th-century California began.

"The earthquake cleared out one San Francisco — which was the dominant place in California — and replaced it with another," said Starr. "It accelerated the modernization of California."

By 1920, Los Angeles passed San Francisco as the West's most populous city. Although historians say the growth was inevitable because of the southland's booming film, oil and aviation industries — along with the construction of an aqueduct from Owens Valley to expand Los Angeles' water supply — many contend the quake accelerated it.

The quake also revolutionized science. Until 1906, geologists had only a rudimentary understanding of the San Andreas Fault. Afterward, more than 20 scientists from Stanford, Berkeley and other universities working on a state commission discovered the fault ran for hundreds of miles. They found that damage depended largely on what kind of soil was beneath buildings. Also, they learned that earthquakes are caused by the release of energy when faults slip.

"It certainly is the birth of modern earthquake science," said Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. "They put all these different types of data together, and all of a sudden there was a recognition these weren't random events. They were part of an ongoing process. Everything we do now is based on that notion."

A seismic reprieve

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 1906 quake was that it almost certainly reduced the number of quakes for the rest of the 20th century. Zoback said the earthquake was so large, it released tension on other Bay Area faults. From 1836 to 1906, there had been a large earthquake in the Bay Area every four years on average. Now that tension on the faults has built up again, "the next century may be a lot more like the 19th century," she said.

Although geologists look to the past to help understand the state's future, many Californians have gone through life knowing little about the great 1906 earthquake.

In fairness, historians say, California by nature prefers the future to the past.

"It's part of the mythology, which is: The place didn't exist before I got here," said Tim Hodson of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento. "Back home, you were Norma Jean. In California, it's Marilyn Monroe."

Historical information from the Los Angeles Times is included in this story.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




More shopping