1906 earthquake
Ruins after San Francisco earthquake, 1906 (Photo by Arnold Genthe - Library of Congress via Bay City News) Credit: Arnold Genthe / Library of Congress

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One of the Bay Area’s most literally earth-shaking events — or at least the commemoration thereof — is happening Monday: The gathering marking the 116th anniversary of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire.

For decades, city officials — this year, Mayor London Breed, former mayor Willie Brown and Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, among others — and hundreds of other hardy souls have met at an ornate water fountain downtown known as Lotta’s Fountain in the very early hours of April 18 to mark the anniversary.

Ranked as one of the most significant earthquakes of all time, the April 18, 1906 earthquake registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, killed more than 3,000 people, rendered about 225,000 people homeless, and destroyed 28,000 buildings. The latter was mostly the result of the fire that raged in the quake’s wake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program.

In order to attend the free event, it is necessary to arise early enough to arrive at 4:45 a.m., an experience that might be equally earth-shaking for some. After a round of speeches, a wreath will be laid at the fountain on Market Street at the junction of Kearny, Third and Geary streets.

“This year’s Lotta’s Fountain wreath will be dedicated to the memory of those who died 116 years ago and those who lived to rebuild San Francisco from the ashes,” said Lee Houskeeper, who has produced the 1906 commemoration event for the last 34 years.

Legend has it that Lotta’s Fountain was where the city’s stunned populace gathered to search for lost loved ones and signs of hope after the earthquake. The quake itself is estimated to have lasted no more than one minute; but it ruptured gas lines in the city, and leaking gas was the catalyst for more than 30 fires that destroyed the financial district and the city center.

At 5:11 a.m., the crowd will observe a moment of silence. As is not unusual with historic events, the exact time the quake hit is somewhat less than universally agreed upon; the USGS puts it at 5:12 a.m., for example.

After that, at 5:40 a.m., the event will move to 20th and Church streets at Dolores Park for the annual gilding of the fire hydrant said to have saved the city’s Mission District.

The official celebration did not take place in 2020 due to the pandemic. The event did take place in 2021.