110 Years Ago
Except From Writer's Almanac:
The first foreshocks were felt at 5:12 in the morning, and the main quake struck four minutes later. It was caused by a rupture of 300 miles of the San Andreas Fault, and it lasted for about a minute. It was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles, and as far east as Nevada; even though it's known as the "San Francisco earthquake" because of the damage it caused there, that was by no means the only place where strong shocks were felt. As devastating as the quake was, the fires were worse. The rupture of gas lines caused the first of them. The water mains also ruptured, so there was no water to fight the fires. In desperation, fire fighters blew up buildings with gunpowder in the hope that they would serve as firebreaks. Unfortunately, it didn't work, and the gunpowder they used just added to the inferno.
Members of the American armed forces were first on the scene; many didn't even wait for government orders. They guarded buildings, discouraged looting, distributed supplies, and pulled people out of the burning wreckage. Despite their best efforts, at least 3,000 people died, and more than half of San Francisco's 400,000 residents were left homeless. Survivors dragged trunks full of their worldly belongings up the steep hills of the city and camped out at the Presidio. Officials hurried to rebuild in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which the city was to host in 1915. They created an elegant new city, but in their haste, built some buildings that were less sound than the ones that had been destroyed by the quake.
Opera superstar Enrico Caruso was in San Francisco the morning of the quake; he had performed Carmen at the Mission Opera House the night before. A couple of months later, he published his eyewitness account: "But what an awakening! You must know that I am not a very heavy sleeper - I always wake early, and when I feel restless I get up and go for a walk. So on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o'clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming that I am crossing the water on my way to my beautiful country. And so I take no notice for the moment, and then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children."
Novelist and journalist Jack London was also in San Francisco when the quake struck. He wrote an essay about the disaster: "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. [...] 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."