1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: Recovery History Discovered

As we commemorate the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, which took place at 5:12 a.m. 106 years ago today, we have a special DEM Blog written by the DEM Emergency Medical Services Administrator, Stephen LaPlante, sharing his personal story about finding a nugget of 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire history.


by Stephen La Plante, DEM Emergency Medical Services Administrator

It was a chilly San Francisco spring night in 1993. I was, among other things, the Building Superintendent of the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) Central Office. I had issued a contract for asbestos removal the following day in a long forgotten basement storeroom. The room was filled with decades of payroll records for Laguna Honda Hospital. However, my gut told me that there were possibly other historically significant documents in the room.

My good friend, the City’s Asbestos Control Manager, warned me that the room was a serious hazard. Asbestos-filled pipe insulation hung in shreds from the ceiling. The removal method was complete destruction of everything in the room by dumping the documents into a water barrel. I only had this evening to act!

I put on a pair of disposable hospital scrubs and a surgical mask, and went in. No one else was working in the building. In the far corner of the room on the lowest shelf – there they were – bound ledgers labeled, “Pay Roll Log, 1906-1907.” These logs began in May, 1906, and listed the DPH employees working in 16 of the 26 camps set up around the City to house residents of San Francisco displaced by the quake and fire. DPH selected these 16 camps to establish daily medical clinics of various sizes with the following types of staff: surgeons, nurses, horse-and-wagon teamsters, foremen and laborers, pharmacists and night watchmen.

In August, 1906, emergency sanitary surgeons were added at a salary of $100 per month. It is likely that these personnel were closer to the modern health inspector. By January, 1907, camp surgeons were added at $150 per month. Because of infectious disease issues, such as the plague, the role of assistant bacteriologist was added in September, 1907. These camps operated until the last one closed on June 30, 1908.

These logs were in handwritten cursive using India ink. The penmanship was perfect. Adjacent to these logs were the Board of Health minutes from May, 1906, through 1912. I gingerly placed approximately 15 of these books in a cardboard box and sealed it. I called Dave Rizzolo, the Asbestos Manager, the next day to confess my crimes and beg forgiveness. He graciously agreed and arranged for the asbestos contractor to carefully remove the asbestos from all the volumes. I then notified the City Archivist at the San Francisco Main Library, Susan Goldstein, who was absolutely thrilled. She said that they knew about the camps, but not about the exact work of the Health Department. They remain in a temperature-controlled room at the San Francisco Main Library in perpetuity.

It felt good to fill another hole in the history of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, and to illuminate the fine work of a group of dedicated civil servants.

We conclude this DEM Blog with a prevention and preparedness message: though earthquakes are unavoidable, fires can be extinguished in the beginning stages. Having a fire extinguisher on hand (and knowing how to use it) will be vital to San Francisco's ability to mitigate the vast and significant damage San Francisco experienced in April 1906. Becoming a trained member of San Francisco NERT is a great way to know what to do before and after a disaster, including but not limited to how to put out fires, provide first aide, and conduct light search and rescue. And establishing your household's emergency plan and having extra supplies on hand will not only help you recover from a disaster, but the entire City and County of San Francisco. Visit 72hours.org to learn more about how to be prepared for just about any emergency.