This Day in History: The San Francisco Earthquake

At 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter Scale destroyed much of the city of San Francisco, California.

Devastating fires soon broke out across the city and lasted for several days. Water mains were ruptured and there were limited means to fight the fires. The central business district was largely destroyed, and almost all the homes in the city were either destroyed or damaged.

The earthquake and fires killed around 3,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in California history.

As she later wrote for the Review & Herald, Ellen White was given a preview of the disaster a couple of days before it happened:

“While at Loma Linda, the second night after the dedication of the sanitarium, there passed before me a most wonderful representation. During a vision of the night, I stood on an eminence, from which I could see houses shaken like a reed in the wind. Buildings, great and small, were falling to the ground. Pleasure resorts, theaters, hotels, and the homes of the wealthy were shaken and shattered. Many lives were blotted out of existence, and the air was filled with the shrieks of the injured and the terrified.

“The destroying angels of God were at work. One touch, and buildings so thoroughly constructed that men regarded them as secure against every danger, quickly became heaps of rubbish. There was no assurance of safety in any place. I did not feel in any special peril, but the awfulness of the scenes that passed before me I can not find words to describe. It seemed that the forbearance of God was exhausted, and that the Judgment day had come.

“The angel that stood by my side then instructed me that but few have any conception of the wickedness existing in our world today, and especially the wickedness in the large cities. He declared that the Lord has appointed a time when he will visit transgressors in wrath for persistent disregard of his law.

“At about one o’clock I awoke, and was impressed to write out some things regarding the supreme rulership of God, and the sacredness of his law. When I met my secretary early in the morning, I told her that wonderful representations had been passing before me in the night season. After breakfast, we received a message asking us to go to Los Angeles by the afternoon train; but I was unable to take any part in preparing for the journey. I was as one dazed by the awful scenes that had passed before me.

“We went to Glendale, near Los Angeles, and the following night, April 17, further representations passed before me. I seemed to be in an assembly, setting before the people the requirements of God’s law. I read the scriptures regarding the institution of the Sabbath in Eden at the close of the creation week, and regarding the giving of the law at Sinai; and then I showed that the Sabbath was to be observed “for a perpetual covenant,” as a sign between God and his people forever, that they may know that they are sanctified by the Lord, their Creator.

“Then I dwelt upon the supreme rulership of God above all earthly rulers. His law is to be the standard of action. None are to pervert their senses by intemperance, or by yielding their minds to satanic influences: for this makes impossible the keeping of God’s law. While the divine Ruler bears long with perversity, he is not deceived, and will not always keep silence. His supremacy, his authority as Ruler of the universe, must finally be acknowledged, and the just claims of his law vindicated.

“Much more instruction regarding the long-sufferance of God, and the necessity of arousing transgressors to a realization of their perilous position in his sight, was repeated to the people, as received from my instructor.

“Wednesday morning, April 18, I was to speak in the church at Los Angeles, where the Southern California Conference was assembled. As we neared the church, we heard the newsboys crying, ‘San Francisco destroyed by an earthquake!’ With a heavy heart I read the first hastily printed news of the terrible disaster.

“Two weeks later, on our homeward journey, we went by the way of San Jose, Mountain View, and San Francisco. As we traveled northward, we saw some of the effects of the earthquake; and when we entered San Jose, we could see that large buildings had collapsed, and that others had been seriously damaged.

“At Mountain View, the new post-office and some of the largest stores in the town had been leveled to the ground. Other buildings had partially collapsed, and were badly wrecked. When we saw the fallen walls of the Pacific Press, we were sad at heart; but we could not help rejoicing over the fact that no lives were lost. Here, as also in San Francisco, the Lord mercifully spared his children.” {RH May 24, 1906}

“Yesterday, on our way home from Mountain View, we stopped to take a view of the destruction in San Francisco. Notwithstanding some of the buildings were of the most stable kind and were supposed to be proof against disaster, the city is a ruin. In some places the buildings are sunken into the ground. This city presents a most powerful picture of the inefficiency of human devising and human skill to withstand the carrying out of the Lord's mandate.” (21 MR 91.2)