Thursday, April 19, 1906: San Francisco quake

Posted on April 17th, 2006 – 10:13 PM
By Ben Welter

Tribune front page

The Minneapolis Tribune’s front page on the morning after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is a sobering collection of big headlines, long columns of gray type, no fewer than a dozen BULLETINS – and not a single photo from the scene. Even without fresh images, the page — packed with detail and drama — clearly communicates the magnitude of the disaster.

Interestingly, residents left homeless by the quake and fires were referred to as “refugees,” a term that became a hot-button issue for some Hurricane Katrina survivors last year. Then again, the 1906 Tribune referred to residents of a mental hospital left in ruins as “maniacs.”

The price of the Tribune a hundred years ago: One cent (“Except in St. Paul and On Trains”).

Hundreds Are Dead in Ruined Cities –
Fire Demon Follows Earthquake –
Magnitude of Disaster Unknown


With Death-Dealing Flames Still
Raging, It is Believed Entire City
Will Be Burned–One Hundred and
Fifty Thousand People Homeless.

SAN FRANCISCO, April 19. – Earthquake and fire yesterday put nearly half of San Francisco in ruins. At least two hundred people have been killed, a thousand others injured and the property loss will exceed $100,000,000.

Thousands of people are homeless and destitute and all day long panic-stricken refugees were fleeing from the devastated districts to places of safety.

It was 5:15 o’clock yesterday morning when a terrific earthquake shook the whole city and surrounding country.

One shock lasted two minutes and there was an almost immediate collapse of flimsy structures in all parts of San Francisco. The water supply was cut off and when fire broke out there was nothing to do but to let the buildings burn.

Telegraphy and telephone communication was shut off for a time. The Western Union was put out of business completely and the Postal was the only company that managed to get a wire out of the city. About 10 o’clock the Postal, too, was forced to suspend in San Francisco.

Electric power was stopped and street cars could not run. Railroads and ferry boats also ceased operations. The various fires have been raging all day and the fire department has been powerless to do anything except dynamite the threatened buildings.

The explosions shook the city and added to the terror of the inhabitants. Following the first shock, there was another within five minutes, but not nearly so severe. Three hours later, there was another slight quake.

1906 quake
Arnold Genthe’s famous photograph of San Francisco following the earthquake, looking toward a fire on Sacramento Street.


Reports from outside districts indicate widespread damage. San Jose, 50 miles south, lost many buildings and between 15 and 20 persons were killed. The annex of the Vendome hotel collapsed and fires broke out.

Stanford university and Palo Alto suffered. At S[t]anford many of the handsome buildings were demolished and two people were killed. One of them was Junius Robert Hanna of Bradford, Pa., and the other was Otto Gurts, a fireman.

Six other students are lying in the Palo Alto hospital with bruises, cuts and internal injuries. These are Ross D. Howard of San Francisco; Henry L. Dearing of Santa Ana, Cal.; Halbert R. Thomas of Los Angeles; Robert Westwick of Santa Barbara and W.H. Masters of Portland, Ore.

The courthouse at Redwood City and other buildings collapsed.

The sheds over the Southern Pacific’s long wharf have completely collapsed. Many bunkers fell into the bay, carrying with them thousands of tons of coal. The wharf was one of the most important shipping points about the bay.

The mains of Spring Valley water company broke and flooded San Mateo. It was owing to the broken mains that the fire gained such headways in San Francisco. San Rafael, despite its own troubles, sent fire fighting apparatus here.

From early yesterday morning the officials of the telegraph companies in Oakland have been filled with people in all walks of life, filing messages of inquiry as to the conditions of friends and interests in other California cities.


The fire swept the streets so rapidly that is was practically impossible to save anything in its path. It reached the Grand Opera house on Mission street, and in a moment had burned through the roof.

The Metropolitan opera company from New York had just opened its season there and all the expensive scenery and costumes were soon reduced to ashes.

From the opera house the fire leaped from building to building leveling them almost to the ground in quick succession.

The Call editorial and mechanical departments were wiped out in a few minutes and the flames leaped across Stevenson street toward the 15-story stone and iron Claus Spreckels building which with its lofty [dome] is the most notable edifice in San Francisco.

Two small wooden buildings furnished fuel to ignite the splendid pile. At first no impression was made, but suddenly there was a cracking of glass and an entrance was effected. The interior furnishings of the fourth floor were the first to go. Then, as though by magic, smoke issued from the top of the dome.

This was followed by a most spectacular illumination. The round windows of the dome shone like so many full moons; they burst and gave vent to long waving streamers of flames. Thousands watched the spectacle with bated breath. One woman wrung her hands and burst into tears. “It is so terrible,” she sobbed.

Spreckels building
Fire broke out in the Claus Spreckels building, home of the Morning Call newspaper, around 2 p.m. on the day of the earthquake. Broken water mains allowed fires to burn out of control across San Francisco. The fires lasted for four days. More than half of the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless. (Photo courtesy of Bancroft Library)


  • Shock, lasting three minutes, occurred at 5:10 yesterday morning.
  • Loss of life not possible to estimate at this time. May be 500 or 5,000.
  • City hall, costing $7,000,000, among the buildings wrecked.
  • Terror and excitement of residents indescribable.
  • Fire breaks out in many places. Water pipes burst and firemen are helpless.
  • The military are patrolling the streets, guarding the banks and other buildings. They have been instructed to shoot anyone on sight detected in the act of theft.
  • Great rush at the banks by depositors who wanted their money but the banks decided to keep their doors closed.
  • While blowing up a building with dynamite a premature explosion kills fifteen men.
  • Terminal hotel, on water front, San Francisco, collapses burying twenty, all of whom are burned to a crisp.
  • District including Market street south to the water front to Mission street destroyed in its entirety.
  • Loss of life at state insane asylum at Agnews, near San Jose, believed to be frightful. Two hundred maniacs escape and are now running wild.
  • Every business building in the city of San Jose has been demolished. The city is under martial law. At least fifty killed.
  • Four men have been executed at San Francisco for looting.
  • 1906 quake
    Fire ravaged this section of San Francisco, looking east across Grant Avenue toward Yerba Buena Island. The earthquake and its fires killed about 3,000 people and destroyed more than 50,000 buildings. (Associated Press photo)

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