April 18, 2023

The Great San Francisco Earthquake

The Great San Francisco Earthquake

April 18, 1906. San Francisco begins a rapid rebuild after an earthquake and fire destroys over 80% of the city’s buildings.


Cold Open

It’s 5:12 AM on April 18th, 1906 in San Francisco, California.

Ernest Adams dozes in his bed. On a normal day, he’d enjoy another hour’s sleep before putting in a long shift in a silverware showroom. But today is not a normal day.

Ernest wakes suddenly. He’s swaying in his bed. An invisible force is pulling him from side to side—and he doesn't understand it. 

Suddenly, a sharp jerk tips Ernest’s bed over and he falls to the floor.

The whole house feels like it’s falling apart. Ernest puts on his shoes and runs for the stairs, struggling to keep his balance as the floor rocks beneath him. He half-runs, half-falls down the stairs, and dashes for the front door. He fumbles with the lock and yanks the handle. But the door doesn’t budge. It’s stuck in the frame. So, Ernest takes a step back and barges at it with his shoulder… 

The door splinters open and Ernest pushes his way onto the street. Many of his neighbors are already there, cowering in their pajamas, their faces etched with terror as buildings shake around them, and a guttural rumble emits from the bowels of the Earth.

Ernest turns his gaze over his shoulder and looks at his own home, just in time, to see the entire front wall collapse. For a brief moment, Ernest can see right into the bedroom he just escaped from. Then, the rest of the house tumbles in on itself. Ernest stands stock still, in complete shock. The home he has kept for the last twenty years has gone—and its sudden destruction took only twenty seconds.

The earthquake that strikes San Francisco in 1906 pre-dates the Richter scale, but scientists will later estimate its magnitude at 7.9, making it one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit the continental United States. But, most of the destruction caused by the Great San Francisco Earthquake is not a direct result of the ground shaking, but the fires that break out in the aftermath. These blazes will cut through the city, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. And in the wake of this disaster, civic leaders will vow to save San Francisco, spurring an intense and rapid rebuild. Their efforts will help ensure that San Francisco remains one of the nation’s most prominent cities, despite the devastation of the earthquake that ripped open the Earth on April 18th, 1906.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 18th, 1906: The Great San Francisco Earthquake.

Act One

It’s late morning on April 18th, 1906, a few hours after the earthquake rocked San Francisco.

A housewife puts a frying pan on a stove and lights the fire underneath. She pours in a generous heaping of oil, waits for it to heat up, then cracks a few eggs and drops in a slice of ham. As the housewife cooks this hearty breakfast for her husband, it feels like such an ordinary action after such an extraordinary morning. But she's unaware that she is about to spark an even more devastating disaster.

Like most other people in San Francisco, this housewife was rudely awoken just after 5 AM by the earthquake. Thankfully, the Hayes Valley neighborhood where she lives got off lightly. The windows rattled and a few ornaments fell off the shelves, but few buildings suffered structural damage. At least, that’s what the housewife thinks. What she doesn’t realize is that the morning’s earthquake loosened her home’s brickwork, blocking her chimney.

So as she turns away from the stove to tidy some of her home’s fallen objects, an acrid, burning smell drifts to her nostrils. She turns back to the stove—and screams. Smoke pours into the kitchen from the chimney. The housewife wrenches open the stove door and extinguishes it but it’s too late. Caked in a flammable material called creosote, the chimney itself is on fire. 

The husband runs into the kitchen, drawn by his wife's shouting. They both try in vain to fight the fire, but after a few panicked minutes, they decide to evacuate their house and bang on nearby doors, warning their neighbors.

Soon, most of the houses on the street are empty, their occupants watching the kitchen fire in horror. One neighbor rushes to raise the alarm and fetch the fire brigade. But by the time they arrive, the kitchen’s windows have exploded in heat. Flames now lick up the side of the home from the broken glass.

The fire chief reassures the housewife that they’ll be able to put the fire out—although he warns her that her kitchen will be gutted. But then another firefighter calls out that the fire hydrants aren’t working. There’s no water. The pipes must have been damaged in the earthquake. 

The housewife watches helplessly as her house is consumed by the flames. The fire then spreads to adjoining properties and neighbors begin rescuing their possessions before the blaze engulfs their homes too. More and more buildings are set on fire. But the firefighters are powerless. They're forced to pack up and move on, leaving the block to burn.

Because despite their inability to save this street, the firefighters still have plenty to do. Plumes of smoke rise all around the city. Many fires have broken out due to similar circumstances. But no blaze is bigger than the one started in this housewife’s kitchen in Hayes Valley. The Ham and Eggs Fire, as it will become known, grows relentlessly, eventually, threatening downtown.

The center of San Francisco is in chaos. Soldiers have been called out, rushing through the city's streets. But they aren't carrying firefighting equipment. They push onlookers away saying they are going to blow up the buildings. In a desperate attempt to save the heart of San Fransisco from the fire, these soldiers are going to dynamite entire blocks to create a fire break that might stop the flames’ progress.

Soon, a series of deafening explosions rocks the streets. Buildings crumble. But it’s too little, too late. The fires have become so great that the burning debris simply flies high into the air, skipping over the fire bricks and drifting down and igniting more buildings. Firefighters try to put out these new blazes, but their efforts are futile. City Hall eventually succumbs to the flames.

For the next four days, fires will continue to rage, destroying entire neighborhoods. By the time the last one is extinguished, four out of every five city buildings will be destroyed or beyond repair.

But the government of the city will go on. And the process of rebuilding San Francisco will fall to Mayor Eugene Schmitz, and he will set to work while the ashes are still hot. 

Act Two

It’s May 1906, a few weeks after the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

Eugene Schmitz, the Mayor of San Francisco, strides through Golden Gate Park with an entourage hurrying to keep up. Schmitz is a sprightly 42-year-old—and he needs to be. He’s barely rested since the earthquake struck a few weeks ago and has spent every waking hour since coordinating the relief effort.

Within hours of the earthquake, Mayor Schmitz made a controversial decision. He feared the city’s response would be slowed by political bickering if he allowed San Francisco’s city council, known as the Board of Supervisors, to take charge. So, Schmitz instead appointed an emergency committee composed of his trusted supporters and business allies. The biggest problem facing the city right now is a lack of housing. More than half of the city’s population was left homeless after the fires. So now, Schmitz is here to see what his emergency committee has done about it.

As Schmitz reaches the center of Golden Gate Park, he makes a full turn and scans his surroundings. Neat lines of tents stretch as far as his eyes can see. Schmitz turns to one of his assistants and asks how many people are living here. The clerk replies that there are currently 20,000 people in the tents. And they’re still making room for more.

For now, the encampment is functioning well. The clerk explains that the tents are arranged in a grid. Each one has its own address. There's makeshift mess halls, bathhouses, latrines, and laundries throughout the park. The army is working on constructing wooden shacks too. And when they’re ready, these shacks will provide more permanent housing until homes can be built again in the burned-out districts, a project they expect to take over a decade.

Overall, Schmitz is impressed with the emergency committee’s response to the disaster. But he shakes his head at the clerk’s timeline. The mayor is determined San Francisco will be rebuilt quicker than that.

So later that day, Mayor Schmitz calls a meeting with the committee to discuss the city’s future. He praises the committee's work so far. Public order has been maintained and the majority of the city’s homeless have shelter. But now, it’s time to shift from relief to rebuilding.

Schmitz wants to make sure the reconstruction of San Francisco begins as soon as possible. He knows that the city’s future hangs in the balance, as does his own. If he can pull it off, a successful response to this disaster might propel him to a greater office—perhaps even Governor of California. But if he fails, both he and the city could suffer and languish.

Since the gold rush spurred a mass migration to the west coast, San Francisco has been the preeminent city in the region. But Los Angeles, 400 miles to the south, is growing fast—and it was unaffected by the earthquake. Schmitz worries that Los Angeles is in a prime position to replace San Francisco as the region’s political and economic hub—and if it does, his influence as San Francisco’s mayor will also wane.

So, after praising the committee, Schmitz begins a new line of questioning. He pointedly asks the committeemen many of which have substantial real estate holdings in the city when they will rebuild their properties. Most evade the question while Schmitz fixes them with a steely gaze until one businessman breaks the silence and explains one of the reasons behind their hesitation to rebuild. He says he’s heard urban planners want the new San Francisco to be redeveloped with a new street plan featuring wider avenues, boulevards, and large public spaces. But he doesn’t want to commit to an expensive rebuild if the city is going to force him to sell his property afterward to accommodate these grand plans.

Schmitz tells the businessman not to worry. They’re on the same page. The ambitious redevelopment scheme is prohibitively expensive and it will take too long. Schmitz wants a quick rebuild—which means, in the interest of speed, the existing street plan will be preserved. All landowners will retain the title to their existing properties. And to prove his point, Schmitz even declares that building regulations will be relaxed.

The businessmen all smile with relief, and so does Schmitz. He might have just secured himself and the city a fruitful future. But things will not go to plan. At least not for mayor Schmitz.

He will go on to force through his unilateral decisions to begin a rapid rebuild. But the sidelined politicians on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will soon bring him down. One year after the earthquake, Mayor Schmitz will be charged with extortion and bribery in public office, ruining his political career. But by the time he is forced to resign, Schmitz’s determined efforts to spark a quick reconstruction will already be in full swing. And nine years after the earthquake, the city will welcome the world with a public demonstration that San Francisco is again open and ready for business.

Act Three

It’s noon on February 20th, 1915 in San Francisco, nine years after the earthquake.

Hiram Johnson, the Governor of California, leans into a microphone on the grounds of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. His words are broadcast through loudspeakers to a huge crowd that stretches as far as he can see. The audience listens as Governor Johnson reminisces about his own memories of the Great Earthquake when he was a lawyer based out of San Francisco. He reminds the crowd of the shocking destruction that the city suffered in the quake and its fiery aftermath. The crowd goes wild as he points out how far San Francisco has come since it was struck by the disaster.

The rebuilding effort begun by Eugene Schmitz in the weeks after the earthquake carried on apace even after the mayor’s downfall. So rapid was reconstruction that San Francisco was chosen to host a world fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915. The event organizers were eager to showcase San Francisco’s stunning recovery and prove the city is again a bustling center of commerce. Now, the governor is here to welcome the world to a rejuvenated San Francisco.

Governor Johnson leads the crowd as they count down to noon. And when the clock strikes twelve, an excited hush descends. Water explodes from a fountain behind the president. Cannons fire in celebration. And the cheering crowd begins to rush through the now-open doors of the exhibition halls.

The Panama–Pacific Exposition is a huge success. Nearly nineteen million people visit the world fair during its ten-month run. And its visitors see far more than the new technologies and products proudly displayed by the fair’s exhibitors. The exposition’s guests also witness the remarkable rebirth of San Francisco, a city that rapidly rose from the ashes after it was struck by one of America’s most devastating natural disasters on April 18th, 1906.


Next on History Daily. April 19th, 1989. When a female jogger is brutally attacked in New York’s Central Park, five Black and Hispanic youths are wrongly convicted and sentenced to several years in prison, despite a complete lack of DNA evidence.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.