What San Francisco Didn't Want You to Know

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The city of San Francisco this week is in the awkward position of commemorating an event previous generations were desperate to forget -- the great earthquake of 1906.

The quake, which struck on April 18, 1906, has long been ignored, denied and even erased, with photographs altered to minimize the damage.

A hundred years ago -- as well as today -- business leaders are sensitive to the word "earthquake."

"They were fearful that East Coast investors would not put money in the rebuilding of San Francisco if they thought it would fall down some years later," said Jim Lazarus, vice president of San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "And so I think that continued even to this day."

That's why the 1906 earthquake, the worst in American history, was known for a long time simply as the "great fire." The three days of fires that followed the earthquake finished the job of destruction, leveling 500 city blocks and leaving more than half the population homeless.

Nobody questioned the strikingly low official death toll of 478 until the 1960's, when historian Gladys Hansen began scouring old records.

"I just kinda stopped at 3,000," Hansen said. "But I know it's a lot higher than that."

The higher death count wasn't officially accepted by the city until last year.

"Earthquakes are bad for business," Hansen said.

Anti-Chinese Plot?

The death toll wasn't the only fact lost to history. Some of the city's darkest moments have long been downplayed as well.

In the days following the quake there was an aggressive campaign to move Chinatown off its valuable location.

"When the quake happened the authorities said, 'Ah ha, here's our chance to get rid of the Chinese,' " said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, which is located in San Francisco.

The plan failed, but only after President Teddy Roosevelt intervened.

San Francisco resident Bruce Quan's great grandfather helped hundreds of displaced and abused Chinese by giving them shelter in his cannery.

"The Chinese were robbed, they were beaten, whatever possessions they had were taken from them, and they weren't fed," Quan said.

A hundred years later, San Francisco still grapples with its past. The only memorial to the dead was finally unveiled before a soggy group of victims' relatives just this past week.

ABC News' Neal Karlinsky originally reported this story for "World News Tonight."

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