A Bird's Eye View of San Francisco Destroyed by Fire
111 years ago, San Francisco was almost wiped off the map
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
On the night of April 17th in 1906, the world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso wowed San Franciscans at the Tivoli Opera House with his performance in Carmen. The next day would – unfortunately – prove much more memorable for San Francisco. That Wednesday morning, at twelve minutes past five, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7,8 on the Richter scale struck the Bay Area.
The quake lasted 42 seconds, causing severe damage. Ruptured gas lines (and the scarcity of water due to ruptures in those lines) caused city-wide fires that eventually were responsible for up to 90% of the total destruction. Additionally, since the insurance companies didn’t refund the actual quake damage, many people set fire to their own homes. The fires raged for four days and nights. By that time, 80% of the city was destroyed. Estimates of the damage range from $500 million to as high as $1 billion (equivalent to at least $300 billion in today's money).
The army was brought in to control the fires (which they did with dynamite and even artillery barrages) and stop the looting. In all, 500 presumed looters were shot. Some destruction and loss of life occurred outside San Francisco, but the bulk of the 3,000 casualties were to be regretted in the Golden Gate city itself. Three quarters of its population of 400,000 were made homeless. Half of those fled across the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley, others took up residence in massive camps of shacks and tents at Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, among other places.
Some of those camps were still open in 1908, indicating the slowness of the rebuilding effort (the city wouldn’t be considered ‘rebuilt’ until the Exposition of 1915). Up until then, San Francisco had been the undisputed economic centre of the West Coast. Los Angeles profited from the diversion of trade, industry and population, and eventually overtook its rival to the north.
This map was drawn by H.M. Pettit for Leslie’s Weekly, a famous American illustrated news magazine founded in 1852 and operating well into the 20th century, when some of its covers were drawn by Norman Rockwell. As befits a news weekly founded by an engraver, (Frank) Leslie’s Weekly featured a fair share of maps, illuminating a contemporary news story. This map’s title and subtitle are of a charming, old-school length and descriptiveness: Destruction of One of the Greatest Modern Cities. Bird’s-Eye view of Stricken San Francisco, Showing the Burned District, Covering Twenty-Five Square Miles, With the Most Prominent Places and Buildings Carefully Indicated.
Oriented to the southwest, the map surrounds the Burned District with a dotted line, from the Union Iron Works at the left side of the map up to Twin Peaks in the centre of the peninsula, and then along Van Ness Avenue almost to the Bay, taking a right on Greenwich Street via Telegraph Hill to the water, sparing the area around Fisherman’s Wharf. In total, about 500 city blocks were destroyed. Some significant locations are spelled out on the map:
And Caruso? Clutching an autographed photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, he made an effort to get out of the city, first by boat and then by train, and vowed never to return to San Francisco. He kept his word.
Strange Maps #161
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.