It took three days for San Francisco to die. The City would have survived the massive earthquake that smashed into it at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, but that savage blow led to the worst conflagration in human history. On April 21, when the flames had either been checked or had nothing left to feed on, one of the world’s most storied cities had become a devastated moonscape. Four hundred and ninety blocks, 28,188 buildings, and almost 3,000 acres had been obliterated. More than 3,000 people were dead. The city brought into instant existence by gold fever had returned to nothingness as quickly as it had arisen out of it.
The destruction was so apocalyptic that some “calamity howlers,” as doomsayers were called at the time, said the City by the Bay would never return. Yet just three and a half years later, in an astonishing display of civic pride, determination and hard work, San Franciscans had rebuilt their city — and staged a huge celebration to tell the world they were back. The resurrection of San Francisco was, and remains, the City’s finest hour. What follows is the story, told in vignettes, of that epic comeback.
A young woman was lying on the ground with her eyes closed. Her husband offered a hackman the exorbitant sum of $11 to take her to the ferry to Oakland, but the driver demanded $50 and drove off. “Then a man with a dirty face and a clay pipe in his mouth came along,” the Examiner reported. “He was driving a rickety horse in a rickety express wagon, and the wagon was heaped high with rickety furniture.” The driver inquired about the woman and was told she was very ill and needed to get to her mother’s house across the Bay. “The dirty-faced man scratched his head, took another look at the woman, waved away the $11 with a sweep of the clay pipe and jumped to the ground. Ten minutes later the rickety furniture was left in a pile where the woman had lain and the woman, with her husband, was traveling ferryward.”
One San Franciscan more than any other was responsible for securing the vast financial support the City needed to rebuild: banker William H. Crocker. Crocker was in New York when the earthquake hit. He told reporters, “Our people have suffered frightful losses. But their spirit is unbroken and they will not give up! Please tell the world that— starting at once — San Francisco will be rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than ever!” Crocker persuaded his New York financial colleagues to pledge millions in assistance. When the banker and his wife approached San Francisco by ferry, they were so overwhelmed by their first full view of their fallen city that they sat down and wept. But Crocker got immediately to work, securing loans, choosing which businesses should get priority to rebuild, and lending crucial support to the Firemen’s Fund, a venerable San Francisco insurance company, which was forced to reorganize and ask its investors to have faith in its future.
Another banker who played an indispensable role was A.P. Giannini. The founder of the Bank of Italy, who had built his business by catering to the ordinary citizens of North Beach, was at his San Mateo home when the earthquake struck. He rode into town, took the $80,000 that was in his vaults, hid it in a wagon under crates of oranges, and drove it back to his house, where he stashed it in the fireplace. Within nine days, he opened a temporary bank at the Washington Street wharf, doing business on a plank resting on two barrels. The only bank open, its daily assets were the $10,000 Giannini would take every day from his fireplace and drive into San Francisco. He never lost a cent on the emergency loans he made to rich and poor. What was once dismissively called “that little dago bank in North Beach” eventually became Bank of America, the world’s largest bank.
The City’s main relief organization was the San Francisco Relief and Red Cross agency, whose mammoth task was providing food, shelter and social services for the more than 200,000 people (out of a population of 450,000) left homeless by the catastrophe. Armed with $9 million in donations that poured in from around the world, the SFRRC quickly established 26 refugee camps across the City and a network of food kitchens. As the rainy season approached, it built 5,610 “earthquake cottages” to house 15,000 poor San Franciscans, many of whom ended up living permanently in the cottages. The agency also gave out loans and grants to 1,572 working-class and lower-middle-class residents to build new homes. These efforts could be considered the first social-housing programs in the United States.
The actual work of reconstruction was an epic of labor unequalled in American history. Workers began clearing ground and beginning construction when the ashes were still smoking. Journalist Ray Stannard Baker captured the frenetic, cheerful spirit of the rebuilding of downtown: “Work! I have never seen men work as they are working here. … New steel rings to their hammers; wagons go forth dusty with debris to return with shining new lumber; cheerful wooden shacks spring up overnight — with a little flag on top to let you know that there will be no capitulation!”
Refugees often needed considerable resourcefulness to rebuild their homes and their lives. Ten-year-old Walter Harman was awake in his family’s tiny house at 1097½ Howard Street when the earthquake hit. His parents loaded up a red wagon and a bicycle with everything they could and walked with their three children through the twisted, rubble-strewn streets to a vacant lot on Potrero Hill, soon to become a refugee camp. The family lived in the refugee camp until February 1907, when Walter’s father bought a tannery on San Bruno Avenue, knocked it down, and showed his boys how to take the nails out of the boards. Using the salvaged lumber, Walter’s father — a carpenter who like most of the City’s workingmen had found plenty of highly paid employment during the rebuilding — built his family a new house on Felton Street.
After the earthquake and fire, the beloved merchant Raphael Weill, a French Jew who immigrated to San Francisco in 1855 and founded the famous White House department store, opened his warehouse to all women who needed clothing and allowed them to take anything they wanted without charge. This act of civic generosity earned Weill the undying respect of his fellow San Franciscans, and led the French government to name him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest honors.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, March 3, 1907, a corps of 20 buglers left the Presidio, took up positions on the seven hills of the City, and sounded reveille for a city-wide “House Cleaning Day.” Twenty thousand San Franciscans from all walks of life walked through the streets to their assigned workplaces and spent the next 10 hours wielding shovels, picks and brooms, cleaning the streets of debris and dirt. They covered four square miles, accomplishing more in 10 hours than had been done in the last 10 months.
Within two years of the catastrophe, more than $100,000,000 worth of buildings had been erected in San Francisco. According to Eric Saul and Don Denevi in The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906, “By April of 1908, one could stand upon the slopes of Twin Peaks and gaze across the majestic sweep of domes, towers, spires and roofs which stretched four miles to the Ferry Building without any kind of a break whatsoever.” By 1909, 27 downtown buildings that had survived the fire had been repaired and 77 new ones built, most with steel frames.
In October 1909, San Francisco threw itself a huge party, the Portola Festival. The bash commemorated the 140th anniversary of Gaspar de Portolá’s 1769 discovery of San Francisco Bay, but its real purpose was to celebrate the City’s astonishingly rapid rebirth. In an appeal to citizens to support the festival, the Call wrote, “The rebuilding of a great city in three years is unexampled and presents one of the wonders of the world that all should see.” The highlight of the festival was the biggest parade in the City’s history, which was attended by a million people. San Francisco had come back from the greatest disaster ever to befall an American city, as lighthearted and free-spirited as ever.