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01 August 2009

CGS and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

The topic for the 77th , hosted by Miriam Robbins Midkiff at AnceStories, is Disasters. For the California Genealogical Society and Library that can only mean one thing: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

The California Genealogical Society, founded February 12, 1898, was only in its eighth year of existence when disaster struck. In an unpublished history of the society, the late Dorothy Fowler described it thus:

In 1906, the books--which by that fateful year numbered more than 300 – were housed in the apartment of the librarian, Mrs. Walter Damon Mansfield, in the California Hotel, Bush Street, between Kearny and Grant, San Francisco. The earthquake/fire completely consumed the fledgling library.
Amazingly the society survived and thrives today, but the disaster of over a century ago still remains always in the foreground. The significant loss of source documents presents a serious challenge to anyone researching 19th century San Franciscans. The work-arounds are the subject of the society's publication, Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for Pre-1906 San Francisco Research. Author Nancy Peterson describes the problem:

This was not the simple courthouse fire with which many of us with southern ancestry are familiar. Over one-fifth of the population of California lived at this time in San Francisco. Within three days 4.7 square miles of the city had burned, and about half the city's population was left homeless. Although the "official" death toll was set at 478, it has since been shown that at least 3400 lives and likely more were lost in a city that then was home to over 400,000. Losses in lives and property far exceeded those lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Not only were the documents genealogists are accustomed to accessing destroyed, but also the personal effects of a large part of its citizenry were lost. Marriage records, birth and baptismal certificates, deed and naturization documents were aboandoned and later destroyed as residents fled in terror to the outer reaches of the city or to its suburbs.
I've written before about A Most Dreadful Earthquake: A First-Hand Account of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire – with Glimpses into the Lives of the Phillips-Jones Letter Writers.  Both books were published by the society in 2006 to coincide with the centennial of the earthquake and fire.

What is less widely known, even to our own members, is the role that the California Genealogical Society played during the rebuilding years right after the earthquake and fire. The Panama Pacific International Exposition [3] of 1915 was a way for the city to showcase how far it had come in less than ten years.
The Panama Pacific International Exposition was the 1915 worlds fair held in San Francisco, California. Taking over three years to construct, the fair had great economic implications for the city that had been almost destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The exposition was a tremendous success, and did much to boost the morale of the entire Bay Area and to help get San Francisco back up on its feet.

Officially, the exposition was a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and also commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovering of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer, Balboa. San Francisco was only one of many cities hoping to host the PPIE. New Orleans was its primary rival, but in 1911 after a long competition of advertising and campaigning, President Taft proclaimed San Francisco to be the official host city.
Exposition planners left no stone unturned in their quest to insure a world-wide audience. Building exhibits were elaborately designed from every state and many countries. Railroads and shipping companies were alerted to make preparations for vast numbers of visitors and the city fathers encouraged organizations from every walk of life to hold meetings in San Francisco in 1915.
Using I was able to locate several article touting the Exposition from around the country in 1913 and 1914. Their headlines differed but all carried the same text, presumably taken from a press release with wide distribution, and beginning with these two paragraphs:
Reports received at the headquarters of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, from all parts of the world, indicate that the year 1915 will see more great congresses and convention assembled in San Francisco than have ever gathered together in any one city during a single year.

Throughout the United States, in South America, and in Europe, the greatest interest is being evinced by members and official of conventions, learned societies and congresses of all kinds. This is true of educational and scientific bodies, as well as of fraternal, church, civic, labor, social service, commercial, agricultural, athletic and other organizations. More than one hundred great congresses and conventions have already voted to meet in San Francisco.
This article [4] is from the July 7, 1914 issue of the Oakland Tribune.

The International Congress of Genealogy was held in San Francisco July 25-30, 1915, under the auspices of the California Genealogical Society.


1. Fowler, Dorothy. "The California Genealogical Society's Library – A Century of Growth," Oakland: California Genealogical Society, 1996, unpublished manuscript.

2. Peterson, Nancy. Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for Pre-1906 San Francisco Research. Oakland: California Genealogical Society, 2006, xi-xii

3. Zoe, San Francisco Memories, "The Panama Pacific International Exposition,", ( : accessed 31 August 2009).

4. "Genealogists to Hold World Meet," The Oakland (California) Tribune, July 7, 1914, p. 5, col. 3; digital images,, ( : accessed 24 July 2009)

Copyright © 2009 by Kathryn M. Doyle, California Genealogical Society and Library.


Anonymous said...

Great story! Those topics at that conference were just a little different than those we have today! What, no bloggers roundtable? ;-)

Brett Payne said...

Kathryn - Thanks for a great article, well written and informative, about an event which I should have known more about, and now do. Regards, Brett