The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 20

Author: Jack London  | Date: A.D. 1906

San Francisco’s Fall and Recovery

A.D. 1906


Before dawn on the morning of April 19, 1906, the great metropolis of America’s Pacific Coast was suddenly stricken by an earthquake. Severe as this disaster was, it had but small effect as compared with the second tragedy which followed. Electric wires and gas mains, broken by the earth shock, caused terrible fires. The flame-demon, so long and cunningly trained to human service, burst from his confinement and worked furious vengeance on his master. San Francisco was almost wholly destroyed by the conflagration.

More marvelous even than the disaster was the city’s swift recovery. Her citizens rallied as one man for the reconstruction of their home, and within a few months San Francisco had risen phenix-like from her ashes, more wisely, more firmly, and more beautifully built than before.

The well-known California novelist, Jack London, was among the first upon the scene of disaster. No man could have described the calamity more accurately or more appreciatively. So Mr. London’s dramatic account of what he saw is reprinted here by his permission and that of Collier’s Weekly, in which it first appeared. Then comes a vivid account of the city’s rebirth, described by Herman S. Scheffauer.


THE earthquake shook down in San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of walls and chimneys. But the conflagration that followed burned up hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property. There is no estimating within hundreds of millions the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling-houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.

Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter-past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward. In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth-century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds’ twitching of the earth-crust.

By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.

Wednesday night saw the destruction of the very heart of the city. Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco’s proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush of the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the fire-fighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side, or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.

An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco. An enumeration of the buildings undestroyed would be a line and several addresses. An enumeration of the deeds of heroism would stock a library and bankrupt the Carnegie medal fund. An enumeration of the dead-will never be made. All vestiges of them were destroyed by the flames. The number of the victims of the earthquake will never be known. South of Market Street, where the loss of life was particularly heavy, was the first to catch fire.

Remarkable as it may seem, Wednesday night, while the whole city crashed and roared into ruin, was a quiet night. There were no crowds. There was no shouting and yelling. There was no hysteria, no disorder. I passed Wednesday night in the path of the advancing flames, and in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic-stricken.

Before the flames, throughout the night, fled tens of thousands of homeless ones. Some were wrapped in blankets. Others carried bundles of bedding and dear household treasures. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never, in all San Francisco’s history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.

All night these tens of thousands fled before the flames. Many of them, the poor people from the labor ghetto, had fled all day as well. They had left their homes burdened with possessions. Now and again they lightened up, flinging out upon the street clothing and treasures they had dragged for miles.

They held on longest to their trunks, and over these trunks many a strong man broke his heart that night. The hills of San Francisco are steep, and up these hills, mile after mile, were the trunks dragged. Everywhere were trunks, with across them lying their exhausted owners, men and women. Before the march of the flames were flung picket lines of soldiers. And a block at a time, as the flames advanced, these pickets retreated. One of their tasks was to keep the trunk-pullers moving. The exhausted creatures, stirred on by the menace of bayonets, would arise and struggle up the steep pavements, pausing from weakness every five or ten feet.

Often, after surmounting a heart-breaking hill, they would find another wall of flame advancing upon them at right angles and be compelled to change anew the line of their retreat. In the end, completely played out, after toiling for a dozen hours like giants, thousands of them were compelled to abandon their trunks. Here the shopkeepers and soft members of the middle class were at a disadvantage. But the working-men dug holes in vacant lots and backyards and buried their trunks.

At nine o’clock Wednesday evening I walked down through the very heart of the city. I walked through miles and miles of magnificent buildings and towering sky-scrapers. Here was no fire. All was in perfect order. The police patrolled the streets. Every building had its watchman at the door. And yet it was doomed, all of it. There was no water. The dynamite was giving out. And at right angles two different conflagrations were sweeping down upon it.

At one o’clock in the morning I walked down through the same section. Everything still stood intact. There was no fire. And yet there was a change. A rain of ashes was falling. The watchmen at the doors were gone. The police had been withdrawn. There were no firemen, no fire-engines, no men fighting with dynamite. The district had been absolutely abandoned. I stood at the corner of Kearney and Market, in the very innermost heart of San Francisco. Kearney Street was deserted. Half a dozen blocks away it was burning on both sides. The street was a wall of flame. And against this wall of flame, silhouetted sharply, were two United States cavalry-men sitting their horses, calmly watching. That was all. Not another person was in sight. In the intact heart of the city two troopers sat their horses and watched.

Surrender was complete. There was no water. The sewers had long since been pumped dry. There was no dynamite. Another fire had broken out farther uptown, and now from three sides conflagrations were sweeping down. The fourth side had been burned earlier in the day. In that direction stood the tottering walls of the Examiner building, the burned-out Call building, the smoldering ruins of the Grand Hotel, and the gutted, devastated, dynamited Palace Hotel.

The following will illustrate the sweep of the flames and the inability of men to calculate their spread. At eight o’clock Wednesday evening I passed through Union Square. It was packed with refugees. Thousands of them had gone to bed on the grass. Government tents had been set up, supper was being cooked, and the refugees were lining up for free meals.

At half-past one in the morning three sides of Union Square were in flames. The fourth side, where stood the great St. Francis Hotel, was still holding out. An hour later, ignited from top and sides, the St. Francis was flaming heavenward. Union Square, heaped high with mountains of trunks, was deserted. Troops, refugees, and all had retreated.

It was at Union Square that I saw a man offering a thousand dollars for a team of horses. He was in charge of a truck piled high with trunks from some hotel. It had been hauled here into what was considered safety, and the horses had been taken out. The flames were on three ides of the Square, and there were no horses.

Also, at this time, standing beside the truck, I urged a man to seek safety in flight. He was all but hemmed in by several conflagrations. He was an old man and he was on crutches. Said he: "Today is my birthday. Last night I was worth thirty thousand dollars. I bought five bottles of wine, some delicate fish, and other things for my birthday dinner. I have had no dinner, and all I own are these crutches."

I convinced him of his danger and started him limping on his way. An hour later, from a distance, I saw the truck-load of trunks burning merrily in the middle of the street.

On Thursday morning, at a quarter-past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. With me sat Japanese, Italians, Chinese, and negroes-a bit of the cosmopolitan flotsam of the wreck of the city. All about were the palaces of the nabob pioneers of forty-nine. To the east and south, at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flame.

I went inside with the owner of the house on the steps of which I sat. He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. "Yesterday morning,:’ he said, "I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes." He pointed to a large cabinet. "That is my wife’s collection of china. This rug upon which we stand is a present. It cost fifteen hundred dollars. Try that piano. Listen to its tone. There are few like it. There are no horses. The flames will be here in fifteen minutes."

Outside, the old Mark Hopkins residence, a palace, was just catching fire. The troops were falling back and driving the refugees before them. From every side came the roaring of flames, the crashing of walls, and the detonations of dynamite.

I passed out of the house. Day was trying to dawn through the smoke-pall. A sickly light was creeping over the face of things. Once only the sun broke through the smoke-pall, blood-red, and showing quarter its usual size. The smoke-pall itself, viewed from beneath, was a rose color that pulsed and fluttered with lavender shades. Then it turned to mauve and yellow and dun. There was no sun. And so dawned the second day on stricken San Francisco.

An hour later I was creeping past the shattered dome of the City Hall. Than it there was no better exhibit of the destructive force of the earthquake. Most of the stone had been shaken from the great dome, leaving standing the naked framework of steel. Market Street was piled high with the wreckage, and across the wreckage lay the overthrown pillars of-the City Hall, shattered into short crosswise sections.

This section of the city, with the exception of the Mint and the Post Office, was already a waste of smoking ruins. Here and there through the smoke, creeping warily under the shadows of tottering walls, emerged occasional men and women. It was like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.

On Mission Street lay a dozen steers, in a neat row, stretching across the street, just as they had been struck down by the flying ruins of the earthquake. The fire had passed through afterward and roasted them. The human dead had been carried away before the fire came. At another place on Mission Street I saw a milk wagon. A steel telegraph-pole had smashed down sheer through the driver’s seat and crushed the front wheels. The milk cans lay scattered around.

All day Thursday and all Thursday night, all day Friday and Friday night, the flames still raged.

Friday night saw the flames finally conquered, though not until Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill had been swept and three-quarters of a mile of wharves and docks had been licked up.

The great stand of the fire-fighters was made Thursday night on Van Ness Avenue. Had they failed here, the comparatively few remaining houses of the city would have been swept. Here were the magnificent residences of the second generation of San Francisco nabobs, and these, in a solid zone, were dynamited down across the path of the fire. Here and there the flames leaped the zone, but these fires were beaten out, principally by the use of wet blankets and mgs.

San Francisco lay like the crater of a volcano, around which were camped tens of thousands of refugees. All the surrounding cities and towns were jammed with the homeless ones, where they were cared for by the relief committees. The refugees were carried free by the railroads to any point they wished to go, and it is estimated that over one hundred thousand people left the peninsula on which San Francisco stood. The Government took the situation in hand, and, thanks to the immediate relief given by the whole United States, there was no famine. The bankers and business men immediately set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco.


Rome, saith the adage, was not built in a day. Nor was it built in ten years nor in a hundred. Cities are not created out of hand. They are subjected to processes of evolution and gradual growth dependent upon many factors, such as population, commerce, and situation. From tent to hut, from hut to house, from hamlet to village, from village to town, from town to city, from city to metropolis, so are the great settlements and centers of civilization evolved by stages slow and successive. But it is not thus with the building of the city that vanished so swiftly little more than a year ago; it is not thus with San Francisco. Almost as suddenly as the old city disappeared, the new one is springing into existence. On the shores of the Pacific, before the black, desolate squares of land had cooled, a myriad men with hopeful hearts and strong hands had said: "Let us build a new city, a city stronger and more beautiful than the old." They said this as other men might have said: "Let us build a house."

Never before in the history of mankind has a spectacle such as this been unfolded to the gaze of the nations. There is something so magnificent about this grand ambition, something so epic and picturesque in this vast enterprise, that the facts and fables of history pale and diminish into insignificance. Thebes springing into the air to Amphion’s fluting, the rugged pyramids arduously piled up by Cheops’ slaves, the airy terraces and gardens of Babylon the Magnificent, or the Great wall of China appear less marvelous than this eighth wonder of the world-the recreation of the city by the Golden Gate. The mighty effort of this resolute people of the West, undaunted by a catastrophe that has no parallel among recorded disasters, is full of the romance that will stir the imagination of posterity to a poetic idealization, but passes strangely unnoticed before the unregarding eyes of the world of today. The building of a great and modern city in one year or three or seven is a task that should shed the praise of poetry and history upon the spirits that now labor to recreate more than has been lost. Thus is San Francisco, always a city of romantic memories, now glorified by a greater romance and a more impressive epic dignity than has enshrined the cities of sad visitations since Troy fell or Pompeii was overwhelmed. In the mighty cincture of cities that surrounds the world, the face of San Francisco is now, as it were, like a blackened pearl that is quickly regaining its original whiteness.

To him who passes idly by and gazes upon the turmoil and disorder of the Californian metropolis, upon its dust and grime, little of this romance, of this poetry, may be apparent. The roaring present rises around him, shatters the vision, and obtrudes all that is ugly and ruinous and commonplace, all that makes the inevitable stage of transition from the past to the future so painful and prosaic to eye and ear.

It is a stimulating thing to behold the Third San Francisco rising from its ruins, to see the new edifices leap into the air, and new streets sprout and bloom upon the inky wastes made so desolate by the victorious fires of April 18, 1906. In this Period of the Reconstruction, in this Romance of her Renaissance, the city presents phases, pictures, and contrasts never before witnessed in any land. For the third time in her brief existence the young metropolis of the West has triumphed over her pyres. The variegated, intense life, the energy and activity in labor displayed by the new-born city, are amazing. Both the remote past and the immediate future of the place are represented-the mining-camp and the modern metropolis. The years of the new century seem to have turned backward for five decades and reestablished many of the rude conditions of the almost legendary "days of forty-nine."

Iron works and foundries roar and ring incessantly; the railways pour in their tons of freight from all parts of the world, and the vast harbor is white with sails and alive with steamers. The quickening air of the West that has always been charged with a boundless energy is now more than electrified with a thrilling sense of rush and restlessness. Down the confused and encumbered streets the erring and bewildered winds from the Pacific sweep clouds of dust and ashes into the faces of the citizens. But the citizens themselves are in a whirl of work and tireless activity. Everybody seems to be supremely happy under the dominance of one great idea, the fulfilment of one grand purpose-the rebuilding of the city. The race and the chase for wealth is plainly apparent, as well as the feverish efforts toward the quick rehabilitation of shattered fortunes. For all that, cheerfulness, good will, generosity, and kindliness prevail in this gladdest and maddest of American cities. The catastrophe has converted the people to a sort of altruism, both practicable and practised.

The stony pales of exclusive society have been broken down by a common suffering and a common sympathy. As a matter of course, one helps others or is helped oneself. Money has rained upon the city from the insurance companies and from private sources, and the banks are flooded with funds far exceeding their former figures. Impatient millions of gold are waiting until the ground is cleared for building. The days of El Dorado and the great bonanzas have come once more, but in another guise.

In conjunction with the gigantic task of rebuilding the city must be considered the appalling labor involved in first clearing the ground whereon the thousands of new edifices are to be planted. Shaken into tremendous heaps of conglomerate rubbish by the earthquake, melted and disintegrated by the fire, flung broadcast by the blasts of dynamite, or shattered into ragged masses by the great siege guns used during the conflagration, the ruins and wreckage of the dead city confronted the citizens with a problem to which the digging of the Panama Canal was simplicity itself. The immense tangle of iron pipes, wires, drain-pipes, steel girders and columns, roof-trusses and tie-rods held the square miles of debris together with a disheartening tenacity. This mighty network of iron, buried and embedded in the demolished structures, melted and fused into inextricable tangles, still forms a formidable obstacle to the clearing of the ground. It fetters building to building and anchors them to the granite footings or wide foundations or the basalt-paved streets. When one considers that the destroyed area of San Francisco was six times as great as that of the monumental fire of Chicago, the gravity of this problem may in some measure be appreciated.

Thousands of cars of debris are hauled away by great locomotives running on tracks that have been laid into the various centers of the burned district. The millions of tons of wreckage are cast into the bay, and serve a useful purpose in extending the land in certain sections of the peninsula. Were the debris heaped in one pile that pile would make a mountain overtopping Ben Nevis. What work, what riches, what hopes and achievements that sad and forlorn mountain would represent! The San Franciscans display a fantastic pride in the stupendousness of the disaster which overtook their city, and seem to find a certain strange, heroic satisfaction in the idea that their ruins are the biggest, finest, and blackest ruins that ever were.

Out of the clouds of flying lime-dust and ashes that shroud the black, jagged crests of the broken walls emerge the long arms of monster derricks that tear apart with toothed iron scoops the tangle of the wreckage, lifting tons of brick and mortar, and dropping them thunderously into the waiting trains. The whistling and snorting of hoisting engines are heard everywhere, and it is thrilling to observe the destruction of many of the lofty, craglike walls and isolated piers and towers left standing after the cataclysm and the fire. The crash and thud of the dead walls as they are torn down or blown asunder by dynamite are as stirring to the pulse and the imagination as the bombardment or the mining of a city besieged. The razing of many of the ruins is accomplished by means of steel cables attached to or wound about them. The cable is drawn taut by a derrick engine, and thus, whole or piecemeal, the walls are torn down. A tower nine stories high, forming the corner of what had been a great office- building, was sawn through with steel cables and successive jerks from a powerful engine-a difficult and dangerous undertaking which after many failures resulted in the tower collapsing within itself much after the manner of the campanile of St. Mark’s at Venice. In the onslaught on the ruins numberless feats of heroism are performed every day. Chinese and Japanese toil side by side with the whites of all nations; Sikhs from India with colored turbans are seen sturdily wielding pickax and shovel. Brown Kanakas and Porto Ricans move swiftly about the base of the swaying, crazy walls, regardless of all danger. The silhouettes of men meet the eye clear-cut against the heavens as they walk along the crumbling tops of high and unsupported walls a foot in width and seamed with widening cracks. Others, covered with dust and rust from head to foot, crawl through molds and jungles of tangled, twisted iron, and make fast the steel ropes. Many are working deep down in the basement of some eight-storied ruin, digging away in the darkness like moles, the while the treacherous walls tremble above them. Often they collapse, and then Death adds to the harvest the earthquake brought him. If, as the ancients thought, no temple and no city for which blood sacrifice had not been made could stand, then must the San Francisco of the future be insured the long- enduring favor of the two elements that wrought their terrible wrath upon her a year ago.

The tall buildings of "fireproof construction" (a term that will require considerable limitation in the future) were completely gutted of their interiors by the conflagration. The exteriors, in most instances, were not much damaged. All these buildings are now being restored, and are hidden in cages of scaffolding. The pile-drivers along the water-front are setting thousands of piles, and the incessant thudding of the great hammers makes a dominant note in the song the renascent city is chanting to the skies. The electric trams, crowded to the bursting-point, race recklessly along the uptorn streets, and add to the mad confusion of the traffic and often to the death-roll of the inhabitants.

over a billion dollars are to be apportioned among the various improvements that are designed to rehabilitate the city. In the first six months after the fire over $75,000,000 were spent, despite the crippled and disturbed condition of the channels of trade and industry. This amount included the structured definitely contracted for, those on which work had been commenced, and those that were completed within that time, as well as the refitting of the great steel-frame buildings that had survived the flames. Six thousand temporary business buildings arose, row on row, and eight thousand cheap cottages provided pleasant and cheerful homes for a part of the tent-inhabiting refugees.

The disaster has had the effect of accelerating all manner of improvements along the lines and termini of the three great railway companies. These have all been forced to treble their carrying capacity. The extensive improvements which they had been prosecuting in a rather leisurely manner are now being rushed to completion in one-half the time. The Western Pacific, a new transcontinental line that is hurrying its tracks toward this promised land, has issued a call for ten thousand additional men.

Imports and, strangely enough, exports too have increased to an extent that shatters all the records of previous years. Almost double the number of vessels are serving the port as at the corresponding date of the year before. So flow the tides of world commerce into the open portals of the Golden Gate, the Pillars of Hercules in the Western world, and the greatest trade outlet of the Father of Oceans.

Never before has trade been so active and extensive as at present in San Francisco. All businesses flourish. When knowledge of the great want of the city went forth into the world, it quickened the currents of commerce in all quarters of the globe. The needy city was overwhelmed with the products of every land. Steel works in Pennsylvania and the Midlands felt the stir, and cement factories in Germany; the lumber mills in the great Northwest ran night and day, and a thousand vessels of sail and steam turned their prows toward the Golden Gate. The railways of the Union sent train after train to the west, all laden with the necessaries, the comforts and the luxuries of life. The inexhaustible resources of all the counties of the State were poured upon the city. Therefore, today in San Francisco all things are of the latest, the newest, and the best. Merchants and shopkeepers can not keep their stocks from ebbing entirely away until the next shipment arrives. A craving for lost luxuries seems to possess the people who demand not what is cheap but what is good. They who, a short time ago, were forced to obtain their daily food and drink from the municipal bread-and-milk line are to-day demanding the rarest delicacies from Paris or Strasburg. The costliest productions of the dressmakers of London, Paris, or Vienna are bought up instantly, and jewelry, articles of art and decoration, furniture and carpets are in undiminished demand.

The most serious inconvenience is experienced by those people who through the great scarcity of dwelling-houses are forced to live in tents and temporary shelters. Very high rents are demanded by the landlords, the rates in many cases being more than treble the former figures. The larger retail and wholesale businesses were the first to reestablish themselves after the fire, and the builders began the housing of these firms before they paid any attention to private homes. The population of the city in February, 1907, was computed at 428,000, being but 72,000 less than before the fire. Of these, 100,000 still lived in basements and 50,000 in tents and wooden shanties. For a long time parts of San Francisco resembled a military encampment with the rows of white tents relieved against the charred ruins of the greenery of the parks. Many persons still live in the Tent City of Golden Gate Park, leading a free, open-air existence that has brought health and strength to nerves and bodies weakened by the ordeal of the earthquake.

The new life springs up everywhere, the old reminders of death slowly pass away. The heavens overhead are bright with hope and joy, the same heavens that were once filled with the sable smoke and the lurid splendors of the mighty conflagration. The incomparable bay basks in the sunlight, and the Pacific shimmers like a plain of green and silver. The trade-winds from the ocean blow briskly, full of the vigor of the sea, and toss the countless flags and banners that are hoisted over every shop and store as though the city were decorated for a festival.


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Chicago: Jack London and Herman Scheffauer, "San Francisco’s Fall and Recovery," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 20 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2023,

MLA: London, Jack, and Herman Scheffauer. "San Francisco’s Fall and Recovery." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 20, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: London, J, Scheffauer, H, 'San Francisco’s Fall and Recovery' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 20. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2023, from