San Francisco Rising: Celebrating the Great Quake

The story is familiar to every school child in the San Francisco Bay Area. On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m. the city of San Francisco and the surrounding countryside were shaken by a powerful earthquake. Buildings toppled, streets buckled, and a train was thrown from its tracks. Fires quickly broke out, and the ensuing conflagration grew into a firestorm that destroyed much of the city, killed thousands of people, displaced tens of thousands more, and dramatically altered the lives of Northern Californians.

So, why celebrate a disaster?

The flag of San Francisco features the phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes anew. While the design predates the Great Fire by six years, it's fitting for a city that had numerous fires, as well as its share of earthquakes. When the Great Earthquake and Fire destroyed more than four square miles of urban area, the residents of "the City that knows how" rebuilt it. A corrupt city government was cleaned up, the ruins were quickly replaced with houses and shops and schools, and the City got back to work. In 1915, the town that had been described as "gone… nothing remains of it but memories" hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, proving to the world that San Francisco was back.

San Francisco has always been more than just a city--San Francisco is an idea. As America turned to the West to see its future, San Francisco represented the essence of this movement. In what one historian described as "the culture of anonymity," people had the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Dreamers and schemers from all over the world came to San Francisco to make it big, and this migration of enterprisers continues to this day. Gold Rush, railroad, silver boom, East-West Pacific trade, the digital highway--San Francisco continues to be a place of opportunity.

And so, 100 years after the Great Earthquake and Fire, San Franciscans will celebrate the rebirth of their beloved city, and the progress of the past century. And they invite people from around the Bay and around the world to join them.

More than 200 Bay Area organizations are organizing commemorative events, and the city’s "official" activities include The 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Exposition (April 15-17) and a memorial ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain (April 18). For a comprehensive list of quake-inspired happenings, go to Special 1906 centennial event calendars will be available after March 15 at the San Francisco Visitor Information Center (900 Market Street near the Powell Street BART station and cable car terminus) as well as other locations around the Bay Area.

Here are a few highlights of a centennial celebration that honors the spirit of a city determined to rebuild itself with courage and vision.

Through May 30, 2006
1906 Earthquake: A Disaster in Pictures
SFMOMA, 151 Third Street
Free on the first Tuesday of the month
SFMOMA mounts an exhibition of approximately 60 vintage photographs drawing from the museum's collection as well as from local public and private holdings. The exhibit includes views of the destroyed city, including spectacular panoramas by the firm Garrison and Huddleston and glass lantern slides by Arnold Genthe, as well as snapshots, albums, and photo quilts from amateur photographers.

Through June 4, 2006
After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue and Clement Street
The result of extensive fieldwork, which took photographer Mark Klett through mounds of archival photographs to the streets of present-day San Francisco, this exhibit features 75 current photographs of the city paired with their 1906 counterparts.

Through June 10, 2006
Jack London and the Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906
California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street
On the morning of April 18, 1906 author Jack London and his wife, Charmian, were shaken awake in their Glen Ellen home, 49 miles from San Francisco. By 6 a.m., they were on horseback surveying the damage at their nearby ranch which had been reduced to rubble, and over the next few days they made a journey from Fort Bragg to San Francisco. The photos they took, the words they expressed have been chronicled in this exhibit at the California Historical Society.

Through June 30, 2006
San Francisco Is In Ashes: The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906
Wells Fargo History Museum, 420 Montgomery Street
As one of San Francisco's oldest businesses, Wells Fargo delved into their rich archives to produce this exhibit of photographs, artifacts, and interactive displays.

March 24 and 31, 2006
Earthquake Mass with Chanticleer
Grace Cathedral, 1051 Taylor Street
Chanticleer, the internationally acclaimed twelve-man vocal ensemble presents Antoine Brumel's rarely performed Renaissance masterpiece, "Earthquake Mass" ("Missa Et ecce terrae mortus") at Grace Cathedral. Performances are also slated for Santa Clara and Berkeley.

April 1, 2006
Don’t Be Fooled, Be Prepared
California Academy of Sciences, 875 Howard Street
Learn why the Bay Area has earthquakes and what to do before, during, and after the next big one. In addition to scheduled programs, representatives from the following institutions will visit the museum to interact with Academy visitors: American Red Cross, U.S. Geological Service, San Francisco Fire Department, and the Office of Emergency Services. "Quake, Rattle, and Roll," a new puppet show teaching kids and their families how to be earthquake-safe, premieres today, too.

April 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29, 2006
Barbary Coast Trail Walking Tours: 1906 Earthquake and Fire
Every Saturday morning in April members of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society will lead special two-hour earthquake tours of the Barbary Coast Trail. The tours (rain or shine) depart from the Old Mint, Fifth and Mission Streets, at 10 a.m. Come hear tales of the tragedies and triumphs, devastation and renewal of those fateful days. Learn how the Old Mint was saved from certain destruction. See the landmark where survivors gathered to reunite with friends and loved ones. Find out how the city’s premier hotel continued to operate as its destroyed building was restored. Visit the only structure in Chinatown to have survived the disaster.

April 1-30, 2006, weekends only
Survivors: Life in an '06 Quake Camp
The Presidio, Main Post at Lincoln Boulevard and Halleck Street
The 1906 Earthquake and Fire left more than 200,000 San Franciscans homeless. Experience what life was like for them through the Presidio's re-creation of a refugee camp. Enter the tents and earthquake cottages to learn more about the earthquake and fires that followed, and how refugees overcame the physical and emotional challenges of obtaining food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical care, while keeping their families together as they struggled to rebuild their lives. Learn how race relations and other issues were handled in the tent cities. As part of the re-creation, you might find yourself patrolling with a soldier or sewing with a seamstress.

April 1-31, 2006
Magnitude X: Quake Science and Survival
The Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon Street
Free on April 5
The Exploratorium shakes up the Bay Area with a series of exhibits and programs covering the science, structural engineering, and human dimensions of earthquakes, including an interactive demonstration of real rescue dogs and an offbeat, quivering, large-scale Jell-O model of San Francisco by artist Liz Hickok, on view for one day (April 22). See earthquakes pop up on an international map as they occur throughout the world. A range of exhibits and demonstrations cover liquefaction, the physics of waves, resonance, seismic action, and the mathematics of sine waves.

Beginning April 2, 2006
San Francisco City Guides
In commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, City Guides features three new walks: "It Can’t Happen Here," "Phoenix Rising," and "Are We There Yet?" Learn what it was like to escape the disaster and rebuild in the aftermath, and meet some great characters along the way.

April 3-September 18, 2006
Earthquake: The Chinatown Story
Chinese Historical Society of America, 965 Clay Street
Free on the first Thursday of the month
Stories about Chinese Americans and their families are revealed in this exhibit by the Chinese Historical Society of America. Using anecdotes collected from their survivors and their descendents, newspaper accounts, photos, and other artifacts, the exhibit also tells the story of how Chinatown was allowed to rebuild within its original boundaries rather than relocate to Hunters Point.

April 5
Diablo Ballet: Earthquake
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street
This world-premiere dance production by Diablo Ballet was commissioned by Computer and Structures, Inc. and celebrates 100 years of advances in earthquake engineering. Performances are also slated for the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, May 19-20.

April 8-August 20, 2006
Snapshot Chronicles
San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street
At the turn of the 20th century, the emergence of inexpensive, portable cameras made it possible for many people to record their lives in pictures for the first time. The centerpiece of the exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library features 1906 photo albums made by San Francisco residents and tourists to the city who witnessed and took photos of the earthquake devastation and fire and chronicled their experiences in their personal photo albums.

April 12-December 8, 2006
Shake, Bake & Spin! San Francisco and the Media in the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake
Society of California Pioneers Museum, 300 Fourth Street
As the city crumbled and San Franciscans scrambled to meet their most basic needs, political ambition, commercial greed, and media manipulation rose to unprecedented heights. Mayor Eugene Schmitz and James D. Phelan worked with bankers, insurance companies, real-estate developers, and the local press to downplay the severity of the catastrophe, protect property, sustain morale, and focus attention on the rebuilding of the city. Using historic documents, retrieved relics, photographs, newspapers, and rare film footage to examine the repackaging and reselling of the events of April 18, 1906, the Society of California Pioneers Museum commemorates the centennial of the Great Earthquake and Fire.

April 15-17, 2006
1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Expo
Pier 48
Presented by the San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society, the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Expo features historical exhibits with vintage fire apparatus, memorabilia and artifacts, historical photographic displays, fireboat tours and displays, and an old-time firefighter muster with bucket brigades, hose-cart races, hand-operated fire pumps from the 1800s, steamer operation, horse-drawn pumps, and a 65-foot ladder raise. The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security will also be participating in the expo and will offer tips on preparing for the next quake at home and in the workplace. The expo also features live entertainment, food and beverages, and the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Dance on Saturday night, April 15, with a turn-of-the-century costume contest.

April 17-18, 2006
1906 Centennial: San Francisco Rising
The Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery Street
More than 1,000 guests are expected to attend this gala, presented by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the Chinese Historical Society of America, marking the 100th anniversary of the earthquake and celebrating the spirit and rebirth of the great city of San Francisco. Tickets are also available for a breakfast on the morning of April 18.

April 18, 2006
Memorial at Lotta’s Fountain
Lotta’s Fountain, Market and Kearny Streets
Those who lost their lives in the 1906 earthquake and the ensuing firestorm--as many as 3,000 at last count--will be memorialized in traditional ceremonies at Lotta's Fountain, beginning at 4:30 a.m. Each year a small corps of survivors is also honored at this time; at press time organizers were in touch with 21 survivors. For more information, visit

April 18-June 30, 2006
Earthquake Cottage Display
Yerba Buena Lane
More than 5,000 earthquake shacks housed over 16,000 refugees of the 1906 earthquake and fire. They were then moved out of the camps to private lots across the city, helping to repopulate San Francisco. One of these small dwellings will be on display on Yerba Buena Lane (south side of Market street, between Third and Fourth streets, accompanied by interpretive displays and exhibits by the San Francisco Building Department. For more information, visit

April 18-October 31, 2006
W.A. Coulter: A Master’s Brush With The Sea
San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park’s Visitor Center, 499 Jefferson Street
Staged in the heart of the noted maritime artist W.A. Coulter's waterfront, this exhibit features his 10-foot-long earthquake painting "San Francisco Fire, 1906" which was painted on a window shade pulled from the rubble of the quake. Other paintings from private and public collections make this the largest and most complete retrospective of Coulter's work ever attempted.

April 21, 2006
Cartography of Ashes
Fire Station No. 7, 19th and Folsom Streets
An outdoor film event, Cartography of Ashes will combine archival images with footage of contemporary San Francisco and narration by San Francisco firefighters. Beginning at 8 p.m. the film will be projected on a firefighters' training tower located at Fire Station No. 7.

Tagged in 

More Info

Want to design your own self-guided tour of historic sites? See San Francisco Sights That Survived the Great Quake.

For more on commemorative events, visit

If You Go 

Stay at one of our San Francisco Hostels.