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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Before and After the Great Earthquake

[Detail] A trip down Market Street before the fire [production company unknown].

1) Expository Writing

To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Museum of the City of San Francisco assembled an exhibit of eyewitness accounts entitled Eyewitnesses to the Earthquake and Fire. Students can go online and read a wealth of articles, letters, and diary excerpts.

As students read one or more of these online primary source documents, they may consider these questions:

  • What was the author's reason for writing the account? Do you think the account was meant to be public or private? Why?
  • How soon after the earthquake was the account written?
  • How does the information in the eyewitness account compare with information presented in footage of the earthquake in this collection?
  • What is the writer's point of view?

Students can synthesize the information in the film footage and eyewitness accounts to write their own accounts of the 1906 earthquake. Suggest that students assume the role of newspaper reporters and file their stories answering the journalistic questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

2) Creative Writing

The films in the collection can be used as a springboard for a wide range of creative writing activities. The images of life and destruction in San Francisco in the early 1900s can provide the historical backdrop for a short story, song, poem, play, or personal anecdote. In their creative writing, students can explore such themes as the power of nature, courage and survival, tragedy and loss, and rebuilding and rebirth.

Students can use the images of a rebuilt San Francisco, as seen in the civic booster film San Francisco's Future, as the basis for a series of promotional materials encouraging people to visit or move to San Francisco. Working with a partner, they can create travel brochures, print ads, radio spots, or posters highlighting the city's unique features and many economic opportunities.

3) Literature Appreciation

San Francisco has been home to many American writers who used this dramatic city as the setting for their stories and novels. Mark Twain captured the spirit of the city he called "the liveliest, heartiest community on our continent" in a series of articles called "San Francisco", and recounted the drama of the 1906 earthquake in his novel Roughing It which can be found in California as I Saw It, 1849-1900. In McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, novelist Frank Norris spun a story of love and revenge in San Francisco at the turn of the century. In Martin Eden, a semi autobiographical novel published in 1909, Jack London described what it was like growing up on the docks of Oakland. Years later, novelists such as John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Amy Tam would relate their personal stories of life in and around San Francisco.

Students can read one or more stories set in San Francisco and compare written impressions of the city with visual images captured in the films in this collection. They can examine the unique characteristics that have made San Francisco such a popular "story city" in American fiction and nonfiction.

4) Speaking and Listening

Students can form small groups to plan and present oral reports on the promise and problems of urbanization in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Using San Francisco as their model, teams can explore varied aspects of urbanization, including:

  • the lure of the city-economic, social, and cultural opportunities
  • transportation and housing
  • immigration and ethnic neighborhoods
  • problems of rapid urban growth
  • reformers and reform movements


Adapted from a lesson by Roger Pearson