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July 2024
1min read

An all-but-forgotten San Francisco photographer has left us a grand and terrible record of the destruction and rebirth of an American city


THE TITANIC TREMORS that swept down from the north, ripping through the California coastline and seabed at seven thousand miles per hour, slammed into the sleeping city of San Francisco at 5:13 on the calm, mild morning of Wednesday, April 18, 1906. A few early risers stared dumbstruck as streets crested and broke like ocean waves and church bells began to ring in swaying steeples. For forty seconds chimneys, cornices, whole buildings spilled into the riven streets. Then came a ten-second respite, followed by a greater concussion that jolted the city, one witness said, like “a terrier shaking a rat.”

In the silence that followed, stunned firefighters collected themselves and headed for their engines. There were no fire bells—the whole alarm system was in ruins—but they knew they wouldn’t have to look far. Minutes after the quake the city was burning in fifty separate places.

Among those who took to the streets—William James and John Barrymore, Enrico Caruso, and Joe Hill—was a photographer named J. B. Monaco, who lived in the Italian community of North Beach. Monaco had worked in San Francisco for nearly twenty years, and his feelings for the city ran deep. When he saw what was happening to it, he grabbed a Kodak—a big studio camera would have been useless in the turmoil—and set out to record the devastation.

On this and the following pages, we present Monaco’s testament of disaster. The pictures—most of which have never before been published—appear here through the courtesy of his grandson, Richard Monaco, who runs a motion-picture laboratory in San Francisco.


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