#TBT From the NFPA Archives: San Francisco Earthquake and Fire 1906

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on Apr 19, 2018

At 5:12 AM on Wednesday, April 18, 1906 an earthquake with the magnitude of 7.9 hit San Francisco. The earthquake set off dozens of fires. There were “overturned stoves, scattered fuel from furnaces, and short-circuiting of powerful electric currents.” On top of this, “…all three sources of water supply [were devastated] simultaneously.” [i] Around 8:00 AM, an aftershock made things even worse. There were so many damaged to the city’s water system that they were without water to fight fires. In the end, 80% of the damage was due to fire, not tremors during the earthquake.[ii]


Photograph from the NFPA Research Library and Archives.[iii]


In the midst of mourning Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan—who died early in the morning from injuries caused by the earthquake—those in charge of the city’s emergency response team determined that dynamite was the solution to weakening the dozens of fires spreading throughout the city. Before his death, Chief Sullivan had been in the process of advocating for improved water supplies for fire-response as well as dynamite training for the San Francisco Fire Department. Knowing this, the two people who became leaders in the emergency response and relief team made the decision that only dynamite could create the fire break to contain the fires ravaging the city.

These two people were Brigadier General Frederick Funston, who was appointed to the Department of California by the War Department and immediately assigned himself as military governor of San Francisco within minutes of the earthquake, and a 69-year-old fireman named John Dougherty—who was only named the new Fire Chief due to seniority. In literature that analyzes their actions, it is debated whether their technique helped save the city or hurt it. On top of the dynamite, General Funston managed to acquire complete control over the Army troops he requested to protect the city, which led to the San Francisco Mayor publicly ordering the troops to shoot anyone caught looting on the spot (though there are no records of this ever happening).

In regards to the dynamite, Funston himself stated, “I doubt if anyone will ever know the amount of dynamite and gun cotton used in blowing up buildings, but it must have been tremendous, as there were times when the explosions were so continuous as to resemble a bombardment.” It was said that he was determined to stop the progression of the fire, even if “it meant blowing up the last houses to do so.”[iv] Because many of the troops, police officers, and firemen handling the dynamite were untrained in its use, the effects were not always helpful in stopping the fire. Some critics insist the dynamite fueled the fire instead of creating fire breaks to halt it. However, other researchers praise Funston’s fast-thinking actions for saving the parts of city that were, in the end, untouched by fire.

After three days of this, it was a heavy rain on Saturday morning that eventually extinguished the fires. This was and still is the largest urban fire in U.S. history. Over 3,000 people died, 28,000 buildings and 4.7 square miles were destroyed, 200,000 people were homeless (half of the city’s population), and there was a property loss of $524 million (which today is $13.8 billion).[v]

Referenced Sources:

  • [i] G. H. Marks, “Reminiscences and Lessons of the San Francisco Conflagration 18-21 April, 1906” (speech presented at Birmingham Insurance Institute, Birmingham, UK, 26 February 1909), published in The San Francisco Story…: April 18-21,1906! (Unknown Publication), 4. “San Francisco, California, San Francisco Earthquake, 18 April 1906,” Historic Fires Collection, NFPA Research Library and Archives
  • [ii] Charles Scawthorn, John Eidinger, and Anshel J. Schiff, “The 1906 San Francisco, California Earthquake and Fires,” published in Fire Following Earthquake (Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2005), 11.
  • [iii] “Dynamiting of the Phelan Building,” photograph. “San Francisco, California, San Francisco Earthquake, 18 April 1906,” Historic Fires Collection, NFPA Research Library and Archives.
  • [iv] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, The San Francisco Earthquake (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 135.
  • [v] Scawthorn, et al., “The 1906 San Francisco, California Earthquake and Fires,” 10-11.Trever Hammond, “Major Earthquake Strikes San Francisco: April 18, 1906,” Fishwrap,1 April 2018, https://blog.newspapers.com/major-earthquake-strikes-san-francisco-april-18-1906/.


Written by Jenny DeRocher, Simmons College '18 MLIS Candidate.
For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.

The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.