Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Day San Francisco Was Destroyed

San Francisco burns, 1906
Natural disasters are always life-changing events. Some are more remembered than others. One such event was the great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. As if the earthquake itself wasn't enough, hundreds died in the great fire that erupted and burned for four days and cost an estimated $500 million in early 20th century dollars.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, at 5:25 am, there was a small quake that was felt throughout all of the Bay area. About 25 seconds later, an estimated 8.3 earthquake struck the city, with devastating affect. Buildings crumbled, streets tore open like gaping mouths, and cries filled the air.

Once the shaking stopped, the real terror began: the fires. It spread from building to building without mercy; poorly constructed wooden fixtures collapsed. People were trapped inside with no means of escape. The streets liquefied and collapsed. There was nowhere to run.

The fire department was ill-equipped to fight the blaze. A few firemen fought with knapsacks, brooms, and a fraction of water from an operating hydrant at 20th and Church. But it wasn't enough. The fire continued to spread over the next four days. On 395 Hayes Street, the "Ham and Egg" fire would break out, destroying part of the Western Addition, the Mechanics' Pavilion, and City Hall. It then jumped to Market Street where the Winchester Hotel caught fire and collapsed.

Market Street as it burned
The Hearst Building at Third and Market streets became engulfed in flames and collapsed. At first the wounded were sent to the Mechanics' Pavillion, but when the fire approached they were evacuated. The same happened at St. Mary's Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the entire Financial District caught fire and began to burn.

The city in ruin
Postal Telegraph operators transmitted their last message to the outside world as army troops ordered them from the building at 534 Market St., opposite Second St., at 2:20 p.m. because of the approaching fire. Mayor Schmitz was confident that downtown could be saved, but fire broke out at the Delmonico Restaurant in the Alcazar Theatre Building. It turned to downtown and Nob Hill.

As the fire department began to dynamite buildings to stop the blaze, all they did was keep it spreading. In the end, they never put out the fire. It simply burned itself out. The estimated damage was $500 million dollars and the death toll was estimated at 1000. Three-quarters of San Francisco had burned to the ground.

Here is incredible footage of the aftermath of the fire, from The Library of Congress. If you can't view the video on your device, click here.


  1. First, "emblazoned" means to decorate something with rich markings.
    Second, it's Delmonico's, not Delmonica's. There was some suspicion at the time that the restaurant was torched by an arsonist.
    You may also find it interesting that there were fires that burned down big chunks of the Barbary Coast strip(today's Pacific just off Columbus, between the Financial District and North Beach). This was done as part of extortion plots by major gangs, Herbert Asbury's book on this is fascinating (Barbary Coast).

    1. I meant to say, the fires in the Barbary Coast district were set in the 1880s (can't edit my comment). Asbury is the same writer who penned "Gangs of New York". he was writing in the 1930s, so he was able to talk to old timers who remembered those days.

    2. Thanks Ron! I'll make those text changes. I always appreciate an extra set of eyes. Interesting stuff about Barbary Coast. Could be a future story...