Special places archive
The 1906 San Fransisco earthquake and fire
This month marks the centenary of the earthquake and fire that destroyed a large part of San Francisco in April 1906. This website tells the story of destruction and rescue, using thousands of photographs along with text transcripts of letters, reports and other documents.Documents from the collections of six San Fransisco libraries have been digitised, catalogued and brought together here. Each of the documents has extensive metadata, and can be searched or browsed by keywords or by location in the city. The browsable maps are especially effective.
This collection of almost 14,000 images and 7,000 pages of text conveys a mass of detail of ordinary people coping with extraordinary events. You can traverse the city street by street, or survey the panorama from the top of Nob Hill or from a balloon.
There are wonderfully evocative documents, including a series of letters from Percy Gregory to his mother in Australia:
29 . 5 . 06 [1906 May 29]
I have just a few lines to tell you. Poor old Frisco has been visited by an earth quake and fire. The entire Business part of the City. - and portion of the residence district has been burnt-to-the ground. Between two and three hundred thousand people are homeless. The people line up in the Arcades every day for rations—all Butcher shops fell over into the Bay when the big quake came, which lasted 48 seconds, so that I lost my job right there. The Hills rolled like great billows, and cracked open, houses sank between seven and eight feet, in places. All the Big cheap lodging houses collapsed with all the people in them. Then the fire which started in one hundred places—at once quickly burnt-up the dead and injured. The flames spread like furey. jumping six and seven blocks at once, 450 blocks were burnt to the ground in all. the water mains were all broken, by the quake, so that the fireman had no water to fight the fire with. All they could do was to blow up the Buildings with dynamite, in spite of this the rapidly moving flames speed on their way. Sometimes leaping, 150 feet above the Call Building which is 360 feet tall. The fire was a beautiful sight—at night miles of sky scrapers being gutted or burnt to the ground. Hundreds of millions of dollars going up in smoke. To give you an idea of the fire would be impossible but I can give you one of the burnt area. From Circular quay, to the old Redfern Railway station, from Pyrmont Bridge, to Rushcutters Bay power house, and you have it in a nut shell. I have been working ever since the earthquake, but in a new line of business. Have turned carpenter again have lots of work ahead of me for months to come, at four and a half dollars a day. Have one four roomed house nearly completed. Another two roomed house to start on and three more houses after that, as soon as I can get a line on this class of work I will start taking contracts. Carpenters are in great demand. All the new sky scrapers are to be built like war ships with steel frames and steel plates so that they cannot be burnt or shaken down by earthquake. I guess you thought it was all off with old Joe when you heard of the calamity that had befallen San Francisco. But poor old Joe was stationed on a rock—solid as at Gibraltar. The earthquake broke a good many dishes in our house and almost shook me out of bed, that is all. Men, women and children were streaming out of the City in thousands. With nothing but what they stood up in—everything they had being burnt in the fire. Thank goodness the relief trains were not long in coming or there would have been a great amount of suffering in the city. I hope to see Frisco build up greater than ever. Am going to stay right here and help all I can. Am sending you a copy of the Examiner with three pictures of the burnt area. Would have written before, only that I have been up to my neck in work. The number of dead will never be known. Some big places fell with 400 to 500 people in them. Then the fire done the rest. Not an ash is left to tell the tale.
With love and best wishes to all, Percy
[Transcript of a letter in the collection of the California Historical Society; image]