A look at San Francisco’s first great quake

For more than a century now, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Bay Area in the early hours of April 18, 1906, has been referred to as the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

Given that the quake and resulting fire killed thousands and destroyed 80 percent of San Francisco, along with nearly all of nearby San Jose and Santa Rosa, the moniker is understandable.

But the term “Great San Francisco Earthquake” had actually in use for nearly 40 years before the 1906 disaster.

That’s because on Oct. 21, 1868, a 7.0 earthquake struck the Bay Area, with its epicenter on the other side of San Francisco Bay, in Hayward.

While it claimed only 30 lives – likely because it struck an area with relatively little population at the time – it left a lasting impact on those who felt it, including one Mark Twain.

Twain, who was in San Francisco during the 1868 quake, described it in his 1872 book Roughing It:

There came a really terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together.

I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. As I reeled about on the pavement, trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The front of a four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a dust like a great volume of smoke!

A streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends, and one fat man had crashed halfway through a glass window on one side of the car, got wedged fast, and was squirming and screaming like an impaled madman.

Every door of every house was vomiting a stream of human beings. Gentlemen and ladies who were sick, or were taking a siesta, thronged into the public streets in all sorts of queer apparel, and some without any at all. One woman who had been washing a naked child ran down the street holding it by the ankles as if it were a dressed turkey.

Dozens of men rushed from barbershops, lathered to the eyes or with one cheek clean shaved and the other still bearing a hairy stubble.

A lady sitting in her rocking and quaking parlor saw the wall part at the ceiling, open and shut twice, like a mouth, and then drop the end of a brick on the floor like a tooth. Suspended pictures were thrown down, but oftener still, by a curious freak of the earthquake’s humor, they were whirled completely around with their faces to the wall!

The Hayward Earthquake of 1868 differed from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake in one important respect. While the latter was the result of a rupture along the San Andreas Fault, the 1868 quake took place along the Hayward Fault Zone.

The Hayward Fault Zone runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault, but further inland.

The Hayward Fault is much smaller than its more-famous cohort, 75 miles long compared to the San Andreas’ 810 miles, but it runs through several densely populated areas, including the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and San Jose.

While little remembered today, the 1868 earthquake not only destroyed or significantly damaged nearly every building in the town of Hayward, it damaged or destroyed buildings in what is now Fremont, San Jose, San Francisco and throughout Alameda County.

Damage was reported from Santa Rosa in the north to Gilroy and Santa Cruz in the south, giving an idea of its scope.

Something else to keep in mind when considering the area that today is home to millions: the 1868 quake was the last major seismic event to occur on the Hayward Fault.

In other words, there’s likely a lot of pent-up energy that’s going to be released someday, some way.

(Above: Damage in downtown San Francisco from 1868 Hayward Earthquake. Photo credit: Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley.)

2 thoughts on “A look at San Francisco’s first great quake

  1. “there’s likely a lot of pent-up energy”

    Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good. I hadn’t known about this 1868 earthquake.

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