[TIMELINE] 1906 Earthquake's Effects on Chinatown
- Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906: Its Effects on Chinatown
What was the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906?
The California earthquake of April 18, 1906 ranks as one of the most
significant earthquakes of all time. Deaths: > 3,000 Injuries:
~225,000 Property Damage: $ 400,000,000 in 1906
At almost precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, a foreshock occurred with
sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay
area. The great earthquake broke loose some 20 to 25 seconds later,
with an epicenter near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated the
strong shaking, which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake
then spawned a fire that burned for four days.
What were some of the major events of the earthquake and fire?
April 18, 1906
San Francisco was wrecked by a Great Earthquake at 5:13 a.m., and
then destroyed by the seventh Great Fire that burned for four days.
South-of-Market tenements collapsed as the ground liquefied beneath
them. Most of those buildings immediately caught fire, and trapped
victims could not be rescued.
U.S. Post Office at Seventh and Mission Streets was damaged by the
earthquake. All telephone and telegraph communications stopped
within the city. A major aftershock struck at 8:14 a.m., and caused
the collapse of many damaged buildings. Another fire broke on the
southwest corner of Hayes and Gough.
It would become known as the "Ham and Egg" fire, and would destroy
part of the Western Addition, the Mechanics' Pavilion, City Hall and
then jump Market Street at Ninth. At nine o'clock, under a special
message from President Roosevelt, the city was placed under martial
Two earthquakes hit Los Angeles just before noon, about ten minutes
apart. Hearst Building at Third and Market streets caught fire at
noon. Entire area in the Financial District, behind the Hall of
Justice, was on fire by 1 p.m. Postal Telegraph operators
transmitted their last message to the outside world as army troops
ordered them from the building at Market and Second Streets at 2:20
p.m. because of the approaching fire. Dynamiting of buildings around
the U.S. Mint at Fifth and Mission streets began at 2:30 p.m. Fire
swept up Nob Hill at 9pm.
Mayor Schmitz appointed the Committee of Fifty at 3 p.m. at the Hall
of Justice, and gives "shoot to kill" order: "Let it be understood
that the order has been given to all soldiers and policemen to
[shoot down] without hesitation in the cases of any and all
miscreants who may seek to take advantage of the city's awful
April 19, 1906
Governor Pardee arrived in Oakland at 2 a.m. St. Francis Hotel at
Union Square caught fire at 2:30 a.m. Secretary of War Taft at 4
a.m. ordered 200,000 rations and hospital, wall and conical tents
sent to San Francisco from San Antonio, Monterey and
Vancouver. "Call," "Chronicle" and "Examiner" printed a combined
newspaper today on the presses of the "Oakland Herald."
The Great Fire reached Van Ness Avenue during the evening. The army
dynamited mansions along the street in an attempt to build a fire
April 20, 1906
The fire burned as far as Franklin St. by 5 a.m., then attempted to
circle south. Gen. Funston wired War Department at 8:30 p.m. on
status of the fire. His telegram said most casualties are in the
poorer districts, South of Market St.
April 21, 1906
The fire that swept the Mission District was stopped at 20th and
Dolores Streets by three- thousand volunteers and a few firemen.
April 22, 1906
Father Ricard at the University of Santa Clara wrote to the San Jose
Mercury: "The earthquake period is gone. People should fearlessly go
to work and repair mischief done and sleep quietly at night anywhere
April 23, 1906
Imperial decree on the 30th Day of the Third Moon from Empress
Dowager of China to send 100,000 taels as a personal contribution to
the relief of the San Francisco sufferers.
President Theodore Roosevelt declined the offer, as well as
donations from other foreign governments.
How did the earthquake affect Chinatown and the Chinese American
residents of San Francisco?
On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, Chinatown suffered damage from the
initial shock of the earthquake. However, the actual destruction of
Chinatown resulted later from the raging fires that spread rampant
throughout the city. Many Chinese, like others all over the city,
scrambled to gather belongings and flee the danger of the
encroaching flames. Chinese refugees quickly flooded relief camps in
San Francisco and Oakland.
What were other effects of the earthquake and fire on the Chinese
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in effect. Although all
Asians were affected, 97 percent of the immigrants processed through
Angel Island were Chinese. After the earthquake and fire of 1906
destroyed records that verified citizenship, many Chinese residents
of California were able to claim citizenship for themselves and
dozens of "paper children."
How did the city of San Francisco respond to the needs of the city's
Chinese American population after the 1906 earthquake and fire?
As the Chinese exited Chinatown, city officials sought to prevent
them from returning. In a poorly planned evacuation, Chinese
refugees were shuttled to various relief camps all over the city.
A temporary camp on Van Ness prompted relocation to the Presidio
because city officials argued that the site would prove difficult to
dismantle once the Chinese settled again in a location so close to
the original Chinatown. The Chinese presence at the Presidio Golf
Links greatly displeased neighbors "where the summer zephyrs would
blow the odors of Chinatown into their front doors." The Chinese
refugees were transferred, again, the next day to a more remote
location on the Presidio near Fort Point.
The earthquake and fire afforded a convenient excuse by city
officials to claim Chinatown for profitable commercial development.
Within six days of the Great Fire, a committee General Relief
Committee was appointed to focus on relocating the Chinese
permanently. They soon adopted a plan to move Chinatown to Hunters
The idea was not new. Industrialist John Partridge proposed
an "Oriental City" at Hunters Point before the earthquake, and it
had the support of Mayor Schmitz. Telegrams sent by the War
Department to General Funston, and the pending arrival of the
Chinese consul-general from Washington, may have also been deciding
factors in the quick establishment of a committee to "assist" the
Who were the major players in the decision to relocate Chinatown?
After the 1906 earthquake and fire, a committee comprised of
Abraham "Abe" Ruef; James D. Phelan; Jeremiah Deneen; Dr. James W.
Ward, president of the Health Commission, and Methodist minister Dr.
Thomas Filben, chairman, was appointed to take charge of the
question of the permanent location of the Chinese quarter.
From a strictly political standpoint this was a remarkable committee
because Abe Ruef and James D. Phelan were arch-enemies. Ex-Mayor
Phelan had helped spark the graft investigation which would
ultimately led to Ruef serving time at San Quentin State Prison.
Ruef was the undisputed "boss" of California, and served as the
Southern Pacific Railway's political point man in San Francisco.
Their common ground was abiding racism and hatred for the Chinese.
The Committee on the Location of Chinatown began, with the help of
General Funston, to concentrate the few Chinese left in San
Francisco in preparation of moving them to Hunters Point. But more
politically astute members of the committee were concerned that San
Francisco, ridding itself of the Chinese, would also lose its
lucrative Oriental trade.
How did the Chinese resist relocation?
The relocation committee did not anticipate stiff resistance from
the government of China. Chow-Tszchi, first secretary of the Chinese
Legation at Washington arrived in Oakland within a few days of the
earthquake and met with Chung Pao Hsi, China's consul-general in San
Francisco. They, in turn, met with Governor Pardee in Oakland, and
told him of the Empress-Dowager's displeasure with the relocation
plan, and that the government of China would rebuild its San
Francisco consulate in the heart of old Chinatown.
"I have heard the report that the authorities intend to remove
Chinatown, but I cannot believe it," the Chinese delegation
stated. "America is a free country, and every man has a right to
occupy land which he owns provided that he makes no nuisance. The
Chinese Government owns the lot on which the Chinese Consulate of
San Francisco formerly stood, and this site on Stockton street will
be used again. It is the intention of our Government to build a new
building on the property, paying strict attention to the new
building regulations which may be framed."
Governor Pardee was asked for letters to General Greely, General
Funston and Mayor Schmitz, authorizing those officials to grant to
the properly accredited Chinese representatives the right to enter
the guarded section and care for the distressed Chinese as well as
provide for the protection of their burned places of business. The
letters were given them, and, armed with this authority, the party
returned to San Francisco.
What was the city's final decision on relocating Chinatown?
Chinatown then, as today, occupied some of the most valuable real
estate in San Francisco, with its sixteen-square-blocks set between
Nob Hill and the financial center of the West.
Stiff resistance from the government of China, and the fear of
losing trade with the Orient, ended this relocation scheme, and
rebuilding of Chinatown soon began.
SF Virtual Museum:
Chinatown relocation: http://www.sfmuseum.org/chin/relocate.html
General quake info: http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/06timeline.html
Chinese government protests: http://www.sfmuseum.org/chin/4.29.html
US Geological Survey: http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/info/1906/
Berkeley Seismological Laboratory:
SF Convention and Visitor's Bureau:
National Park Service (Presidio):