How do San Franciscans respond to a crisis? With a blend of ambition and ingenuity that can change the world.

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April 13, 2020

How the 1906 Earthquake Changed San Francisco—and the World

On Apr. 18, 1906, San Franciscans were shaken out of their sleep by what would prove to be one of the largest recorded earthquakes in American history. Between the quake itself and resultant fires, nearly 80 percent of the city was destroyed. 

To look at San Francisco today, you might never know that such a catastrophe occurred. Yet the 1906 disaster isn't ancient history. Instead, it's proof that when the going gets tough and the odds are stacked against us, San Franciscans roll up their sleeves and work together to preserve the communities that make them proud.

As we face another challenging time that calls for our patented San Francisco resiliency, let's commemorate the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake with a look at the remarkable things that San Franciscans did in its aftermath—many of which still shape our world today.

Bank of America

When San Francisco's civic leaders began to draw up plans for rebuilding the city, they were missing one crucial thing: money. Only one bank in the city was able to provide the funds required in these earliest days of recovery. This was the Bank of Italy, founded in San Francisco in 1904 by Italian immigrant Amadeo Giannini. Giannini, who was a champion of the community in North Beach, also paid to send two ships north to collect much-needed lumber for the reconstruction. Years later, Giannini's Bank of Italy would be renamed Bank of America, and it has kept that name ever since.

Improving the Urban Landscape

The city's engineers and architects used the rebuilding period to enhance the flow of traffic and people around the city. It's thanks to these post-quake plans that we have our wide-open spaces at Civic Center, our Muni Metro beneath Market St., and our pedestrian-friendly Fisherman's Wharf.

Disaster-Proof Buildings

After seeing how quickly masonry and wooden structures succumbed to the earthquake and fire, developers began using sturdier and less-flammable materials in their construction. Greater knowledge about how to build stronger structures would prove to be invaluable to the future of our city and many others.

Advances in Science

While we're still no closer to being able to predict an earthquake, the 1906 one provided scientists with crucial breakthroughs. The scale of the disaster gave new urgency to the need to better understand our natural world. Surveys and reports completed by scientists like Andrew Lawson of nearby UC Berkeley became the foundations of earthquake science.

A City Ready for Visitors

San Francisco was largely rebuilt by 1915. To celebrate, the city hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, a global event meant to show how the city had "risen from the ashes." To house the enormous exhibition, an entire pavilion was constructed along 636 acres of the city's northern waterfront. Today, those acres make up the Marina District. Most remnants of the exhibition are long gone. Still, one remains: the glorious Palace of Fine Arts, one of the most photographed spots in San Francisco.

Still Standing

Some structures, businesses, and landmarks survived the 1906 earthquake, and you can experience them today.

The Ferry Building (Embarcadero and Market St.)

The Ferry Building you see today along San Francisco's waterfront was built in 1898. It has had some cosmetic upgrades over the years, but it survived the 1906 earthquake and fires largely intact. Today, the Ferry Building is both a bustling transit terminal and a culinary paradise.

The Golden Fire Hydrant (Church and 20th streets)

When you visit Dolores Park, climb to the highest vantage point at its southwest corner. Look out over the green lawn and down to the sweeping view of San Francisco's skyline. Then turn around. Surprise! You're in the presence of a San Francisco legend: the Golden Fire Hydrant.

As fires raged through the city in 1906, this little hydrant was one of the few in the city that remained operational. It's credited with saving the entire Mission District from certain destruction. Each year on Apr. 18, it is given a fresh coat of paint as a measure of gratitude. 

Lotta's Fountain (Geary and Market streets)

At the intersection of Geary and Market streets stands a twenty-four-foot cast-iron fountain. Commissioned by vaudeville performer Lotta Crabtree in 1875, this fountain was the most visible landmark to survive the 1906 earthquake. It became a meeting point for displaced San Franciscans in the days following the disaster. Every year on Apr. 18, San Franciscans gather at Lotta's Fountain just as their predecessors did to mark the anniversary.

The Old Mint (88 Fifth St.)

Known affectionately as "The Granite Lady," this massive building was completed in 1874. Before it was decommissioned, it was said that The Old Mint held nearly one-third of the nation's wealth within its vaults. The Old Mint is now an event venue, hosting concerts, haunted houses for Halloween, and more.

Tadich Grill (240 California St.)

The legendary Tadich Grill is the oldest continuously run restaurant in San Francisco. What began as a coffee stand during the Gold Rush became a singular San Francisco dining experience. Tadich Grill has been at its current location since 1967. Very little has changed: the menu, the policies (no reservations!), and maybe even some of the staff. 

If there's one lesson among the many from the 1906 earthquake to keep in mind now, it's that every crisis brings with it an an opportunity. Who knows how different our world will become? It may be full of new technologies and discoveries that change how we treat illness, how we travel, or even how we dine out or attend a basketball game. In San Francisco, we face whatever comes our way with ambition, ingenuity, and a belief that what comes next can only improve on what's come before. As we're fond of saying: it's never the same, but it's always San Francisco.

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