In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, the earth shuddered beneath San Francisco. The 7.7 to 7.9 magnitude earthquake remains one of the worst urban disasters in U.S. history. Around 4,000 people died as a direct result of the earthquake and resulting fire that burned the city for the following three days. However, the important story about the earthquake does not reside in the quake or fire, but in the human response to the disaster. It is a story about the suspension of civil liberties, wealthy elites illegally usurping government power, racial and class tensions, the struggle between local and federal authority and environmental damage. Some individuals benefited tremendously in the aftermath of the disaster while others did not. Though the 1906 earthquake only lasted for approximately sixty seconds, its impact far outlasted its length.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the former mayor of San Francisco, James Phelan, used his influence to rally the business elite behind him. Phelan quickly organized the Committee of Fifty and under his leadership, the committee took over all governing responsibilities in the city. The military, under Brigadier General Funston, had unofficially instituted martial law. The Committee, keen on maintaining order and minimizing property damage, upheld the suspension of civil liberties and gave soldiers standing orders to shoot suspected looters; though Phelan and others would later deny this. The fire that eventually burned the city to the ground could not be stopped because the water system had been built with no regard to potential earthquakes. The city had been riddled with smaller quakes for decades but city leaders had not prepared for such a contingency.
The earthquake affected its residents unequally and the Committee’s efforts only exacerbated this. Phelan convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to hand over all federal, state, and private relief aid to the Committee. The committee used relief money to quickly rebuild businesses, which they equated with the health of the population as a whole. The Committee did set up permanent refugee camps in the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, but under the condition that the homeless labor to rebuild the city. The fire hurt the poor and racial minorities the most. Most lived in the same buildings they worked in, while the upper classes lived separately from their places of business. The Committee’s decision to dynamite buildings, creating fire lines to stop the blaze was disastrous, fueling rather than stopping the fire. The standing order to shoot looters was also applied unevenly. While many respectable residents were only warned, less affluent people were shot.
Phelan nurtured his reputation as the Progressive crusader who rebuilt San Francisco, riding it to a future Senate seat. Claiming to cleanse the city, he and other Progressives seized power and destroyed their political opponents. Abraham Ruef, his primary political rival and other leaders were summarily arrested for graft. Ruef served four and a half years of a 14-year sentence. The earthquake and its aftermath along with Ruef’s Jewish background gave Phelan and the Progressives all the political ammunition they needed.
Perhaps Chinese residents were impacted; both negatively and positively, more than any other group. The fire consumed Chinatown more quickly than it would have when city leaders dynamited its buildings to protect the wealthy Nob Hill neighborhood. Again only fueling the fire. After the fire had died, thousands of looters descended on Chinatown stripping it of anything of value. Men, women, and even the soldiers ordered to protect against looting scoured the neighborhood looking for china and other valuables.
Despite this, the Chinese were also able to benefit from the disaster. By the 1880s, white hostility towards the Chinese became so great on the west coast that Congress passed the 1882, 1892, and 1902 Chinese Exclusion Acts, barring the entry of Chinese laborers to the United States. Fortuitously for the Chinese, the fire destroyed all immigration records in the city. This enabled Chinese to claim citizenship, a practice seldom used before 1906. By claiming citizenship, Chinese men were able to bring family members, particularly children, from China to the United States. These claimed children became known as “paper sons,” and was the primary method of Chinese immigration until 1965. The Chinese also scored another victory when city leaders, who had long hoped to remove Chinatown from its valuable downtown location, reconsidered after the Chinese consulate and the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (the organization representing Chinese in America) suggested their businesses and their considerable tax revenue could easily find another home.
The earthquake and fire had other impacts as well. Environmentally, west coast forests including local redwood forests were depleted and thousands of draft horses were literally worked to death to rebuild the city. Fears over the newest immigrant flow from Asia via Hawaii, the Japanese, sparked mob violence and motivated San Franciscans to create segregated schools. This set off international tensions with Japan, a rising international power that had defeated Russia in 1905. Eager to relax tensions, Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” to San Francisco and negotiated an agreement that restricted Japanese immigration. Of all the city leadership’s failures, the most glaring was the hasty rebuilding of the city. There was no regard to zoning regulations or earthquake safe construction. The rebuilt water system, still in use, draws its source from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, crossing not one, but two seismic faults. San Francisco may have risen from the ashes in a few short years, but it was still as vulnerable as it had been on that fateful April day in 1906.