History of the San Francisco Palace Hotel and California Earthquakes

Last Saturday morning April 18 in San Francisco, a red-headed woman riding in the elevator of the Palace Hotel with my mother and me asked if we had been at the 5:12am commemoration for the 1906 earthquake. 


Lotta’s Fountain 1906-2009 Commemorative Wreath, Market Street, San Francisco

Her British accent underscored the international experience of a San Francisco hotel. She sounded so proper despite her excitement at telling us about the morning events. Her enthusiasm at 8am as my mom and I were trying to get a coffee jumpstart to the day made me long to be an international tourist feeling that travel high in a new place.  She inspired us to make the most of our Saturday touring. We were even thinking about a first time trip to Alcatraz, but the tour required advance reservations.

She exited the elevator with us at the 7th floor and continued talking in the foyer about the two earthquake survivors at the ceremony – a 106 year old woman and a man 103 years old. The 5:12 am gathering at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street and Kearney, across the street from the Palace Hotel, marked the 103rd anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.


Lotta’s Fountain (Palace Hotel is visible on right edge)

Our new British friend described a few hundred gatherers in the morning cold, some men and women dressed in century old style clothing, top hats and gowns, along with fire trucks blaring down Market Street at 5:12am. Her eyes widened when describing the old earthquake survivors and she had talked with some of their descendants.  She had obtained an email address and hoped to have further contact with the centenarians. The 103 year old man would have been less than 4 months old at the time of the quake. The 106 year old woman had lived in the Bernal Heights area of San Francisco where my father grew up. She says she remembers watching the fires from Bernal Hill.


San Francisco 1906 Fire Storms Burned Four Square Miles of the city

The Palace Hotel and the 1906 earthquake

The Palace Hotel originally opened in October 1875 as a 755-room hotel after two years construction based on plans of architect John Painter Gaynor. William Ralston, founder of the Bank of California and the financier behind the Palace Hotel had drowned in San Francisco Bay just five weeks before.  The Bank of California collapsed due to a mining investment scandal and Ralston had just been removed as President of the bank on the day of his death.  The current environment of toxic assets, highly leveraged banks, and financiers at the end of their rope are nothing new historically.

bank-of-california-Museum palace-hotel-description

Description of 1875 Palace Hotel from Bank of California Museum display

Ralston had also used architect Gaynor to build a fabulous estate house in Belmont, California, twenty miles south of San Francisco prior to the Palace Hotel. The Ralston  Hall Mansion still stands and the estate is now the campus of Notre Dame de Namur University, the 5th oldest college in California.

Not surprisingly, the politician on the scene and Palace Hotel finance partner, William Sharon came out of the situation with lots of cash and property.  William Sharon, a California U.S. Senator, ended up in control of the Palace Hotel, the Bank of California, and even Ralston’s estate in Belmont.


1865 Gold ingot from San Francisco mint (displayed at Bank of California Museum)

For thirty years the Palace Hotel was a San Francisco icon – until 5:12am, April 18, 1906. The hotel survived the earthquake but was destroyed in the subsequent firestorm that burned much of the city.

The current Palace Hotel is the redesigned and rebuilt structure that opened in 1909. The hotel underwent its last major renovation between 1989 and 1991 at a cost of $150 million. I stayed at the Palace Hotel for a week in 1993 when it was a Sheraton Hotel.


Throne Chair in the Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel History Source: http://cprr.org/Museum/Palace_Hotel_SF/#1922 . This web page shows numerous photos and illustrations of the Palace Hotel from 1875 to 2003.

An excellent source for San Francisco history is the web site SparkleTack.com with dozens of storytelling podcasts. Here is a 44-minute podcast, #55: caruso, the palace, and the 1906 earthquake telling of the story of Enrique Caruso, his visit to San Francisco, and his hotel stay at the Palace Hotel on the morning of the 1906 earthquake. The story provides lots of interesting details about the title subjects: Caruso, the Palace Hotel, and the 1906 Earthquake. His story tells of the four-story Hotel Valencia sinking three stories in marshland liquefaction and only one story remained sitting above ground.



French Parlor in Palace Hotel, San Francisco

Welcome to California Earthquake Country

As a Californian in Eureka and Monterey, I have experienced at least ten substantially earth-moving earthquakes 6.0 and over in the last 25 years.  I was born 49 years ago within a few miles of where I now live in Monterey, however, the first earthquake I experienced that actually lasted long enough to be scary didn’t happen until I was 24.  

It took a couple of years to recover mentally after going through a 7.2, 6.5, and 6.7 quake within a 19 hour period on April 25-26, 1992 in Eureka, CA.  For months we set up water glasses to view and distinguish an earthquake and the need to flee to a safer location from the ordinary vibration created by a large truck passing outside the house and rattling the windows.  I have been amazed at how much the walls and floor of a house can visibly bend and not break.  Structural flexibility is why we do not have brick construction in California.

Earthquake intensity is relative to one’s position to the epicenter.  A 5.6 earthquake in 1994 centered within 15 miles of Eureka did more damage to my mother-in-law’s house than the 7.2 earthquake about 50 miles away in 1992.

The two most damaging California quakes of the past 25 years in terms of lives lost and property damage were the Loma Prieta 1989 (the World Series earthquake in San Francisco) which registered 6.9 and killed 63 persons and the 6.7 Northridge quake, north of Los Angeles on January 17, 1994 with 60 fatalities.  Nobody died in the three Cape Mendocino quakes of 1992 but Humboldt County is sparsely populated in comparison to the San Francisco Bay Area and San Fernando Valley in SoCal.



The 1906 earthquake is estimated to have been 10 times stronger than any I have felt. The great quake is estimated around 7.8 and killed around 3,000 people. There is a researcher in San Francisco I have seen on PBS documentaries who has spent years documenting fatalities and adding thousands more lives to the commonly used official number of 3,000 lives lost. 

Here is a resource list for articles on the 1906 quake. http://www.consrv.ca.gov/cgs/geologic_hazards/earthquakes/Pages/SanFrancisco_1906.aspx

The US Geological Service now estimates the 1906 quake at 7.8 which is a far lower magnitude than the 8.3 commonly used when describing the 1906 quake. http://earthquake.usgs.gov/regional/states/events/1906_04_18.php

 palace-hotel-corner-suite facing Market Street

 Corner Suite of Palace Hotel facing Market Street

2010 will be the 104th anniversary of the 1906 quake. Soon there will be no more earthquake survivors. The Palace Hotel, St. Regis, and the Westin Market Street are all within one block of Lotta’s Fountain if you want to get up early and walk over to take part in the commemoration at 5:12am, April 18.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined BoardingArea.com in 2008.

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