See the disaster that transformed the city from a galaxy of perspectives.

OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project

Of all the horrible scenes that poured out of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—which killed roughly 3,000 people and injured 225,000 more—one of a refugee camp at the old Hamilton Square on April 19, a day after the quake, haunts Woody LaBounty.

“There’s a guy actually sweeping the grass next to two women with a shocked, middle-distance stare,” says LaBounty, executive director at the Western Neighborhoods Project. “Shock, bewilderment, uncertainty in many faces.”

For LaBounty, it’s a reminder that the famous disaster was just that—a catastrophe that left human lives as well as buildings in ruins. “In recent years, as a community we have defaulted to an almost celebratory attitude around the anniversary” of the tragedy, he says. “But many people died. Others lost everything. It was a true disaster, and this photo brings that home.”

A zoomed-in view of the Hamilton Square photograph. (OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project)

Thanks to detective work from LaBounty’s organization, which is devoted to preserving local history, modern audiences can experience the horror of the 1906 quake from a galaxy of perspectives. The group has sifted through thousands of photographs provided by an anonymous private collector and pegged them on an interactive map as to where they likely were taken. Thus a denizen of the Castro can see what the destruction downtown looked like from, say, the nearby, lofty Corona Heights, whereas a kayak enthusiast can witness the city’s hellish burning from over the cold waters of the Bay.

OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project

For those unfamiliar with the catastrophe, LaBounty’s also written a narrative of the fiery cataclysm that would reshape the city. Here’s part of it:

One hundred and eleven years ago, in the early morning of April 18, San Francisco shook and trembled through a massive earthquake. Stone buildings shed their skins. Chimneys and brick walls collapsed on streets and adjoining buildings. Roadways split and sunk. People were gravely injured or killed by crumbling boarding houses, apartments, and warehouses...

The disaster became much worse as fires broke out from the Embarcadero to Hayes Valley and, aided by wind and inept attempts to create fire breaks with explosives, joined into larger maelstroms that gobbled up almost 500 city blocks of cottages, factories, tenements, hotels, stores, banks, and government buildings over the next three days.

OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project

“I feel strongly about orienting people to place when looking at these images,” says David Gallagher, a founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project. He helped create the map earlier this month by sorting through the group’s estimated 100,000-piece image collection, which contains “glass plate, nitrate, and safety negatives to stereoviews and Kodachrome slides, cabinet cards, amateur and professional photographs.”

Gallagher is keeping the way they geolocated the photos close to his chest. “We have a team of volunteers who help with the mapping using proprietary tools developed by the Western Neighborhoods Project,” he says. “Over time we have become experts on historical views of our city. We use many online resources, the San Francisco Public Library, the Online Archive of California, the Internet Archive, David Rumsey Map Collection. Even the New York Public Library has great San Francisco views that aid in our research.”

“We see this as a labor of love, a gift to the people of San Francisco,” Gallagher says. “I guess we hope that by presenting these views of what the city was, we will instill a greater love for what the city is, and can be.”

A view of the San Francisco earthquake’s aftermath from Oakland, not part of the Western Neighborhoods Project’s collection. (Oakland Museum of California)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo collage of 2020 presidential candidates.
    Equity

    Will Housing Swing the 2020 Election?

    Among Democratic candidates for president, the politics of America’s housing affordability crisis are getting complicated. Just wait until Trump barges in.

  2. A photo of an abandoned building in Newark, New Jersey.
    Equity

    The 10 Cities Getting a Philanthropic Boost for Economic Mobility

    An initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group focuses on building “pipelines of opportunity.”

  3. a photo of Denver city council member Candi CdeBaca
    Transportation

    A Freeway Fight Launched Denver’s New Queer Latina Councilmember

    In a progressive shake-up, 32-year-old community organizer Candi CdeBaca will take her advocacy work to the city council.  

  4. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

  5. At an NBA game, a player attempts to block a player from the rival team who has the ball.
    Life

    NBA Free Agents Cluster in Superstar Cities, Too

    Pro basketball follows the winner-take-all geography of America as a whole, with free agents gravitating to New York, L.A., and other big cities.

×