Skip to main content

117 years ago today, San Francisco started to dig itself out of the rubble

Refugees sit next to their possessions including trunks, sewing machine, crutches at Sixth Street near Mission Street following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. | OpenSFHistory

It’s been seven years since the last survivor of the 1906 earthquake died. William Del Monte, who was 3 months old when his family left a burning city in a horse-drawn cart, died in early 2016, a few days before he would have turned 110.

When it came, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake at 5:11 a.m. on April 18, 1906, there would have been just a trace of dawn in the sky. Buildings warped and buckled, and entire neighborhoods built on marshlands—like Butchertown, in what’s now the Bayview—essentially collapsed. A shaken city started burning, and then those fires merged into a conflagration that, in only 74 hours, all but erased what was then the most populous U.S. city west of Chicago. In that brief window, looters vandalized and pillaged Chinatown. The official death toll of 3,000 is believed to be a gross underestimate.

Plumes of smoke rise above San Francisco northeast from Alamo Square following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. | OpenSFHistory

San Francisco’s destruction is famous; the slow recovery less so. Chaos reigned, with rumors spreading that Seattle and Los Angeles were also leveled. Initially, homeless survivors lived in tents, but winter’s arrival made that untenable in the long-term. So the Army and the San Francisco Parks Commission mobilized California’s carpenters to construct thousands of temporary shelters.

“Relief shacks,” pulled on horse-drawn carts like the one that spirited the Del Monte family to safety, went up all over town, in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and the undeveloped hills. They were painted a deep green, to blend into the parkland or perhaps to conceal the fact that tens of thousands of people were refugees in their own hometown. Most have been torn down, but a few survive in Bernal Heights and the Outer Sunset as residential growth absorbed them—some wholly intact, others modified almost beyond recognition.

A refugee shack is moved from Jefferson Square in San Francisco by a horse team moving at Eddy and Octavia streets in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 1907. | OpenSFHistory

This was not an easy time, full of misery and grandiosity. A proposal was floated for San Francisco to annex the entire Bay Area into a single massive city. But an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1907-08 surely taxed the struggling city’s public-health resources, while Mayor Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz, who had ordered looters shot, was convicted of bribery and exortion. Still, within a decade, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition boasted to the world that San Francisco was back.

When the next Big One comes, it has the potential to be the most Instagrammed catastrophe in human history. Exquisitely beautiful buildings—your dream Victorian, maybe—will be red-tagged. While we’re still digging ourselves out, certain segments of the political spectrum will shower us with scorn, calling San Francisco a modern Gomorrah whose wickedness invited divine wrath. 

Members of the U.S. Army punish junk thieves and looters on the Embarcadero in San Francisco following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. | OpenSFHistory

Today’s homelessness crisis is a different beast, with different causes. We look at the inhabitants of tents and realize that one day, our house could be gone, and we, too, could be forced into a flimsy, temporary structure: drafty, impossible to keep clean and easily burglarized. We know the quake is coming and remind ourselves to swap out the gallon jugs of water in the storage unit and buy fresh batteries. The best way to prepare is to remember. The best way to remember is to prepare.

Two women search amid ruins of brick building at an unknown location in San Francisco following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. | OpenSFHistory
A woman and children pose for a portrait next to an earthquake shack on Third Avenue near Clement Street. | OpenSFHistory
A refugee camp was established at Jefferson Square following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. | OpenSFHistory
A man and woman, with a parrot and dog, stand at an earthquake refugee shack with ruins in background. | OpenSFHistory
People sit on a mattress with belongings on Third Street at Howard Street with Methodist Episcopal Church ruins in background. | OpenSFHistory /
Earthquake refugees sit next to their tents at an unknown location. | OpenSFHistory
A child stands on South Van Ness Avenue near 17th Street in April 1906. | OpenSFHistory
A historical photo shows a view north from about Balboa and Funston toward a refugee camp known as Camp Richmond. The Presidio is in the background. | OpenSFHistory
An earthquake refugee cooks on an outdoor stove (likely at Jefferson Square). | OpenSFHistory
Earthquake refugees pose in front of street kitchen on Clement Street near Second Avenue in 1906. | OpenSFHistory
Children pose at Refugee Camp 5 in Golden Gate Park, near Children's Playground, in 1906 . | OpenSFHistory
Four boys sit on a bench outside an earthquake shack, likely the refugee camp at Portsmouth Square, that held 37 cottages for Chinese families. | OpenSFHistory
An earthquake refugee washes a large in a large tub with a washboard (likely at Jefferson Square). | OpenSFHistory
Refugees stand next to shacks built for earthquake victims in Washington Square. | OpenSFHistory
People under an earthquake street shelter in April 1906. | OpenSFHistory
A man distributes meat to refugees at Market Street and Duboce Avenue. | OpenSFHistory
A view south to Financial District including Kearny Street above Broadway on Aug. 7, 1906, shows ruins and numerous streetcars on Kearny. | OpenSFHistory

Astrid Kane can be reached at