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San Francisco destroyed by earthquake – archive, 19 April 1906

19 April 1906: Thousands of buildings were either damaged or destroyed, and several hundred persons killed

San Francisco destroyed by earthquake – archive, 19 April 1906
A section of San Francisco shows the ravages of the great earthquake that struck on 18 April 1906. The quake measured 8.3 on the Richter scale, igniting fires that proved far more disastrous. Photograph: AP

New York, Wednesday
Early this morning a violent earthquake wrecked the business quarter of the city of San Francisco, and an appalling fire completed the devastation. All the land wires were broken, and for some hours the United States was in an agony of suspense. The absence of authentic news produced the wildest rumours. Now that communication has been partially restored the story is scarcely less alarming, for it is known that not less than 1,500 people have perished, and some estimates place the figure ultimately at more than double that number.

Mark Oliver on the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco quake

At the time of cabling upwards of 800 bodies have been recovered from the ruins and placed in the Mechanics’ Pavilion, a large hall half way up Market-street, which has been turned into a morgue.

The first earthquake shock came without the slightest warning at 5 13 a.m., and lasted three minutes. In that short space of time an area extending over fifty blocks, mainly to the south of that magnificent artery Market-street and running right down to San Francisco Bay, was wrecked. A section east of Market-street also suffered badly, but the residential section, where the thick of the population is, though it felt the shock considerably and sustained some damage, was not reduced to such a pile of débris as the district outlined above, and it was this which saved the casualty list from reaching a much more terrible total.

The centre of the disturbance was between the Chronicle building, opposite Third-street, and the City Hall, along Market-street. Both these buildings were ruined, along with numerous others, including those of two other newspapers, the Call and the Examiner, the Emergency Hospital, one or two theatres, the post-office at the corner of Seventh-street, and many notable business offices.

People were abed when the shock came, and though the district which suffered most severely is largely a business one, it also has a considerable residential population in hotels and tenements. The inmates, thrown from their beds, rushed out of their rooms.

The shocks continued in a minor degree for three hours, and soon after the first shock the electric light and gas went out, the disturbance having interfered with the works and connections. This increased the panic, and the scene in the streets and halls of the houses and hotels was indescribable. Women and children shrieked for aid, and the coolest among them rushed for open spaces to avoid the falling buildings. As daylight became stronger a rush began to leave the town altogether, and this continues.

People on Sacramento Street watch smoke rise from fires after a severe earthquake in San Francisco, California, 18 April 1906. Photograph: Arnold Genthe/AP

Destruction by fire
As block after block collapsed fires broke out in a score of places, and when an attempt was made to cope with the flames the fire brigade found that the majority of the engines were wrecked. The water mains had burst, and a high wind was fanning the outbreak into furious flames. The city was turned into an inferno, but according to the somewhat meagre reports which are coming out the directors of the fire brigade kept their heads and took vigorous action immediately.

Earthquake in San Francisco

General Funston, commanding the military in California, sent out troops to aid the municipal authorities. As soon as it was seen that the flames were advancing dangerously and that the Palace Hotel had become involved, the authorities determined to cut off the burning area in order to save the town. The buildings, extending over two square miles, affected by the fire were cleared as well as time would permit, and then dynamite was used to sweep a path between the devastated section and the remainder of the city. This has partially checked the flames, but the danger is by no means over.

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