History in Motion

110 Years Since the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Monday, April 18, marks the 110-year anniversary of one of the nation's worst natural disasters - the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed most of San Francisco, leaving thousands without water, shelter or basic services.

To commemorate this anniversary, we've partnered with our photo archive counterparts at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to share some of their incredible glass plate photographs of the destruction.

Black and white photograph showing Nob Hill in San Francisco covered in burned buildings and rubble taken from near Jones and Clay Streets on May 6, 1906.
Panorama of burnt district from Clay near Jones Street at Clay reservoir. Taken May 6, 1906. Image © San Francisco Public Utilities Commission ​

Black and white photograph taken on September 6, 1907 showing men in trench repairing water pipes.  The photographer is standing at the edge of a wooden plank sidewalk and there is a man with a large mustache and bowler hat standing near the camera at frame left. The men working in the trench are at lower center frame. Beyond and above them are streetcars passing on Market Street.
Workers raising a 16-inch water main between Main and Spear streets, view west. Taken September 6, 1907. Image © San Francisco Public Utilities Commission ​


The SFPUC's earthquake photos come from the Spring Valley Water Company, a private water utility that held a monopoly on San Francisco's water supply from about 1860-1930. Preserved through the combined efforts of the SFPUC's staff photographer and archivist, these plates have been digitized and rehoused in archival enclosures to ensure that they'll survive another 110 years and beyond.


Black and white photograph showing burned and crumbled buildings after 1906 earthquake.  Taken at California and Battery streets on June 6, 1906.  In the foreground are large piles of rubble filled with broken bricks, metal and wire scraps and in the foreground are partially collapsed skeletal building walls standing with no windows or interior floors and walls.
View of destroyed buildings on Battery Street, south from California Street. Curb on right. Taken June 6, 1906. Image © San Francisco Public Utilities Commission ​

Both the SFPUC and SFMTA images were taken by photographers employed by private companies (water and transit), sent out on the streets to document property damage wrought by the disaster. The photographic records of broken pipes and buckled rails they came back with now provide a compelling glimpse into life on the streets during some of San Francisco's darkest days.

Black and white photograph taken on California and Drumm streets looking west on June 6, 1906.  In the foreground are cable car tracks and to the right a canvas tent, beyond in the middle of the street are people walking amidst huge piles of brick and stone building rubble along the street lined with completely burned and partially collapsed brick and stone buildings.
Road obstructed by rubble on California Street west from Drumm Street. Taken June 6, 1906  Image © San Francisco Public Utilities Commission ​

Thanks to the SFPUC’s photographer and archivist for generously sharing these images for this post. You can dive deeper into the 1906 earthquake and fire on the SFMTA Photo Archive website, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more photos from the past.