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

Room Five: Reconstructing a New City

Speedy reconstruction was hampered by several factors: the Burnham Plan; the lack of money, whose flow was hindered by tardy, partial, or nonexistent insurance settlements; the national financial panic of 1907; and new building requirements that would deter future fire and earthquake damage. One way or another, these impediments were either swept aside or quickly dealt with in the rush to reconstruct. There were inequities in the process, as a study of the reconstruction effort, called "upbuilding" at the time, pointed out: "At one end of the spectrum, upper-class districts and individuals stabilized rapidly, whereas unskilled workers at the low end of the spectrum were still in motion five years after the disaster."

The Burnham Plan, an ambitious effort to beautify the city that had been published on the eve of the earthquake, was quickly abandoned. Market forces, not beauty, would determine the shape of modern San Francisco. White businessmen coveted the central site of old Chinatown, but an attempt to relocate the oriental population to Hunters Point was foiled by the Chinese who threatened to move and take their business elsewhere on the West Coast. It took time to collect insurance, which did not pay for earthquake damage. Accordingly, the emphasis was placed on fire being the cause of the destruction, and the word "earthquake" disappeared from public discourse. The insurance industry was not fooled. Money was sought from easterners, who were reluctant to invest in a seismically prone area, so financing came mainly from local sources.

Safety in future disasters was sacrificed to the expediency of the moment. Haste was the guiding principle. New buildings rose speedily at a cost to natural resources and future safety. West Coast forests were stripped of lumber, and thousands of horses were worked to death. The building code was weakened. But San Francisco, whose official seal bears a replica of the mythical Phoenix bird derived from the experiences of the earlier fires, rose quickly from the ashes. The city was officially reborn at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in the Marina where structures would collapse and catch fire in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

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