from California Geology, December 1987, Vol. 40, No. 12.



GLADYS HANSEN, San Francisco City Archivist

and Project Director, San Francisco Earthquake

Research Project at the California Academy of Sciences


Collapse of wooden frame buildings along Golden Gate Avenue, near Hyde Street, San Francisco. When the earthquake struck on April 18, 1906, the unreinforced brick and wooden framed buildings that dominated the city were not earthquake-resistant. Photos courtesy of San Francisco Earthquake Research Project except as noted.

This article is adapted by permission from a report of the San Francisco Earthquake Research Project at the California Academy of Sciences . . . editor.


The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 in San Francisco ranks as an unparalleled disaster in the history of the United States. The violent earthquake, which lasted just under 50 seconds, has been computed by seismologists to be about magnitude 8 based on data from the event. The fire, which started during the earthquake, could not be controlled because the water mains were ruptured by the earthquake. The fire raged for three days and nights.

Some facts about the Great Earthquake and Fire:

Brick and frame buildings collapsed in areas of "made land" (swamp and marsh areas which had been filled in). Hundreds of people died in the collapse of these buildings, which were located mainly in the "South-of-Market" (Street) areas.

Approximately 500 square blocks of San Francisco burned during the Great Fire. Twenty-eight-thousand buildings were destroyed.

The fire overshadowed the destruction caused by the Great Earthquake, even though the earthquake alone was a major event.

A U. S. Army report, written after the earthquake, tells of the collapse of 95 percent of all chimneys on buildings in San Francisco.

Guests in the major hotels, such as the Palace Hotel which was constructed on sand dunes, reported violent shaking of the interior of the building. In the Hotel St. Francis, the tallest fully-occupied building in San Francisco, guests reported rolling, falling down stairs, and being thrown from wall-to-wall by the 1906 shock. As these people left the hotels, some wandered into the wrecked "South-of-Market" area, where the most damage to buildings and the most deaths occurred.

When the earthquake survivors returned to their homes (some were from other states and other parts of California) they told local newspaper reporters of their experiences and of seeing buildings thrown down, "stacks of dead bodies pulled from collapsed buildings," and cattle running amuck on Market Street as they made their way to the train station or the Ferry Building.

These stories of terrible earthquake damage and great loss of life were later denied or ridiculed in San Francisco and dismissed as fanciful tales told by hysterical people. It was, after all, "the fire which destroyed the City, not the Earthquake."


The year after the disaster, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors fixed the death toll at 478. The California State Board of Health disagreed, and between July 1, 1905, and June 30, 1906, tallied a figure somewhat higher: 503 deaths in San Francisco resulting from the earthquake and fire. General Adolphus A. Greeley, Commandant of the Presidio of San Francisco, disputed both counts and issued his own total of 498.

However, evidence recently gathered by the San Francisco Archives research project shows the totals from each source to be far too low.

In "Earthquake Hazard in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Continuing Problem in Public Policy" (1986), Karl V. Steinbrugge told of the difficulties San Francisco officials had coming to grips with the results of the earthquake. He wrote: After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it soon became clear that persons controlling the eastern financial resources needed to rebuild the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular [because people] were more afraid of earthquakes than fires. The Baltimore and Chicago fires were catastrophes which they understood, as they could understand the fire following the 1906 shock. Thus, in the years after the 1906 earthquake and fire, it became fashionable locally to refer to the disaster as "the fire" and the word "earthquake" was mentioned seldom or not at all. . . . "


Damage caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the worst disaster in California's history. Unreinforced brick buildings were particularly susceptible to damage. The quake ruptured gas and water mains. Fires fed by natural gas from the broken mains raged for three days while frustrated fire fighters watched. Nearly 500 city blocks burned. Photo by Eric Swensen.


Most fire insurance policies of the time contained a clause which released the insuring companies from liability in case of earthquake. The April 1907 edition of the respected insurance journal "Coast Review" clearly articulated the prevailing public policy in San Francisco: "The clause 'If a building or any part thereof, etc.,' in fire insurance policies, has been so often and liberally interpreted by the courts that it is indeed surprising to find underwriters who read it literally and offer a narrow interpretation as a defense to a claim. The Canadian representative of a foreign fire office, last April [1906] returned from San Francisco and left a trail of denials of liability. He was quoted by the papers as saying that the falling of chimneys released all companies from liability, under the clause 'If any part fall.'

"That fellow was so fearful he might lose his job if his company paid its losses that he insisted it would be unjust to other policyholders if the companies reduced their surplus funds by paying any of the losses at San Francisco."


The prevailing official and unofficial public policy of that time was to deny the impact and the effects of the Great Earthquake. This policy has made it exceedingly difficult, today, to determine exactly how many people died, where they died, and how they died. It was assumed that the most accurate and complete list would come from a comprehensive search of death notices in newspapers of the time. There were at least six major daily papers published in San Francisco and scores of smaller ones. Each issue of the Examiner, the Chronicle, the Call, the Post, the Daily News, the Bulletin, and the Oakland Herald published between April 18 and May 19, 1906, was thoroughly researched.

The period from April 18 through May 19, 1906, formed a natural unit of study, because after May 19 the papers recorded no deaths directly caused by the calamity.

However, merely reading these old newspapers and culling the names of victims was insufficient. Variant spellings, no doubt due to phonetic transcriptions of fatigued reporters, or typographical errors in hurriedly prepared newspaper articles often resulted in a single person being listed under two or more names. To unravel the tangle, frequent reference was made to the San Francisco City Directory of 1905. Each name was compared with listings to determine true spelling or identification.

The results of this research were first published under the title of "Who Perished: a list of persons who died as a result of the Great Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906."

This initial effort to compile a comprehensive San Francisco death list for the 1906 earthquake and fire disaster included not only the names of the dead, but also the name and date of the newspaper or publication carrying the notice, the page and column numbers, variant spellings of the name, and any relevant information which appeared in the 1905 City Directory. This compilation was completed in 1980 and gave a working total of 549 casualties.

The next step was to make a thorough search of all existing records of that time. Death Registers at the San Francisco Board of Public Health yielded much more information than the newspapers. The detailed transcription of this new data onto a special worksheet took much time and patience, but the results more than justified the effort.


San Francisco 1906 earthquake damage and resulting fire. A survivor recalled that the first tremor came at 5:12 a.m. on April 18 with "a rumble and a roar like cannonading." Photo courtesy of Bancroft Library.

The significant data produced from the Death Registers suggested that still more information might lie hidden in the files of the San Francisco Coroner. Data from the 1906 Coroner's records was somewhat sketchy and jumbled because it was prepared during the disaster, yet 429 names were added to the casualty list. Some of these names appeared in no other data source. By April 1984, transcription of the data supplied by the Coroner and the Board of Public Health was completed and the new 1906 San Francisco death toll stood at 826 as a result of the research.

Having exhausted all available 1906 records, an all-out campaign to contact friends, relatives and descendants of those who died in the 1906 disaster was initiated. A letter requesting information from anyone having knowledge of persons killed in the 1906 disaster was sent to more than one thousand genealogical and historical societies across the United States.

Response to the letters was overwhelming. Answers arrived from all over the United States, as well as from overseas. As of June 1, 1985, more than 350 persons had contacted the San Francisco Archives project. The bulk of the correspondence came from persons seeking information on relatives who "went to California (or San Francisco) and were never again heard from after the earthquake and fire."

Often, however, the writers failed to provide sufficient information for proper documentation. Another form was prepared with specific questions aimed at positively establishing the identity and the 1906 address of the possible victim.

Each inquiry was answered. Significant, and previously unknown, historical information often surfaced when correspondents provided additional data about the person, or persons, in question. If a 1906 San Francisco address for the person or persons could not be established, the names were placed in a file of "possible victims." in an attempt to find these possible victims the search was extended to mortuary registers, San Francisco inheritance tax records, the City and County record of orphans, and hand-written emergency hospital logs for April 18-23, 1906. The historian at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area brought our attention to civilian graves at the Presidio of San Francisco cemetery. This effort revealed the names of additional earthquake victims.

The search through all records revealed an unusual point --- there are few Asian names or other minority persons on the death list. As an example, the final tally to date shows only 22 Chinese people died as a result of the 1906 earthquake and fire. This statistic is somewhat improbable because of the reported destruction in the Chinatown area from the earthquake and fire.


As a result of the current ongoing research project, the total number of people who died in the San Francisco earthquake and fire is estimated to be more than three times higher than the original figure released in 1906. This study concludes that about 1,500 people died as a result of the 1906 earthquake and/or fire (Table 1).

The San Francisco Board of Public Health records list the major causes of death as burns, exposure, crushing, heart failure, killed in earthquake, and suicide. With this data, researchers have attempted to project causes of death for all victims of the 1906 disaster (Table 1).



* The category "OTHER" includes those who died as a result of: drowning, 3; peritonitis, 1; phrhiaia pulmonalsis (tuberculosis and infectious lung ailments), 1; leg amputation, 2; trying to rescue a person, 1; dynamite. 1, shot by soldiers, 1; shot, 1; cirrhosis of the liver, 1; complications of a gunshot wound, 1; blood poisoning following a hysterectomy, 1; and dysentery, 1.

All information from various sources was cataloged on 3 x 5 inch index cards and arranged alphabetically by surname and place of death. The file also contains a list of the "possible" victims. This file gives researchers instant access to all pertinent data.

In May 1986, in cooperation with private researchers in San Francisco, this information was placed in a computerized database, which includes type of building where deaths and/or injuries occurred, type of construction, and character of foundation soil under buildings that had associated earthquake damage. This database is keyed to streets, cross streets, and building numbers, and gives each address entered an individual "file" with all necessary data to allow extraction of information which will be keyed to the 1905 Sanborn building maps of San Francisco.


The end of the search is not in sight. There are additional data sources to be examined, records to research, and persons to contact. The National Archives in Washington, D. C. has a great quantity of information from the Presidio of San Francisco and the various army-administered supply distribution operations. The records of Letterman Army General Hospital, which are filed in the Federal Records Center in San Bruno, California, have not been examined. Although 80 years have passed since the Great Earthquake and Fire, the search to locate and identify victims of the 1906 disaster continues.


Salvation Army memorial service for a victim who died from a collapsed building on Natoma Street during the earthquake.


I would like to thank Emmet Condon (Deputy Project Director), David Fowler, and Richard Hansen for their contributions.