5 Times San Francisco Was Almost Destroyed

Apr 18 at 12pm

Editor's note: Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Annalee, an expert on all things nerdy, will be reading from her new book next Wednesday, April 23, at Moe's Books in Berkeley. Until then, read up on some fascinating SF history from Annalee, about the times the city narrowly missed being utterly destroyed.

By Annalee Newitz

San Francisco is prone to disasters, but it's also a place that knows how to bounce back like nowhere else. This city has been almost completely obliterated several times, from both natural disasters and bizarro development scenarios. Here are five of the most memorable.

1. The Great Fire, 1849

In 1849, the Gold Rush brought so many transplants to San Francisco that the press dubbed them “the '49ers.” Often penniless and used to roughing it, the '49ers pitched tents along the cold, muddy streets of what's now the Financial District. For a truly fancy living experience, you could hammer together a wooden frame and stretch some treated canvas over it. Early in the morning of December 24, 1849, fire broke out in a gambling house called Dennison’s Exchange, on Kearny between Clay and Jackson, overlooking Portsmouth Square. This was one of the few solidly-built structures in the city, because of course people here have always had their priorities straight: bars and illegal gambling come first, and we'll worry about where to sleep later. 

The fire ripped through the tent city downtown, burning quickly through homes that gold diggers had slapped together out of cotton and newspaper. With no fire department, it fell to ordinary citizens to stop the blaze as it worked its way toward Montgomery. Armed with nothing other than mining tools, they decided to rip down and dynamite the city's remaining houses to deprive the fire of fuel. This scorched Earth technique worked, though there were no buildings left on the south side of Washington between Kearny and Montgomery. The good news? Few people died, it's easy to rebuild tents, and the city decided to create a fire department.


2. The Penultimate Fire, May 1851

Between 1849 and 1851, San Francisco was almost entirely destroyed by fire seven times. And each time people rebuilt, they tried more and more high-tech methods to prevent future damage. One popular method was to build shacks out of corrugated iron. Sheets of the stuff were shipped to San Francisco in giant stacks so that people could quickly snap together a home that was also “fire proof.” Yes, even back in 1851, there were companies selling futuristic, innovative bullshit products to San Franciscans. Except back then, those products were deadly.

The fire of May 3 and 4, 1851, destroyed three-fourths of the city and began with what was likely arson in Portsmouth Plaza. Despite efforts by the newly-created fire department, the flames ate through street after street. One problem was that the always-windy Financial District had elevated wooden sidewalks. They were perfect tinder for this blaze, providing fuel coupled with lots of nice oxygen underneath to feed it. Terrified, residents ran into their “fire proof” iron homes and cooked inside. Despite the horrific property damage and lives lost, workers were able to fully rebuild one-fifth of the city in just ten days. Unfortunately, this was right in time for the last of the great Gold Rush fires, which razed the city in June of that year. 

Still, the city rose again – and kept booming. San Francisco's population in 1849 was estimated at about 5,000, but within roughly a decade it had grown to 50,000. By 1865, it was at almost 100,000.

3. 1906 Earthquake 

On April 18, 1906, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States shook San Francisco. Though the quake was bad, 80 percent of the city was destroyed by the fires that raged for days after the last aftershock was felt. Ruptured gas mains were a major culprit, though bad firefighting techniques can be blamed too. Although the Great Fire in 1849 was stopped when people dynamited buildings, the same tactic backfired in 1906. Dynamited buildings caught fire too, spreading the conflagration rather than quenching it. It's estimated that about 3,000 people died, but this wasn't entirely due to the blaze. Some were shot by soldiers brought in to “protect” the wrecked city from looters in the weeks that followed.

With the vast majority of the city homeless, San Francisco became a tent city again. Rebecca Solnit has a terrific chapter about this era in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. She describes how people congregated in Golden Gate Park and Dolores Park, sharing food and other necessities. Rather than letting their stores spoil, butchers gave away their meat for free, and small “restaurants” sprang up in people's tents. Impromptu concerts and other entertainment were common in these refugee camps, as was a barter economy. 

On good days, the atmosphere might have been something like a Victorian Burning Man. The city provided homeless families with earthquake shacks in Golden Gate Park, which many people made into permanent homes by moving them into neighborhoods (a few of these earthquake shacks are still around today). 

Over the next decade, the city was rebuilt in ways that vastly improved on its original, haphazard design. Designers widened streets, added thoroughfares that allowed people to get quickly from one end of the city to the other, beautified City Hall, and built a subway under Market Street. Most of the major construction was completed by 1915. In that year, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific Exposition, that year's World's Fair, which was held in what became the Marina district and at the newly-constructed Palace of Fine Arts. Somehow, a more beautiful San Francisco rose out of the fires and tents once again.

4. The 1950s Freeway Abomination

Since the 1906 Earthquake, no natural disasters have threatened the City with total annihilation (although some have destroyed small parts of it). Instead, our near-disasters have come from humans – specifically, city and landscape planners. Bizarre development plans have almost turned San Francisco into an unrecognizable mess. The first time this happened, a major citizen's revolt was unleashed.

In 1955, San Francisco's Freeway Plan would have seen five major freeways cutting through the center of the city. To give you an idea how much these freeways would have changed SF, one of them was going to begin at Embarcadero, blast its way through a massive tunnel in Russian Hill, and then connect to the Golden Gate Bridge. Taken together, these freeways would have completely transformed the City's contours and neighborhoods. 

When San Franciscans got wind of the freeway plans, they staged what has come to be known as the Great Freeway Revolt. San Francisco historian Chris Carlsson writes:

“As the plans unfolded, public opposition grew. By the time the Embarcadero Freeway was nearly under construction in 1958, a loud opposition had formed, going on to campaign for its removal after its completion. Over 30,000 people signed petitions at meetings organized in the Sunset, Telegraph and Russian Hills, Potrero, Polk Gulch and other threatened areas. In 1959 The Supervisors voted to cancel 75% of planned freeway routes through the city, much to the shock of the Department of Highways and the state government.”

Ultimately, protesters in the Freeway Revolt also helped expand the BART routes as well, to make up for the lost freeways. The Freeway Revolt is commemorated in a small but amazing sculpture on 2004-2010 Gough Street.

5. The 1960s Plan to Fill in the Bay

What would the San Francisco Bay Area be without its bay? Developers in the 1960s wanted to find out. Specifically, they hoped to expand land area on both sides of the bay, using the same techniques that had already extended the Marina district far beyond the original San Francisco coastline, and created Foster City out of a marsh. In 1961, the Army Corps of Engineers suggested that the regions' rate of growth would ultimately convert the bay into little more than a shipping lane by the year 2020. The Corps released a map (shown above) that same year, which was leaked to the press and caused an uproar.

As social geographer Richard Walker writes in his book about San Francisco, The Country in the City, conservationists had long been a strong force in California politics, and John Muir was already a local hero. So it didn't take long before a group in Berkeley formed Save the Bay. Led by environmental activists Catherine Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Ester Gulick, the group helped create legislation that protected the Bay Area's coastal waters and stopped rampant filling of the bay. 

Not a moment too soon, either. We've since learned that one of the biggest threats to San Francisco and other major cities is environmental destruction. So saving our bay wasn't just about keeping things pretty. Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that Bay Area wetlands are major carbon sinks, drawing down the environmental pollutants that cause climate change. Groups like “Save the Bay” grew into a much bigger environmental movement – one that already saved our city, and could one day save the world.

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