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San Francisco 1906: Resilience in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster

Arnold Genthe (1869–1942) photographed images of San Francisco on April 18, 1906 and for at least two weeks after much of the city was reduced to rubble by an earthquake and a subsequent fire that devastated its downtown. While many of his photographs beautifully document the city in ruins, Genthe’s best images centered on candid portrayals of people, the subjects that had always been at the heart of his San Francisco street work.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's photography holdings include at least fifty of Genthe’s negatives (out of a collection of 156) that show different aspects of daily life during the first weeks after the earthquake and fire. Of the 250,000 San Franciscans who lost their homes, many left the city, others stayed with friends whose houses survived, and still others camped in tents that filled Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and every other open space including cemeteries.

Daily life in the encampments, populated largely by working-class people, was reduced to such basic chores as drawing water, obtaining and cooking food, and washing and mending clothes. There was also time for the socializing and good humor that made life tolerable.

"In Genthe’s images, little of the human misery that afflicted San Francisco citizens is seen; instead, his photographs show aspects of everyday life that were infused with a sense of resilience, perseverance, and resolute coping."

In addition to the large encampments, Genthe also photographed in the small parks and open spaces where clusters of tents with their laundry lines and crude brick cooking stoves often stood next to surviving mansions—a reflection of his interest in class and wealth that was as much a concern during the earthquake and fire as it had been beforehand. (In one photograph, he recorded a long line of people waiting at one of the relief stations that were the only sources of food and supplies for rich and poor alike.)

Genthe’s photographs also show the activities of the city’s reconstruction: men clearing the rubble, brick by brick, with wheelbarrows and horse-drawn carts; carpenters erecting a wooden framework with new lumber; and gleeful citizens packed aboard a streetcar that had returned to service on April 26, only one week after the earthquake. For him, they were the activities that symbolized healing and a population in recovery.

“I wanted to stay to see the new city which would rise from the ruins. I felt that my place was there. I had something to contribute, even if only in a small measure to the rebuilding of the city.” —Genthe in his 1936 autobiography, As I Remember

Text by Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Below is a selection of Genthe’s photographs of San Francisco, with additional insights about San Franciscans’ resilience provided by Victoria Binder, Head of Paper Conservation.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (The Presidio near the hospital, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 5/8 x 3 3/8 in. (14.3 x 8.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.154
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (The Presidio near the hospital, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 5/8 x 3 3/8 in. (14.3 x 8.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.154

To accommodate the large population dislocated by the earthquake, the Army erected military-style tent camps in the city’s parks including the Presidio, then a U.S. Army post. In this scene, a couple resumes the essential activities of daily life, including washing laundry, on the edge of neat rows of tents in the Presidio and the backdrop Marin Headlands.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Domestic Scene in Post Earthquake and Fire Days. A Family's Activities in an Emergency Camp), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/8 x 5 3/4 in. (8.6 x 14.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.78.1
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Domestic Scene in Post Earthquake and Fire Days. A Family's Activities in an Emergency Camp), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/8 x 5 3/4 in. (8.6 x 14.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.78.1

In the refugee encampments, activities were reduced to the basic chores of daily life. The private lives of displaced San Francisco citizens were brought outside in full view. In this image, a woman mends clothing while people in the background carry pails of water. Water was rationed, and could only be used for drinking, cooking, and washing.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Life in a refugee camp. A large reclining dog punctuates the foreground), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 x 3 1/4 in. (12.7 x 8.3 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.109
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Life in a refugee camp. A large reclining dog punctuates the foreground), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 x 3 1/4 in. (12.7 x 8.3 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.109

People were not the only ones who had to adjust to a new way of life. There are numerous accounts from the 1906 earthquake describing the rescue of beloved pets. In this quiet scene, a friendly-looking dog and two large birds in cages sit outside a tent. Though the animals’ owner is not present, a peek inside the tent and the surroundings gives a sense of that person’s life, including a sign that says “Photograph Gallery”.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Lafayette Park, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/4 x 5 11/16 in. (8.3 x 14.4 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.81
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Lafayette Park, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/4 x 5 11/16 in. (8.3 x 14.4 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.81

Outside the encampments, clusters of makeshift tents populated small parks and open spaces. In this scene, the daily activities of the displaced citizens of this small tent community stand in stark contrast to the stately mansion overlooking Lafayette Park.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Jefferson Square, Eddy and Laguna Streets, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/4 x 3 7/16 in. (9.5 x 8.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.123
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Jefferson Square, Eddy and Laguna Streets, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/4 x 3 7/16 in. (9.5 x 8.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.123

The relief effort for the earthquake was almost immediate. Necessary supplies and food were rationed and distributed to all San Francisco citizens, regardless of wealth and social stranding, through relief stations positioned throughout the city. In this image, a long line of people awaits their rations in Jefferson Square with the ruins of the old City Hall looming in the background.

Arnold Genthe,Untitled (Cavagnaro House, Gough and Union Streets, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 1/4 x 3 1/2 in. (13.3 x 8.9 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.138.1
Arnold Genthe,Untitled (Cavagnaro House, Gough and Union Streets, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 5 1/4 x 3 1/2 in. (13.3 x 8.9 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.138.1

Clothing was in short supply, as many people fled their homes in the aftermath of the quake with few belongings. Within weeks, garment donations poured into San Francisco. In this scene, women sift through piles of clothing. Behind them stands the McElroy family Octagon House, badly damaged by the earthquake. The house was restored in 1951 through the efforts of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and now stands at 2645 Gough Street.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (St. Dunstan Hotel, Van Ness Avenue and Sutter Street, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/8 x 5 1/2 in. (8.6 x 14 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.1
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (St. Dunstan Hotel, Van Ness Avenue and Sutter Street, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 3/8 x 5 1/2 in. (8.6 x 14 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.1

Even as the devastated city still lay smoking, the clearing of rubble and the rebuilding process began. Workers cleared piles of bricks throughout the city. Often, ordinary citizens on the streets were directed by the military to pick up fallen bricks. Arnold Genthe was tasked with picking up rubble several times while he was out taking pictures.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Men work to rebuild the city surrounded by the ruins left by the earthquake and fire), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/8 x 5 11/16 in. (7.9 x 14.4 cm).Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.79
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Men work to rebuild the city surrounded by the ruins left by the earthquake and fire), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/8 x 5 11/16 in. (7.9 x 14.4 cm).Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.79

The rebuilding of San Francisco was immediate and swift, reflecting the resilient energy of its citizens. In this image taken just weeks after the earthquake, carpenters constructed the wooden frame of a building among the surrounding ruins.

Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Lower Market Street, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/8 x 5 1/8 in. (7.9 x 13 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.122
Arnold Genthe, Untitled (Lower Market Street, San Francisco), 1906. Cellulose nitrate negative, 3 1/8 x 5 1/8 in. (7.9 x 13 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund, 1943.407.122

This scene shows a streetcar on lower Market Street packed with excited citizens and sightseers. On April 26, 1906, eight days after the earthquake, the streetcars began running downtown again.

Learn more about the Paper Conservation Lab, and browse more works from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphics Arts.

Discover more about Genthe's earthquake images in this video.