Almost 100 years ago, on April 18, 1906 at 5:12 in the morning an extremely powerful earthquake struck the city of San Francisco. The San Andreas Fault slipped and ruptured along an almost 200 mile stretch of coastline (from San Juan Batista to Cape Mendocino). The shaking was very strong and lasted an estimated 40 to 60 seconds. Due to the prevalence of brick construction in the city coupled with the reclaimed land that several neighborhoods were built on, thousands of buildings collapsed. Frequent aftershocks caused more damage. San Francisco's beautiful domed City Hall, which had been recently built, collapsed and guests at the high class Palace Hotel were driven out by the shaking. Due to the sheer force of the shaking (estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale) many gas lines ruptured causing fires to spring up all over the city. In the subsequent conflagration the entire part of SF running from Van Ness Avenue to the waterfront was burned to the ground. Over 225,000 people were made homeless and 478 people were officially reported as dead. Anyone who has sat through the turgid melodrama of the 1936 film "San Francisco" for the good stuff knows the basic outline of what happened.
Of course, historians, knowing a good story when they read one, have been digging around the archives and dwindling number of elderly survivors and have come up with a better understanding of the events as time has wiped away the need for San Francisco to underplay or cover up what went on. When I was a kid growing up, it was gospel that the force of the quake had been 8.0 on the Richter scale, but sunsequent modelling trimmed it back to a 7.8. Scientists still beleive it lasted for almost one full minute, which if you've ever been in an earthquake is about 50 seconds more than you want to spend in one.
Most of the buildings which collapsed were not all that poorly constructed, but the combination of unstable in strongly sustained shaking brick and easily liquefacted mud and sand were too much stress for them to bear. The City Hall (which in period pictures sure did LOOK impressive) had been recently constructed of substandard materials (my great grandmother always referred to it as being made of "gilded spit and paper")by cronies of the corrupt political machine which had run SF since the 1890s. They billed the city over one million dollars for its construction and pocketed 950,000 of that. Needless to say, it fell down really quick.
The fires were sparked by a combination of broken gas mains, out of control campfires built by survivors and arson. Since most of the water mains had ruptured as well, there was little that the fire department could do to arrest the flames. Thus in some parts of the city today you will not find a structure which antedates 1906. At the corner of 20th Street and Dolores Street is a rather bizarre looking golden fire hydrant, which tourists sometimes wonder about. This is the famous fire hydrant that saved the South West of San Francisco since it was the only one that still had a working water main to supply it. Thus, we have many beautiful Victorian and Edwardian era homes in my neighborhood you might want to buy if have a spare million dollars. Local real-estate agents re-paint "Old Goldie" every year. In other parts of town, mansions and apartment buildings were dynamited in a vain attempt to stop the flames (it didn't work).
For many years the death toll of the earthquake and fires were reported as less than 500. Nobody wanted the rest of the country to think that San Francisco was completely destroyed (and an unsuitable place for visitors and settlers and businesses) so the official body count was kept artificially low. Today, historians estimate that some 500 people were shot for looting alone and the death toll is tentatively set at somewhere from 3,000 to 6,000 souls. Due to fears of widespead looting the mayor, Eugene Schmitz, asked for help from the nearby Presidio Army base and its gung-ho general Frederick Funston sent in his men to keep order (counter to popular belief, Schmidtz never did declare martial law). These soldiers weren't always discriminating in who they shot (many stories exist of men killed because they were suspected of looting, when they were actually removing items from their own houses to take to the tent cities they had been relocated to), but looting never really was a problem after they arrived. Needless to say, today Funston has at least one boulevard and abandoned fort namedafter him so people certainly weren't complaining about him at the time.
Immediately, as they are wont to do even today, the religious types blamed the disaster on the wrath of an angry God. San Francisco was known in those days as a "wide open town" and many a preacher thundered down from the pulpit that the Sodom of the West had been struck down as punishment for its many sins. The fact that many of the cities brothels escaped the flames and did a good business for many years after escaped the no fun crowd. A famous bit of local doggerel commented upon the fact that while most of the churches and temples burnt to the ground in the fire zone, the notorious Hotaling distillery remained untouched and making spirits: "If its true the good lord spanked the City for being frisky, why'd he burn the churches down and spare Hotaling's Whiskey?"
There are today very few survivors left, but they still gather every year at Lotta's Fountain downtown for a ceremony. I imagine that it will be a bit bigger than usual this year because it is the 100th anniversary. Lotta's Fountain is a small roccoco looking fountain that was donated by a favorite opera singer of the 1850s to the City, and it proved its worth by being one of the only working fountains left after April 18, 1906. No matter what is built up around it (and it only infrequently has water running in it) they will never tear down Lotta's Fountain. Let us hope that in some future earthquake the Vaillancourt Fountain (which is butt ugly) doesn't provide us all with sustenance or we'll be stuck with it forever.
My great grandmother survived the earthquake and fires and used to tell some amazing stories about how she and Gracie Allen watched the City burn from Noe Hill (true story) and how her parents lost both their jobs that morning because they worked for a rich family whose house collapsed up on Nob Hill. Luckily they lived in Eureka Valley which is just on the ohter side of "Old Goldie" so their flat survived. Mostly, though, I remember her complaining throughout the annual showing of "San Francisco" on TV. She found it rather misleading ("Now, the quake happened at 5 o'clock in the damn morning and there's that idiot Clark Gable running around like its the middle of the damn afternoon!") and I consider those April afternoons watching the 3 O'Clock Movie as the begginning of my healthy scepticism towards Hollywood.