In the early morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake struck the city of San Francisco, California, turning it to rubble. Far more destructive than the earthquake, however, were the fires that followed. San Francisco at the time was a modern city, on par with those in the East, with a sophisticated underground water infrastructure and a fully paid, well staffed and trained fire department. Yet history records fires running rampant throughout the city for days. What went wrong?
It is a bit of a truism that large disasters are the result of several errors happening simultaneously, and 1906 was no exception. My final project will examine a series of errors surrounding the city’s extensive water infrastructure, at both a smaller scale in San Francisco itself and a larger scale taking in the city and general area. In the smaller scale, I will look at how the city was arranged into various fire districts, how they were supposed to work, and how the system broke down in April 1906. At the larger scale, my project will also examine the various conduits bringing water from outside San Francisco to reservoirs inside the city. By examining these factors, I aim to show how the failures of San Francisco’s water infrastructure were crucial factors in the city’s destruction by fire, and finally how the local successes and failures of the water system make themselves visible in the destruction.
Some of my most useful sources were the Sanborn-Perris fire insurance maps for San Francisco, published in 1899 and updated through 1905. The USGS website has also been of great help to me, both in providing contemporary maps and secondary-source analysis. I am indebted to the San Francisco Fire Department Fire Museum for digitizing many of the after-action reports of its fire crews as well as findings from the city inquiry after the disaster. Finally I will be using some secondary sources from the 2006 city centennial of the earthquake and the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.