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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Apr 13, 2020

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at one of the biggest disasters in US history, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The tremors ripped apart the city’s water system, leaving it nearly defenseless against raging fires that soon broke out. The ensuing inferno destroyed a quarter of the city and killed 3,000 people. In the aftermath, city officials tried to take advantage of the disaster by getting rid of its Chinatown neighborhood that occupied 15 blocks of prime downtown real estate. But Chinatown residents organized and against all odds, forced the city to abandon the plan. Chinatown and the rest of the city were rebuilt.  

And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and Battle of Lexington and Concord.  

Feature Story: The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

On April 18, 1906, at 5:13 am, the city of San Francisco was shaken by a tremendous earthquake.  Later estimated as measuring about 7.9 on the Richter scale, it lasted 72 seconds, heaving streets up and down, opening and closing huge chasms, and shaking buildings big and small into piles of rubble.  The city's 200,000 residents tumbled out of bed and into the streets in panicked confusion to survey the damage and find friends and family. The destruction was extensive and already dozens, perhaps hundreds had been killed.  Few knew it at the time, but this was only the beginning of a larger, rapidly unfolding disaster, for fires had broken out everywhere and the city's water mains had been ruptured.

To make matters worse, the city lost its Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, Daniel T. Sullivan. He was crushed to death when a hotel collapsed onto the Fire Dept headquarters where he was sleeping. Sullivan was pulled from the wreckage, but he never recovered and died four days later.

The significance of the loss of Fire Chief Sullivan was lost on no one.  With fire rapidly spreading throughout the city, the fire department desperately needed his experienced leadership.  Instead, they would have to rely upon his replacement, a man named John Dougherty.

One inescapable irony regarding Sullivan's death was that he had spent much of his thirteen years as Fire Chief engaged in a futile crusade to get city officials to improve fire safety and preparedness.  Just six months earlier, the National Board of Fire Underwriters issued a scathing report on the state of affairs in San Francisco.  The refusal of City Hall to fund Chief Sullivan's requests for an improved water system and the establishment of an explosives team to blow up buildings in the path of a big fire had left the city flirting with disaster. “San Francisco has violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up,” asserted the report.  “That it has not already done so is largely due to the vigilance of the Fire Department, which cannot be relied upon to stave off the inevitable.”  Now the inevitable was upon them and the city's most knowledgeable fireman lay on his deathbed.

The earthquake not only destroyed the city's water system, but also its telephone, telegraph, and fire alarm systems. Fires broke out everywhere, started by overturned lamps and coal stoves and fed by ruptured gas lines and winds off the Pacific Ocean.  That 90 percent of the city's housing was of wood frame construction only added to the disaster.

Fire crews raced through the rubble strewn streets to extinguish the fires, but everywhere found the same terrifying result: “Not a drop of water was to be had from the hydrants,” the fire department report recalled.  For a while, they pumped water from tanks, pools, and even sewers, but these sources eventually went dry. Unable to fight the flames, firemen concentrated on pulling victims from collapsed buildings before the flames reached them.  Thousands of terrified people looked on in horror as the inferno grew still larger and the city shook with aftershocks.

Acting Fire Chief John Dougherty soon decided to use explosives to stop the fire, using munitions from local US Army forts. If they could demolish a line of buildings, he reasoned, they might be able to contain the fire and save much of the city.

And here’s where a compelling story-within-the-story emerged, one driven by anti-Chinese racism. While diverting scarce water to wealthy white sections of the city, the mayor and acting Fire Chief chose to deploy the explosives in the city’s Chinatown. Scores of buildings were destroyed, but the explosions actually accelerated the fires. Within a day, all of Chinatown had been reduced to smoldering rubble and ash. This outcome was devastating to the 15,000 Chinese and Chinese American residents of the neighborhood, but it was seen as a godsend by the city’s powerful business and political elites. We’ll soon circle back to this point, but for now, let’s return to the larger story of the disaster.

At 3:00 p.m., as reports of looting mounted, Mayor Eugene Schmitz issued a “shoot to kill” proclamation, warning the populace that policemen and soldiers would show no mercy to anyone even suspected of looting. And that proved true, as dozens of people were shot or bayonetted to death, many of them innocent people trying to retrieve their own property. One Chinese American man went to his apartment to retrieve his birth certificate – a document vital to Chinese Americans fearful of deportation – and was bayonetted by a soldier. Thankfully he survived the assault.

It took three days and three nights to bring the inferno under control. By then one quarter of the city had burned (498 blocks), leaving 28,000 buildings destroyed. The human toll was originally put at about 700 deaths, but this was pure fiction. It reflected a desperate attempt by city officials to diminish the disaster in the public’s mind, as a way to preserve the commercial future of the city. More extensive research in recent years has raised the death toll to 3,000, making the earthquake one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history.  It was also one of the most expensive, costing at least $500,000,000 in 1906 dollars.

Now would be a good time to pick up the story-within-the-story about the fate of Chinatown and its 15,000 residents. We know that the political and business leaders of San Francisco saw the destruction of Chinatown as a silver lining in the disaster, because they said as much. Chinatown occupied 15 blocks of prime downtown real estate and for years the city’s business and political leaders talked of evicting the residents and turning it into a business district. In 1904, two years before the earthquake, the city’s Mayor, James Phelan, had paid the famed architect Daniel Burnham – the guy who planned the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 - to draw up a master plan for a newly redesigned San Francisco. The plans’ most striking feature? Chinatown was gone. Burnham somehow made it disappear. The city’s business community loved the idea. Here’s the headline from city’s Merchant’s Association Review, from February 1905: “San Francisco May Be Freed From The Standing Menace of Chinatown: Plans Have Been arranged, and a Corporation Formed to Turn the Chinese Quarter into a Business Section, and Build a New Oriental City on Bay Shore.” That last part was important – Chinatown would be moved to a remote edge of the city.

The justification for this plan was that Chinatown was a horrid cancer on the city, a place filled with opium dens, prostitution, and illegal gambling. White Americans had long come to see Chinatowns in US cities in this light. Stories in the popular press and dime novels, and even early versions of sensational walking tours led by white guides perpetuated Chinatowns as immoral spaces where vice and sin proliferated and an alien, unassimilable culture thrived.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Mayor Schmitz moved quickly to put into action the plan to get rid of Chinatown. He created a Committee of powerful businessmen and political figures to oversee relief efforts and to put into action the Chinatown removal plan. And he made former mayor James Phelan, the Committee’s chairman. Phelan, you will remember, is the guy who commissioned the plans for a revamped San Francisco that called for the removal of Chinatown.

But then something extraordinary happened. The residents of Chinatown, despite the long odds they faced as a despised and disenfranchised minority group, got organized and took action to stop the plan. Those who owned their building lots in Chinatown started rebuilding immediately. Community leaders hired lawyers and protested before city officials. One of them, a minister named Rev. Gee Gam, said, “Why should the Chinese be isolated any more than the people of Tar Flat? Why should they be singled out? The mayor has no power to isolate the Chinese. Chinatown should go back where it was – that would be nothing but justice.... We are objecting to the removal of Chinatown on the grounds that it is the Chinese right to remain where they own land.”

Residents of Chinatown also got in touch with the government of China and soon Chinese diplomatic officials were lodging formal complaints with the federal government in Washington, the governor of California, and city officials in San Francisco. And those officials listened, because even back then China was a significant trading partner of the US.

And the final and most important card the Chinatown residents played was this: they told San Francisco officials that if the city went forward with the plan to move Chinatown to the outskirts of the city, they would relocate en masse to another city like Los Angeles or Seattle and take with them their businesses. This was a significant threat as Chinese and Chinese American businesses constituted a major part of the city’s economy.

And all this resistance to anti-Chinese racism? It worked. Less than a month after the earthquake, the city dropped the plan to eliminate Chinatown from downtown San Francisco.

Chinatown was rebuilt, along with the rest of the city. And this new Chinatown had a distinct architectural style, one that would be replicated in other Chinatowns across the US. The merchants hired white architects who designed the district to look like what white Americans imagined China looked like – buildings festooned with brightly colored pagoda style roofs and carvings of dragons. The idea was to attract tourists and to promote a new image of Chinatown as a clean and wholesome place.  It bore no resemblance to China, but the tourists loved it.

And there was one more legacy of the earthquake that affected the city’s Chinese population. The fires destroyed City Hall and virtually all vital records like birth certificates. This allowed Chinese immigrants to claim US birth and there was no way city officials could prove they were not. This new status allowed them to avoid deportation and to bring relatives from China to join them.

Over time, the city of San Francisco enjoyed a full recovery from the disaster. And as the city was rebuilt, many of Chief Sullivan's ideas for greater fire safety were implemented, as were tough building codes to make structures better able to withstand the next earthquake.  That day came on October 17, 1989 when an earthquake measuring 7.1 of the Richter scale shook the city.  Damage was extensive, but a relatively small number of people, 62, died.    

So what else of note happened this week in US history?

April 14, 1865 - President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC by Confederate loyalist John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln lingered on the edge of death through the night and died the following morning on April 15.

April 15, 1912 - The ‘unsinkable’ luxury ocean liner, "Titanic," sank at 2:27 a.m. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

April 19, 1775 – American colonists clash with British troops in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The "the shot heard 'round the world" announced the start of the American war for independence.

And what notable people were born this week in American history?  

April 13, 1743 – 3rd POTUS Thomas Jefferson

April 13, 1899 – Alfred Butts, the inventor of Scrabble

April 13, 1919 – atheism promotor Madelyn Murray O’Hair

April 14, 1840 -  art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner

April 15, 1889 - labor and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph

April 18, 1857 - attorney Clarence Darrow

The Last Word

Let’s give it to Clarence Darrow, who was born 163 years ago this week. He made a career out of defending people in what appeared to be hopeless cases. Here’s how he explained his motivation:

“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”

For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, 

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)

Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)

Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)

Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)

Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)

Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)

Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)

Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
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© In The Past Lane, 2020

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