Friday, April 8, 2016

San Francisco In Ruins: Photographs of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

“The historians of modern or ancient times have never recorded such a maelstrom of terrified, horror and panic-stricken human beings as awoke to the realization of the master seismic tremblor, in the City of San Francisco at 5:13 on the morning of April 18th, 1906. The initial quake, being followed by many of less severity, tumbled chimneys, large and small buildings of poor or faulty construction, broke water mains and ruptured electric light and power conductors, causing many conflagrations in a few moments. Then followed a catastrophe unparalleled in modern times, a disaster beside which, for property losses, the Chicago fire the Johnstown flood, the Galveston tidal wave, the Mont Pelee eruption, Vesuvius’ spouting and the Baltimore fire, fade into infinitesimal disturbances on the records of Father Time.”

This is how author A.M. Allison described the devastating earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco and the surrounding area in the introduction to San Francisco In Ruins: A Pictorial History of Eight Score Photo-Views of the Earthquake Effects, Flames’ Havoc, Ruins Everywhere, Relief Camps. I recently came across this book while reorganizing the Alice’s book collection, and since we are less than two weeks away from the 110th anniversary of the earthquake, it seemed like a good time to take a closer look at it, along with some related items in the museum archives.

“Citizens Rendezvousing on the Vacant Places
When the Fire Was Raging in the 

Mission District,” J. D. Givens
The photographs in San Francisco in Ruins are the work of James D. Givens (1863-1939). Givens moved to San Francisco in 1899 and established his home and studio at the Presidio, a U.S. Army base on the peninsula. He became the post photographer and recorded the personnel and daily activities of the post. He also went to the Philippines in 1900 to document the Philippine-American War and to Mexico with General John J. Pershing during his pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1915. Givens was just one of many photographers, professional and amateur, who produced images during and after the disaster. The San Francisco earthquake is probably the first natural disaster to be thoroughly photographed, as it occurred at a time when inexpensive, portable cameras had become available to a large portion of the population, who used photography to document their experiences, create insurance records, and produce souvenirs for sale.

As we saw in a previous post, William Miner took up photography as a hobby in the late 1880s, and brought his camera along on his frequent business travels. William frequently traveled to California, first as an employee of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company and its subsidiary the California Fruit Transportation Company, and later representing his own company. He visited San Francisco in 1906, at a time when the destruction caused by the earthquake and fire was still very much in evidence, and recorded what he saw in a set of photos now in the Alice’s archives. Here are some of his photographs.

In the distance is the Fairmont Hotel, which was still under construction
at the time of the earthquake
Grace Church, California Street
In the background are the Call newspaper building and the Mutual Bank building.
Another view of the same street.

It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 people died in the earthquake and subsequent fire, and about three-quarters of the city was damaged. Two years later, people were still living in refugee camps. However, political and business leaders downplayed the effects of the earthquake, fearing loss of outside investment which was desperately needed to rebuild. Reconstruction plans were quickly developed, and less than ten years later, the city hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. (This world’s fair is also important because it started a fashion for Spanish colonial architecture, which likely influenced the design of Chazy Central Rural School.) But the thousands of photographs in archives, libraries, and personal collections today remain as documents of the events of April 1906.

You can look at a copy of San Francisco in Ruins at the Internet Archive—or come see Alice’s copy when we reopen next month.

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