1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks


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1906 Earthquake Refugee Cottages


A crowd turned out at the Zoo on March 19, 2006 to celebrate the restoration of Shack One. -

Earthquake refugee cottages, or "shacks" were built by the Department of Lands and Buildings of the Relief Corporation to house refugees from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

5,610 cottages were constructed to house over 16,000 San Franciscans in 11 refugee camps in locations including Dolores Park, Washington Square, Precita Park, Portsmouth Square, and today's Park-Presidio Boulevard.

Union carpenters built three main sizes of cottages between September 1906 and March 1907. Cottages had cedar-shingle roofs, fir floors and redwood walls. All were painted green to better blend into the parks and public squares in which they were erected.

When the camps began closing in August 1907, refugees hauled cottages to private lots, and often cobbled together two or more to form larger residences. Of the 5,343 moved from the camps only a handful are certified to still be standing.

1906 earthquake refugee cottage being towed out of a camp on a wagon, 1907 or 1908. - Courtesy of Glenn Koch

Earthquake cottages came back in the public eye in the early 1980s, when "shack activist" Jane F. Cryan began lobbying for their preservation. Her efforts created City Landmark #171, a complex of three shacks at 1227 - 24th Avenue, and helped rescue two others that are on public display in the Presidio of San Francisco.

In 2002, The Western Neighborhoods Project became involved in saving 4 cottages (which had been cobbled together into 2 dwellings) at 4329 & 4331 Kirkham Street (The Kirkham Shacks). In a 4 year project, one cottage was restored entirely and displayed on Market Street during the month of April 2006 for the centennial remembrance of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. In 2008, it found a permanent home in the San Francsco Zoo's Conservation Corner. The other three cottages, one of which was beyond restoration, were donated to the Fifth Avenue Institute near Oakland's Jack London Square. Two have been restored on-site there.

We continue our work with refugee cottages and regularly visit sites around the area looking for more hidden pieces of history.

Do you have an earthquake shack / camp cottage?

Shacks have been cobbled together, renovated, and remodeled, so identification can be tricky. Here are some signs:
  • "Type A" cottages are 10' wide and 14' deep.
  • "Type B" cottages are 14' wide and 18' deep.
  • Walls were made of wide California redwood boards, painted park-bench green.
  • Flooring was made of fir.
  • Roofing was pup-tent-like and shingled with cedar
  • Most original windows were six-paned
  • If you can see in the rafters, look for the checkerboard-like framing.

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Page launched 4 September 2003; updated 2 November 2007.