The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake – 110 Years Ago Today

The Great San Francisco Earthquake

The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake hit 110 years ago today, on April 18, 1906. It was a magnitude 7.8 with its epicenter just offshore of San Francisco. It’s one of the most significant earthquakes of all time in the US and also one of the deadliest in the history of the United States.

San Francisco Earthquake

Courtesy of Library of Congress

The quake was devastating but the most damage was caused by the fires that followed. Because water mains were destroyed from the initial quake, firefighters had no way of fighting the blaze. Immense fires broke out and lasted several days as it wiped out over 80% of the city and killed more than 3,000 people. Only 400,000 residents were living in the city at the time and an astounding 250,000 were left homeless. Makeshift tents and refugee camps were still visible two years after the quake.

San Francisco Fire

Courtesy of USGS

There was a strong foreshock which hit before the main earthquake and lasted 20 to 25 seconds. The main shock lasted an unnerving 42 seconds and was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and as far central as Nevada.

San Francisco Aerial View

Aerial photo of the destruction. Courtesy of Harry Myers

Buildings Collapes

Courtesy National Archive

Since San Francisco boomed during the Gold Rush of 1849, the city was not designed very well as things were just build haphazardly. The destruction of the city allowed city planners to create a much improved city that is more logical. At the time, San Francisco was the largest city on the west coast but since the city was destroyed, trade and industry shifted further south to Los Angeles which became the largest urban area in the west during the 20th century.

Union Street Car Line

Courtesy National Archives

By remembering this tragic and devastating event, lets all take some time to ensure we are prepared. It doesn’t take long and it can possibly save your life.

How to be Prepared for an Earthquake



  1. Marcus

    Ahh, so maybe Los Angeles owes its success to the great Sand Francisco earthquake? But also, it sounds like San Francisco managed to eventually bounce back from this disaster. But it must be truly scary to be caught in the middle of something like this when it is actually happening. 42 seconds is quite a long time to get shaken about and have buildings fall down all around you. Have you ever been in an earthquake yourself?

    1. Andy (Post author)

      Yeah, 42 seconds probably felt like a lifetime to those caught in that situation. And it did give city planners to build out the city properly and more organized which helped in the city’s recovery and growth to make it what it is today.

      Yes, I have actually been in an earthquake before when I was a kid when living in Japan. It wasn’t a major one but it was still very frightening as that was my first experience. My relatives didn’t think much of it, maybe because they are used to small earthquakes happening so regularly. But that can actually be dangerous because if a major one does strike, you only have seconds to take cover before things come falling on you.

      Hopefully my site can help educate and prepare others just in case no matter where they go in the world.

  2. Eric Estrella

    Hi Andy

    It’s really nice historical information you’ve given here for those who didn’t know what happened back then included me. I love your article for the comprehensive view for the earthquake in San Francisco. I experienced also before a earthquake back in 1991 in Philippines. And I don’t wanna to experienced again because it’s really scary.

    Hopefully you will continued to share a educational and very informative information here in your website to help other people like me in awareness about earthquake. So we can prepare what we need to do in this kind of situation. Thanks again Andy!



    1. Andy (Post author)

      Thanks Eric!
      Yes, I hope to spread more awareness so more people can be prepared just in case.
      Glad you liked the post.

  3. Debra

    What a great article on the damage caused by the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906. Good thing that we’ve come such a long way since the devastation that was seen 110 years ago. But even though we build structures better, there is most assuredly destruction and displacement that follows.

    Not to belittle this terrible disaster by your coverage of the details and your photographs are really great. In fact the photos are what really put it all into perspective.

    With that said, anyone within an earthquake zone better have a prepared earthquake plan or check that your link “How to be prepared for earthquake”.

    1. Andy (Post author)

      Thanks Debra,
      You’re right, we have learned from past earthquakes and built more resistant buildings but mother nature is powerful and can still wipe those out if a big enough earthquake or tsunami comes.
      We all should learn, not just on how to improve things but how to be prepared yourself. Most people don’t have earthquake kits and say they will get one “later” but then “later” never comes and they end up not protecting themselves.
      Hopefully my posts on How to Prepare for an Earthquake and Earthquake Kits can finally get people to take action before a disaster strikes.

  4. Rger


    Great little history lesson!

    I lived in San Francisco for 17 years. In the intersections of many streets are a ring of bricks. Below those bricks are big reservoirs full of water. One of the problems was the water mains to the hydrants were all broken, leading to the fire!

    Charles Howard helped secure his fortune by allowing the cars from his showroom to be used as makeshift ambulances to transport the wounded. Howard was the man who owned the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit.

    I did not realize that was how Los Angeles came to be the major city in California! Of course San Francisco is also very hemmed in, being a peninsula.

    Thanks for the history, memories, and remembering this historic date!


    1. Andy (Post author)

      Yeah it was a huge problem that the water mains were broken. That pretty much left the city defenseless hence the fire burned for several days and wiped out most of the city.
      I didn’t know about Charles Howard, I know Seabiscuit though. Thanks for that!

  5. Laura

    Fortunately I have never experienced an earthquake and I hope that it stays that way. I’m not sure that I could live in a place where they happen on a semi-regular basis. Does one ever get used to the earth shaking underfoot?

    Thanks for sharing some of the history of San Francisco. That was a terrible time for the city. They certainly built something impressive from the rubble.

    1. Andy (Post author)

      Hi Laura,
      Actually people do get used to small earthquakes and shrug it off the next time it happens in highly frequent earthquake areas. This can be very dangerous because you never know if the next one is going to be a major one or not. You only have split seconds to get cover and protect yourself so every second counts.
      You’re right, San Francisco did recover impressively as I had the chance to visit last year for a few days. It was beautiful! Just wish I had more time there to explore more.

  6. Kirill

    Hi, Andy! What an interesting post! I love these old photos and details you’ve found.
    My only personal experience with earthquakes was back in 2011 when we’ve been shaken a bit here in New York. It wasn’t strong, but it was terrifying in the sense that we’ve just realized that we’re not safe anymore.
    Thank you for your post. Kirill.

    1. Andy (Post author)

      Thanks for your comment Kirill. Yeah, unfortunately we aren’t able to predict earthquakes so they can strike at anytime.
      Preparedness is key.


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