Sierra history: Truckee helped 1906 San Francisco quake victims |

Sierra history: Truckee helped 1906 San Francisco quake victims

A 7.8 quake and urban fire destroyed San Francisco in 1906.
Courtesy Library of Congress |

Editor’s Note

This is the first in a two-part series of stories regarding Truckee lending a hand in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Yet another natural disaster movie has taken the country by storm. The newly released blockbuster film “San Andreas” portrays magnitude 9.1 and 9.6 temblors that devastate California from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Buildings explode into fiery rubble while a quake-generated tsunami swamps the Golden Gate Bridge. Geologists know that the upper limit for quake intensity along the San Andreas Fault is 8.3, but the movie business succeeds by pushing the limits of reality and physics.

In the past half-century alone, violent earthquakes have destroyed countless communities and killed millions of people around the world, yet Hollywood knows that we can never get enough of natural disasters and the human drama that accompany them.

In the Far West, terra firma is an illusion. Alaska experiences the most earthquakes in the country, but California and Nevada rank second and third respectively and together account for about 80 percent of all quakes in the 48 contiguous states.

The magnitude of energy released by an earthquake was quantified by the Richter scale until the 1970s, when it was replaced with the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS).


As an active mountain range, the Sierra Nevada shakes frequently, sometimes with unbelievable force. A relatively recent violent convulsion of the range in April 1872 generated a colossal 8.3 magnitude shock that was felt from Winnemucca, Nev., to Oakland, Calif.

Land near the small community of Lone Pine along the eastern Sierra front uplifted nearly 17 feet in a matter of hours. It was a stunning reminder that the mountains will love are still growing.

The movie industry rakes in millions of dollars with sensationalized disaster flicks, but the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault is real enough, and the most developed urban centers and populated areas of California have all endured seismic disasters along its length.

Recent temblors include the 1989 Loma Prieta (7.2 MMS) and 1994 Northridge (6.7) earthquakes that killed more than 120 people and caused extensive structural damage.

The strongest earthquake ever recorded in California hit Fort Tejon in the Tehachapi Mountains in 1857. It registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, but caused little damage due to the minimal number of people and buildings near the epicenter.


Arguably the most impactful of all the Golden State’s seismic events is the deadly 1906 San Francisco quake and catastrophic fire that killed between 3,000 and 5,000 people. The true number of fatalities will never be known for sure.

The destruction was so extensive and the subsequent rebuilding so transformative that the history of San Francisco is often narrated on a time scale symbolically dated as before or after the event.

This historic natural disaster ruined the city, but rallied its population together to help each other and then rebuild.

There are no known survivors alive from the 1906 quake, but civic leaders, politicians, and residents will commemorate its 110-year anniversary next April. It’s an annual tradition the city is proud of.

The devastating earthquake that ripped along California’s San Andreas Fault in 1906 represents an iconic event in this nation’s storied western history.

The violent 7.8-magnitude temblor shook most of California, western Nevada and southern Oregon, and spiked seismographs as far away as Germany and Japan.

The catastrophic convulsion and subsequent firestorm destroyed much of San Francisco, but the city’s citizens helped each other and the stories of compassion are inspiring.

Even the town of Truckee rallied to feed the displaced and homeless people of San Francisco with bread and meat shipments sent down to the smoldering city by rail.


The quake struck suddenly at 5:12 a.m. Wednesday, April 18, when most of the city’s inhabitants were asleep in bed. The temblor lasted little more than a minute, but it was an especially violent quake and it ripped San Francisco’s infrastructure apart.

Whole houses were tossed into the Pacific Ocean; locomotives derailed taking passenger cars with them. Brick buildings collapsed into heaps of worthless rubble.

Despite the heavy damage, engineers noted that the brutal wrenching had little effect on scientifically designed buildings constructed with quakes in mind.

Nearly all of the steel-framed office buildings, including the 22-story Spreckels skyscraper, were not seriously damaged by the earthquake.

North of San Francisco the horizontal displacement of the fault measured 16 feet. South of the city the ground shifted six to eight feet.

The lack of damage to reinforced concrete and steel indicated their resistance to earthquakes, but nothing could prepare the city’s residents for the real trouble yet to come.

The quake was one thing, but it was fire that sent thousands of homeless refugees fleeing to Truckee, Reno, and points beyond.

To aid evacuation Southern Pacific Railroad offered free transportation to survivors trying to reach friends or families to the east.

On April 22 Truckee’s citizens convened a community meeting to set up a relief committee to feed “all refugees who pass through this town on every eastbound train.”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s blog:

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