16. The San Francisco Earthquake and fires of 1906
The earthquake which struck the city of San Francisco on April 18 1906 was a catastrophic event which led to more than 80% of the city being destroyed either by the damage from the quake itself or from the fires which erupted throughout the city. More than three thousand citizens were killed, though some believe that the death toll was much higher, with many residents of Chinatown not counted among the dead. It remains the largest natural disaster in terms of loss of life in California’s history. Recent research moved the epicenter of the earthquake offshore, after years of belief that the center of the quake was in the vicinity of Olema, in Marin County. There were deaths outside of San Francisco as well, often not included as having died in the disaster. The vast majority of the fatalities were within the city however, and nearly two-thirds of the city’s population were left homeless.
Refugee camps were established and run by the United States Army. Some of the camps remained open for more than two years as the city was rebuilt. The many fires triggered by the earthquake destroyed much of the rubble, but they also destroyed wood and other building materials which otherwise could have been salvaged. Many businesses, tired of waiting for the needed materials to resurrect their firms, simply relocated to Los Angeles and other communities. San Francisco had been the biggest city on the West Coast (and the ninth largest in the nation) when the earthquake struck, a status which it never regained. Fighting the fires was hampered by the death of the city’s fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, who died of injuries he sustained during the earthquake itself, leaving the city’s firefighters leaderless. Broken water mains further hampered them, and many who survived the quake died from the fires as they were trapped in damaged buildings.