The 1906 San Francisco Quake

Victorian homes on Howard Street near 17th Avenue that were damaged in the earthquake, San Francisco, California, 1906. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

On April 18, 2016, the city of San Francisco marked the 110th anniversary of the deadliest earthquake in U.S. history. Photographer Horace Ashton rushed to the scene shortly after the disaster occurred, and he wrote about this devastating experience in The Spirit of Villarosa, a new book that documents his amazing life.

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Easter weekend, April 18, 1906, found me in Atlanta, Georgia, photographing the annual Easter Egg Hunt in Grant Park. I took delight in capturing this spectacular affair because it showed people at their best. Hundreds of children, black and white, hunted eggs together.

When I returned to my hotel in Atlanta that evening, I found a telegram waiting for me. It read: “Mr. Ashton, please take the first train to San Francisco. There has been a disastrous earthquake, and a great citywide fire is raging.” Across the country, in California, a great earthquake had shattered the joy of that Easter weekend.

I boarded the next train out of Atlanta, but it took me three days to get to San Francisco. I arrived in time to take hundreds of human-interest pictures: people living in the open near where their houses had been destroyed; refugee camps established by the United States Army; the demolition of walls that were left standing but deemed dangerous; twisted cable-car tracks; great fissures in the earth, some as large as ten feet wide and forty to fifty feet deep. Some houses remained standing, but they were no longer attached to their foundations. Others had been pushed off their lots by the powerful movements of Mother Earth.

When I headed back to New York City after taking numerous rolls of film, I felt grateful. I was one of the lucky ones, able to leave a city that had to bury its dead and rebuild after such a devastating event.

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To read more of Horace Ashton’s milestone moments, keep checking this blog.

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