John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
See the disaster that transformed the city from a galaxy of perspectives.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”