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Black and white image of a building torn apart after a quake.
Ruins in San Francisco after the earthquake of April 18, 1906.
Universal Images Group via Getty

The Bay Area’s biggest earthquakes

The region is always on the move

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Ruins in San Francisco after the earthquake of April 18, 1906.
| Universal Images Group via Getty

It’s been 30 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake, and Bay Area fault lines decided to take note of the anniversary with a string of regional quakes that served as a timely reminder that the state’s geological clock is still ticking.

While most people know the harrowing tales of the city’s 1906 and 1989 shakeups, the area’s more obscure yet significant quakes often go overlooked.

Here’s a look at some big ones—both big and small over the years.

A note on measure of magnitude: Since many of these quakes predate seismograph technology and since there is almost always some disagreement about the true magnitude of any quake no matter how it’s measured, the figures listed below are not (pardon the phrase) set in stone, but in most cases they represent the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) best opinion on the topic.

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1. Yountville earthquake

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September 3, 2000, magnitude 5.0

This quake hit nearest to Yountville, but the bulk of the damage happened in nearby Napa.

According to the Strong Motion Center, a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and California Geological Survey, this was, at the time, the largest North Bay quake since 1969, and for unknown reasons the shaking in Napa was significantly more violent for a quake of this size.

A sign reading “Yountville” Photo by DaringDonna

2. Vacaville-Winters earthquake

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April 19, 1892, magnitude 6.4

In 1997, a paper published in the journal California Geology noted that “no causative fault has been identified as the source of the 1892 earthquake” near Vacaville, or the 6.2 aftershock two days later.

Local papers speculated about four possible explanations, including the chance that the quake was caused not by a fault line but instead by a process called “active folding.”

3. Napa earthquake

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August 24, 2014, magnitude 6.0

The 2014 Napa quake has the dubious distinction of still being the region’s most recent destructive quake.

Although damage to the North Bay was fairly significant, only one person died. Surprisingly, this death happened more than a week later; the victim waited too long to seek medical treatment after her television fell on her during the tremor.

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

4. Mare Island earthquake

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Mare Island
Vallejo, CA 94592

March 30, 1898, magnitude 6.4

A 1964 article on the anniversary of the Mare Island quake recounted some of the damage to the shipyard and surrounding area:

“The chimneys and slate roofs of the eleven 3-story brick quarters on Walnut Avenue crumbled and fell to the ground. [,,,] The sawmill was flattened; the paint shop likewise collapsed; the south end of Building 69 lay flat on the ground. [...] The dock couldn’t be operated because, although it was undamaged, no power was available for the pumps.”

It’s possible this quake triggered a tsunami, but opinions still vary on how likely this is.

A black and white photo of a floundering boat docked near a damaged building. Photo courtesy of Mare Island Museum

5. San Francisco earthquake, 1865

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October 8, 1865, magnitude 6.3

Several successive earthquakes jockeyed for prominence when it came to the phrase “San Francisco earthquake” before 1906, including this now-obscure 19th century tremblor. Mark Twain later recounted a harrowing scene:

“And here came the buggy—overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends, and one fat man had crashed halfway through a glass window on one side of the car, got wedged fast, and was squirming and screaming like an impaled madman.

“Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker.”

A black and white ink illustration of crowds in the street and damaged buildings. Illustration courtesy of the Museum of San Francisco

6. San Andreas earthquake, 1838

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Lone Mountain
San Francisco, CA

June 1838, magnitude 7.0

This slightly mysterious pre-Gold Rush quake (its exact date and epicenter remain unclear) has caused no end of confusion for those trying to piece together the region’s geological history.

In 1998, the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America published surprising findings indicating that the supposed 1836 Hayward Fault quake probably never happened, and the “illusion of an 1836 Hayward quake” was actually garbled accounts of this nearby tremor two years later.

US-ENVIRONMENT-SIGN Photo by Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images

7. San Francisco earthquake, 1906

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April 18, 1906, magnitude 7.9

The day that redefined San Francisco, not just structurally but also in how people thought about the city, its future, and its place in the world. 

Over the years, much debate has gone into deteriming precisley how powerful the big one was, with estimates as high as 8.3 or as “low” as 7.7. The current 7.9 estimate makes it probably the second largest recorded quake in California history.

Ruins in San Francisco, California, United States of America, after the earthquake of April 18, 1906 Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

8. Daly City earthquake

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March 22, 1957, magnitude 5.7

After 1911, the Bay Area entered a “quiet period” for quakes that lasted well into the last half of the 20th century. USGS explains how a major earthquake can “turn off” fault activity for decades or more, with a huge event releasing so much stress that there’s just not enough left for anything major to happen for some time.

But this is potentially deceptive, as earthquakes still happen during “quiet periods”—just rarely on a scale of 6.0 or higher. The 1957 Daly City quake suffered only one fatality, but woke the city up again to the possibility of more serious tremors in its future.

An aerial photo of homes dotting the SF peninsula. Photo by Shutterstock

9. Livermore earthquake

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January 24, 1980, magnitude 5.5

The first of two startling quakes near Livermore over the course of three days; the aftershock on January 26 was actually probably larger, estimated at a 5.8 in magnitude.

The upset caused a massive blackout and some property damage, but the only recorded death at the time was “possibly from a heart attack” rather than directly from the quake itself.

Photo by LPS.1/Wikicommons

10. Hayward earthquake

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October 21, 1868, magnitude 7.0

The US Geological Survey records that “because of its location in the heart of the Bay Area, then having a total population of about 260,000, and its magnitude [...] this earthquake was one of the most destructive in California history. Property loss was extensive and 30 people were killed.”

Thus it became known as “the great San Francisco earthquake,” at least at the time. USGS even created a Google Earth simulation of this historic disaster.

A black and white photo of a collapsed sawmill.
A collapsed sawmill after the 1868 quake.
Photo via Wikicommons

11. Morgan Hill earthquake

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July 1, 1911, magnitude 6.5

Though the largest quake ever recorded on the Calaveras Fault, these days people are more likely to remember the Morgan Hill quake of April 24, 1984, which was smaller, at around a 6.2.

Seismologists predict a 26 percent chance of a large quake (6.7 or greater) on this line over the next 30, making it one of the quieter local faults.

However, researchers at UC Berkeley reported in 2015 that the Calaveras Fault is physically connected to the nearby Hayward Fault. Since the length of a fault determines the worst quake it can produce, this may make it more dangerous than previously anticipated.

A sharply pointed hill covered with pine trees. Photo by Eugene Zelenko/Wikicommons

12. The Loma Prieta earthquake

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October 17, 1989, magnitude 6.9

The name “Loma Prieta earthquake” has led to some misnomers over the years, with some people referring to the nonexistent Loma Prieta fault or a supposed town of Loma Prieta. In reality, the name refers to a mountain peak near the epicenter of the quake, located in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Loma Prieta, California, Earthquake October 17, 1989, Structures Damaged In The Marina District Of San Francisco, The First Story Of This Three-Story Building Was Damaged Because Of Liquefaction; The Second Story Collapsed, What Is Seen Is The Third
The Marina. Note that the visible part of this home is the third floor.
Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

13. Coyote Lake earthquake

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August 6, 1979, magnitude 5.8

Previously, the Coyote Lake quake was thought to mark the end of the Bay Area’s decades-long lull in earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater, but subsequent study has diminished estimates of its impact down to as low as 5.7.

A white wake in the middle of a blue oval-shaped lake, seen from above. Photo by Kyle Hawton/Wikicommons

1. Yountville earthquake

Yountville, CA 94599
A sign reading “Yountville” Photo by DaringDonna

September 3, 2000, magnitude 5.0

This quake hit nearest to Yountville, but the bulk of the damage happened in nearby Napa.

According to the Strong Motion Center, a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and California Geological Survey, this was, at the time, the largest North Bay quake since 1969, and for unknown reasons the shaking in Napa was significantly more violent for a quake of this size.

2. Vacaville-Winters earthquake

Vacaville, CA

April 19, 1892, magnitude 6.4

In 1997, a paper published in the journal California Geology noted that “no causative fault has been identified as the source of the 1892 earthquake” near Vacaville, or the 6.2 aftershock two days later.

Local papers speculated about four possible explanations, including the chance that the quake was caused not by a fault line but instead by a process called “active folding.”

3. Napa earthquake

Napa, CA
Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

August 24, 2014, magnitude 6.0

The 2014 Napa quake has the dubious distinction of still being the region’s most recent destructive quake.

Although damage to the North Bay was fairly significant, only one person died. Surprisingly, this death happened more than a week later; the victim waited too long to seek medical treatment after her television fell on her during the tremor.

4. Mare Island earthquake

Mare Island, Vallejo, CA 94592
A black and white photo of a floundering boat docked near a damaged building. Photo courtesy of Mare Island Museum

March 30, 1898, magnitude 6.4

A 1964 article on the anniversary of the Mare Island quake recounted some of the damage to the shipyard and surrounding area:

“The chimneys and slate roofs of the eleven 3-story brick quarters on Walnut Avenue crumbled and fell to the ground. [,,,] The sawmill was flattened; the paint shop likewise collapsed; the south end of Building 69 lay flat on the ground. [...] The dock couldn’t be operated because, although it was undamaged, no power was available for the pumps.”

It’s possible this quake triggered a tsunami, but opinions still vary on how likely this is.

Mare Island
Vallejo, CA 94592

5. San Francisco earthquake, 1865

San Francisco, CA 94111
A black and white ink illustration of crowds in the street and damaged buildings. Illustration courtesy of the Museum of San Francisco

October 8, 1865, magnitude 6.3

Several successive earthquakes jockeyed for prominence when it came to the phrase “San Francisco earthquake” before 1906, including this now-obscure 19th century tremblor. Mark Twain later recounted a harrowing scene:

“And here came the buggy—overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends, and one fat man had crashed halfway through a glass window on one side of the car, got wedged fast, and was squirming and screaming like an impaled madman.

“Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker.”

6. San Andreas earthquake, 1838

Lone Mountain, San Francisco, CA
US-ENVIRONMENT-SIGN Photo by Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images

June 1838, magnitude 7.0

This slightly mysterious pre-Gold Rush quake (its exact date and epicenter remain unclear) has caused no end of confusion for those trying to piece together the region’s geological history.

In 1998, the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America published surprising findings indicating that the supposed 1836 Hayward Fault quake probably never happened, and the “illusion of an 1836 Hayward quake” was actually garbled accounts of this nearby tremor two years later.

Lone Mountain
San Francisco, CA

7. San Francisco earthquake, 1906

San Francisco, CA
Ruins in San Francisco, California, United States of America, after the earthquake of April 18, 1906 Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

April 18, 1906, magnitude 7.9

The day that redefined San Francisco, not just structurally but also in how people thought about the city, its future, and its place in the world. 

Over the years, much debate has gone into deteriming precisley how powerful the big one was, with estimates as high as 8.3 or as “low” as 7.7. The current 7.9 estimate makes it probably the second largest recorded quake in California history.

8. Daly City earthquake

Daly City, CA
An aerial photo of homes dotting the SF peninsula. Photo by Shutterstock

March 22, 1957, magnitude 5.7

After 1911, the Bay Area entered a “quiet period” for quakes that lasted well into the last half of the 20th century. USGS explains how a major earthquake can “turn off” fault activity for decades or more, with a huge event releasing so much stress that there’s just not enough left for anything major to happen for some time.

But this is potentially deceptive, as earthquakes still happen during “quiet periods”—just rarely on a scale of 6.0 or higher. The 1957 Daly City quake suffered only one fatality, but woke the city up again to the possibility of more serious tremors in its future.

9. Livermore earthquake

Livermore, CA
Photo by LPS.1/Wikicommons

January 24, 1980, magnitude 5.5

The first of two startling quakes near Livermore over the course of three days; the aftershock on January 26 was actually probably larger, estimated at a 5.8 in magnitude.

The upset caused a massive blackout and some property damage, but the only recorded death at the time was “possibly from a heart attack” rather than directly from the quake itself.

10. Hayward earthquake

Hayward, CA
A black and white photo of a collapsed sawmill.
A collapsed sawmill after the 1868 quake.
Photo via Wikicommons

October 21, 1868, magnitude 7.0

The US Geological Survey records that “because of its location in the heart of the Bay Area, then having a total population of about 260,000, and its magnitude [...] this earthquake was one of the most destructive in California history. Property loss was extensive and 30 people were killed.”

Thus it became known as “the great San Francisco earthquake,” at least at the time. USGS even created a Google Earth simulation of this historic disaster.

11. Morgan Hill earthquake

Morgan Hill, CA
A sharply pointed hill covered with pine trees. Photo by Eugene Zelenko/Wikicommons

July 1, 1911, magnitude 6.5

Though the largest quake ever recorded on the Calaveras Fault, these days people are more likely to remember the Morgan Hill quake of April 24, 1984, which was smaller, at around a 6.2.

Seismologists predict a 26 percent chance of a large quake (6.7 or greater) on this line over the next 30, making it one of the quieter local faults.

However, researchers at UC Berkeley reported in 2015 that the Calaveras Fault is physically connected to the nearby Hayward Fault. Since the length of a fault determines the worst quake it can produce, this may make it more dangerous than previously anticipated.

12. The Loma Prieta earthquake

Loma Prieta, California 95037
Loma Prieta, California, Earthquake October 17, 1989, Structures Damaged In The Marina District Of San Francisco, The First Story Of This Three-Story Building Was Damaged Because Of Liquefaction; The Second Story Collapsed, What Is Seen Is The Third
The Marina. Note that the visible part of this home is the third floor.
Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

October 17, 1989, magnitude 6.9

The name “Loma Prieta earthquake” has led to some misnomers over the years, with some people referring to the nonexistent Loma Prieta fault or a supposed town of Loma Prieta. In reality, the name refers to a mountain peak near the epicenter of the quake, located in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

13. Coyote Lake earthquake

Coyote Lake, California
A white wake in the middle of a blue oval-shaped lake, seen from above. Photo by Kyle Hawton/Wikicommons

August 6, 1979, magnitude 5.8

Previously, the Coyote Lake quake was thought to mark the end of the Bay Area’s decades-long lull in earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater, but subsequent study has diminished estimates of its impact down to as low as 5.7.