• East view from Crissy Field overlook with old Coast Guard station on left and city on right

    Presidio of San Francisco

    California

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1906 Earthquake and the Army

In the early dawn light of April 18, 1906—at 5:12 a.m.—the ground under San Francisco shook violently for a less than a minute. Though damage from the earthquake was severe, the ensuing fires were truly catastrophic. Thirty broke out almost immediately, burned for three days, and destroyed over five hundred blocks in the heart of the city. Because San Francisco's water pipes were shattered by the quake, little could be done to stop the inferno from incinerating everything in its path. Over half of the city's 400,000 citizens lost their homes and virtually all were paralyzed by shock, confusion, and desperation. Though the number killed by the earthquake remains a subject of historical debate, the figure probably lies in the several thousands rather than the less than 600 estimate found in the official reports on the disaster.
 
Soldiers in streets of San Francisco after 1906 earthquake
Soldiers patrol the streets while downtown San Francisco burns. The tallest building west of the Mississippi, the Call building, can be seen burning in the center background.
National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA (GOGA-1766)
 

Within hours of the earthquake, U. S. Army troops stationed at the Presidio and other nearby posts responded to help city authorities maintain order and fight fires. The Army also established communications, gave medical treatment, distributed supplies, and provided food, water, shelter, and sanitation in the following days and weeks. Some San Franciscans felt fear and others reassurance at seeing armed soldiers in the streets. This is a story of heroism and valor, order and organization, but also controversy as much of the initial Army response was improvised due to the lack of clear guidelines.

Follow the links below to learn more about the army’s role in the aftermath of the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

 
Refugee tent camp on the Presidio
This tent camp was set up for earthquake refugees at the site of Letterman Hospital at the Presidio.
Bob Bowen collection
 

Did You Know?

Jonathan Letterman

Major Jonathan Letterman--after whom the hospital at the Presidio was renamed in 1911--was the medical director of the Army of the Potomac. A founding father of military medicine, Letterman organized forward first-aid stations, mobile field hospitals, and ambulance services during the Civil War.