Field of Science

April 18, 1906: San Francisco´s Wicked Ground

O, promised land
O, wicked ground
Build a dream
Tear it down
O, promised land
What a wicked ground
Build a dream
Watch it all fall down
San Andreas Fault

Sailors on board of the “Wellington“, just entering the bay of San Francisco, noted something unusual in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906. The captain reported later that the ship “shivered and shook like a springless wagon on a corduroy road” even if the sea was as “smooth as glass.“
Clarence Judson was swimming near Ocean Beach when he suddenly was pulled by a strong current into the sea. He made it back to the shacking shores.

I tried to run to where I left my shoes, hat and bathrobe ... but I guess I must have described all kinds of figures in the sand.

In Washington Street, police sergeant Jesse Cook observed a terrifying spectacle:

The whole street ... It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me,  ...[]... Davis Street split right open in front of me, []… A gaping trench. . . about six feet deep and half full of water. Suddenly ...[]... the walls of the building began to shake. Before I could get into the shelter of the doorway the walls had actually fallen inward.

George Davidson, professor for Geography, woke up from the tumult coming from the streets. He grabbed his watch on the desk and noted the length of a first quake – 60 seconds – followed by a second – again 20 to 40 seconds long. His observations – 5:12am in the morning – will later be used to determinate the official time of the great earthquake of San Francisco. Many people were still asleep and killed in their beds, those who escaped gathered in the streets. Despite the earthquake, most of the city seemed still intact and surprisingly quiet.
In 1906 San Francisco was already considered a great, but also corrupt, city with more than 400.000 inhabitants. Thanks to the discovery of gold in the rivers of California the city was quickly expanding into its surroundings. It was an important gateway to the Pacific and a modern trade place. The newest technology in film equipment was available in the shops. The earthquake of San Francisco will become the first natural disaster of this magnitude to be so well documented by photographs and film footage (even in color).
However, most buildings in San Francisco were poorly constructed and made of wood. San Francisco had burned to the ground six times in the past century and experienced strong earthquakes in 1865 and 1868, when 30 people were killed.

Earthquakey Times“, a caricature by Ed Jump of the October 8, 1865 earthquake in San Francisco. While he was working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain experienced the earthquake which he describes in his 1872 book “Roughing It.” – “It was just after noon, on a bright October day. I was coming down Third Street. The only objects in motion anywhere . . . were a man in a buggy behind me, and a [horse-drawn] streetcar wending slowly up the cross street. . . . As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar. . . . Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. . . A third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke! And here came the buggy-overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. . . . The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends. . . . Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. . . . For some days afterward, groups of eyeing and pointing men stood about many a building, looking at long zig-zag cracks that extended from the eaves to the ground...

Police sergeant Jesse Cook was the first person to report a fire in a grocery in Clay Street. An hour later there were already fifty fires spotted in the entire city. The firefighters realized horrified that the water pipes in the underground were broken and the hydrants useless. The resulting firestorm will burn three days and will destroy 90 percent of the 28.000 buildings in San Francisco.

Journalist Arnold Genthe will take one of the most famous photos in history. 

I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. “Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.” I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out….

In Jackson Street, the owner of the “Hotaling´s Whiskey” distillery decides to fight the flames. He pays 80 men to sprinkle 5.000 barrels of whiskey with water pumped out from the sewer system. Later he will mock all those who claim that the earthquake was sent by god by coining a new advertising slogan for his company.

If, as some say, God spanked the town, for being over frisky – why did He burn the churches down and save Hotaling´s Whiskey?

Army troops were soon ordered into the city to help the firefighters and prevent panic and looting. Despite the fact that martial law was never proclaimed, the major authorized policeman and soldiers to shoot looting persons – “Obey orders or get shot” was the grim warning on the signboards.
Guion Dewey, a businessman from Virginia, wandering the streets of downtown San Francisco minutes after the quake, experienced the best and worst of human behavior, as he later wrote in a letter to his mother:

I saw innocent men shot down by the irresponsible militia. I walked four miles to have my jaw set. A stranger tried to make me accept a $10 gold piece. I was threatened with death for trying to help a small girl drag a trunk from a burning house, where her father and mother had been killed. A strange man gave me raw eggs and milk . . . (the first food I had had for twenty-two hours). I saw a soldier shoot a horse because its driver allowed it to drink at a fire hose which had burst. I had a Catholic priest kneel by me in the park as I lay on a bed of alfalfa hay, covered with a piece of carpet, and pray to the Holy Father for relief for my pain. . . . I saw a poor woman, barefoot, told to “Go to Hell and be glad for it” for asking for a glass of milk at a dairyman’s wagon; she had in her arms a baby with its legs broken. I gave her a dollar and walked with her to the hospital. . . .I was pressed into service by an officer, who made me help to strike tents in front of the St. Francis Hotel when the order was issued to dynamite all buildings in the vicinity to save the hotel. I like him and hope to meet him again. When he saw I was hurt, which I had not told him, not yet having been bandaged, he took me to his own tent and gave me water and brandy and a clean handkerchief.

The earthquake and the firestorms killed an estimated 3.000 to 4.000 people, destroyed 28.000 buildings and the infrastructure of the entire city. However, thanks to a quick rebuilt, just three years later most of San Francisco looked as if the earthquake never happened.

Seismology was still a young scientific discipline at the time of the earthquake in San Francisco. Worldwide there were only 96 seismographs operating, none of these in California. In the aftermath of the disaster, only three days later, the Governor of California announced the formation of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, led by geologist Andrew C. Lawson of the University of California.
The commission focused on the San Andreas Rift, a nearby valley until then considered of minor interest and mapped geologically only in short sections. For two years Lawson and his team followed the rift, mapping ponds, streams and hills on foot and horseback. They recognized that the rift follows almost the entire coastline of California for more than 1.000 kilometers. During the April 18, earthquake, almost 480 kilometers of this large fault suddenly ruptured, displacing large sections horizontally, not vertically, as geologists had previously believed to be the source of earthquakes. The commission discovered that earthquakes can be generated also along so-called strike-slip faults.
The epicenter of the earthquake was at first located at the point with the largest observed displacement on land. However, today the epicenter is believed to be situated in the Pacific Ocean, in accordance with the seismic waves coming from the sea as observed by the first eyewitnesses.
The results of the scientific investigation of the San Francisco earthquake led Henry Fielding Reid, a geology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, to propose a new theory regarding the origin of earthquakes, later dubbed the “theory of elastic rebound“. Reid’s hypothesis will have a revolutionary impact on the young science of seismology.


SLAVICEK, L.C. (2008): The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Great Historic Disasters. Chelsea House Publishers: 128
STARR, J.D. (1907): The California Earthquake of 1906. A.M. Robertson, San Francisco

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