Historic San Francisco
When one talks of “historic San Francisco”, the history of this city is of many man-made and natural disasters that have destroyed large swathes of the city. The first major disaster to hit San Francisco was the fire of 1849—dubbed, “the great fire”, it started Christmas eve in a gambling den popular with the city’s newest transplants, miners chasing dreams of gold. The “49ers” were what the locals called the rough men living in tents along the streets of what is now the Financial District. “The great fire” burned all the makeshift structures, and the miners resorted to dynamiting the homes between Kearny and Montgomery to rob the fire of fuel, stopping it in its tracks.
The Phoenix City That is Historic San Francisco
San Francisco would burn many more times culminating in an EVEN GREATER, great fire in June of 1851 that would raze the city.
BUT, it is the 1906 Earthquake that stands as the worst disaster in San Francisco history. 5:18 AM local time the morning of April 18th, 1906 the city woke to one of the most devastating earthquakes to rip along California’s San Andreas Fault—registering an estimated 8.3 on today’s Richter scale.
More than 3,000 lives were lost in the quake and subsequent fires, that burned unchecked for 3 days and nights. Much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash. Survivors took shelter in tents in Delores and Golden Gate Parks. Jack London wrote in May of 1906 that, “San Francisco…is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped thousands of refugees.”
The refugees would rebuild San Francisco yet again.
Parts of Historic San Francisco Not to be Missed
It may seem as though there can’t possibly be any parts of San Francisco to have survived so much fire and fury, but a handful of buildings beat the odds, and many buildings post-earthquake are meaningful glimpses into how people reacted to so much destruction.
People may think God had a hand in saving the temples to faith that still exist, but what the oldest, historic buildings have in common is that they were built with brick, stone, and adobe—people built the buildings that were most important to them with the best materials and the most care…and poured water on them when fire threatened.
- Mission Dolores (Misi’on San Francisco de A’sis) was founded on June 29th, 1776! The adobe mission was completed by native Americans in 1791. The Basilica next to the mission came later, 1876, but was destroyed and rebuilt after the 1906 quake in the 1920’s.
- The Presidio Officer’s Club retains some of its original adobe structure from 1776.
- Saint Patrick’s Church, founded in 1851 and built in 1872. The walls and tower of the original brick structure survived the earthquake and the interior was rebuilt.
- Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the crossroads of Chinatown and the Financial District has stood in all its glory since 1894.
- The Bank of California Building built immediately after the 1906 quake is a Classical Revival beauty!
- The earthquake shacks—all over San Francisco are the original ‘tiny homes’ that were more permanent structures built for earthquake survivors occupying tents in the parks surrounding the city. They were rent-to-own for 2$ a month for a total of 50$ then owners could take their new home to a permanent location in the city. The years following the quake are some of the bravest, and most character-filled years of the city.
San Francisco rebuilt itself to be beautiful and as safe as could be. There is a lot of history to San Francisco, and the city has certainly earned its appellation as the phoenix of the west. I mention some of the “oldest” surviving buildings of San Francisco, but there is so much more to the city! Take for example the recent discovery of a “Gold Rush” era ship from 1849 found in 2016 while digging the foundation for a condo building. Take a historic tour, and do some research, the city will surprise and delight you.