1906 Earthquake: Refugee Camps

In the aftermath of the earthquake, an estimated 75,000 citizens simply left San Francisco. The remaining homeless population of 250,000 established makeshift camps in park areas and amidst the burnt-out ruins of city buildings. As fires burned across the eastern side of the city, refugees migrated west towards Golden Gate Park and the Presidio seeking food and shelter. Eventually, the Army would house 20,000 refugees in military-style tent camps—including 16,000 at the Presidio.

1906 refugee camp at the Presidio
The largest refugee camp at the Presidio was located just east of Letterman Hospital.

National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA


The Army managed 21 of the city’s 26 official refugee camps. Four camps were located on the Presidio, including an isolated camp for refugees from Chinatown. At the Presidio camps 3,000 tents were arranged in orderly street-grid formation complete with numbers and corner directories.

Soon, the refugee camps became small and highly-organized tent towns, where, according to the some reports, "The people are well cared for and are taking things as happily and philosophically as if they were out on a summer's camping trip." Despite their recent hardships, refugees in the camps quickly established routines of regular life. Children formed playgroups in the camps and dining halls became a center of social gatherings. These camps emptied as the city was rebuilt. The Presidio camps were dismantled first, closing in June, 1906.

Refugees outside earthquake cottages
Refugees outside their earthquake cottages.  Many of these families moved their cottages from the camps to lots where they became their permanent homes.

National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA


As winter approached, the city built 5,300 small wooden cottages for those still in need of housing. These “earthquake shacks” were a joint effort of the San Francisco Relief Corporation, the San Francisco Parks Commission, and the Army. Union carpenters built the structures, which are said to be based on a design provided by General Greely, who had personal experience in building Arctic shelters with few supplies.

Mayor Schmitz vocalized his concern about the clean conditions and desirable locations of the new cottage camps with the statement, "I'm only afraid these people will never want to leave their new homes here." At peak occupancy the cottages housed 16,448 refugees. Tenants paid $2 a month toward the $50 price of the cottage. After paying off their new home, the owners were required to move their cottages from the camps. The last camp closed in June 1908, leaving earthquake cottages scattered throughout San Francisco. Today, the Presidio houses two of these earthquake cottages.

Earthquake cottages at the Presidio today
Two of the 1906 earthquake cottages are preserved at the Presidio today. Thay are found behind the old post hospital at the corner of Lincoln Blvd. and Funston Avenue.

1906 Earthquake: Relief Efforts

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Bronson, William. The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997).

Clements, Jr., Robert M. "Reminders of 1906," San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, 11 December 1977.

"Engineers Build New Dwellings for Refugees," Presidial Weekly Clarion, (Presidio of San Francisco), 27 April 1906.

Halsey, Jr., Col. Milton B., USA (Ret). Point Paper U.S. Army Activities in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, Presidio Ranger files.

Richards, Rand. Historic San Francisco: A Concise History and Guide, (San Francisco: Heritage House Publishers, 1991).

Russell Sage Foundation, San Francisco Relief Survey: The Organization and Methods of Relief Used After the Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906, (New York: Survey Associates, Inc., 1913).

The Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of San Francisco's 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks Jane Cryan, Founder-Director materials and letter to Diane Nicholson, Golden Gate National Recreation Area curator dated 4 December 1997, Presidio Ranger files.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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