A sea captain called it the “mad moment” on that morning of April 18, 1906, when something mysteriously jolted his steamer in calm waters off San Francisco.
Seconds later, the madness came ashore at 7,000 m.p.h., an earthquake so strong it was as though the sea god Poseidon strode in to obliterate the landlubbers.
Eighty-three years later the madness would be back. And in San Francisco, it would take its greatest toll in a part of town that had been literally created as a monument to earthquake survival.
On land, the 1906 temblor started beneath the Point Arena Lighthouse, 90 miles north of the city, and ripped in seconds down the gentle hills and dales.
It hit San Francisco at 5:12 a.m and lasted for 48 seconds.
As Gordon Thomas and Max Witts write in “The San Francisco Earthquake,” even at that hour some in the raucous young metropolis were astir.
The great Caruso, on his first trip to the American West, had just gone to bed after carousing into the wee hours to celebrate his triumphant performance in “Carmen” at the Grand Opera House.
The dashing John Barrymore had lured a young woman back to his suite at the St. Francis to open some champagne.
And down on the rollicking Barbary Coast they were still belting down whiskey and rolling the dice.
All of a sudden, a monstrous shudder.
What in God’s name was that?
The clock on the Ferry Building stopped dead at 5:15 (everybody knew it was fast), and became the instant symbol of the Great San Francisco Earthquake.
“Buildings danced on their foundations,” said one witness.
A police sergeant said he looked at the hilly streets and “it was as if the waves of the ocean were coming towards me.”
Church bells rang all over.
Tumbling buildings sent up a charge of dust as thick as coal smoke.
And everywhere in San Francisco, a strange sound.
“Like a thousand violins, all at a discord,” was the way British Consul General Walter Bennett described it.
There was bedlam in the streets.
A.P. Giannini, a young banker who was to found the Bank of America, hitched up a team of horses and hauled his money to a brother’s house for safekeeping.
It would not be long before orders went out to shoot looters on sight.
Caruso was found weeping in his hotel suite, his silk shirts and 40 pairs of fine Italian boots all ajumble amid the bureau drawers on the floor.
Caruso’s agent, write Thomas and Witts, was quoted as saying that for the great singer, it was “as if the cataclysmic terror had singled him out to obliterate his glory of the previous night, as if Providence had evil designs on him personally.”
Outside in the streets, though, it was as if Beelzebub had designs on San Francisco.
Everywhere, the little fires that were to grow into the Great Fire were raging.
In 1906 there were no sprinklers in the city’s many wooden structures; flames scattered like dandelion down from the kerosene lamps that were shattered in the quake.
In the first 17 minutes after the shaking stopped, 50 fires were sighted in downtown San Francisco.
But there were no fire bells because the central alarm system in Chinatown had been destroyed.
And the talents of Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan would never be used; his Bush Street residence collapsed and he was in a coma from which he would never recover.
What happened next was sickening--a swath of conflagration.
From Russian Hill down past Market Street to the bay, just about everything was charred right down to the dirt.
“All night the city burned with a copper glow,” wrote James Hopper in the periodical Everybody’s.
In the Overland Monthly, Pierre N. Beringer penned this breathtaking passage:
“Then came the season of the awful silence, the hush of awe, when mankind held its breath and things stood still and humanity gazed on havoc and hideous roar and then, out of the silence, out of toppled buildings, ruined palaces, and dismal hovels, came the besom of flame.
“With hideous roar it advanced, this terrible thing, this red and yellow monster, and its fiery arms outstretched, it reached the seven hills and it hissed and roared and with infernal intensity, it consumed, ate, and devoured.”
The startling photographs of this devastation assembled by Eric Saul and Don Denevi for their book “The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906" show parts of the city looking like Hiroshima would look 39 years later when the atomic bomb was dropped.
Estimates at the time of the quake and fire put the dead at 700. But more recently, city archivists have greatly upgraded that to 2,000. Checking records, they combined those known to have perished with those who vanished on that day.
As William Bronson notes in “The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned,” few Americans today can fathom the breadth of the destruction.
City Hall and most of its documents--gone.
Whole libraries and art treasures--gone.
The domiciles of more than 250,000 people--destroyed.
More than 30 schools and 80 churches and convents--leveled or razed by fire.
“It was agreed by the Real Estate Board,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, “that the calamity should be spoken of as ‘the great fire,’ not as ‘the great earthquake.’ ”
After all, they could hope to handle fires in the future. Earthquakes were out of their control and any reminder of them could severely limit San Francisco’s appeal.
(San Francisco columnist Herb Caen recalls that as a beginning reporter half a century ago, he once referred to “the Great San Francisco Earthquake” and was called in by his editors. Wagging their fingers, they admonished him that it was the “Great San Francisco Fire.”)
But in the aftermath of this year’s massive quake, if anyone points a finger, it won’t be at fire.
It will be, rather, to what followed in the first few years after the 1906 disaster.
“San Francisco Doomed,” screamed one headline.
The number of homeless was so high that when many people were asked where they were from, they responded, “I don’t live anywhere. I used to live in San Francisco.”
Yet, the collection of fortune hunters, immigrants, sea traders and corporate captains who made up “Baghdad by the Bay” soon began to rebuild.
And a massive job it was.
About 28,000 structures were destroyed in the earthquake and fire, according to Father John B. McGloin’s “San Francisco, the Story of a City.”
Only four years later, though, in 1910, a survey found 25,000 new buildings--the nucleus of a reborn city.
And when the Panama Canal opened in 1914, providing much faster passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, San Francisco decided it was time to throw a party.
Or, more precisely, to stage the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.
An exhibition hall and other facilities were needed, and they would best be placed on flat land--a rare commodity in the city of soaring hills.
Civil engineer Harris de Haven Connick decided to literally create land.
He chose an area called Harbor Cove, near Ft. Point and not far from the Presidio.
It was under 15 feet of water, a brackish backwash of not much use to anybody. But Connick changed that.
Using technology developed by the Dutch, among others, he built a sea wall around 70 acres of Harbor Cove and filled it with mud from the bay and other dirt.
And on this raw new land all the major countries put up temporary exhibits for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
It was one way to get their minds off World War I, which had broken out the year before.
On opening day, Feb. 20, 1915, McGloin writes, the exposition drew 245,143 people; in 10 months it was visited by more than 18 million.
“There was no doubt,” he writes, “that San Francisco had demonstrated to its own satisfaction, as well as that of the world, that it had definitely recovered from the wounds inflicted upon it less than 10 years before.”
Like the 1906 earthquake, memories of Harbor Cove faded over the years.
The new piece of land was given a new name: the Marina District, where fine homes and apartments went up after the exhibit structures were removed.
With its sea air, great views of the bay and the huge greensward of park, the Marina has become one of the most desirable addresses on the West Coast.
But it was on this former landfill--built after the 1906 quake as a testament to one city’s gutsy determination to endure and prevail--that last week’s quake did its worst damage in San Francisco.
At least three people were killed in the Marina; many buildings were knocked off their foundations and city inspectors believe that as many as 100 will have to be demolished. Gas service may not be restored for weeks.
In San Francisco this was the closest that the latest quake came to the madness of 1906.
And any thoughts of rebuilding in the Marina will be accompanied by the initial conclusion from last week’s quake that a landfill may not be such a great place to be when the Earth’s plates shift.
It has suddenly become modern San Francisco’s reminder of the Great Earthquake of 1906.
Times research assistant Steven Tice contributed to this article.