1906: Hundreds Dead!


The nameless editors and reporters of the April 18, 1906 edition of the San Francisco Daily News left us with a timeless piece of history.

Their written account of the hours following the famously massive earthquake captures all of the sheer chaos and ruin that brought a city together.

Was it accurate? Somewhat. Heroic. Absolutely. Compelling? You judge.

One big boo-boo was the headline, “Hundreds Dead!” The tireless work of longtime city librarian Gladys Hansen years later tallied at least 3,000 fatalities in the disaster, though even that number could omit thousands of immigrants and other undocumented deaths.

Ironically, the San Francisco Chronicle made completely the opposite mistake with almost the identical headline in its edition following 1989’s 7.1 earthquake. Their banner screamed “Hundreds dead in huge quake,” though final counts showed only 63 perished.

From the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco:

“The San Francisco Daily News was the only newspaper to publish on April 18. Clearly, from writing and editing to manual typesetting, it was a rushed and hurried job, and there were substantive factual errors.”


The following article originally appeared in the April 18, 1906 evening edition of the San Francisco Daily News.


Hundreds Dead!

Fire Follows Earthquake, Laying Downtown Section in Ruins — City Seems Doomed For Lack of Water

San Francisco was practically demolished and totally paralyzed by the earthquake, which commenced at 5:11 a.m. today and continued with terrific vigor for four minutes.

Great loss of life was caused by the collapse of buildings; and many people met a more cruel death by fire. Flames broke out in all parts of the city.

The monetary loss caused by the earthquake, the fires which followed it and the depreciation in value that will result will amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The progress of San Francisco has received a check from which it will probably take many years to recover.

Thousands of men who went to bed wealthy last night awoke this morning practically bankrupt.

The fury of the temblor was greater than any that has been known in the history of the city.

The people are appalled, terror-stricken. Thousands, fearful of a recurrence of the dreadful disaster, with results still more dire, are hastening out of San Francisco.

Many heart-rending scenes of been enacted. Families are moving their belongings helter-skelter, and moving aimlessly about, keeping in the open.

The City Hall is a complete wreck. The walls surrounding the grand dome have fallen, leaving only the skeleton frame work and the top of the dome intact. Around the sides of the building the walls have crumbled, like so many cards. The Receiving Hospital was buried.

The surgeons moved to Mechanics’ Pavilion, which today is a combined hospital and morgue. Dead and dying are brought in by autos, ambulances and even garbage carts.

Insane patients were taken from the Emergency Hospital to Mechanics’ Pavilion. Many of them were hurt. Some broke loose and ran among the dying, adding horror to the scene.

At 8:15 a second sharp quake occurred, accentuating the terror.

The fire scenes following the earthquake, was and are fearful to behold. Had the earthquake occured an hour later, the entire city would have burst into flames.

At least forty buildings were aflame within ten minutes after the temblor passed. Among the first to go were the big buildings on Market, Battery, Sansome, First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth streets, followed by a general conflagration on Seventh and Eighth streets, while in the Western Addition many fires were started.

By 8 o’clock it seemed that a large part of the city was doomed. The Fire Department was unable to get anything like an adequate supply of water, and the raging flames had their way.

All of the city hospitals threw open their doors, and within a short time their wards and halls rang with the agonizing cries of scores of crushed and burned victims of the awful catastrophe.

An early report is to the effect that in the collapse of the huge plant of the San Francisco Gas and Electric Co. on Bay street nearly fifty workmen were crushed to death. Only two men were seen to leave the great brick structure.

One of the most complete wrecks in the city is St. Dominic’s Church, on Steiner street. The huge pile went down in a crush of ruins, being totally demolished. The framework of the two domes stands. One of the domes fell upon the house occupied by the priests, but none, it is said, was killed.

At the Protestant Orphan Asylum on Haight street, fearful damage was done; three little children are reported killed, while many others were badly injured.

At Eighteenth and Valencia streets an entire block sunk. The Valencia Hotel slid into the middle of the street, and it is thought fully a dozen persons are entombed, dead, dying and injured, in the pile of ruins. Across the street from that point a row of flats collapsed.

Market st. from Battery to the Ferry building, has sunk several feet. The earth there is “filled” on what was in other days a portion of the bed of San Francisco Bay.

A building collapsed at Steiner and Haight sts. No report of loss of life.

Along Market st. from 5th toward Castro, the sidewalks are literally strewn with wreckage. In many places the sidewalks have collapsed, falling into the basements.

This is true on Market between 5th and 6th, between 6th and 7th, and between 7th and City Hall Square, on the west side.

There are probably not fifty chimneys standing in the city. This means that many more fires are to be expected, as flues are cracked everywhere.

A small portion of the front of West Side Christian Church was shaken out.

St. Ignatius’ Church was badly shaken but is intact. Great damage resulted at St. Ignatius college, a portion of the building being destroyed.

A building was burned at the end of California street, in the Richmond.

Concordia Club, Van Ness Ave., badly dismantled.

At the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Fifth and Mission sts., fire is believed to have killed a number of people. The building was totally destroyed.

St. Winifred’s hospital, Sutter near Larkin, was injured, but is intact.

*                  *                  *

From the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco:

“The Daily News’ plant, downtown, lost power and water in the earthquake, and moved to J.V. Rooney’s small printing shop at 1308 Mission Street, where this edition was turned out on a hand-cranked press capable of printing single sheets. New editions were printed until the shop was ordered evacuated because it was to be dynamited.”

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.

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