- Historic Sites
San Francisco Then And Now
On the 100th anniversary of the 1906 calamity, a student of earthquakes seeks its traces in the city he loves most.
April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
A comparison with Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans is inevitable. Both cities were hit by a powerful natural force, followed by days of mounting destruction. In San Francisco, fires swept through the city. Three-fourths of it burned. Although the tragedy is a century gone now, reminders are still around—some in plain sight.
I am standing at the intersection of Davis and Washington Streets in east San Francisco, two blocks from the waterfront, looking in the direction of Russian Hill. It was here that Police Sgt. Jesse Cook, on the force since the 1880s and soon to be chief of police, stood on the morning of April 18, 1906. He was in front of the Levy produce company, talking to the proprietor’s son. It was a few minutes after 5:00 a.m., and only those people involved in the wholesale business—butchers, bakers, fish and vegetable sellers—were on the streets. Cook’s attention was drawn to a horse harnessed to a nearby wagon. It was neighing and stamping its front hooves. “Something is making that horse nervous,” Cook said. Just then he heard a low rumble. It reminded him of the roar of a distant sea. He looked up Washington Street and saw the street rise, later describing it “as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me.” As the wave swept under him, the surrounding buildings began to shake. A brick building on the opposite corner collapsed, killing two men. After two minutes the shaking stopped. Cook ran to his police station four blocks away, passing fires that had already started.
I walk up Washington Street in the direction the earthquake originated. The wholesalers left this section of San Francisco long ago. Today it is a fashionable neighborhood dominated by the Embarcadero Center, an eclectic business complex of luxurious retail stores and imposing office suites that covers five city blocks. To my left is a bronze high-rise, crisscrossed from top to bottom with steel trusses and X braces. Letters on the front proclaim it to be One Maritime Plaza. Completed in 1967, it was the first major building in San Francisco to use external seismic bracing. Twenty-seven stories tall, this upright rectangular prism of flexible girders and dark-tinted windows seems dwarfed by almost every other building in sight.
I hurry west along Washington Street three more blocks, passing the dazzling white Transamerica Pyramid, the most distinctive building in San Francisco’s skyline, and reach Montgomery Street. At last I am standing on firm ground. Montgomery Street, often called the financial center of the West, roughly follows the original shoreline of San Francisco Bay, which ran close to the base of Nob Hill. The six blocks from here to the current waterfront are all “made” ground, land literally manufactured by filling the bay with sand, garbage, rotting trees, and other detritus. Scores of abandoned wooden ships were scuttled and lie beneath this section of San Francisco. Made ground is loose and unstable. It takes on the character of a liquid when shaken, such as during an earthquake. Imagine standing on a pile of loose sand. Shuffle your feet back and forth quickly. They sink into the sand. The same thing happens when the ground shakes around a building that is not set on firm ground.
The closest thing to a “ground zero” was Lotta’s Fountain at Kearny and Market Streets.
Most of the destruction and the five deaths in San Francisco caused by an 1868 earthquake, which originated across the bay in Hayward, happened here. Extensive damage also occurred here in 1906, as well as in other areas of the city built over made ground. The City Hall, then at the corner of McAllister and Larkin Streets, had been built on shaky underpinnings—the site of the city’s first cemetery. The 1906 City Hall was the grandest and largest municipal building on the West Coast. It took more than 20 years to build and only two minutes to collapse. Today the main branch of San Francisco’s library occupies the site, housed in a six-story building that looks more like a bunker than a municipal ornament. Its inside is braced with steel rods and girders, some set at inconvenient angles. At the main entrance, inside a glass case, are artifacts, including bottles, broken chinaware, and a wedding ring.
For 30 years I have walked the streets of San Francisco, taking photographs. My goal is to document the city before the next major earthquake. I have often wondered how San Francisco will look after that. Which buildings will fall and which will still be standing?
I worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for 16 years, studying earthquakes, so I know what they can do. I admit I feel queasy whenever I drive into an underground garage and park my car. I walk quickly to the nearest elevator, aware that even after I reach it and step inside, I have few options should the ground start to shake. Yet I have a fascination with earthquakes and hope to be in San Francisco for the next big one. I do not wish destruction on the city—it remains my favorite city in the world—but I know that earthquakes are inevitable. As are fires. Still, a question goes through my mind: Have architects and structural engineers finally succeeded in securing San Francisco? The city leaders of 1906 were convinced they had.