April 18, 1906: Earthquake, fire rip through San Francisco

·Christy Karras

In 1906, San Francisco was a thriving city of 400,000 residents, full of majestic Victorian mansions, beautiful hotels and a thriving arts scene. But the earthquake that hit on the early morning of April 18, 1906, changed everything — including how today's rebuilt city looks and works.

The earthquake destroyed many buildings and ruptured gas lines, igniting a three-day fire that ripped through the city. By the time it was all over, three-quarters of San Francisco's buildings were smoking piles of rubble. The author Jack London mourned, "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone."

Arnold Genthe, who took the photo above, later described the eerie scene: “On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it.”

With many of its residents homeless, the city rebuilt as quickly as possible as fire-spared neighborhoods like Pacific Heights on San Francisco’s west side saw a flood of new residents. Over the next decade, hotels and multi-story buildings, many of them still in use, proliferated in formerly quiet close-in neighborhoods like Nob Hill.

New infrastructure, never implemented during the city’s rushed growth in the 19th century, helped the city grow beyond what it could have been before. A municipal railway and new streetcar lines and tunnels (including the world’s longest, the Twin Peaks Tunnel) expanded transit options.

Thinking ahead to the next potential fire, the city later invested heavily in water storage and delivery projects including Twin Peaks Reservoir. Not only does it help supply the city’s water, the parklands around this hilltop locale make for an excellent hiking spots and viewpoints over the vibrant city that rose from the ashes of 1906.