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U.S. Geological Survey
General Information Product 31

Facing the Great Disaster
How the Men and Women of the U.S. Geological Survey Responded to the 1906 “San Francisco Earthquake”

By Elizabeth M. Colvard and James Rogers


Published in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake

historic photo looking down a steep San Francisco street at the burning city
San Francisco, California, the day after the catastrophic earthquake of April 18, 1906. This photograph by U.S. Geological Survey topographer C.L. Nelson shows the view from Nob Hill down Jones Street at 10:00 a.m. on April 19. Dense smoke billows from the burning center of the stricken city.


When the powerful April 18, 1906, earthquake struck northern California, staff of the U.S. Geological Survey stationed in Sacramento and Berkeley swung into action, bringing help to the residents of devastated San Francisco, documenting the effects of the quake, and investigating the causes of that major geologic event.

It was the most devastating earthquake in California’s history. At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the ground under the San Francisco Bay Area shook violently for more than 40 seconds. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake created a rupture along nearly 300 miles of the San Andreas Fault and was felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles. Because the earthquake’s epicenter was just offshore from San Francisco, the impact on that city was catastrophic. Fragments of broken houses and buildings tumbled into the streets. The pipeline carrying water into the city was severed; fires triggered by broken gas mains raged out of control for 3 days. An area of almost 5 square miles in the heart of the city was destroyed by shaking and fire, and earthquake damage was widespread elsewhere. At least 3,000 people were killed, and 225,000 were left homeless. Drinking water, food, and supplies quickly became scarce.

In 1906, the only permanent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office in California was the Pacific Division topographic mapping office in Sacramento, 70 miles up the Sacramento River from San Francisco Bay. The office had been established just 3 years earlier and was the only USGS office ever created for the sole function of topographic mapping. At the time of the earthquake, many USGS topographers were in Sacramento preparing for a summer of field work.

Although moderate shaking was felt in Sacramento, then a town of about 30,000 people, detailed information about the earthquake was slow to reach the residents there. USGS topographic engineer George R. Davis, not knowing the full extent of the damage, was fearful that his 62-year-old father Edward Davis in San Francisco was caught up in the devastation. George therefore left Sacramento on the first train bound for the San Francisco Bay area. “He was very worried. The phones were down and he wasn’t sure whether or not the hotel his father was living in was damaged,” said George Davis’s daughter Anna (Davis) Rogers, then an octogenarian, in a 2005 interview. Recalling the stories she heard of these events while growing up, Anna added, “Fortunately [the hotel] hadn’t fallen down.” George Davis, a tall man with a quiet demeanor and a dry wit, was accompanied to San Francisco by fellow USGS topographer Clarence L. Nelson. Both were 29 years old and in excellent physical condition after a year spent mapping the Mount Whitney quadrangle, which includes some of the most rugged terrain in the conterminous United States.

On their arrival in San Francisco, the pair was fortunate to find the elder Davis unharmed at the hotel where he had been living. Nelson-handsome, athletic, and artistic-had brought his camera in order to get photographs while things were still “hot” and began taking what were to become a memorable set of images. The three men wandered through San Francisco all night and through the following morning, moving from one dramatic scene to the next. Nelson captured the horse-mounted “dynamite squad,” soldiers marching on Van Ness Avenue, and a rare scene of two horsedrawn fire engines with one engine drawing water from a cistern on Union Street. One ironic photograph shows refugees making their way through rubble-filled streets in the direction of a wrecked City Hall. Flames from the burning heart of the city shone brightly against the darkness, and Nelson captured the surreal glow in several of his photographs, including one of Union Square with the Breuners building burning in the background.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact Liz Colvard

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Created: April 17, 2006
Last modified: April 20, 2006