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This picture, taken facing north from Battery Street, shows the destroyed buildings along California Street in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires.
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National Archives Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives; Photograph by Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

At 5:12 am on Wednesday April 18, 1906 most people in San Francisco, CA were still asleep. But they were about to wake up very suddenly.

The Earth shook violently - an earthquake. It lasted for only about a minute, but caused a lot of damage. Buildings toppled. People were trapped under rubble. Water and gas mains broke. And soon after the shaking had stopped, fires started burning in the city. Because the water mains were broken, the fires could not be fought. They grew out of control and burned for three days.

The earthquake happened when there was an abrupt movement along the San Andreas Fault, a large transform (strike-slip) fault that is the boundary between the Pacific Plate to the west from the North American Plate to the east. While the San Andreas Fault does not run directly under San Francisco, the earthquake epicenter along the fault was quite close to San Francisco. The earthquake was so large that the shaking was felt as far south as Los Angeles.

After the earthquake, engineer Herman Schussler went out to the San Andreas Fault where it cuts through the mountains of the Coast Range. The changes he found were dramatic. He testified in San Francisco's U.S. District Court in 1908 about what he saw.

"The remarkable feature of it was that the east mountains came four and a half feet closer to the west mountains than they were before," Schussler explained before the court.

Think about it. In only one minute, entire mountains had moved several feet.

"If San Francisco had been at or near the fault line there would not have been anything left of it," Schussler continued.

And there was not much left of San Francisco. After the earthquake and fires, the city was devastated. Over 500 city blocks were in ruins. Over half of the city's population was homeless. People lived in tents and other shelters and cooked food outdoors. Yet, despite the devastation, it didn't take long for people to start picking up the pieces.

"San Francisco is beginning to rise again out of its ashes," wrote UC Berkeley professor Samuel Fortier a week after the earthquake and fires. "There is no lack of confidence," he continued. "The courage of the people is simply remarkable. The thousands who have lost about all they possessed are wonderfully cheerful, and one seldom hears any whining. The genuine western spirit is rampart everywhere and the people of San Francisco seem determined to begin at once to build a new San Francisco, which will far surpass the old in every essential feature. I never was so proud of Californians as I am today."

Last modified May 20, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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The Fall 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, focuses on rocks and minerals, including articles on minerals and mining, the use of minerals in society, and rare earth minerals, and includes 3 posters!

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