Online Exhibit: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Online Exhibit: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
Room One

Room One: San Francisco in the New Century

The dawn of the twentieth century was a time of great hope and prosperity in Northern California. Everyone was looking forward to the new century that would surely be the greatest in the American West's very short history. Few looked backward to the Native American tales of movements of the earth, the fires that had destroyed San Francisco numerous times in mid-nineteenth century, and the destructive earthquakes of 1865 and 1868 in the Bay Area. There were a few muted warnings. A catalogue of prior earthquakes in California was published in 1898 by the Smithsonian Institution, but few libraries bothered to stock it.

The fire chief wanted a backup water system and the insurance industry thought it was "inevitable" that the city would again burn to the ground. Life went blithely on in the "queen city" of the West. With a population of 400,000, San Francisco was the largest city in California and the economic capital of the West. The buildings were the tallest, the restaurants the finest, the entertainment, the most risque, and the factories the most productive.

Not all were well off, however. One in three inhabitants were foreign born. Immigrants from southern Europe and Asia were swelling the population and providing cheap labor. On the evening of April 17, 1906 the greatest single display of visible wealth in the West adorned the audience assembled at the Grand Opera House on Mission Street to hear the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso sing.

The weather was unusually balmy. Carriages and a few belching automobiles arrived at the entrance and disgorged their passengers. The jewels sparkled. The fashionable, high-necked gowns were vibrant. The men traded jests in the foyer while smoking between acts. Supper was taken after the opera. A newspaper reporter trudging home in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 18th noticed that the horses stabled at Powell and Mason Streets seemed unusually restless.

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