#332) San Francisco Earthquake & Fire, April 18th 1906 (1906)


#332) San Francisco Earthquake & Fire, April 18th 1906 (1906)

Class of 2005

Today’s Oversimplified History Lesson: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. There’s a lot of information out there about the earthquake, so please educate yourself beyond this post. Easily the most fun way to research this: the earthquake simulation room at a San Francisco science museum whose name escapes me.

At 5:12 am on April 18th, 1906, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit just offshore of San Francisco. The initial destruction to most of the city’s buildings was exacerbated by the ensuing fires, which lasted the next four days. When everything finally settled, over $400 million dollars of damages had accumulated, and 80% of San Francisco’s buildings were completely destroyed. While accounts vary, the death toll is in the wide estimated range of between 700 and 3000 people, making it one of the most fatal earthquakes in world history.

While no footage exists of the actual event, this film depicts its aftermath. In 14 minutes, silent footage captures the ruins of downtown San Francisco, the immediate motions to feed and house the survivors, and the transportation of thousands of citizens by ferry to Oakland. The actual scenes might be played up a bit for the cameras, but the footage is nevertheless welcome in the National Film Registry for its historical significance.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives an overview, theorizes that some shots were “almost certainly staged”, and states that the intertitles “overdramatized and sentimentalized” the events.

Somebody Gets One: This is one of the rare NFR entries with no surviving record of who actually made it. And that’s why you always put your name on your things!

Wow, That’s Dated: Intertitles refer to “Man’s faithful friend the horse” and “odd looking automobiles”, plus…oh God, they actually say “Chinamen”.

Other notes

  • As a longtime resident of San Francisco, I realized that I’ve never really looked into this earthquake (I had just moved here during the centennial in 2006). It is a sobering experience watching streets I have travelled down many times completely covered in rubble and debris.
  • The more research I do about the 1906 earthquake, the more I have to confront this town’s longtime prejudice towards Chinatown and its inhabitants. The reason no one knows the earthquake’s actual death toll is because no one bothered to document Chinatown’s damage. Even worse, several city officials tried to use the earthquake as an excuse to get rid of Chinatown entirely.
  • Exhibit A that some of these shots were staged: several of the evacuees wave to the camera as they pass by.
  • What a dark companion piece this film must make with the other early 1900s San Francisco NFR entry: “A Trip Down Market Street”, filmed just four days before the earthquake.


  • Many accounts of the day categorize San Francisco’s mood post-earthquake not as “devastated”, but rather “determined to rebuild” (though part of this was a business strategy to prevent companies from leaving). The cityscape of San Francisco as we know it today was created in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Reconstruction was more-or-less completed in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the city’s literal rise from the ashes.
  • Perhaps the largest influence the earthquake had on San Francisco: many of the city’s major trade businesses moved to Los Angeles, causing L.A. to usurp San Francisco’s title as the largest city in California. L.A. holds that distinction to this day.
  • It should go without saying that San Francisco got really into earthquake awareness after 1906. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, while the structural damage was still massive, the death toll went down significantly (63, compared to 1906’s 700+). Part of that was the earthquake proofing that happened in the previous 80 years, and part of that was everyone staying home to watch the World Series (played by two Bay Area teams: the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s).
  • Thousands attended the earthquake’s centennial commemoration in 2006, including 11 of the original survivors. The footage below was captured by the only friend of mine crazy enough to be in downtown San Francisco at 5am on a Tuesday.

Video courtesy of Heather Orth. Thanks, Heather!

Further Viewing: I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s a movie set in San Francisco that recreates the San Francisco earthquake. And it has a song called “San Francisco”, which later became the official song of San Francisco. What was it called? Oh man, this is gonna drive me nuts.

Listen to This: The City by the Bay’s other official song: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, as immortalized by Tony Bennett, and inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2018. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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