Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: Earthquake and Fire

There was once a small Chinese town southwest of Shanghai called Zikawei. It is now part of greater Shanghai, but in 1906 it had a separate identity as an educational center that also housed orphanages, hospitals, and a Jesuit observatory, complete with a state-of-the-art seismograph for recording earthquakes. Since its establishment in 1540, the Society of Jesus produced leaders in the fields of natural science, mathematics, astronomy, and seismology.

The Jesuits decided early on that they had a responsibility to study and, as much as possible, predict earthquakes to reduce the suffering these seismic events brought to the human community. Science and mission went hand in hand. The first Jesuit seismograph was installed at their Manila observatory in 1868, followed by several more in Granada, Spain; Limerick, Ireland; Stonyhurst, England; on the Island of Jersey, in the English Channel; at John Carroll College in Cleveland, Ohio; and at Zikawei. At 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906 (North American West Coast time), all of the Jesuit seismographs, and about 90 other seismographs around the world, recorded the strongest earthquake to hit North America up to that time.

San Francisco Fire 1906

City Hall can be seen in the center of this photo depicting the fire that consumed San Francisco following the earthquake of April 18, 1906. To the right of City Hall, a tower of St. Ignatius Church is visible through the smoke. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Although most San Franciscans were still asleep in their beds at 5:12 on the morning of April 18, the 44 Jesuits of St. Ignatius Church and College, on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Hayes Street, were already up when the earthquake struck. The college president, John Frieden, S.J., was in his room getting ready for the day. Later he wrote:

And so that morning, 13 minutes after five, when the first indications of the earthquake appeared, I crossed myself, made the wonted aspirations, and continued dressing. But in a few seconds I felt that the quake was sharper than any I had yet experienced…. I dropped on my knees, at the foot of my bed, and prayed. Then came that crashing, rumbling intonation, so strangely awful and so terrible that it baffles the power of description—none can comprehend it save those who have experienced it. Yet it was but the herald of the terrific convulsion that followed. The great strata of rock and conglomerate that form the peninsula on which San Francisco stands rotated, tilted, twisted, sank and heaved in veriest agony. The massive buildings of St. Ignatius seemed like a piece of shrubbery in an autumn storm.
USF Hayes Building in 1906

After the earthquake struck at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906, fires broke out all over San Francisco. The fire department could not fight them effectively because the main water pipes throughout the city had been broken by the earthquake. One of those fires swept up Hayes Street and engulfed St. Ignatius Church and College, gutting the institution. CALIFORNIA PROVINCE OF THE SOCIETY OF JESUS ARCHIVES

None of the Jesuits, lay faculty, or students of St. Ignatius Church and College were killed or seriously injured in the 1906 earthquake. The church and college, however, which were built over a major underground stream, suffered considerable, though reparable, damage from the initial temblors: walls cracked, plaster, books, and furniture fell everywhere, scientific equipment was smashed, and the roof partially collapsed. In the church, marble statues were thrown to the ground, and the Easter decorations from the prior Sunday were left a pile of broken candelabra, candles, vases, glass, and flowers. Despite the damage, hundreds of frightened people took shelter in St. Ignatius Church immediately after the earthquake. By 6:15 a.m., part of the debris was cleared away, and Henry Whittle, S.J., Father Minister of the Jesuit Community, offered Mass at the main altar, followed by Masses given by Fr. Frieden and two other Jesuit priests. Immediately after the earthquake, an emergency hospital was set up in the Mechanics’ Pavilion near St. Ignatius Church. The Jesuits responded quickly to urgent calls from the makeshift hospital to minister to the injured and dying victims of the earthquake. Fr. Whittle wrote in his diary that the “sight of the victims, some crushed most horribly, was appalling.”

USF after 1906 Fire
USF after 1906 Fire

Two views of St. Ignatius Church and College after it was gutted by fire following the earthquake of April 18, 1906. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

No sooner had the Jesuits and many other San Franciscans begun to respond to the damage and injuries of the initial earthquake, than from the rubble-strewn streets of the city, menacing columns of smoke began to rise. The greatest challenge for San Francisco and St. Ignatius Church and College was yet to come.

By mid-morning on April 18, 1906, assistant chief John Dougherty of the San Francisco Fire Department faced an imminent catastrophe: the powerful earthquake had destroyed many buildings throughout San Francisco, and City Hall lay in ruins; Dougherty’s boss, fire chief Dennis Sullivan, was dying under a pile of rubble from a partially collapsed firehouse; and at least 50 separate fires had broken out across the city. Ironically, the great technological advances that had modernized the city now hastened its demise. Fires erupted from fractured gas lines, crossed and broken electrical wires, overturned stoves, cracked chimneys, and flammable chemicals from spilled and shattered bottles. To make matters worse, when firemen hooked up their hoses to fight the fires, they found that in almost every case there was no water pressure. The earthquake had broken the main water lines from the city’s two largest reservoirs and caused more than 300 fractures to the subsidiary water lines throughout the city. By late morning on April 18, the numerous fires had coalesced into three major fires: south of Market Street, north of Market Street, and in the Hayes Valley, west of City Hall. South of Market, the raging fire consumed the Emporium, the Hearst Building, the Grand Opera House, the Call Building (the city’s tallest structure), the Palace Hotel (the city’s most luxurious hotel), and hundreds of other buildings. North of Market Street, the fire destroyed the wholesale produce district before engulfing Chinatown, the financial district, and the retail and hotel district around Union Square.

The Hayes Valley fire destroyed the major municipal and retail buildings in the civic center, roared through the Mission District, and destroyed St. Ignatius Church and College. In his diary, Henry Whittle, S.J., Father Minister of the Jesuit Community, recorded how by 11:00 a.m. the fire “quickly spread in the direction of our college; a fierce wind arising… swept on the fire with irresistible violence.” Fr. Whittle described how the fire “broke out in a tower which could not be reached without hose and water, neither of which could be obtained…. The firemen in the tower and our own people there concluded that it was impossible to stop the fire and gave their attention to carrying out the vestments from the church.” A wagon was found, and in addition to the vestments, some church furniture, crucifixes, chalices, and ciboria (covered receptacles for holding the consecrated wafers of the Eucharist) were saved. Meanwhile, Fr. Frieden hurriedly gathered up a handful of college documents from the archives that were in his office and a few articles of clothing. Then, as he later wrote, with “satchel in one hand, dragging the archives with the other, I left the house which had become so dear to me, and which I was never to reenter.”

The raging fires throughout San Francisco eventually became one giant conflagration that took on a life of its own, fed by thousands of wooden buildings standing adjacent to each other throughout the city. In that uncontrollable inferno, temperatures reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt marble, iron, and steel, crumble sandstone, and dissolve glass into liquid. Smoke from the fire rose five miles into the atmosphere, and the flames could be seen from 50 miles away. As Fr. Frieden headed west toward the ocean with thousands of other San Franciscans, just ahead of the flames, he surveyed the scene behind him. He later wrote:

Two hundred feet from where we halted, even to the San Francisco Bay two miles away, we beheld one vast mass of shifting smoke and lurid flame; it seemed a very ocean set on fire, or a burning desert. Not a business block escaped, nor a home spared…. How could I be ready to abandon the pile of buildings which obedience had given me in charge with all that they contained? It was like leaving my very self. I was and felt so identified with it all; and now I must make it over to destruction. The 44 Jesuits of San Francisco were homeless. What it had taken half a century to build up and to equip, lay in ashes. The future was a blank.

All of the college’s expensive scientific equipment painstakingly assembled by eminent Jesuit scientists, such as Fr. Bayma, Fr. Neri, and Fr. Varsi, was completely destroyed. The museums, libraries, laboratories, and “cabinets,” many resulting from generous donations, were destroyed in less than an hour. Another contemporary account of the destruction of St. Ignatius Church and College was written by Richard Gleeson, S.J., who was then president of Santa Clara College and later prefect of St. Ignatius Church, and whose name graces the current USF main library. He had spent the night at St. Ignatius College just before the earthquake and fire. Fr. Gleeson later wrote:

I saw the college and church catch fire and I assure you that it was a sad sight. We could hardly save anything and the church is gone with its many treasures of art. The grand college went next and then the best physical and chemical department in all the Society, at least in America, and with it three splendid libraries with all their treasures. The loss is, in many regards, simply irreparable.

The horrific San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 killed more than 3,000 people, left 225,000 people homeless out of a total city population of 400,000, leveled 514 city blocks spread over four square miles in the heart of the city, and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings. The estimated value of the loss was $500 million, four-fifths of the 1906 property value of San Francisco, or approximately the size of the federal budget in 1906.

On April 27, 1906, nine days after the earthquake, Archbishop Patrick Riordan of San Francisco addressed the first meeting of a citizens’ committee charged with relief and reconstruction. Archbishop Riordan’s words have struck a responsive chord with many San Franciscans for more than 100 years. “I am a citizen of No Mean City,” proclaimed the archbishop, “although it is ashes. Almighty God has fixed this as the location of a great city. The past is gone, and there is no use of lamenting or moaning over it. Let us look to the future and, without regard to creed or birth, work together in harmony for the up-building of a greater San Francisco.”

The Jesuits of St. Ignatius Church and College, along with their lay colleagues, alumni, and community supporters, were to be part of that rebuilding process. Today on the University of San Francisco campus, a giant winged bird is engraved on the front wall of University Center. It is the phoenix, a mythological bird that is consumed by fire but rises renewed from the ashes. The phoenix, which looks across a plaza at the new John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, symbolizes the rebirth of our city and our institution after the earthquake and fire of 1906. Like the phoenix, the University of San Francisco, and its superb science programs, was destined to rise from the ashes.


Among the many books and articles on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, one of the best is A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. His book also summarizes the work of Jesuit scientists who studied earthquakes (pages 264–267). This Jesuit scientific history is also detailed by Agustin Udias and William Stauder in their article “The Jesuit Contribution to Seismology” in Seismological Research Letters, Vol. 67, No.3, May/June 1996, pages 10–19. The earthquake and fire of 1906 is described in Denial of Disaster: The Untold Story and Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 by Gladys Hansen and Emmet Condon; in Fire and Gold: The San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, pages 99–127; in Historic San Francisco: A Concise History and Guide by Rand Richards, pages 171–189; and in San Francisco: Magic City by Cora Older, pages 1–8. The impact of the 1906 earthquake and fire on St. Ignatius Church and College is detailed in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., pages 72–80; in “St. Ignatius Church and College in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906” in The Argonaut: Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, Spring 2006, by Alan Ziajka, pages 40–51; in Legacy and Promise: 150 Years of Jesuit Education at the University of San Francisco, also by Alan Ziajka, pages 73–81, and in numerous documents, such as the personal reminiscences of John Frieden, S.J., president of St. Ignatius College in 1906, that are housed in the USF archives and maintained by Michael Kotlanger, S.J., USF’s archivist.

Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian