Photo of the ruins of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake

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The ruins of San Francisco, still smoldering after the 1906 earthquake, taken from the tower of the Union Ferry Building. Market Street between Sacramento and Third Streets
The smoky ruins of San Francisco, still hot with smoldering rubble, 1906.
Credit: National Archives // Public Domain

This picture shows the city of San Francisco in smoldering ruins, following the devastating earthquake which occurred on the 18th of April, 1906. While the earthquake itself only lasted for under a minute, its effects were drastic – a nearly unstoppable series of fires was started which lasted for almost three days. The damage from the earthquake itself was only directly responsible for around two percent of the total damage; the remaining 98% can be attributed to the fires

This picture, facing southwest down Market Street, was taken from the top of the Union Ferry Building – a notable landmark that still stands today on the coast of the San Francisco Bay. The building’s particularly strong architectural design, inspired by European architecture, was able to withstand the earthquake and allow this photo to be taken from the top afterward. The rubble of the city, still smoldering from the fires, can be seen fading off into the smoke in the distance.

Not all of the fires during this time were as a result of the earthquake – many were actually caused accidentally by inexperienced firefighters. When the fires developed to a point that they were completely out of control, it was decided that parts of the city would be destroyed by dynamite, in order to create open spaces called “fire breaks” which would prevent the fire from spreading across them. The problem was that San Francisco’s firefighters were entirely inexperienced with the proper usage of dynamite, and ended up causing more fires instead. As burning walls of flame continued to advance throughout the city, the firefighters were constantly working at the brink, trying (and failing) to create effective fire breaks.

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