The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Its Role in Shaping a New California

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Most estimates suggest that between 80 and 90 percent of San Francisco was ruined as a result of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and forced to make new homes elsewhere as the city was being rebuilt. I would like to focus my paper primarily on the refugee phenomenon that occurred as a result of the fire, and more specifically how the earthquake helped to shape a new San Francisco, and more generally, a modern California. Prior to the fire, San Francisco had been the largest city on the West Coast, but population growth and commerce stalled following the fire. I would like to examine the places that experienced growth in population and commerce following the fire, and how such growth would foreshadow what California looks like today. For example, Los Angeles experienced growth following the earthquake in San Francisco, yet LA is located near the same San Andreas Fault that caused the destruction of San Francisco. In examining movement and development across California following the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, I would like to pay particular attention to the movement patterns of different socioeconomic classes—especially immigrants. I think immigrants are interesting to pay attention to in the case of California as immigrants make up such a large part of the population, and play such distinct roles within California’s society. In terms of time frame, I will mostly focus on the few years following the fire, but then acknowledge how things changed further down the line, and note any parallels that can be made between California just post-earthquake and California today. Lastly, I would like to touch on the rebuilding of San Francisco, because that is important in itself to the shaping of a new, post-earthquake California.

In terms of primary sources, census records and photographs will prove to be particularly helpful as they can reveal information pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. Newspaper and magazine articles will help in terms of understanding the degree to which homelessness impacted citizens of San Francisco and the surrounding areas, after the earthquake and fires. Perhaps such primary sources could also reveal where people went following the fire, and maybe even further difference in movements between different social classes and demographics. Popular sentiment could also be expressed through print articles, which could suggest why people were moving away from the Bay Area if that was the case, or why not, if they chose to stay in the area.