Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake One hundred years ago, a 7.8-magnitude quake and rapidly spreading fires dealt San Francisco a stunning blow. Those events are remembered through grainy photos, local legends and survivors' letters.
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Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Remembering the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. On an unseasonably warm evening in April of 1906, the Opera House in the heart of San Francisco swelled with the voice of Enrico Caruso singing Don Jose in the opera, Carmen.

(Soundbite of the opera, "Carmen")

MONTAGNE: Just hours after the finely dressed fans of Caruso and Carmen headed home, the roof of the Grand Opera House would collapse. At 5:12 a.m., a 7.8 magnitude earthquake unleashed offshore, rumbled through the city for just under a minute. Enrico Caruso is heard here in a later recording of Carmen. On the morning of April 18, one story finds Caruso standing in a downtown square wailing among a crowd of shocked survivors.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Throughout the month, we're telling the story of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. This morning, The Day the Earth Shook. Of course, the living memory is all but gone now. Where the devastation was near total 100 years ago, the city is a constant buzz, crowded with buildings, businesspeople, tourists, cable cars. Those few days in April, 1906, are remembered through grainy black and white images, local legends, and letters written by survivors.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) "We could not get to our feet, big buildings were crumbling as one might crush a biscuit in one's hand. Ahead of me, a great cornice crushed a man as if he were a maggot."

MONTAGNE: That eyewitness account was written by one P. Barrett. A newspaper reporter described cobblestones popping up and down like popcorn. The night clerk from the Valencia Street Hotel ran from the building and gave this account.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) "The hotel lurched forward as if the foundation were dragged backward from under it and crumpled down over Valencia Street. It did not fall to pieces and spray itself all over the place, but telescoped down on itself like a concertina."

MONTAGNE: Those who had rooms on the fourth floor simply stepped out onto the street. Those who checked into rooms on the floors below were crushed. In the quiet of the city after the shaking stopped, an even more destructive force was brewing. Much of San Francisco's water supply came to the city in rigid iron pipes, and some 30,000 pipes ruptured with the intense shaking.

Soon came the smell of smoke. Historian Philip Fradkin is the author of The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906.

Mr. PHILIP FRADKIN (Author, Historian): The firemen were virtually without water. There was very little to do. Now, no fireman is going to do nothing. So the first idea that occurred was to use dynamite.

MONTAGNE: That's right, dynamite. The earthquake killed the city's fire chief, leaving the department leaderless. And as fires began to crawl across the city, 2,000 federal troops arrived on the streets. Soldiers, firemen, even civilians began to blow up buildings with gunpowder to create fire breaks. It turned out to be a dangerous miscalculation.

Mr. FRADKIN: One of the problems was the type of explosive that they used. Gunpowder is flammable and spreads fire. And they made the mistake at the end of the second day of dynamiting a huge chemical warehouse, and that was just pyrotechnics plus.

MONTAGNE: The mayor issued a shoot to kill order for anyone found looting. Amidst the chaos, thousands of residents dressed in layers upon layers of their best clothes began making their way on foot to the ferry boats to evacuate across the bay or to tent camps scattered throughout the city. A woman named Rosa Baretta described the scene in a letter to a friend.

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) "Many burned out people passed our house with bundles and ropes around their necks dragging heavy trunks. From the moment they heard that fatal, heartrending sound of the trumpet announcing their house would be burned or dynamited, they had to move on or be shot."

Mr. FRADKIN: You see a lot of people standing, watching. They could not imagine that the fire would be as widespread and devastating as it was. So there were people sitting in the middle of streets watching the fire below them, not even considering the fact that it would drive them soon from their homes.

MONTAGNE: Historian Philip Fradkin. For almost four days, the city burned. Most neighborhoods that survived the quake were later consumed by fire. The disaster would leave 3,000 dead, perhaps more, and in a city of 400,000, more than half were left homeless.

But that was not the fate of the Filbert Steps of Telegraph Hill. It's a neighborhood now famed for its lush gardens and roving parrots. Today, it's still accessible only by steep, wooden stairs.

Mr. AARON PESKIN (President, San Francisco Board of Supervisors): The fire stopped totally and utterly just a few hundred feet from where we're standing.

MONTAGNE: That's Aaron Peskin. He's the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and he's a resident of one of the renovated houses perched along the Filbert Steps, with stunning views of the bay. A hundred years ago, this neighborhood was working class, Irish and Italian immigrants, whose simple cottages would be among the few spared from the fire.

Mr. FRADKIN: The story of Telegraph Hill was the story of a community who banded together with buckets of water that they had saved, with barrels of wine that the Italians were fermenting in their basements, and poured that on the fires.

MONTAGNE: Barrels of wine?

Mr. FRADKIN: In those days, many of the Italian immigrants fermented their own wine in their basements, and there are stories of the old-timers getting those barrels of wine out and pouring them on the fire.

MONTAGNE: The legend of 1906 that quietly echoes along the Filbert Steps is also remembered through photographs. We go now to a dark wood-paneled office in San Francisco, the office of Monaco Labs.

Richard Monaco is the fourth generation of his family in the film business. He's 77 years old, and his eyes sparkle above a thick, silver mustache. He points to a snapshot of his father.

Mr. RICHARD MONACO (Monaco Labs, San Francisco): You're looking at a 6-year-old boy, pretty well-dressed, sitting in the rubble--and I really mean rubble--of what was left of his father's studio.

MONTAGNE: That studio belonged to Richard Monaco's grandfather, J.B. Monaco. J.B. Monaco was called the Dean of North Beach Photographers, then a lively, Italian enclave.

In the 1970s, Richard Monaco uncovered steel cases that had been his grandfather's, sealed up and forgotten behind sheetrock in the family home. Among the trove were undeveloped negatives--images unseen since the fires. Pictures taken over those days of disaster in April, 1906.

Mr. MONACO: Well, you know here, there's a good shot. Look! Look at what was happening to the city!

MONTAGNE: So here's the moment where you see all that smoke, dark smoke...

Mr. MONACO: That's the fire there. They're fighting the fire up at that corner there...

MONTAGNE: Back in 1906, J.B. Monaco took photos, as many others did, with a newly popular hand-held camera. The technology allowed Monaco to take pictures as the fires approached his photography studio.

Mr. MONACO: The federal troops would not allow him into the studio, so there was nothing he could do. His building would burn down within two hours. It would burn to the ground within two hours.

MONTAGNE: So he was standing there knowing his building was burning?

Mr. MONACO: He was knowing that when he took this picture. What would you be thinking about? My studio is about to burn down. My home is probably going to burn down. And...

MONTAGNE: I'm going to take pictures.

Mr. MONACO: Just take pictures, yeah.

MONTAGNE: While Richard Monaco's grandfather J.B. was taking pictures, his other grandparents were fleeing to the biggest refugee camp in the city, along with his then 4-year-old mother.

Mr. MONACO: My mother's family, they suffered terribly. Their house burned down, she lost two infant siblings from diphtheria, two four or five-month-old twins died within three or four days of one another. Their names were Frank and Frances. It was a boy and a girl.

I remember her mother talking to me more about the earthquake and fire. I do remember, I remember quoting her. One time she said, "I hope you"...I get emotional..."I hope you never experience anything like that in your lifetime."

MONTAGNE: As the ashes cooled, the city immediately began to rebuild. Nine years later, San Francisco hosted a World's Fair. The centerpiece was the 43-story Tower of Jewels, covered in over 100,000 dangling glass beads. And in the evening, all lit up, it looked an awful lot like a brilliant fire.

J.B. Monaco's dramatic photos and more survivor stories are at

Tomorrow, Chinatown--reduced to rubble and looted, The Empress of China was among those who kept it from being pushed out of San Francisco.

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