Regional History from the National Archives

The citizens of San Francisco were rudely awakened on that historic Wednesday. The loud rumbling that broke the predawn silence lasted only about a minute. Yet the force of the earthquake toppled buildings and caused water and gas mains to twist and break. Almost immediately after the shockwaves ceased, fires erupted across the city and burned uncontrollably for three days. Over 500 city blocks lay in ruins.

Minute Book, U.S. District Court, San Francisco, April 18, 1906.

In a note in the court minute book, the clerk of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco explains why court is not in session. Although the quake lasted only a minute, life in the city was totally disrupted.

Record Group 21

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Testimony of Herman Schussler, Chief Engineer, Spring Valley Water Works, Whittier-Coburn Co. v. Alliance Co. Ltd. of London, U.S. District Court, San Francisco, Case 14193, 1908.

The geological changes to the landscape were dramatic. They were described by engineer Herman Schussler as part of his testimony in court: “the east mountains came four and a half feet closer to the west mountains than they were before.”

Record Group 21

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Testimony from Harry Loy, bartender, Whittier-Coburn Co. v. Alliance Co. Ltd. of London, U.S. District Court, San Francisco, Case 14193, 1908.

Selfless acts of bravery occurred during and after the earthquake. Bartender Harry Loy stopped to aid a handicapped gentleman by getting him into a buggy and seeing him home safely.

Record Group 21

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Letter from Professor Samuel Fortier, Irrigation Engineer, to his colleague, Dr. Elwood Mead, Washington, D.C., May 1, 1906.

“There is practically nothing left between the Ferry Building and Van Ness Avenue” observed Fortier. The devastation caused by the earthquake and fires was worsened by the disastrous decision to use dynamite as a means of fire control.

Record Group 8

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The documents selected for this exhibit are primary sources that historians and other researchers study when they write about historical events. They are a selection from the files created or received by Federal agencies in or near San Francisco at the time of the disaster. They contain eyewitness testimony of the damage of the earthquake, the ensuing fires, and the desolation that was left in their wake.

The exhibited documents and other records concerning the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire are available for research at the
National Archives-Pacific Region (San Francisco) 1000 Commodore Drive
San Bruno, California 94066
Tel: 650-238-3500
Directions: By Car or Public Transport
Hours: Mon. thru Fri., 7:30 am to 4:00 pm

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