1906 + Today: The Earthquake Blend (Part II)

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At 5:12 AM on April 18, 1906, San Franciscans woke up to a quick jolt. For the next 25 seconds, all was silent. And then it hit hard–42 seconds of intense shaking. Buildings fell, sinkholes in the streets opened up, railroad tracks bent, and collapsing bricks crushed cable cars sheltered for the night in the cable car barn. But the real damage had not even begun. It was the out-of-control fires that did 90% of the destruction to San Francisco. Over 30 fires, caused by ruptured gas mains, destroyed approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks. Worst of all, many were started when the military, untrained in the use of dynamite, attempted to demolish buildings to create firebreaks, which resulted in the destruction of more than 50% of the buildings that would have otherwise survived. The dynamited buildings themselves often caught fire. In all, the fires burned for four days and nights.

Mayor Eugene Schmitz put out an authorization for the federal troops and police to shoot and kill looters. Thousands of tents and temporary relief houses went up to house 20,000 displaced people. The city was in disarray. But photography was a common hobby by 1906 and thousands of photos have survived to this day. One photographer even flew his 46 pound camera on a kite to get aerial shots of the aftermath. Some color photographs have even been found.

It’s been two years since I posted the first installment of this series, 1906 + 2010: The Earthquake Blend (Part I). I kept running into delays. In the case of the Valencia St. Hotel, I had to return to the scene on Valencia between 18th and 19th four times before I managed to get it right. There’s quite a bit of conflicting information of exactly where this building once stood. And just when I was about to wrap things up, my dad announced that he had unearthed a local magazine published in late 1906 loaded with earthquake-aftermath photos that I had never seen in any library or online collection. On the plus side, I’ve got plenty more material for a part three now.

To put these photos together, I first create a catalog of historical photos that look like they have potential to be blended. Unfortunately most of these photos end up on the digital cutting room floor because there’s simply no way to get the same photo today because either a building or a tree is in the way. Once I get a good location, I get everything lined up just right. My goal is to stand in the exact spot where the original photographer stood. Doing this needs to take into account equivalent focal length, how the lens was shifted, light conditions, etc. I take plenty of shots, each nudged around a bit at each location. Just moving one foot to the left changes everything.

UPDATE: Many new prints and photos now available and Fade to 1906 (the book) is coming soon.

Here is part two of the series (part one is here):


People walk beneath Old Saint Mary's Cathedral, which survived the quake but was gutted by the fire


Cars park in front of the brand new US Courthouse which fared well in the quake.


People walk up California St amid charred scraps of lumber


People walk through rubble on Geary St


People cross Market Street in front of the destroyed Hearst Building


People stroll by the original adobe Mission Dolores which survived, while the brick church next door was destroyed


A bicyclist rides towards the fallen Valencia St. Hotel and a huge sinkhole that has opened up in the street


The Conservatory of Flowers stands undamaged as now-homeless citizens camp in a tent shelter


People mill around Lotta's Fountain, which served as a meeting place after the quake


Cable car #455 rests halfway in the partially-detroyed cable car barn


Cars travel down S. Van Ness, which has buckled after the quake.


Horse carriages and cars park in front of Lafayette Park while a destroyed city looms in the background

Swipe left or right to view photos:

Historical Notes

  • The Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse was completely dismantled and rebuilt from 1982-1984. The Washington Street facade depicted is different in design than that of 1906, but the garage opening and tracks are in the exact same place to the best of my knowledge.
  • Lotta’s Fountain has moved around over the years. It was raised eight feet in 1916, smashed by a drunk driver in 1954, moved 10 feet in 1975, and completely stripped down and rebuilt in 1998. I lined it up the best I could, but it was obvious when I was overlaying the photos that things weren’t perfect. The Palace Hotel in the background was demolished after the quake and rebuilt to the “new” Palace Hotel that I’ve blended with the old one.