San Francisco: Before and After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

by Kristi Finefield

Nearly half a million people lived in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. The majority of them were fast asleep when the world began to shake apart. At 5:12 a.m. the city was struck by a massive earthquake, one which modern science estimates at anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale. The series of shocks brought down buildings and split open streets. In a stroke of terrible luck, the earthquake also broke the water mains that served a city where most residences were made of wood, and dozens of fires erupted even as the shaking subsided.

San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906

The devastation was overwhelming:

  • Over 28,000 buildings were burned, and over 500 city blocks destroyed
  • An estimated 3,000 people lost their lives
  • More than 200,000 people were left homeless.

However, the city flag of San Francisco featured a phoenix rising from the ashes for good reason. In the fifty years since becoming a part of America, the city had burned several times, and been shaken by many earthquakes, large and small. And each time, the city rebuilt. The earthquake and fires of 1906 left a far larger task behind, with widespread destruction on a scale the people of San Francisco had never seen before.

And yet, they did rebuild, and they rebuilt quickly.

In a show of resilience and civic pride, the city not only rebuilt itself, it invited the world to visit as the host of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. In fact, rubble from the 1906 earthquake was used to create the land needed for the site of the exposition’s impressive structures. On the ashes of the past, the city rose again.

Witness San Francisco’s growth and transformation from 1851 to 1922 in the following images.

Early Views of San Francisco

View of San Francisco: 18511860

Immediate Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

Rebuilding San Francisco

See more stunning images and watch early films:

Kristi Finefield is a reference librarian in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.