Cracked Earth & Blazing Fires: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

In the background, flames engulf the Call Building also known as the Spreckels Building. Photo Courtesy of the USAHEC, San Francisco Earthquake Collection.

One of the greatest natural disasters in United States history, the San Francisco Earthquake, occurred in the pre-dawn hours of April 18, 1906.  At almost precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, a foreshock occurred with sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay area.  The great earthquake struck seconds later, with violent shocks and strong shaking that lasted for nearly a minute and was felt more than 350 miles away.  Modern estimates indicate a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale.

The devastation was intense.  Buildings collapsed and slid down San Francisco’s famously steep hills.  Roads buckled, railways twisted, chimneys collapsed.  Residents, roused out of bed, fled their crumbling homes in their pajamas and underwear, many running barefoot over streets littered with broken window glass.

The havoc wrought by the trembling earth was only the beginning. Fire, fueled by debris and gas escaping from broken lines, immediately sprang up in various sections of the city.  Unable to draw water from damaged water mains, city officials sent an urgent request to the nearby Army post at the Presidio for dynamite.  As citizens fled for their lives, city workers dynamited buildings to create fire lanes to stop the spread of the flames.  Despite the best efforts of firefighters, citizens, and Soldiers, the fire burned for 74 hours and destroyed much of the city.

During the first few days of the crisis, Soldiers from local posts provided valuable services to the people of San Francisco, patrolling the streets to discourage looting and guarding buildings such as the U.S. Mint, post office, and county jail. They helped the fire department and fed, sheltered, and clothed tens of thousands of displaced residents. Many grateful citizens exclaimed: “Thank God for the Soldiers!”

Refugee Camp at the Presidio of San Francisco after the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. Photo Courtesy of the USAHEC, San Francisco Earthquake Collection.

As word of the disaster spread, the response was swift.  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure authorizing $500,000 in aid, in 10 minutes without discussion.  The War Department took immediate steps to direct supplies to the stricken city.  Learning that the telegraph office had been destroyed, the Army Signal Corps dispatched a company commanded by Captain Billy Mitchell, who would later gain fame as the “Father of the Air Force”.

Early relief efforts were disorganized.  In their haste the authorities handed out supplies freely without regard to need, and, as one historian put it, “confusion and waste were reaching epic proportions”.  Someone needed to take charge.  That someone turned out to be Major General Adolphus Greely, the Commanding Officer of the Pacific Division of the U.S. Army.  On his way to attend his daughter’s wedding when the news reached him, Greely immediately turned around and returned to California.  Arriving in Oakland on April 22, Greely found that “two-hundred and twenty-five thousand people were not only homeless, losing all real and personal property, but were also deprived of their means of present sustenance and future livelihood.  Food, water, shelter, clothing, medicines, and sewerage were all lacking.”  In short, the people of San Francisco had lost everything, and there was a real danger of a complete collapse of civil order.

Despite a desperate need for the Army to take over the disorganized relief efforts, Greely moved carefully and took great pains to stay within the bounds of the law.  In his official report Greely noted:  “Recognizing that, apart from its protection of Federal buildings, the army [sic] was in performance of its non-military duties, my instructions and directions all tended to its complete subordination to the civil power and to urgent public needs… It was impressed upon officers and men that the force was in the nature of the posse comitatus for the maintenance of the public order, and that consequently the proclamations and municipal orders of the Mayor should be strictly observed.”

The Army took charge on April 29 and brought the distribution of supplies under control.  Greely, no stranger to hunger after his artic expedition, issued strict orders on how and to whom food was to be given, and told Soldiers to shoot looters. For the next two months over 4,000 troops assisted in the distribution of more than 50,000 tons of supplies to the people of San Francisco.  On July 1, 1906, the Army turned over responsibility for food distribution to the Red Cross and withdrew from the city.


Greely, Adolphus W.  Special Report of Maj. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely, U.S.A., Commanding the Pacific Division, on the Relief Operations Conducted by the Military Authorities of the United States at San Francisco and other Points.  Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.,1906.

Kennedy, John Castillo.  The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906.  William Morrow and Co., New York, 1963.

U.S. Army Center for Military History. “’Thank God for the Soldiers’ San Francisco Earthquake, 1906.” April, 2006.  http://www.history.army.mil/documents/sfearthquake/1906earthquake.htm

U.S. Geological Survey. “The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake – 5:12 AM – April 18, 1906.” May, 2011.  http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/nca/1906/18april/

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