The Great Shake: San Francisco 1906 1906

Within minutes, fires broke out from ruptured gas mains, wood stoves, cooking fires, toppled lanterns. No fire alarms rang: the alarm system, headquartered on Brenham Place in Chinatown, was run by wet-cell batteries stored in glass jars on shelves. Every one of the jars had fallen to the floor and broken in the first seconds of the quake. (Ironically, the battery acid and water from the jars did put out a small fire that had started in the room.)


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The city's firefighters didn't need to hear any alarms, though. They could see the flames in the darkness. They hooked up their horses and engines and sped off to the nearest hydrants—but no water came gushing out. All but one of the water mains that fed the city from nearby reservoirs had been broken by the quake, and 80 million gallons of water was leaking out into the ground.

The city had two dozen cisterns, relics from the Gold Rush days, that held from 16,000 to 100,000 gallons each. But only the most senior of the firefighters knew their locations. Chief Sullivan had worked out a plan for a severe fire emergency, including the location of the cisterns, and a schedule for which companies should pump water from the Bay. But the Chief was dying, and the fire companies were leaderless and on their own.




Faultline © 1999, Exploratorium

Photo credit: The Museum of the City of San Francisco,
photos of the 1906 earthquake