Final Project: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

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.


One thought on “Final Project: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

  1. 1. Yes, they used natural gas and kerosene. Look on the Sanborn Maps — do you see any notations indicating “gasoline machine” or “Detroit gasoline?” If you do, you should see markings for storage tanks and pipelines. These “machines” were used to power electricity in buildings. I came across while working on a Sanborn map for Palestine, Texas earlier this year:
    2. The odor was not added to natural gas until many years later. Look up the New London, Texas school explosion in 1937 — the entire building lifted several feet off the ground. You might also be interested in the Our Lady of Angels school fire in Chicago in 1958 — it was a catalyst for enforcing school safety codes with no more grandfather clauses. It explains why every elementary school you’ve ever seen is so architecturally similar.
    I’ve often thought that it would be interesting to map the spread of various fire safety codes.

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