The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

Authored by Katherine Mooney


The student page contains the hook only. It is intended to spark interest in the topic and lead students to ask questions or make predictions.

Have you ever felt an earthquake?  Can you imagine what it would have felt like if it was 10 times stronger?  How about 100 times stronger? 

In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, people in San Francisco did not have to use their imaginations - they lived it!  What do the following pictures tell us about their experience?

Valencia Hotel

San Francisco Fire

Valencia 2

What if a similar earthquake happened in San Diego?


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. The more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

  1. What would it be like to experience an earthquake like the one that struck San Francisco in 1906?
  2. What was the damage to the city, and what was it like to live there afterwards?
  3. Where do big earthquakes occur most often in California and why?


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

  • First person accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath
  • Photographs of San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake and fire
  • Newspaper accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake
  • Historical earthquake data for California
  • Information on plate tectonics and the location of the world's tectonic plates

Defining Important Terms

  • Earthquake magnitude
  • Tectonic plate
  • San Francisco

Investigation Tool(s)

  • Inspiration or another tool for creating a concept map
  • Internet access
  • Materials to make a map of California
  • Materials to write a story or to create a visual or dramatic presentation

Manipulating Data

Students should create a concept map to help guide their inquiry process, then write a story, letter, or visual presentation that describes the experience of living through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.   

Students should create a map of California that indicates the location of high magnitude earthquakes, and the location of the North American, Pacific, and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates in order to make connections between these pieces of data.

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data may be necessary.


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

The following is an example of the process students might go through in the analysis of data in order to develop answers to their questions.

For the first two questions, concept mapping can be used to delve into the primary sources provided at the Virtual Museum of San Francisco (  Working in teams, students should start their concept maps with commonly asked questions about what it would be like to experience a major earthquake. 

Click here to see an example starting point for a student concept map.

The Virtual Museum of San Francisco provides a large number of first person accounts ( In reading these accounts, common themes emerge. I added details that were common to multiple accounts to the concept map. I supplemented my reading with photos found at Of particular interest are photos of incidents and details described in the first person accounts, including but not limited to:

After processing the first person accounts looking for common experiences and details, click here to see an example of a completed concept map. (requires Microsoft Word, click on text and numbers in boxes to link to first person accounts that include that concept map item)

For the third question, in order to understand the relationship between the location of California's 6.5 or greater magnitude earthquakes since 1769, the location of California's earthquake faults, and the location of the world's tectonic plates, the following sites are helpful:

Students can then combine the information about earthquake locations, faults and plates onto a single map of California. The map below shows faults in red, earthquakes as black dots, and plate boundaries in light green:

Map of California

Conclusions which can be drawn from this process are listed below in the Findings section.


No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

Once students complete their concept map, each team can choose how to present to the class their findings on what it felt like to experience the earthquake and its aftermath. Student presentations could be in the form of a narrative, written story, visual presentation, or dramatic reenactment. For an example of a story based on the final concept map from the Analysis section, click here.

Upon completing a map such as the one shown under the Analysis section above, students should be able to draw the following types of conclusions based on the map and previous instruction on the causes of earthquakes:

  1. Magnitude 6.5 or greater earthquakes in the past 200 years in California are clustered primarily in certain areas of the state, namely the San Francisco Bay Area, the coastal southwest, the Eastern Sierra region, and the coastal Northwest.
  2. The location of these earthquakes corresponds to the location of major earthquake faults in California.
  3. The earthquakes concentrated in the coastal regions appear to occur where the Pacific, North American, and Juan de Fuca plates meet.
  4. The movement of tectonic plates against each is a possible explanation for the earthquakes in 3 of the 4 regions that have concentrations of magnitude 6.5 or greater earthquakes.

Students should present their conclusions in writing as an attachment to their map of California.

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

After completing this WIP, students might pose the following additional questions:

  • I accounted for almost all the major earthquakes in California except for those in the Eastern Sierras. What caused those earthquakes?
  • Where do scientists predict the next big earthquake will hit in California?
  • What can I do to prepare for a major earthquake?

All photos are from