What America Looked Like: The San Francisco Earthquake

Images from the most destructive earthquake in American history

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Wikimedia Commons

In less than 60 seconds, San Francisco was ruined. 

At 5:13 a.m., April 18, 1906, the San Andreas fault line ruptured, radiating seismic waves of destruction that are now believed to have measured 7.7 on earthquake scales. But the destruction didn't end there -- the quake spawned multiple fires that burned for days, cementing the event as one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history. It is estimated that 3,000 people died and there were $500 million (in 1906 dollars) in damage.

Chaos and looting ensued, as the San Francisco Police summarized in a 1910 report:

As the shock shattered the principal water mains, the fire department was practically helpless and as a result, the fires which were started by the overturning of stoves, crossing of electric wires, the liberation of chemicals by breakage of containers, etc., rapidly spread until a territory of 4.7 square miles in the heart of the city was burned...

Reports reached headquarters that thieves were burglarizing wrecked stores and deserted homes, and it was also learned that in the Mission district the body of a woman was found, the finger upon which she wore several valuable rings having been amputated, evidently by some thief.

The next report was to the effect that rowdies were breaking into saloons and helping themselves to liquor...Shortly after the troops began patrolling the streets the first looter was caught while he was making an attempt to burglarize Shreve's jewelry store at Post and Grant avenue. He was turned over to a soldier who killed him and left his body to be consumed by the fire.

In reaction to the anarchy, the mayor issued a severe "shoot to kill" order. As a newspaper bulletin reads, "The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons founds engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime."

Below, collected from the National Archives, are images of the aftermath.

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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