Red Cross Retrospective: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

  • San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
    Red Cross feeding operation in Union Square, San Francisco, following the earthquake and fire of 1906.
  • San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
    Crowds line up on Van Ness Avenue to pick up relief supplies from the Red Cross and other charitable groups under its supervision.
  • San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
    The Red Cross undertook the general rehabilitation of the stricken population.
  • San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
    In the main business section--on the left side of the street, in the center, are the ruins of the Palace Hotel, and beyond the buildings of the "Examiner" and the "Call."
  • San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
    View of fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
As far as the eye could see was ruin.

On the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake. Many residents were still sleeping when the initial shock woke them at 5:12 a.m. The earthquake lasted about a minute, but that was long enough to destroy businesses and homes throughout the city.

The quake extended well beyond San Francisco, severely damaging both San Jose to the south and Santa Rosa to the north. Tremors were also felt in Southern California, Oregon and Nevada.

A City in Ruin

As the quake subsided, downed electrical wires started fires. Water mains were damaged, leaving no water to fight the blaze. Winds from the bay spread the flames, and the city burned for three days before a shift in the winds finally extinguished the fire. By the time it was over, four square miles had been destroyed and thousands were left homeless. According to a London correspondent, “As far as the eye could see was ruin.”

Congress appropriated $2.5 million, and President Theodore Roosevelt asked a newly reorganized and re-chartered American Red Cross to respond by administering the outpouring of aid directed at the stricken city.

The Red Cross was faced with a challenge that exceeded any of its previous relief efforts. Small and still regrouping after the departure of Clara Barton two years earlier, the Red Cross asked Dr. Edward T. Devine, General Secretary of the Charity Organization Society of New York, to lead the effort. Devine then included skilled social worker Ernest P. Bicknell of Chicago. Realizing the enormity of the task, Ernest P. Bicknell wrote that “the organization was faced by a supreme test and a supreme opportunity.”

A Challenging Response

Despite the city’s urgent need, the Red Cross was not initially welcomed by the residents of San Francisco. The San Francisco Committee of Fifty, a local relief group, had already been established. The San Francisco Chronicle criticized the Red Cross and lent support for the local relief committee by remarking that “an independent organization [the Red Cross] spearheading the relief efforts reflected negatively on the integrity of the city.”

Careful negotiations, resulting in the sharing of all funds (with the exception of the congressional appropriation), enabled the Red Cross to coexist with local relief efforts. As a result, an organization called the “San Francisco Relief and Red Cross Funds, a Corporation,” was formed to monitor and distribute the $8.5 million dollars that was collected through public contributions.

Despite shifting public opinion, the Red Cross was ultimately responsible for providing food kitchens, constructing basic housing, financially rewarding citizens up to $500 for rebuilding on burned land, aiding businesses in re-establishing operations, and distributing the remaining funds based on need.

Although the Red Cross was not the only relief organization that played a role in restoring San Francisco, it met the challenge successfully and solidified its worth in times of disaster.

Tags: History.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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