Warning. Photo by Mark Rabine

Picture this: It’s 5 a.m., 110 years ago. San Francisco wakes up to 45 seconds of shifting earth:

(Sound by the Mission Bicycle Earthquake Tour)

The 1906 earthquake left its mark, and though the Mission did not fare as badly as many other parts of town, signs of the quake still dot the neighborhood. I recently rode along on a tour organized through Valencia Street’s Mission Bicycle, to discover what signs of the quake are still evident in the neighborhood.  

Local historian Chris Carlsson notes:

“The Mission District was one of the few neighborhoods in the city that was not burned to the ground in the devastating fires that ravaged the city after the quake. Residents of burned-out areas, especially the South of Market area, moved to the Mission and pushed out the middle-class families that had occupied the neighborhood, making it into a low-income working-class neighborhood and the most heavily Irish area of San Francisco.”

Fires did far more damage than the quake itself, and proved difficult to extinguish. That’s why there’s a golden fire hydrant on Church and 20th streets – every year it’s painted gold to honor it as the only fire hydrant that still worked when water mains throughout the city had been rendered useless by the quake. To add to the bedlam, the city’s fire chief had been killed in the quake.

The hydrant is credited with sparing the Mission District from greater harm than could have befallen it had the golden hydrant failed too.


Water access is also crucial after a quake – which prompted the city to install massive cisterns under certain streets that can store between 75,000 and 200,000 gallons of water. They are marked, for those who know where to look, by brick circles in the middle of the street.


One building on Valencia Street did collapse in the earthquake. Dandelion Chocolate is located approximately at the former site of the Valencia Hotel, which deflated like an accordion. Top-floor residents were mostly spared, but lower-floor residents were crushed.

Image via the San Francisco Public Library
Image via the San Francisco Public Library

Roughly a quarter of the population was also rendered homeless by the quake and subsequent fires, and they set up ramshackle camps in none other than Dolores Park. The rows of tents were then transformed into very small houses by the Army Corps of Engineers. Some of them are still around today, as this Curbed article demonstrates – one is even at a secret location in the Mission!

Image via Found SF
Image via Found SF

The disaster also left plenty of children orphaned. Many of them, our guide told us, were sent to an orphanage where Mission Pool now stands. The beautifully painted building seen today was formerly a place where orphaned children were sent out to work for pennies a day. (We were unable to confirm this particular factoid, but if anyone out there knows more, let us know!)


Houses changed too, of course – wood-burning fireplaces are uncommon in the city now, and renovations of older buildings trigger mandatory retrofits that make buildings with large open spaces on the ground floor, like garages, less likely to collapse in an earthquake. Brick buildings are rare because they tend to crush people inside in an earthquake.

But, as it turns out, many of those changes weren’t rolled out right after the quake. As the Chronicle reported in 2006, immediately after the quake, it was more of a building free-for-all, and building codes weren’t overhauled until years later, even though the Structural Engineers Association of California developed out of the 1906 earthquake.

While improvements have certainly been made, the city is by no means earthquake-proof, as the National Geographic reported six years ago. Liquefaction zones, escape routes (including the Bay Bridge, which officials were skeptical of then and still are now) and an ailing sewer system are still challenges for the city.

Here are seven steps to earthquake preparedness if I’ve made you paranoid, or a guide to becoming part of your Neighborhood Emergency Response Team if you’re so inclined. Or you can read Mission Local’s series on NERT training, in which we attended all the sessions and wrote a series that will help to get you prepared. If you’re more of a history buff, there are plenty more quake stories to be experienced on the Mission Bicycle tour, as well as over at Found SF, SF City Guides, and NPR.

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  1. Reportedly some residents of the Valencia Hotel drowned in the creek below due to the quake, and those who survived burned to death when fire swept through the area a few days later. I’ve always suspected that the intersection of 17th and Valencia has the most visible rats in the wee hours because of the creek below. Just a theory.

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