At the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Jack London was living on his farm in Glen Ellen, California, about 40 miles from San Francisco. London was 30 years old and had published his most popular novel, The Call of the Wild, three years earlier. Soon after the earthquake London was asked by Collier's magazine to write a report from San Francisco. London arrived as the fires that followed the shock were consuming the city.
Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. It social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and palaces of the nabobs, are all gone.
Within an hour after the earthquake shock the smoke of San Francisco's burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke.
There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustements of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls.
Dynamite was lavishly used, and many of San Francisco's proudest structures were crumbled by man himself into ruins, but there was no withstanding the onrush o' the flames. Time and again successful stands were made by the firefighters, and every time the flames flanked around on either side, or came up from the rear, and turned to defeat the hard-won victory.
On Thursday morning, at a quarter past five, just twenty-four hours after the earthquake, I sat on the steps of a small residence on Nob Hill. I went inside with the owner of the house on the steps of which I sat. He was cool and cheerful and hospitable. "Yesterday morning," he said, "I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes."
He pointed to a large cabinet. "That is my wife's collection of china. This rug upon which we stand is a present. It cost fifteen thousand dollars. Try that piano. Listen to its tone. There are few like it. There are no horses. The flames will be here in fifteen minutes."
Outside, the old Mark Hopkins residence, a palace, was just catching fire. The troops were falling back and driving the refugees with them. From every side came the roaring of flames, the crashing of walls, and the detonations of dynamite.
This image shows a four-story brick building on the corner of Third and Mission streets in San Francisco following the 1865 earthquake. It appeared in The Daily Alta California, and is probably the very same building Twain describes as "sprung outward like a door" in the above quote.
Some 71 years before San Francisco was destroyed, another great earthquake leveled the city of Concepcion, Chile. Charles Darwin happened to be travelling through the city at the time.