Major Earthquake Strikes San Francisco: April 18, 1906

>Major Earthquake Strikes San Francisco: April 18, 1906

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., San Francisco and the surrounding area was struck by a destructive 7.8-magnitude earthquake, whose epicenter lay just 2 miles west of the city. The earthquake was quickly followed by massive fires that, over the course of three days, burned a large portion of the city. Three thousand people would be killed, and half of San Francisco’s population would become refugees.

Images of San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and firesWhen the earthquake struck not long after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, most people were still in bed. A brief initial shock was followed by the main quake, which lasted 45 to 60 seconds. In that minute, buildings throughout the city crumbled or sank into the ground, roads cracked, water and gas mains broke, and thousands of people were killed, trapped, or injured.

It wasn’t just San Francisco that was affected; nearby cities such as Santa Rosa and San Jose were equally decimated by the earthquake, and tremors were felt as far north as Oregon and as far south as Los Angeles. A strong aftershock around 8 a.m. sent further buildings toppling.

The destruction caused by the earthquake was devastating enough, but within half an hour more than 50 fires had been reported in San Francisco. Despite the response of local firemen, some of the fires grew into massive conflagrations that burned through well-known neighborhoods, including the city’s downtown, Chinatown, and Nob Hill. By the time the fires were finally put out on Saturday, 4.7 square miles, 500 city blocks, and 28,000 buildings had burned.

As a result of the earthquake and fires, more than 200,000 San Franciscans (out of a population of 400,000) became homeless. Initially, many camped in
parks or other open spaces, but soon many fled the city altogether—some
temporarily, others permanently. Organized relief efforts distributed food, water, and shelter to the refugees, and millions of dollars in aid and donations were given to the city.

The clean-up from the disaster would take two years, and rebuilding the city would take even longer. By 1915 San Francisco had recovered enough to host the Panama—Pacific International Exposition. In some respects, however, the city never fully recovered from the earthquake: before the disaster, San Francisco had been the leading city on the West Coast, but following it, Los Angeles took its place.

Do you have family members who lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires? Tell us about them! Or learn more about the disaster on

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58 thoughts on “Major Earthquake Strikes San Francisco: April 18, 1906

    1. My step grandfather Howard Duryee Wheeler was a reporter in San Francisco during the Earthquake. He wrote an autobiography (unpublished) where he described the earthquake and aftermath in great detail.

      1. Ellen,

        I wonder if any if an pieces of your grandfather’s unpublished record of the earthquake would be pertinent to the biography I am writing on artist Tilden Daken, my grandfather. I have an entire chapter on the 1906 earthquake in the book and quote other sources. Thanks, Bonnie

  1. My second great aunt and her family lived in San Francisco during 1906. By the time of the 1910 census, they lived in nearby Colma, California.

  2. My husband’s great-grandfather owned a carriage business and lived on Hayes St. in the Western Addition. When the fires crossed Market St. the family headed west where it was safe for them and their horses. After the fires went out they headed to Denver for a few years before returning to San Francisco.

  3. My father was born on March 9, 1906 in Alameda, California, where the quake was also felt. It was a family joke that the quake rocked him to sleep.

  4. My grandfather, artist Tilden Daken (and my grandmother and great-grand parents) survived the quake, but Tilden’s art studio on Van Ness Avenue was dynamited in the city’s efforts to contain the firestorm. His biography, “The Man Beneath the Paint,” is close to completion and includes a chapter on the 1906 earthquake. My mother was conceived in Tent City, born 9 months later in Glen Ellen, where her parents relocated.

    1. I don’t suppose your kinfolk had any contact with a.fellow Glen Ellen resident, author Jack London?

      1. Hello Bill,

        Indeed, Tilden Daken and Jack Lndon were good friends. They met in 1901 in the Reno rail station and rode on the brake beams of a freight train over Donner Pass and into Oakland (getting kicked off and climbing back a few times). They reacquainted in Glen Ellen when Tilden moved there after the earthquake. Check out www. Thanks for your interest!

      2. Hello Bill,
        Indeed, Tilden Daken and Jack London were good friends. They met in 1901 in the Reno rail station and together rode the brake beams of a freight train to Oakland (kicked off over Donner Pass and climbed back on). They reacquainted in Glen Ellen where Tilden relocated following the earthquake. More on Thanx for your interest! Bonnie

  5. I live in Tombstone AZ, where the quake was publicized in the local papers, particularly the Tombstone Epitaph. Many local businesses contributed to the relief effort, because a lot of residents had relatives or friends in the area. Or they were connected somehow. They had business connections there, they had moved here from SF for mining opportunities, etc. It was on Tombstoners mind for sure. A listing of relief contributers was published in the Tombstone Weekly Epitaph on April 22, 1906 on Page 1

  6. Actually Portland may have led LA. Portland was already the second largest city on the west coast and had hosted the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition and Oriental Fair. Portland was booming and a big beneficiary of the earthquake as many east coast and midwest businesses; Chicago in particular looked for an alternative to SF to establish their western presence. Chicago was on the mainline west was closer to Portland. For example the nation’s largest plumbing company, The Crane Co., located their firm in Portland’s industrial district.

  7. My step-grandmother’s grandfather was a physician living on Haight Street. She told of living in tent city following the quake. At the time, she was eight years old.

  8. My grandfather and his buddy moved from Scotland to San Francisco specifically to work on quake-related issues. My grandfather had carpenter skills and he had no problem finding work

  9. My grandmother was living in the city. She had saved pieces of the melted street and said that was all that was left of her house. Her mother’s place fIred better and the grand piano and clock were saved and later given to my grandmother. I have them now.

  10. Thank you all for sharing your comments on the earthquake. The story takes on added dimensions.

  11. My grandfather was a 14 year old “newsie” and orphan in San Francisco when the quake struck. He told us he left as soon as he could get to the docks and hired on to a ship to sail the world. He never moved back but spent his adult life in cities around the western United States.

  12. Grandparents and children were moving from the Marina to their newly built home in Richmond district. The horse drawn carriage picked them up at 5 a.m. They had slept on the floor at Marina and left with only family financial and legal materials. When the quake hit the carriage took them directly to the ferry. They left for Oakland on the first boat out. Cousins took them in and they never left Oakland. The new house was taken as a fire break.

  13. My Grandmother was 5 years old during the Great Quake. She and my Great Grandmother had traveled to San Francisco from Italy and lived with an uncle. Plan was to eventually relocate the rest of the family from Italy to San Francisco as soon as they could afford the passage. The earthquake and fire destroyed their home and they lived in a tent for several weeks. She described the aftershocks and that folks were even afraid to stay inside the tents, choosing to sleep outside. They lost everything that they had and
    temporarily returned to Italy.

  14. My Grandmother arrived in San Francisco to join family members, who lived near the Pan Handle of Golden Gate Park, the day before the Earthquake. They lived on the 3rd floor, so had to throw their belongings down and camp in that part of the Park. My father told me that whenever there was a quake, as he was growing up, she would start throwing their things out in the yard.

  15. My grandmother was born in Alameda county in March 1907. The only record of her birth was that her mother’s maiden name was Kittler. She was told that her father was a sailor. Her parents were of German or Austrian descent. I learned through DNA testing that I am 14% Ashkenazi Jewish, and I think that heritage is likely from her father. We will never know how the earthquake and fires factored into her becoming an orphan.

  16. My great grandmother and her two sons had just come to San Francisco to start a new life, from New York. Then the earthquake hit. She decided to return to New York because they had lost everything. She and her youngest son,my grandfather, returned but her oldest son stayed in San Francisco.

  17. My grandma’s uncle Feivel was had been an immigrant from Europe living in San Francisco. The family on the east coast never heard from him again.

  18. My grandmother, and her husband lived in San Francisco for many years before the 1906 earthquake. My mother was 18 months old, asleep in her crib, when the earthquake occurred. She always told that the clock fell off the shelf into her bed. The family lived far enough from the fire not to have been affected by it. Their lives were certainly changed though. They later moved to Santa Cruz.

  19. My grandfather Albert Wolff was proprietor of the restaurant at the top of the Call building. The name was “In The Clouds”. It was one of the first to burn. The Call building still stands today.

  20. My great grandmother was a child when it happened. Her father owned an upscale saloon in San Francisco. There was a Chandelier imported from France hanging inside. The earthquake and fire destroyed the saloon, and they had to flee the fire. She still had the burnt jewelry and burnt coins up until her death, we never found the items after that. My parents believe her caretaker stole them. A couple years after the earthquake my great great grandfather died from tuberculosis, leaving his wife and two daughters desolate. They ended up moving back to New York city where they were originally from and lived with wealthy relatives that treated them poorly.

  21. My Grandparents, and Mother, who arrived in the US via Ellis Island from London in Aug.1905, then traversed across the US via train to San Francisco to purchase land in Turlock, CA. They left SF one month before the Great Quake. My Mother was a little over a year old then and my Grandparents never talked about it.

  22. One of my Junior High School teachers lived through the quake while growing up in the Napa area. His family owned dairy cows. When the quake hit, it knocked their cows off of their feet.

  23. my name is Jorge Horacio Robinson, grandson of Edwin Robinson, born in Austria on October 25, 1890, I know Edwin had a sister and their father was Henry Robinson .. nothing else, I have no more data …

  24. My grandfather, Eugene Oliveras Kamacho was sleeping on board a sailing ship in SF Bay. He was a member of the crew and they had come to SF from Manilla, P.I. He wrote a letter to his family in Manilla telling them about the quake and fire damages. Family members here in Calif and in Seattle have for years tried to locate the letter he sent home telling everyone of the quake. He did eventually go to the Port Blakeley Mill on Bainbridge Island, Washington and they brought a load of lumber back to San Francisco to rebuild the city. I know he later returned to Manilla and returned on a vessel named the Burnside. Believe this is the vessel that was laying cable across the floor of the Pacific to Seattle, Washington. By 1914 our grandfather was working at the Port Blakeley Mill and living in Tacoma, Washington with his wife Matilda deSoto Veles and their child Eugene Gregory Kamacho. Later Marie Rita and Francis were born in Tacoma. Francis died at about age 2 yrs of diptheria in Tacoma and the family moved to Seattle where my grandfather purchased property and built a home for the family. That home still stands on Ashworth in Seattle and contains many memories of the Kamacho Family Eugene Sr, Matilda, Marie Rita, Julia Ramona, John Anthony and Mary Ann plus the family dog Amigo. Wish I had been able to know my grandparents and learn of all their adventures crossing the Pacific and for my grandmother traveling from Adjuntas, Puerto Rico following a major earthquake about 1899 that left the little country in destruction. We believe she and her family went by ship to either New Orleans or Galveston, TX than by train to Calif and another ship to Hawaii where they worked in the sugar fields. They again relocated to Port Blakeley, Washington and eventually Seattle, WA. Thanks to Ancestry for making available the documents in both the P.I. and Puerto Rico of our family after they came from Spain. Karen C-A

  25. On my father’s side my Great Grandparents and Grandparents (father’s subsequent parents) lived in the 3400 block of Washington, west of Van Ness. They moved out of their house and moved the wood stove into the street where they lived for a short while. They then took a tug to Oakland and stayed with relatives until the fire was out and some sense of order was restored. Before they left they had buried their silver in the back yard; when they returned the silver was recovered and the only damage was a downed brick chimney. However my Great Grandfather’s business, The Firth Iron Works on 1st Street and Howard, was permanently destroyed and the loss of his business eventually led to their need to sell the house which still stands in place to this day.

    Both families stayed and died of old age in San Francisco; I moved to San Francisco after College and two of my children now live in the City, one with 2 children who depending on how one defines the term would be 7th generation San Franciscans.

  26. My Grandmother, Constance Jordan Henley lived through the San Francisco earthquake. She died in 1944, so what I know was told me by my mother. In the melee, Grandmother was run over by the wheel of a horse-drawn cart or carriage. The accident broke her pelvis, leaving her unable to have children. Thus, she and her husband later adopted my mother and her brother. The injury bothered her for the rest of her life at times. She called the injury “Bobby.” She wasn’t a complainer, so she would just say, “Oh, Bobby’s acting up today” and the family would know what was wrong. It didn’t slow her down; she was a great lady ahead of her time. She traveled to South America, lectured, and wrote a bestselling book, and died in her early sixties.

  27. My two great aunts, my soon-to-be grandmother, and their parents lived on the corner of Hayes and Fillmore. After the quake, they evacuated to Alamo Square Park for several days. Their father had dynamite in the basement ready to blow up the house up as a firebreak on orders from the National Guard, but the fires stopped at Van Ness Avenue. The old Victorian is still standing but grandfather’s cigar store and factory on lower Hayes street burned to the ground. My father was born a year later.

  28. My great-great grandfather, Dr. Benjamin Francis Stetson was practicing medicine in Oakland at the time. He went to SF to volunteer, staying in the Army tents. They had him accompany Army patrols into the opium dens to rouse and usher people out in case the tunnels would collapse or be consumed in the fires. My other great-great-grandfather, Frank A. Blanco, who lived in Vallejo and was involved in police work helped evacuate orphans and brought one of them back to Vallejo who was so tiny she fit in a shoebox. She grew up to become the preeminent ballet teacher with a thriving studio in Vallejo.

  29. My husband’s great grandmother, Eugenie Candevan LaForcade, operated a French laundry in Nob Hill at the corner of Larkin and California streets. From photos we’ve found, the buildings all around there were destroyed. Her life after that (pieces of which we found via and further research) seems to have been challenging. Though we have photos of her with three little boys and a husband in 1906, we only find two boys in later census records and they were living at a boarding house without their parents. The parents were then divorced, and she went on to marry again, with less than stable life for years. Fortunately, we are here, so something went right!

  30. I really found the stories interesting and was trying to visualize how it must have been for families. How strong they were and started their lives so over again. My family came from Ireland. I loved to listen to all the stories. They farmed the land and had many adventures. If course they are gone now but can still hear the stories and have repeated them to my family. If you listen one can still the old stories and the laughter of that wonderful Irish brough.

  31. My husband’s grandfather( he was a blacksmith by trade ), wife and 2 daughters were there when it happened. Afterwards he said that they came back to WI ” where the ground doesn’t shake”. He sent the women back by themselves, and followed later. Did he stay longer because he knew there was work? We also don’t know what lured him there in the first place. No answers

  32. My great grandparents moved their nine children from Canada (southwest of Montreal) on the train through Port Huron, MI. My great grandfather and his eldest son were carpenters and there was lots of work. They settled the family in Stockton, and descendent are still there. My maternal grandparents were the DelMonte’s of Cinque Terre, Liguoria, Italy. They came seeking gold, and realized they could make more money by feeding the gold seekers. Their restaurant, For d’Italia is still in operation today in San Francisco.

  33. My grandmother Leslie Underhill was 11 years old and lived on Divisidero Street with her parents and three older brothers. She remembered helping pull one of her brothers out of bed before some piece of the house came falling down on the place where he had slept. Because of the risk of fire and further devastation, the family camped in a local park for a few days and then moved in with an uncle in Alameda for about a year until their house was rebuilt. Their house had been electrified and lit up the first time the day before the earthquake, so they didn’t get much enjoyment out of their new technology for quite a while. My grandmother’s grandfather, Henry Louis King, was a San Francisco pioneer and builder and had built the original Palace Hotel, the opera house and several other prominent buildings. All burned down in the 1906 fire, and the family was sad that all of his work was gone. Another building destroyed was the city hall, so all records from before that date were gone, including both my grandparents’ birth certificates. (My grandfather Elbert Wilson Lockwood had been born in San Francisco but his family moved to Los Angeles before 1900). My grandparents remained in the bay area, moving from the city to Berkeley in the early 1920’s, where they remained for the rest of their lives. My grandfather died in 1988 at the age of 94, and my grandmother in 1993 at 99-3/4.

    1. You just gave me a reason why I can’t find a marriage certificate for my husband’s grandparents…fire. THANK YOU!

  34. My grandmother lived in Noe Valley with two children. One was my mother who was 4 years old at the time. One younger infant died while being encamped I believe in Golden Gate Park or a Tent City that was on the site of The Mint,

  35. Early the morning of the quake, my grandmother Elisabeth Corey was in the throes of pre-delivery pains with her first child. She sent my grandfather out to get the doctor. Shortly afterward he returned and said that he couldn’t get the doctor because the City was on fire. Grandfather (Seth) told Grandmother that she was going to have to get up and they were going to have to leave the house. Grandfather Corey also had four children from a previous marriage and so they all put on coats and prepared to leave. Grandmother had baked bread the previous day so one of the children wrapped the loaves in a kitchen towel. Another child gathered up all of the baby paraphernalia that had been laid out and they started walking away from their house while Grandmother was in deep labor. When they were about two blocks from the house, Grandmother began to weep and foolishly Grandfather asked why. Grandmother said, “My brand new curtains are going to burn.” In order to console her, Grandfather said, “They will be OK. I took them down and put them in the closet. They will burn last!” For some unknown reason that satisfied Grandmother and she turned and continued to walk.

    The family walked until they reached what was the “Round House” which was the end of the line for the streetcars where they would be turned around for a return trip. There was a platform that ran around the inside of the structure. I believe there were glass walls on three sides of the structure with a slight glass roof sheltering the platform but otherwise everything was open to the elements. My grandparents and the four children lived out there for a month before my mother was born. The long walk had stopped the birthing process and my mother (Myrtle) arrived a full month later on May 18, 1906. Grandmother gave birth on a mattress on the floor of the “Round House” by a volunteer doctor who just happened to be intoxicated and as a result my grandmother was lame for the rest of her life.

    Seth and Elisabeth Corey and their children remained in San Francisco and settled in the Mission District. They went on to have two more children.

    All of Seth and Elisabeth Corey’s children moved away from San Francisco except Myrtle. She married and remained in the City until her death. She had four children. Two moved out of state, one died and one lives in southern California. However, all of us cherish our San Francisco heritage.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine walking during extreme labor. These people were tough and had to be. A nice story.

  36. My great grandmother’s brother is Nahan Franko. He was the bandmaster for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but on this day was in San.Fran with his orchestra and this is the story his nephew, Edwin Franko Goldman, who was a member of the orchestra at the time, tells: “The Opera Co. was on a cross continental tour – starting in San Francisco April 16. Brilliant opening for 2 days. “ 5:00 am on April 18, I was awakened by a rumbling noise and sound of plaster falling in my room. The chandelier was swaying back and forth in great arcs, hitting the ceiling. The bed, chiffonier, table and chairs were being tossed about as though by a giant hand.” Less than one minute, but seemed like an eternity. Oscar Saul, in the next room opened the connecting door and yelled, “It’s an earthquake!” We were in pajamas, but ran outside. Buildings were trembling. There were great cracks in the earth. Pavement was in shambles. Fires broke out. “By noon, we thought the whole city would be completely destroyed.” Battleships were in the harbor. Marines landed and martial law was declared.
    I went, still in pajamas, to Union Square. Other members of the orchestra came. They went back to the hotel for clothes, up 6 flights of stairs, littered with debris. Got into trousers and another quake hit. Grabbed coat and fled.
    Fires were spreading. The Palace Hotel, where Nahan was staying, burnt to the ground. Nahan though defied orders and went into the hotel for his Stradivarius violin. “ In typical Nahan fashion, he also got into the kitchen on the first floor, buttered a lot of rolls, found meats, and put them all together in a table cloth. With this on his shoulder, he marched out of the hotel to Union Square where he dished out this supply to those of the company he could find.”
    They were finally escorted to a ferry to Oakland. Nahan slept in the show room of a bakery.
    Seems that the authorities would not allow anyone to come BACK by ferry, so they had to leave by train to New York.

  37. These comments are so interesting to read! My paternal grandmother was nine at the time; while she lived in Fresno, her father and she took a horse and buggy to the City shortly after the quake and she would often tell of seeing the fires still burning.Slightly off-topic, but interesting–my grandmother was a remarkable woman who lived until nearly 102. She was one of the first women to graduate from Stanford, along with her younger sister, who lived to be days-shy of 99. She raised two sons who both fought in WWII–my father is still alive at 95.

  38. My grandfather lived in the outer Mission, so his family didn’t lose their home. But, the family business (wholesale- retail stationers and printers) on Montgomery was lost.
    He had the horse drawn equivalent of a pick up which he told me he used to help people haul their belongings to the park.
    One thing he was very adamant about was the shameful practice of landlords in Oakland taking advantage of the increased demand for temporary by jacking up rents.

  39. I lived in Merced, CA, and in Camarillo, CA, for 7 years IN THE 1960s and loved our frequent trips to San Fran-cisco! And, we lived through several minor earthquakes in Camarillo. The chandeliers would sway and the water in the swimming pools sloshed around, but, we had no real damage. It was scary enough that we moved back to Pensacola, FL, where I felt fortunate that I lived through Hurricane Ivan in 2005. Two years before Ivan, I visited with my sister in Canton, GA, and we awoke to a quake that almost knocked us out of the bed. So, wherever I went, it seems that Mother Nature had a surprise waiting around the corner. So, as the Apostle Paul said: ‘Be content whatever state you’re in”. Ain’t life interesting?!

  40. I have bound copies of the San Francisco Call newspaper for the period of July – August 1906. It is fascinating reading regarding the aftermath and the rebuilding efforts. I also have the same paper copies from Oct – Dec 1899.
    Both are true historical documents that give me a glimpse of local and national events, plus very interesting ads for “miracle” cures for almost everything!

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