The place grew rapidly and has continued to grow. At first a city of flimsy frame buildings, it became early a prey to the flames, fire sweeping through it three times in 1850 and taking toll of the young city to the value of $7,500,000. These conflagrations swept away most of the wooden houses, and business men began to build more substantially of brick, stone and iron. Yet to-day, for climatic reasons, most of the residences continue to be built of wood. But the slow-burning redwood of the California hillsides is used instead of the inflammable pine, the result being that since 1850 the loss by fire in the residence section of the city has been remarkably small. In 1900 the city contained 50,494 frame and only 3,881 stone and brick buildings, though the tendency to use more durable materials was then growing rapidly.
Before describing the terrible calamity which fell upon this beautiful city on that dread morning of April 18, 1906, some account of the character of the place is very desirable, that readers may know what San Francisco was before the rage of earthquake and fire reduced it to what it is to-day.
The site of the city of San Francisco is very uneven, embracing a series of hills, of which the highest ones, known as the Twin Peaks, reach to an elevation of 925 feet, and form the crown of an amphitheatre of lower altitudes. Several of the latter are covered with handsome residences, and afford a magnificent view of the surrounding country, with its bordering bay and ocean, and the noble Golden Gate channel, a river-like passage from ocean to bay of five miles in length and one in width. This waterway is very deep except on the bar at its mouth, where the depth of water is thirty feet.
Since its early days the growth of the city has been very rapid. In 1900 it held 342,782 people, and the census estimate made from figures of the city directory in 1904 gave it then a population of 485,000, probably a considerable exaggeration. In it are mingled inhabitants from most of the nations of the earth, and it may claim the unenviable honor of possessing the largest population of Chinese outside of China itself, the colony numbering over 20,000.
Of the pioneer San Francisco few traces remain, the old buildings having nearly all disappeared. Large and costly business houses and splendid residences have taken their place in the central portion of the city, marble, granite, terra-cotta, iron and steel being largely used as building material. The great prevalence of frame buildings in the residence sections is largely due to the popular belief that they are safer in a locality subject to earthquakes, while the frequent occurrence of earth tremors long restrained the inclination to erect lofty buildings. Not until 1890 was a high structure built, and few skyscrapers had invaded the city up to its day of ruin. They will probably be introduced more frequently in the future, recent experience having demonstrated that they are in considerable measure earthquake proof.