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The Great Fire & How It Changed SF

the Great Fire
The 1906 Great Fire of San Francisco on April 18

The 1906 Great Fire is one of the most cataclysmic moments in the history of San Francisco. In many respects it’s the big “before and after” event here. Some buildings survived – the St Francis Hotel, the Flood Mansion, the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, and the Ferry Building were amongst the few – but so much of the city was destroyed that a massive rebuilding effort was required, which forever changed SF. Change of course is inevitable, but events like those of that Spring morning, speed it up and make it bigger. Wars and disasters are accelerants, bringing good and bad currents in their wake, and the mighty earthquake that shook San Francisco that day was just such an event.

A Hundred Hours of Hell

At 5.12 am on the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake hit San Francisco, lasting just forty-two seconds (although there was a strong foreshock and several aftershocks). It’s estimated today that it was at 7.9 on the Richter Scale, with a very high intensity of shaking which could be felt from southern Oregon all the way down to Los Angeles and over to Western Nevada. The destruction was almost biblical in scale – although, unbelievably it was just the beginning of something that felt like Armageddon for San Franciscans.

Yes, the earthquake was just the start of a terrifying hundred hours for the city. Almost immediately numerous fires started, with ruptured gas mains the main cause, which proceeded to burn their way across San Francisco, devouring everything in their path. It’s estimated that 90% of the damage inflicted on the city was as a result of the fire that followed the earthquake.

Everything seemed to be against the residents as they battled the blaze. Firstly, the Fire Chief died from injuries sustained by the earthquake, so coordination was an issue. Meanwhile strong Northeasterly winds pushed the fire west across the city, the worst direction really. On top of that all the water mains appeared to be broken, so the main fire-fighting weapon was gone.

Then the city started several new fires while trying to dynamite buildings to stop the main blaze from spreading. The idea of using explosives to create firebreaks by blowing up buildings had been known about since the Great Fire of London, in 1666, when the King Charles II used gunpowder, but it needed a degree of expertise – or practice. 

Finally, many residents set fire to their own premises in desperation when they discovered that their insurance policies would only pay out in the event of fire and NOT earthquake damage (remember, they had time to check these things as they saw the conflagration come towards them).

It should also be pointed out that for that day, and several afterwards, wild rumors spread and many people in the Bay Area believed that the whole world had been visited by a cataclysm like their own, and that therefore there was no help to come from elsewhere at all.

Only in the Mission District, on the corner of Church and 20th, a single hydrant provided a flow of water. Not as much as normal, but enough. Now known as the Golden Hydrant, it saved much of the Mission from destruction – meaning the neighborhood now has some of the oldest surviving Victorian homes in San Francisco.

Aftermath of the Great Fire of San Francisco

When the smoke cleared 80% of San Francisco was gone, with blocks and blocks of neatly laid-out-piles of smoking rubble (490 in total), and the odd fire-blackened and burnt-out structure, as the only evidence that a city had once occupied the land. 28,000 buildings in all were destroyed, but the death-toll was much lower than it could have been, at about 3,000 people according to most estimates. 

The population of SF had been well over 400,000 before April 18, but the fall-out from the Great Fire ensured that there was an exodus of residents to other parts of the Bay Area (up to 300,000 people had been rendered homeless by it) and many never returned. Huge tent cities sprang up to house the displaced, as well as endless rows of wooden huts being laid out in Golden Gate and Presidio Parks.

As soon as the fire was quelled attention turned to reconstruction. Much like with the Great Fires of Rome (AD64) and London there was a brief moment when a tabula rasa was considered: the slate had been wiped clean, why not rebuild San Francisco with a new, planned design that would create a much “better” city? 

However, the need to buy huge amounts of expensive property from owners, which would undoubtedly entail incredibly lengthy delays due to the legal process – never mind the money to do it – while all the thinking was to get the city back up and running as soon as possible, meant most of these ideas never came to fruition. Surely the city’s leaders knew too that they had to get the city running again to create revenues, as their tax base had just evaporated into the ether.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean San Francisco just rose from the ashes, like a phoenix reborn, everything as before. San Francisco did come back, but as a different phoenix. What were the long-term effects, as we look back over the last hundred-odd years.

WAIT! WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

One thing that’s a little confusing for some visitors is that San Franciscans call it ‘the Great Fire’, not ‘the Great Earthquake’. The quake started the fire and it’s usually referred to as ‘the 1906 Earthquake’ elsewhere, so what’s with the name? Why the confusion?

There are several reasons for why the fire was emphasized – and not the preceding earthquake – in San Francisco’s response to the disaster. Firstly, there’s the fact that the fire actually did far more damage than the quake. Secondly, as previously mentioned, many property owners were only able to make claims based on fire damage, so there was a strong need for the city as a whole to emphasize its importance in terms of the disaster.

Finally, earthquakes were little understood at the time and utterly unpredictable, whereas fire is largely preventable – at least on a large scale. There was concern that this calamity might be a death-blow, from which San Francisco would never recover, if residents and potential residents were frightened off by the possibility of more earthquakes.

When the California Governor made his first statement on the events in San Francisco he didn’t even mention the earthquake.

This is not the first time that San Francisco has been destroyed by fire, I have not the slightest doubt that the city by the Golden Gate will be speedily rebuilt, and will, almost before we know it, resume her former great activity.

George Pardee

THE BANK OF ITALY DOES REALLY WELL

Amadeo Giannini, a first-generation Italian immigrant, had only founded the Bank of Italy in 1904. The headquarters were on the corner of what’s now Washington and Columbus, in what had been a saloon (the first assistant teller was the previous establishments’ bartender). In a break with banking tradition at that time Giannini wanted his bank to deal mostly with working-class people, who he felt were hard-working and honest.

After the earthquake struck Giannini was able to spirit the contents of the bank’s safe to his house in San Mateo, eighteen miles away, using a garbage wagon. This meant that his was one of the few banks in the city that was able to satisfy withdrawal requests and make loans. Everybody’s records – the individual’s, city’s and bank’s – had been destroyed, so most loans were unsecured and the deal was sealed only with a handshake. 

He always maintained that every loan was repaid in full and it must have been, as Giannini’s fortune was secured in those years. In 1923 Bank of Italy merged with Bank of America, a Los Angeles institution, and took the name by which it’s known to this day. Giannini continued to run the business until his death, in 1949. He’s credited with inventing many elements of modern branch-banking.

CHINATOWN STAYS WHERE IT IS

One of the big ideas to emerge almost as soon as the fire had been put out was to move Chinatown out of the area it had occupied since the earliest days of the city and move it to some other, more distant but less salubrious, location. To be fair these ideas had been circulating long before the fire, but proponents of them latched onto the opportunity with which they thought they’d been presented.

However, they’d fatally (for their plans) misread the room. For once the residents of Chinatown had the upper hand, as the city was desperate to get it up and running like the rest of the city. Even the Chinese Emperor intervened to council the city to let the Chinese remain where they were. 

And so they did. Chinatown came back – but now with “chinafications” including pagoda roofs, dragon arches and paper-lantern-style streetlamps. It was so successful that the new design became the model for Chinatowns all over the world.

The destruction and consequent reconstruction of the neighborhood also broke the power of the Tongs, the crime gangs that had been running the opium dens, gambling dives and parlor houses hidden in the alleys of ‘old’ Chinatown. In fact the crime and vice that Chinatown had been associated with became largely a thing of the past.

SAN FRANCISCO GETS A MAKE-OVER

The most ambitious plans for redesigning the city were discarded, but that doesn’t mean that, rather like with Chinatown, the city came back as before. For one thing San Francisco is well-known for its Victorian houses, but in fact the Edwardian (1901-1918) style is the most common as that era coincided with the rebuilding of the city after 1906. In fact just in the first three years after the fire over 20,000 buildings were constructed.

Victorian is actually an umbrella term that refers to a variety of styles – Queen Anne, Italianate and Gothic Revival are all present in San Francisco. The Victorian era lasted from 1837-1901 (the reign of Queen Victoria) and was characterized by increasingly creative interpretations of previous periods. It was the first time that a lot of thought and creativity went into the design of “normal” houses, as previously homes for middle and working-class people were much simpler in style. By the mid-nineteenth century middle, and even working, class people had more disposable income and, correspondingly, more thought, and money, was put into their housing.

What’s the difference? Victorian designs were more ornate, detailed and decorative, by the end of the nineteenth century new styles were emerging, for example Arts and Crafts, and designs were generally becoming simpler and plainer. The differences between the styles isn’t massive, as they overlapped and were often intermingled, so you can have a lot of fun walking around San Francisco, trying to decide whether the houses on a particular street are Queen Anne Gothic or Arts and Crafts with a hint of Italianate. 

CIVIC CENTER REIMAGINED

Although the ambitious plans of people like urban planner Daniel Burnham didn’t come to fruition that isn’t to say that their ideas didn’t influence the city as it began to rebuild. San Francisco’s magnificent City Hall had only been completed a few years earlier, in 1899, after no less than twenty-seven years of planning and construction. Now they were going to have to do the whole thing again!

Nevertheless, as part of the reconstruction a new Civic Center was laid out. In 1915 the magnificent new, albeit smaller, City Hall opened. Over the next two decades other buildings followed, like the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Main Library and the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

Some elements of Burnham’s design (which he’d helpfully produced in 1905, the year before the earthquake) made their way into the new masterplan, most notably the two open spaces – the Civic Center and United Nations Plazas. The latter was in commemoration of the signing of the United Nations original charter on June 26, 1945, at the Herbst Theatre inside the Veteran’s Building. Another element of Burnham’s plan to make it into reality was the relaying of Market Street with the metro trains below street-level.

CITY HALL GETS A CLEAN-UP

For much of the late nineteenth century local politics in San Francisco was a byword for graft and corruption. Brothels on Morton Street (now Maiden Lane) and dance halls in the Barbary Coast paid off the police, judges, City Hall and the County Superivisors, but it wasn’t just criminals who had to pay bribes, it was local businesses and even regular people.

If there was one figure that seemed to be the poster-person for corruption in San Francisco it was an attorney operating out of an office on California and Kearney Streets in downtown, Abraham ‘Abe’ Ruef. His biggest client? Southern Pacific Railroad, the most powerful – and most connected – company in California.

Other companies and individuals hired him, not because they needed his legal services, but because he had the connections and would make the necessary payouts to ensure you got what you wanted. Payments to Ruef varied depending on the favor and went from a few thousand up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you wanted any kind of city permit or contract, you had to go through one man and one man only – Ruef.

In 1901 Ruef engineered the election of Eugene Schmitz (AKA ‘Handsome Gene’), an old friend and leader of the Musicians Union, as mayor. Schmitz was still in office when the earthquake struck and, at first, he was praised for his decisive action to save the city and then bring it back. However, the Great Fire let the cold hard light of day shine on his and Ruef’s activities. 

On April 24, 1907, the San Francisco Chronicle published a fee schedule for the city’s illegal establishments. Brothels, gambling houses and saloons paid street police officers $5 per week, sergeants $15, captains $25 and Chiefs $75 to $100 per week. Then it came out that the Home Telephone Company had contributed $75,000 to a relief fund for the city, but asked that it be held until their franchise was approved. The city was in uproar and a grand jury was convened by the SF District Attorney.

Leading citizens of San Francisco had already approached President Roosevelt for help and they secured the services of a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, Francis Heney. Soon the grand jury was hearing testimony of ‘French Restaurants’ in the Tenderloin that supplied both food and ‘private supper bedrooms’ for their patrons. Ruef himself was a nightly patron of one of the establishments called the Pup. 

An SFPD detective set up a sting and witnessed Supervisor Thomas Lonergan accepting a bribe from a well-known local businessman in order to kill a new ordinance that would regulate skating rinks. Just for good measure the detective then repeated the sting with two more county supervisors. Heney and the DA now had the evidence needed to force the supervisors to ‘flip’ on Ruef and Schmitz.

Making matters worse, a bomb was detonated at a supervisor’s house in Alameda, set by employees of a railroad company bidding for a city contract. The intended victim, James Gallaher, fled the country and a corruption trial was scheduled (one of several).

Ex-convict Morris Haas was exposed during jury selection by Heney, who was concerned by comments he’d made that indicated he wanted to sell his vote to acquit to Ruef. However, Haas deeply resented Heney for his actions and brooded on it for weeks. He attended the trial and, several months later, during a momentary recess on the afternoon of November 13, 1908, Haas walked up to Heney and shot him at point-blank range in the head. Heney was rushed to hospital in mortal danger, where surgeons struggled to save his life.

Famously, as he was put on the operating table he said, “I will live to prosecute Haas and Ruef”. That night Haas was confined to a prison cell, with two policeman at the door, but in spite of these precautions he was found dead the following morning with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead and a gun by his side. Bearing in mind that both Haas and the cell had been thoroughly searched prior to his confinement, it was a total mystery where the revolver had come from. It remains unsolved to this day, partly because there were so many people who wanted him dead!

There was huge criticism of Chief of Police William Biggy for negligence in allowing Haas to kill himself. Many felt there had been corrupting influence at work (as discussed above the SFPD was known to be riddled with corruption). Biggy himself was placed under surveillance by detectives.

On the evening of December 1, 1908, Biggy took a police launch across the bay to Oakland to discuss his resignation with the police commissioner. After the meeting Biggy returned to San Francisco around midnight, with only himself and the launch’s pilot, William Murphy, aboard. However, when the boat arrived back at the Embarcadero Biggy was nowhere to be found.

Two weeks later his body was pulled out of the bay.

No one believed that Biggy, as a devout Catholic, would have committed suicide, but there were no marks on his body to suggest a struggle and so a verdict of accidental death was recorded by the coroner. The commissioner reported that Biggy had been cheerful and determined to fight to clear his name when they’d parted, so his death remains a mystery to this day. One of many connected with this period.

Ultimately, Heney returned to the courtroom just before the jury retired to reach a verdict, creating a sensation. Schmitz was found guilty of corruption, although he was later cleared on appeal, and a new mayor was appointed. Only Ruef actually received jail-time, but ‘the graft trials’, as they became known, had decisively changed the way that San Francisco was governed and although it didn’t of course end political corruption, they curbed it enormously.

LOS ANGELES GETS A BIG BOOST

LA was already a good-sized city and it was growing fast, but it was still very much considered San Francisco’s junior prior to 1906. In that year the population of Los Angeles was about a quarter of a million people, considerably less than our 410,000. SF was “the gateway to the Pacific”, whereas Los Angeles was mainly known for agriculture, oil and as a great place to retire (because of the weather).

However, the disaster diverted trade, shipping, investment and population from one city to the other. With the arrival of dozens of movie studios spurring further growth in Los Angeles during the 1910’s – the original tech boom – the population of the southern city would surpass the northern one by 1920. Indeed, the busiest port in the entire United States today is the combined one of Los Angeles and Long Beach, even though the harbor there is entirely artificial. The main U.S. Navy base on the West Coast is at San Diego.

San Francisco Returns After the Great Fire of 1906

In 1915 The Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened, and it was presented as the moment when San Francisco was officially reborn. Nearly 850 acres of land was created from the tidal mudflats between the Presidio and Fisherman’s Wharf, which is now known as the Marina District. The landfill used for the site was a mixture of rubble created by buildings destroyed in the fire and mud and sand dredged from the bay itself.

The fair was a huge success. Nearly 19 million people attended, but it already had a nostalgic, elegiac, feel, even when it opened. The previous year the First World War had begun and, although the U.S. had remained neutral, a new era had begun. Just as San Francisco had returned, the Edwardian world that it so desperately wanted to rejoin had slipped into the sepia-tinged past.

The only remaining building of the nine-month Exposition is the Palace of Fine Arts, although the current structure is a recreation of the original, built in the years 1964-74.

Last Known Survivors of the Great Fire

Since 1915 the city has held an annual commemoration of the Great Fire of San Francisco at Lotta’s Fountain, at Third, Market and Kearny Streets, as it served as a meeting point for San Franciscans who were searching for each other during those desperate hours. Believe it or not but there were eleven survivors at the centennial commemorations, in 2006 (and one more they found later), but the last known survivor died in 2016, at the grand old age of 110 years old.

Flood Mansion
The Flood Mansion survived the fire and is now home to the Pacific Union Club

All of our tours cover the 1906 Great Fire in some way, as it had such a wide-ranging impact on San Francisco. We also visit many bricks and mortar survivors of that time, such as the St Francis and Fairmont hotels, as well as the Mission District and Haight Ashbury, which probably have the best surviving Victorian houses in the city.

If you have any feedback on the Great Fire and How It Changed SF please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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