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News + PoliticsLaborThe hidden political history of SF's 1906 earthquake and fire—and what it...

The hidden political history of SF’s 1906 earthquake and fire—and what it means today

Social class, race, and labor played a huge role in what happened—and how the city recovered.


I picked up a copy of Joanna L. Dyl’s excellent 2019 book, Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake, purely by chance, while I was doing some research in the ongoing effort to save the Valley Street Earthquake Shack Cottage. But I was immediately drawn into the book by its class struggle perspective on a subject that is usually told only as a disaster story.

Joanne Dyl is a professor at the Claremont Colleges, lecturing on environmental history and environmental justice. Her book transcends the usual “natural” disaster mythology of the 1906 earthquake, instead positing that “Disasters do not occur out of context but are embedded in the political structures, economic systems and social orders of the societies in which they take place.”

In other words, people and our rulers make choices about how and where we live, choices which can and do lead to disasters that in turn often have profound effects on the economic, social, environmental and political world in which we live.

“This book,” Dyl writes, “asks what disaster capitalism meant for the city’s working people in an era of open conflict between labor and capital across the country and in the streets of San Francisco.” Needless to say, the fundamental conflict between the working class and the capitalist class has not gone away.

The 1906 earthquake and fire devastated “the working class neighborhoods of South of Market, Chinatown, and North Beach… The lives of most residents of these districts were highly precarious even before April 1906,” writes Dyl. Their lives were in large part already a “permanent emergency.” For them, the earthquake and fire was “not so much an event” as part of a “process… embedded in [the existing] social relations” of the time.


The 1906 earthquake should have taken nobody by surprise. Nor should the earthquakes that will inevitably devastate the San Francisco Bay Area in the future.

The process that led to the 1906 disaster began centuries before, when the Pacific and California coast came into being on the edge of the volcanic “Ring of Fire.” Over countless generations Indigenous people learned to adapt to volcanic and seismic events. living much closer to the land and the environment than the white hordes who eventually settled here.

Then came the Spanish missionaries, who did their best to enslave the natives and teach them about “civilization.” Next came the Mexicans, who dabbled in native slavery as well. Finally came the Americans, drawn by the lure of gold.

San Francisco, right on the edge of the Ring of Fire—but also on the edge of the sheltering harbor of the Bay—beguiled the Americans into settling down in a made-for-disaster zone.

It wasn’t ignorance that caused the American gold-seekers and settlers who came to San Francisco to locate in an earthquake zone. An earthquake in 1812 destroyed the chapel at the Presidio and reportedly caused tidal waves that covered the ground where Portsmouth Square is located today. In 1827 a severe earthquake was felt at both the Presidio and Mission Dolores. Another quake was felt at the Presidio in 1829. Mission Dolores was damaged by an 1838 quake that shook things up as far south as Monterey.

Nevertheless, in 1847, US General Stephen Watts Kearny, who had played a leading role in defeating the Mexican forces in California during the Mexican-American War, granted San Francisco “property rights along the shores of the cove. Kearny’s action,” Dyl writes, “not only broke with Mexican precedent but was illegal under US law, which should have preserved the tidal flats as state property.”

Common sense should have dictated that building on wetlands in earthquake territory was not a great idea. But “even in San Francisco’s infancy, real estate speculators did not hesitate to commodify both the land of the coast and the water of the bay… delineating and selling lots that consisted of nothing but mud and shallow water,” says Dyl.

Earthquakes kept coming as did the 49ers, eager to search for gold and dispossess both the natives and the Mexicans. Several earthquake shocks were recorded in San Francisco in 1850 – in January, twice in May, and again in September. There were at least eight quakes felt in San Francisco in 1851. There was an earthquake in June of 1852, and another in November which caused Lake Merced to drain through a new channel, half-a-mile wide, to the ocean.

There were also six major fires between 1849 and 1852, including one dubbed the Great Fire of 1851, until it was outdone by the 1906 fire.

Five earthquakes were recorded in 1853, nine in 1854, five in 1855. There were twelve earthquakes in 1856, including one in February during which the water in the Bay rose, maintained a high level for about five minutes, and then suddenly sank two feet below its ordinary stage. Altogether 102 more earthquakes were recorded from 1857 to 1868.

Then the big one hit, on October 21, 1868, known at the time as the “Great San Francisco Earthquake.” Numerous buildings collapsed. Many structures built on filled wetlands sunk several feet. The ground cracked and water belched through the fissures. Damage was reported from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz. At least 30 people died.

And the quakes kept coming. A total of 198 earthquakes were recorded after the 1868 shaker and before the April 18, 1906 disaster.

Dyl quotes the noted sociologist Kai Erickson, who wrote that “…one of the crucial tasks of culture… is to help people camouflage the actual risks of the world around them.”

This “culture of denial” led San Franciscans to place “their faith in modern construction, confident that technology had created a city protected against earthquakes. In the process, they ignored the warnings of more knowledgeable experts and evidence that cities remained susceptible to ‘natural’ catastrophes.”

“Perhaps it is that acceptance of risk,” writes Dyl “even more than the prevalence of seismic activity, which makes California ‘earthquake country.’”


The real heart of Dyl’s discussion of the 1906 disaster is the story of the way poor and working class San Franciscans experienced the aftermath of the quake and fire.

San Franciscans banded together in many heroic ways to support each other. But, says Dyl,  “Ultimately the story of San Francisco’s bread lines, refugee camps and earthquake cottages demonstrates how the relief and recovery only exacerbated inequalities along lines of class, race, and gender.”

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, looting was widespread. Most of the looters were simply seeking food and other necessities of survival. But Mayor Eugene Schmitz, the darling of the Union Labor Party, decreed that looters should be shot on sight, and many were.

How many were shot remains uncertain, but what is not uncertain is that the decree was “selectively enforced, with poor people and ethnic minorities more likely to face dire consequences… [S]ome anxious residents supported vigilante justice such as shooting of looters as a way to preserve the sanctity of property and class divisions even as they praised selfless action and social unity.” Ironically, Schmitz himself was later famously convicted of extortion and bribery.

The earth had barely stopped shaking, and the fire was still burning, when a third not-so-natural disaster struck. Landlords quickly raised rents for the surviving housing. Many working class folks became refugees not because their homes had become uninhabitable, but because they were forced out by huge rent increases. “Rents in the unburned Western Addition doubled after the fire, and in surviving portions of the Mission District, the increase was 20 to 30 percent. Some rents increased as much as 350 percent.”

The City and the Army established numerous refugee camps. It should be noted, however, that the well-known “earthquake cottages” did not start appearing in these camps until September. Before that refugees in the camps were primarily housed in tents.

Dyl writes that “distinctions of class, race and gender” quickly surfaced in the camps as a result of “economic forces such as land ownership, insurance claims, and business experience as well as a severe housing shortage, tight labor markets, and persistent assumptions about the character of the poor and ethnic minorities.

“As more resilient community members returned to their homes or arranged new ones,” continues Dyl, “more vulnerable San Franciscans remained in refugee camps. Those camps were situated in the city’s parks and in its sinks, areas normally used more for dumping waste than for residents, including vacant lots and outlying underdeveloped neighborhoods… Even as the city’s elites objected to housing displaced persons in scarce park spaces, camp residents mobilized to protest the crowded and insanitary conditions of the more marginal camps to which they were increasingly shunted.”

The ”sanctity of property” was often put before the sanctity of people’s lives. For example, Dyl tells this story, which also introduces us to the redoubtable Mary Kelly:

“[T]he Relief Committee received sixteen million pounds of flour, far more than it could use… Distribution of the flour would have flooded the local economy and undermined the restoration of market conditions, so the committee bartered the flour to milling concerns at below market value or dumped it in the bay…

“[T]he refugees… believed that valuable food had been wasted or exploited for the profit of a few members of the Relief Committee. In July 1906, refugee women, including Mary Kelly, stormed the main relief warehouse and walked out with two thousand pounds of flour.”

It wasn’t exactly the storming of the Bastille, but the comparison does resonate.

One of the central demands of many refugees was that donated funds be distributed directly to them, rather than funneled through social workers and relief agencies. “[M]any were insulted  by agencies’ demands that they fill out applications and prove their worthiness by meeting middle-class standards of domesticity and deference.”

One reason that refugees could fight back was because, Dyl writes, “San Francisco was a labor stronghold and home to radical organizations such as the International Workers of the World, as well as the socialists… many residents were receptive to and familiar with working-class organization and political power.” [The IWW’s correct name is the Industrial Workers of the World.]

These organizing efforts could not rely on electoral politics. Men in the camps were excluded from voting on the excuse that they were living on public property, and women of course did not have the right to vote at all. Nevertheless, women became “central actors throughout these refugee mobilizations, engaging in everything from public speaking to direct action,” such as the July raid on the relief warehouse to expropriate donated flour.

Not surprisingly, the demands of the refugees were often viewed by more prosperous elites as “well intentioned… but visionary and often socialistic.” Perhaps more accurately, in Dyl’s words, refugee activism “reflected parallels with later environmental justice movements as refugees demanded basic environmental amenities of secure food, shelter, and sanitary living conditions.”

Dyl also writes extensively about the struggle of Chinese workers and their defense of Chinatown. Chinese workers had long been the target of vicious and extended racist campaigns. Much of the accumulated wealth of Chinese residents, mostly “merchandise and goods rather than real estate,” literally went up in flames during the 1906 fire. That loss was exacerbated by the extensive looting by “upper-class men and women who raided Chinatown in the days after the fire,” to which the City and the Arny turned a mostly blind eye.

The looting of Chinatown was only the opening salvo in an attempt to wipe Chinatown off the map so that the valuable property there could be claimed for real estate speculators and developers. Chinese refugees were kept segregated and forcibly moved from camp to camp, in the hope that they could be driven out of town. But, in the end, the effort to expropriate Chinatown from the Chinese failed, both because the Chinese fought back, and because the Chinese government intervened.

Again, with the Chinese as with other poor and working class refugees, the 1906 disaster played out against the backdrop of the existing economic, class and racial dynamics.


Eventually, with thousands of refugees still living in tent camps and winter approaching, the city, the Army and the Relief Corporation built 5,610 wood cottages, which began appearing in the camps in September. These Earthquake Cottages, built with union labor, were a huge improvement over tents. More importantly, they were what my friend Robert Livingston told me the other day, a sterling example of people helping people, especially the homeless. Robert then then asked why we don’t do more of that today.

But everything takes place in a particular economic, social and political context. “It is telling,” Dyl writes, “that the earthquake cottages have often been referred to as ‘refugee shacks.” Poor peoples’ homes could not be dignified by being called “cottages.” Instead, they are “shacks.” According to Dul, this “represented the continued provision of substandard shelter for poor San Franciscans made homeless by the intersection of the earthquake and fire with social and economic conditions in the city.”

The story of the Earthquake Cottage camps has been told many times, although not enough times. Dyl has much to say about the camps, but it is not my intention to try to tell their story in this article. Instead I want to locate the dynamics of the camps in the economic, social and political conditions of the times.

The premier authority on the subject of Earthquake Cottages is “Cottage Lady” Jane Cryan, who is cited several times as a source in Dyl’s book. Unfortunately, years ago Jane was forced out of the Earthquake Cottage that she lived in at 1227 24th Avenue (City Landmark #171). In 2007, she herself became a refugee from San Francisco—not by any “natural” disaster but by the very human disaster of the rising cost of living in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and an eviction by her landlord.

Much of Jane’s voluminous research is housed in the San Francisco Public Library History Center. She has written a book—Hope Chest: The True Story of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks—which very unfortunately has not yet been published.

More easily accessible is “Woody” LaBounty’s You Tube presentation about earthquake cottages. Woody is now the CEO of SF Heritage, and also maintains his own fascinating San Francisco Story website.

I will tell one 1906 story that peripherally involves the earthquake cottage camps, because it is illustrative of the interconnectedness of economics, politics, racism and so-called “natural” disasters—the story of the bubonic plague epidemic that struck San Francisco starting in 1900. The full story of this epidemic is well told by Marilyn Chase in her book, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco. Dyl delves into the story as well.

Fleas had been identified as the carriers of bubonic plague as far back as 1897. The fleas that spread the plague lived primarily on rats, and probably arrived in San Francisco via sailing ships in the harbor not far from Chinatown.

But when the plague started killing Chinese workers in Chinatown, instead of going after the rats and fleas, the powers-that-were in San Francisco went after the Chinese. They failed to recognize that it was the squalid conditions in Chinatown that spread the disease, not the Chinese.

Eventually, but not without significant political strife, the truth that rats and fleas were the carriers of the plague, was acknowledged. The solution, then, was to rat-proof Chinatown by paving and sealing up cellars and basements where rats thrived. This largely ended the first round of the plague in San Francisco

But the plague returned after the 1906 earthquake created a jumble of broken water and gas mains and sewer pipes that created a rat paradise. Again, there was considerable denial and stalling by city officials, unwilling to acknowledge the renewed bubonic plague outbreak. This time, however, it was white people who were dying, not so much the Chinese. In fact, Chinatown was largely spared from this round of the epidemic, as a result of the earlier drive to rat-proof cellars and basements.

One of the places that the plague struck the hardest was the sprawling earthquake cottage camp in Lobos Square, in what is now the Marina District. The rats there were scuttling about among the floorboards. The solution? Raise the shacks up on 18-inch stilts. That deprived the rats of their hiding places, and they were chased out by an army of cats and dogs.

The bubonic plague outbreaks in San Francisco, with 190 confirmed dead, were relatively mild compared to the thousands who died in other parts of the world. But they had a profound effect on the rest of North America. Due to all the stalling around by officials in San Francisco, the bubonic plague-infected fleas spread, according to Chase, “to wildlife over thousands of square miles of California hills and grasslands… over the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the Rocky Mountains. In each zone, the fleas found a new host animal, jumping from rats to ground squirrels, then to the golden-mantled squirrels of the Sierra, then to chipmunks and prairie dogs who inhabit villages of burrows throughout the Southwest. Plague…still smolders a century later.”

Once again, in the words of Dyl, “natural” disasters such as the plague were shown, like earthquakes and fires, to be “far from natural crises despite the central roles played by nonhuman agencies. The ways in which humans structured and produced both urban spaces and social relations contributed to outbreaks of disease just as much as the presence of germs did.” Let that also be a lesson for these COVID-ravaged times.


The story of Mary Kelly ties the whole kit and kaboodle of “natural” and human agency together.

“As a resident of the Jefferson Square camp,” Dyl relates, “Mary Kelly first applied for one of two hundred cottages being constructed there… She was turned down, despite having small children and an invalid husband, because she joined other refugee activists in objecting to the Relief Committee’s decision to charge rents. After months of living in the tent camps for free, refugees struggling to get back on their feet objected to being forced to pay rent for ‘cottages built out of Relief money, and built on public ground.’”

[Dyl makes a common error here. Refugee camp residents did not pay “rent.” They paid $2 per month towards a purchase of the cottage, up to a total of $50.]

“She and five other women employed direct action to assert their right to housing. They each occupied one of the empty cottages with their families, continuing San Francisco’s long tradition of squatting as a response to disputed land claims. Despite harassment from police and contractors, Kelly remained for a month.

“Finally… with Mary Kelly, an elderly woman, and a fifteen year-old girl still inside, the occupied cottage was physically removed to distant Camp Ingleside as Kelly shouted ‘I’ll stay with this house if they take it to the end of the earth.’” Three days later the cottage “was torn down around her.”

There is much more to Mary Kelly’s story. In January 1907 two of her daughters were murdered by an abusive husband. Mary and her husband were then allowed to move into a cottage at 18th and Dolores Streets. In 1911, when California women finally won the right to vote, Mary was one of the first to register.

A monument to Mary Kelly should be built at 18th and Dolores. In the meantime, Penelope Cottrell is writing an historical novel of Mary Kelly’s story. Look for it. Maybe that will be the next book review that I write.


The installation of earthquake cottages in the camps in late 1906 had drawn “protests from Superintendent [of the Parks] John McClaren and the park commissioners. Relief officials ultimately struck a deal, promising that the cottages would not remain in the parks beyond August 1, 1907 (later renegotiated to October 17 of the same year).”

What might happen to any remaining refugees was not part of the deal. Many of the refugees were able to take their earthquake cottages with them, if they had the means and a place to take it to. That is part of the historic lore of the cottages.

But thousands of others were left on their own, able only to return to the economic “permanent emergency” that was their lot before the disaster. As Dyl says, the disaster was not so much an “event” as part of a “process” of struggle against an unjust economic, social and political order.

Dyl also discusses the 1907 streetcar strike, an important “event” that is not well enough known in our fair city despite the strike’s importance in the development of both the labor movement here and our public transportation system. The streetcar strike against the private United Railroads company began in May, at a time when thousands of other workers were also on strike, including laundry workers and telephone operators, mostly women, as well as the metal trades.

The streetcar strike started just as city officials were in the process of shutting down the refugee camps. As Dyl notes, the refugees in the camps knew whose side they were on. “[R]esidents of the Richmond Camp threw objects at the [scab] cars and blocked the tracks with bonfires and debris. Newspapers that opposed the strike contrasted the genteel [scab] women riding the cars with the coarse strikers down on the streets, but working-class women also asserted themselves as visible supporters of the strike by occupying sections of the track ‘with babies in their arms.’”

As Dyl reports, the “economic, social and environmental circumstances after the earthquake and fire affected everything from the carmen’s decision to strike to the eventual” failure of the strike, although the carmen’s “vision of public control of transit eventually triumphed.”

I hope to return to the story of the 1907 streetcar strike another time.

Skipping ahead several years, Dyl proceeds to tell the story of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The exposition lives in our respectable memory as a celebration of the rebirth of San Francisco.

But there is more to the story than that celebration. The exposition took place on landfill that was created after the 1906 disaster, in part with rubble from the earthquake. There were complex negotiations with many landowners about acquisition of the land for the fair. “The land acquired by the Exposition Company,” Dyl writes, “included about four hundred dwellings and other structures, of which the company moved roughly forty to other sites and destroyed the remainder,” including undoubtedly some Earthquake Cottages that had survived the closure of the camps. Many people lost their homes in order to celebrate the rebirth of San Francisco.

With probably unintended irony, the Red Cross exhibit at the exposition included “a reproduction of Refugee Camp No. 5 in Golden Gate Park. The US Public Health Service exhibit included a model of “bubonic rats at work burrowing through a dwelling and feasting in its neglected, open garbage can.”

There was also an “Insurance Day” which “praised ‘the providential power of insurance’ for aiding in the city’s restoration… Working-class San Franciscans might have been struck by the juxtaposition of praise for insurance alongside the reconstruction of refugee camps in which those who lacked the financial advantages of insurance money had remained for months.”

Oh, and who could forget the “burning of imitation refugee shacks on Marina Green, lighting effects that stimulated flames engulfing the Tower of Jewels.”


Fortunately, nobody at the Panama-Pacific fair had a time machine, and were thus unable to travel forward to witness the 1989 earthquake and watch much of the Marina sink into the “made-ground” and then burn during the massive fire that followed. Or the demise of the Embarcadero Freeway. Or the collapsing Bay Bridge and double-deck Nimitz Freeway in the East Bay. They might have been less inclined to celebrate if they could have seen the future.

Then again maybe they would just look forward to the next big celebration of San Francisco’s triumph over another “natural” disaster.

One can only return to Erickson’s ruminations on our “culture of denial,” and wonder if our “faith in modern construction” is still blinding us to the “natural” disasters that will undoubtedly occur when the earth moves again. After all, it is likely that the 1989 earthquake was only a preface to the next apocalypse, perhaps one much bigger than 1906.

“Nature is all around us,” says Dyl, “even in the most densely urbanized environment. Our cities and our own bodies are very much a part of nature.” But unlike earthquake faults and volcanoes and fires, humans can make choices about where to live, how to live, and who rules. People make disasters just as much as nature does.

A good read of Dyl’s book should help us make those choices.

Marc Norton’s website is at https://marcnortononline.wordpress.com.

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