27 Mar

Map of the Week: Aftermath of 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

By Thomas Jang

Fire is a controversial, natural element that is viewed as both a force of rebirth and a force of destruction. For millennia, a variety of symbols have been attached with fire. In Greek mythology, fire is what Prometheus took from the gods of Olympus to give to humanity. One Cherokee myth talks about Grandmother Spider, who weaves a web to bring the Sun to humanity who lived in darkness. As the history of cities and urbanization has showcased, fires have caused the deaths of millions of people, ruined landscapes, and forced displacement of residents but also a change in trajectory of their architecture and lifestyles. 

One such event, etched into the collective memory of Californians and Americans alike, is the earthquake of April 18, 1906 that destroyed four square miles of San Francisco, then mostly situated on the peninsula’s northeast point. At the start of the 20th century in 1900, 342,782 called the city home. About 3,000 people lost their lives in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the young city in the early April morning at 5:12 am. 

Contributing further to the chaos, many water and gas lines were ruptured, igniting multiple fires and leaking the water necessary to put them out. Now what present-day professionals would say is irresponsible and inefficient, dynamite was used by firefighters to destroy burning buildings to stop the fires from spreading. These attempts actually spread fires in the ensuing explosions, which spread the fires over a wide area. With these unsuccessful attempts, the fires continued to burn for three more days, forcing people to evacuate to nearby parks and across the Bay to Oakland and Sausalito. Refugee camps were established by the US Army and managed the imports and exports of food supplies and clothing. Camps were set up at Golden Gate Park, Presidio Park, Fort Mason, and Harbor View. 

Despite politicians and business leaders who downplayed the drastic impacts of the disaster, the statistics were harrowing. In total, 498 blocks were destroyed, incurring at least $400 million in property damage 1906 dollars—equivalent to $9.81 billion in 2022 dollars. Building permits also influenced the rebuilding process. In the two years after the earthquake, about 4,196 repairs and alterations were made, incurring $8,010,913. 

Contrasting local leaders who feared the loss of investment in the city, then-California governor George Pardee called for the city to be immediately rebuilt, inspiring funds and plans for reconstruction. Despite the situation, plans were made to reimagine the city with avenues reminiscent of Haussmann Paris, arterial thoroughfares, and the creation of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). By the end of the decade in 1910, 416,912 residents called the city home.