As specialists in maps, posters, and other ephemera relating to the history of San Francisco, Neatline is excited to present this rare trio of color panoramas of the city by R.J. Waters. The images convey a story of San Francisco’s resilience in the wake of the horrendous disaster that befell the city in 1906.
R.J. Waters was among the West Coast’s most famous turn-of-the-century photographers, and among his most famous themes was the destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires that ensued throughout the city. The Library of Congress, for example, holds two of his panoramic photographs of San Francisco from 1909, just three years after the catastrophe, in which much of the city already has been, or is being rebuilt. It is this same theme that saturates our three photographs, which when seen in unison contrast sharply in content and appearance. The photographs are more than imagery. They constitute a narrative that encapsulates the strength and determination of San Francisco and her inhabitants, and show the rebuild that was accomplished in less than a decade.
Despite belonging together and creating the sense of narrative described above, it is worth looking at the photographs individually as well. Each of the images is titled, giving us a clear idea of what is being conveyed, creating a clear chronology in the images, and making the underlying story more explicit.
The Burning City, San Francisco, 10 A. M. April 18th 1906
The first image shows the city in flames in the hours that followed the massive earthquake that hit San Francisco in the early morning of May 18th. Following the initial chaos, efforts were rallied to combat the large fires that were spreading throughout the city. Waters took several photographs of the city that day, and from this image we can see that by 10 am he had reached his perhaps most important vantage point. This image was undoubtedly taken from the rooftop of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill (known at the time as ‘California Street Hill’). This was the highest point in the city and its most famous location for panoramic views, epitomized by Eadweard Muybridge’s famous Panorama of San Francisco from California-Street Hill. The location on this historic spot becomes particularly pertinent to the horrifying events of the day, as the hotel itself would fall victim to the fire and collapse within hours of Waters taking this photo. The time slot is also interesting because it helps establish just how intense and overwhelming the conflagration must have been. Enhanced by color, this image captures a moment of complete and utter crisis. A city in shock and disbelief.
As with most panoramic urban views of the era, we are provided with labels along the bottom of the image identifying specific buildings, streets, and other features. At the far left of the image, we see the corner of the elegant Fairmont Hotel. On the flat roof, Waters has caught a number of spectators gawking at the enormous fires downtown. This is a poignant reminder that this is not an artist’s interpretation of events, but in fact the actual scene at that pivotal moment. The image is in that sense wholly unapologetic.
While we see many well-known buildings and features of San Francisco in the image, it is undoubtedly the two massive plumes of thick black smoke in the centre of the image that captures attention. The plumes stretch for miles and are so thick that Yerba Buena Island and much of the East Bay have been completely obscured by them. For more details on the events as they unfolded that day, see the context section below.
The Ruins of San Francisco, May 1906
In the second image, roughly a month has passed since that terrifying day in mid-April. Once again, Waters has schlepped his camera up to to the top of Nob Hill in order to get the best vantage point for his panoramic photograph. However, this time he has to position his camera in the midst of the ruins of the Hopkins; as opposed to on its roof, which no longer exists. In consequence, the perspective is slightly different from its predecessor, although the Fairmont and Telegraph Hill remain visible in the far left of the image, after which the image pivots across most of downtown.
We must imagine that at this stage the shock has abated and a degree of apathy and depression taken over. When looking at this view of the city, such feelings were not surprising, for it is indeed a grim view we are being offered. Waters encapsulates this brilliantly by positioning himself as he did near his previous, pre-destruction vantage point. It is as if in doing so, he underlines the forever lost perspective of his previous images and symbolizes the great loss sustained that day.
The desolate atmosphere is stressed by detailed visuals of entire neighborhoods laid waste and proud architectural landmarks reduced to crumbling facades. Beyond the immediate plane of destruction we look down into the heart of the city and see iconic buildings such as the Mills Building, the Palace Hotel, and the cathedral standing there like hollowed out shells.
Even though the sun may be shining, San Francisco looks like a war zone.
Business Section of San Francisco, in 1914
It is this third image that completes the story and gives us the optimistic ending for which we naturally yearn. Taken eight years after the earthquake, this panorama swoops across the financial district of San Francisco, showing an urban landscape of dynamism and prosperity. Gone are the scars suffered in 1906 and instead we now see a vivacious scene, full of life.
As a photographer in the early 20th century, Waters and his colleagues enjoyed a great deal of journalistic credibility. Photographs were perceived as a medium that captured reality, and so people rarely questioned the veracity or content of a photograph. In this sense, Waters’ third photo really does show an incredible turn-around. But it is also an early example of how photography could be used to manipulate or modify what was being perceived. While Waters essentially is showing the same view as in his more sombre images, the perspective is somewhat different from the previous two images. Because this image was taken from the foot of Nob Hill, the image focusses on a very particular and attractive part of town. In doing so, Waters no only built a story of resilience directly into his images, but he also created a piece of promotional material meant to revitalize San Francisco’s image. This ambition came to full fruition in the following year, when San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exhibition.
Context is everything
The San Francisco earthquake struck in the early morning hours of April 18th 1906. It preceded the Richter scale by which we measure earthquakes today by three decades, but calculations have since shown that its force would have been equivalent to about 7.9 on the Richter scale and a Mercali Intensity of XI (extreme). Soon after the tremors had abated, more than thirty fires broke out across the city and raged for four days. Most of these were caused by raptured gas mains, but in some cases they were inadvertently started by local firefighters, such was the confusion of the earthquake’s aftermath. The fires burned intensely hot and since most residential buildings were built of timber and brick, entire neighborhoods burned completely to the ground. It has been estimated that 90% of the total destruction caused by the earthquake resulted from the fires.
When it was all over, more than 80% of the city had been destroyed and more than 3,000 people had lost their lives. The quake was felt as far away as in Nevada, Oregon, and Los Angeles. Modern seismologists still debate the exact epicenter, but most agree that it was just off the coast, northwest of the Golden Gate. The extent of the damage meant that two thirds of the population became refugees over night, and tents and shacks soon began to shoot up on the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Bernal Heights, and more. Eventually, many of the refugees moved across the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley. Important San Francisco landmarks were lost, including the famed Palace Hotel and City Hall.
In addition to the immediate and short-term impact on the city, the earthquake also had long-term consequences. In 1906, San Francisco was not only the largest and most populous city on the West Coast, but it was also the most important port and bridgehead for American mercantile interests in the Pacific and Asia. Much of this dynamism was lost due to the earthquake. The sheer destruction of basic infrastructure and the chaotic conditions to supply a work force, made maritime engagements difficult. As a result, a lot of trade was diverted south to Los Angeles, and with it followed money and people. In effect, and despite an impressively efficient rebuilding process, San Francisco lost its position as California’s major urban center to Los Angeles, and would not regain it again. This shift has come to characterize San Francisco and most of its contemporary inhabitants would have it no other way. Yet it is a powerful reminder of how easily trajectories can be altered.
The process of rebuilding the city was a long and arduous one. While civic leadership began planning the process immediately, finding the necessary funding proved extremely difficult. There was only a single bank in San Francisco that was willing and able to provide the scope of funds needed for the extensive re-building plans. The Bank of Italy had been founded by Amadeo Giannini, an Italian immigrant who had settled in North Beach. He became a great patron of the reborn San Francisco, providing the city itself with much-needed loans and paying for building materials out of his own pocket. Years later, the bank would be renamed Bank of America, which it is still known as today.
Due to the nature of the devastation and the difficulties in acquiring both funds and materials for the rebuilding, the process took time. But by 1915 the city had recovered to such a degree that it hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition; a world fair that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal that summer. This event showcased the city as a hub of modernity where one could experience the concrete results of technological advancement (including a cross-country phone line and the actual Liberty Bell). The exposition proved beyond any doubt that San Francisco had regained its former glory and perhaps now even outshone its former self. For the occasion of the exposition, a glamorous and monumental neighborhood of representative pavilions was constructed along the northern waterfront. Not much remains today, so to get a glimpse of just how impressive the new San Francisco would have been, we are relegated to the Palace of Fine Arts, the most important and imposing of the exposition buildings still standing.