San Francisco Earthquake Revisited

San Francisco Earthquake Revisited  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

For three terrifying days fires ripped through San Francisco.  It seemed like a dream but the reality of the 1906 earthquake was a nightmare. 

“Take anything you want.  This place is going to burn up anyway.” Shop Owner

It started out as a calm morning.  Just like so many other calm mornings.  Then just after 5 a.m. on April 18, an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale shredded the California Bay Area of San Francisco.  Whole buildings collapsed like dominos.   

“I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like 40 seconds I stand there, while buildings fall and my room rocks like a boat on the sea.  And in that 40 seconds I think of 40 thousand different things,” said Italian tenor Enrico Caruso who was in town for a performance.

The earthquake lasted about 45 to 60 seconds and would end up costing $500 million and leave 500 people dead.  The disaster set all the church bells ringing throughout the city as the ground shook along the West Coast.    

San Francisco emerged as a city with no water or power plus smashed gas and electrical lines. After the 135 aftershocks and tremors ended--the fires spread fast.  Many of the city’s buildings were wooden.  By lunch time the downtown area was an inferno.    

Before 1906 people didn’t think much about earthquakes.  They figured why worry about something only God could control.  The city was unprepared.  It would prove to be a costly mistake.    

Despite all the wreckage just three years after the earthquake new buildings and homes dotted the entire San Francisco skyline.  This was a city in rebound mode. 

By 1910, 25,000 new buildings went up.  Many of which with reinforced concrete to withstand another earthquake.           

Along the waterfront numerous structures had been saved and restored and San Francisco remained one of the world’s leading harbors.

Just nine years later the city hosted the 1915 World’s Fair.  Visitors witnessed a city reborn with new building codes and better construction.      

More photographs were taken of the San Francisco disaster than any event in history to that time.  Arnold Genthe was one of the most famous photographers of the era.  All of his cameras were damaged or destroyed in the quake and he watched as his house collapsed and almost everything he owned went up in smoke.  He walked to a camera shop and asked the owner if he could borrow a camera. 

“Take anything you want.  This place is going to burn up anyway,” the shop owner said. 

Genthe took a 3A Kodak, filled his pockets with film and staggered around town in shock capturing the devastation on film.  He climbed Nob Hill after it had been destroyed by the fires.  At one mansion, he shot the marble columns in the front, the only things left standing. 

Another famous photographer Carleton Watkins had to be led from his burning studio as the thousands of negatives he treasured burned. 

The tragedy was made more real because the world could view pictures of its first major natural disaster.  The photos show a city burning to death.

Despite the horror people eagerly photographed what they were seeing with a kind of wonder at being part of so majestic a catastrophe.  That’s what Harvard psychologist William James said.  People, in a way, felt lucky to be part of such a truly historic event.   

On Feb. 7, an album containing approximately 265 photographs depicting the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake went on the block at Swann Auction Galleries.  A number of the images show displaced families in temporary encampments.  Others show downtown buildings engulfed in flames and left in rubble.  The collection sold for $13,750.   


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

Wizard of Oz Still Dazzles

Wizard of Oz Still Dazzles

George Harrison's Guitar Plays On

George Harrison's Guitar Plays On