1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake

Santa Rosa City Hall, 1906

The famous earthquake hit San Francisco 110 years ago. But fifty miles to the north, a sleepy Sonoma County town suffered worse devastation.

The Press Democrat, April 19, 1906

“A frightful disaster overtook Santa Rosa yesterday. Just as the dawn was breaking, a mighty earthquake struck the city. It came with awful force and suddenness, hurling many people from their beds. Before the terrified community could realize what had happened, the entire business section was a mass of ruins, every residence had been more or less damaged, some being completely wrecked, and approximately half a hundred or more had been swept into eternity.”

Santa Rosa in 1906 was a town of approximately 7,000 residents. The famous earthquake was stronger and did proportionately more damage in the Santa Rosa area than in San Francisco. More people died per capita in Santa Rosa than San Francisco. The town was virtually destroyed.

At 5:12 a.m., on April 18, 1906, a foreshock occurred with sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the area. The great earthquake broke loose some 20 to 25 seconds later, with an epicenter near Santa Rosa. Violent shocks and strong shaking lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. Upwards of 100 people died in Santa Rosa.

Earthquakes occurred regularly during the nineteenth century. There were fourteen reported earthquakes from 1900 to 1905. Most of Santa Rosa’s downtown was built of brick, to prevent horrific fires such as those suffered by San Francisco and other cities. The masonry buildings quickly crumbled, with much loss of life, including many who were sleeping in downtown hotels. There were fires in the aftermath. The fire department had to pull the hose cart by hand as the fire horses were killed when the station collapsed. The earthquake broke water mains so the firemen pumped water out of Santa Rosa Creek. The domed courthouse was a complete loss.

The U.S. Geological Survey in 2005 published a map picturing the results of a new tool to measure ground shaking during an earthquake. The map shows that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was most powerful in the area of Santa Rosa. The San Andreas Fault ruptured along a length of almost 300 miles, from San Juan Bautista to near Eureka. For comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rupture was about 25 miles long.

Two earthquakes hit Santa Rosa on October 1, 1969, damaging about 100 buildings. At 5.6 and 5.7 magnitudes, they were the strongest to hit since 1906. Following the extensive damage caused by these quakes, the city began retrofitting buildings – such as cross bracing unreinforced masonry buildings – to improve their resistance to earthquakes. Santa Rosa adopted safety standards in 1970 that provided a model for other cities in California.

Santa Rosa, current population 150,000, is situated on the Hayward-Rodgers Creek Fault System. The U.S. Geological survey estimates a 20% chance of a 6.7 or greater earthquake by the year 2030.

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