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A Disaster Revealed: Rarely Seen Shots From the Great 1906 'Quake

Thursday, April 16, 2015

This Saturday marks the 109-year anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire. For this anniversary, the SFMTA Photo Archive will be rolling out two collections of photographs that document the devastation and later reconstruction of our city. The photos we're unveiling make up one of the largest sets of images taken of the disaster by a single photographer. These images, which until now have gone virtually unseen, provide a rare look into the sheer magnitude of the disaster on that fateful morning.
 

City Hall in Ruins with Dome Still Standing After the 1906 Earthquake | May 7, 1906 | U00831
City Hall in Ruins with Dome Still Standing After the 1906 Earthquake | May 7, 1906 | U00831
 

The images you see here and in our 1906 Earthquake Gallery come from our glass plate negative collection and document the disaster in a way that few others do. Taking an in-depth look at the impact on San Francisco's transportation network, we see the 1906 earthquake and fire through the lens of a photographer who worked daily on the streets of the city. John Henry Mentz, the man behind the camera, travelled around town documenting the destruction for the transit company he worked for, the United Railroads of San Francisco, which was Muni's predecessor. Along with shot after shot of destroyed transit infrastructure and facilities, Mentz captured some landmarks and the neighborhoods and people of the city who were struggling to make it through the devastation and rebuild their lives.
 

Chimney of Washington and Mason Car House and Power House After 1906 Fire and Earthquake | May 7 1906 | U00778A
Chimney of Washington and Mason Car House and Power House After 1906 Fire and Earthquake | May 7 1906 | U00778A

Prior to now, these photos have typically been seen in small batches in exhibits or books but we're now able to roll out the full extent of the collection due to the work we've completed as part of a large digitization project. By scanning and cataloguing these (and thousands of other images), hundreds of photos that very few people have seen before have an exhibition venue through our Photo Archive website. This massive digitization project, which includes the earthquake plates, was funded in part by a grant from the Historic Preservation Fund Committee at the Mayor's Office and in part by the SFMTA.
 

Panoramic of Earthquake Destruction on Howard Street Between 18th and 19th Streets | May 9, 1906 | U00813-814
Panoramic of Earthquake Destruction on Howard Street Between 18th and 19th Streets | May 9, 1906 | U00813-814

Be sure to check out over 100 more photos like these in our 1906 Earthquake and Fire Gallery and stay tuned for next week's launch of the Reconstruction plates. As always, keep your eyes on Twitter and Instagram for more sneak peaks of these incredible images as we unveil the full set!