Although it’s known as the Great San Francisco Quake, the April 18, 1906, temblor shook foundations from San Juan Bautista to Point Arena, destroying much in its path — including many of San Mateo County’s nascent cities.
The newly constructed San Mateo County Courthouse, completed in 1905 at a cost of $200,000, was nearly leveled in the quake; only its central rotunda and dome remained standing. The walls of the Capitol Hotel on Broadway came down, along with the cupola and walls of the Bank of San Mateo.
“There was damage to everything along Broadway and Main Street,” according to historian John Edmonds, including some homes and the Carnegie Library on the corner of Broadway and Jefferson — which, like the courthouse, was newly built.
Likewise, much of downtown San Mateo was reduced to rubble, including the railway depot, where a tower collapsed, injuring a guard inside. In Palo Alto, some of Stanford University’s buildings were damaged, and its chapel was nearly destroyed.
Loss of life, however, was minimal. Just three people died — all in Half Moon Bay, in a mud-brick adobe that didn’t withstand the shaking.
“The hour of the quake (5:12 a.m.) meant not a lot of people were downtown where the damage occurred,” Edmonds said. “Where people were sleeping, in houses, there weren’t a lot of problems.”
In San Mateo County, the quake also starkly revealed which structures were built to last.
Both the Charles Brown Adobe and the Crystal Springs Dam, situated directly on the San Andreas Fault, emerged unscathed.
Hermann Schussler’s dam design, featuring interlocking concrete blocks, prevented some 20 billion gallons of water from washing down the valley and into downtown San Mateo. “It’s a heck of a construction,” county historian Mitch Postel said. “There wasn’t a crack.”
The quake’s aftermath changed the face of San Mateo County, as refugees from San Francisco poured into outlying counties of the Bay Area. Many settled on the hilly tract just south of the city, which owner John Daly was using to graze cattle.
Their presence sparked the need for shelter and deliveries of food. By 1911, it was clear those refugees were there to stay — and Daly City was born. All told, about 10,000 quake refugees took up permanent residence on the Peninsula, nearly doubling the population and sparking the incorporation of five new towns, including Burlingame in 1908 and San Bruno in 1914.