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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 15: Earthquake Shacks

After San Francisco's 1906 Earthquake and Fire over 5,600 relief cottages were constructed for the refugees. Some still survive today.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 18, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 15: Earthquake Shacks Outside Lands Podcast Episode 15: Earthquake Shacks

(above) Camp Richmond, circa 1907

Camp Richmond, earthquake refugee camp on land occupied by Park-Presidio Boulevard, 1906-1908.
Charles Weidner

Podcast Transcription

WNP15 – Earthquake Shacks

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And we're the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. It's, it’s the middle of April, David. What does that mean to you as a San Franciscan?

David: Spring is here.

Woody: Well, yeah. Okay. But that's anywhere. Actually, I always think when April rolls around, I think of two things. One, my daughter's birthday, which was yesterday.

David: And?

Woody: And…

David: And the Giants.

Woody: And the Giants. I do think that too. All right, three things. The third thing I think about…

David: And?

Woody: Is the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, which probably, maybe excluding the Gold Rush and the Giants winning the World Series twice, was the biggest thing to happen in San Francisco. The 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

David: For those of you who don't know, on April 18th, 1906, there was a [00:01:00] large earthquake in San Francisco. And for three days afterwards, a fire raged throughout the city.

Woody: Separate fires had joined into a giant maelstrom of fire.

David: Thank you for clarifying that.

Woody: There are people who are gonna write in if we get…

David: A maelstrom.

Woody: A maelstrom. A maelstrom?

David: Yes.

Woody: Okay. A maelstrom.

David: Alright. So anyway, 1906, there was a big fire and much of the city was destroyed. Much of the most populated parts of the city were destroyed.

Woody: Yeah. They think that, the last estimate I heard that was relatively accurate is that there were 400,000 people living in San Francisco. And after the earthquake and fire, there were about 225,000 people who were at least temporarily homeless or displaced from their home.

David: What are you gonna do with all those people walking the streets?

Woody: Well…

David: We thought we had a homeless problem now.

Woody: Yeah. Well this, I mean, do you have [00:02:00] any family history? Do you have family that was living here at the time? Any lore that's been passed down?

David: It's not, you know, it's just not really part of my family history. I mean, I did have family that was living here at the time. But I have no personal stories of anything. I don't know. We never talked about it. My grandparents never really talked about it to me.

Woody: Well, I have a good story. Wanna hear my story?

David: Yeah, we gotta put something on this.

Woody: No, I'll share it really quickly, because actually what we're gonna talk about today is not so much the earthquake, but about what they did after the earthquake. The earthquake refugee cottages which were built to house all these refugees, and how they still survive today. Some of these examples of these earthquake refugee cottages. And my personal story is that my great-grandparents actually met in a refugee camp after the 1906 earthquake.

David: Wow!

Woody: Yeah. The two families were burned out and they both were kind of camping near each other. And my [00:03:00] great-grandfather met my great-grandmother there. And that November, November 1906, they got married.

David: Wow!

Woody: So, if it wasn't for the earthquake and fire, you would be talking with somebody else at this podcast. Because I wouldn't exist.

David: Well, there's arguments for…

Woody: For and against.

David: The Western Neighborhoods Project not even existing.

Woody: Yeah. So, you have all these homeless people, or people who are burned out, especially the renters, the people who can't just immediately rebuild.

David: Right.

Woody: What are you gonna do? And they were worried…

David: So, what did they do immediately?

Woody: They set up tent camps in the parks for people.

David: So, people, their houses were burned out, maybe they saved certain amounts of their belongings.

Woody: Canary cages. I always see people carrying canary cages in the old pictures.

David: You can't abandon your pets, Woody.

Woody: I know. It’s true. It’s true.

 David: So, steamer trunks and canary cages and wheelbarrows carrying them out. And they [00:04:00] mostly carried them out to places that hadn't been damaged, like the city parks that were nearby in each neighborhood.

Woody: Right. And the official sort of camps that came together right after were in city parks. They set up soup kitchens and that sort of thing. But they were worried because, a few reasons, they were worried because they thought everybody might leave town and San Francisco would lose its sort of preeminent role as the west coast big city. They were worried that all these people camping in parks in tents with the rainy season, that there'd just be a public health nightmare and everything would be wet and soggy.

David: Right.

Woody: So, they tried to come up with some new plan right away.

David: Well, we should say that, I believe martial law was enacted and the army was, the U.S. Army was responsible for a lot of the city. And they came forward with a lot of canvas tents that were set up in the parks initially.

David: Right.

Woody: So, you see old pictures with tents and things, and those are pretty recent [00:05:00] after the, after the earthquake.

Woody: Yeah. And then you think also, I mean, a lot of people, like if you think of this horrible disaster happened today, you or I, we have family in other places, we could go stay with them. They could put us up. But a lot of people, the people who couldn't do that or couldn't rebuild or couldn't find a place to live immediately in this mostly burned-out city. They were the ones that the relief agency that formed were most concerned about. And this amounted to the poor people, people with no other resources, older people, and a lot of working people. They needed the working people to stay in town to help rebuild San Francisco.

David: Right. So, the tents survived throughout the summer.

Woody: Yep.

David: And they realized that there was just no way that they were gonna rebuild housing in time for winter. So, a plan was enacted.

Woody: The Cottage Plan.

David: A slightly more permanent, though [00:06:00] still temporary, but, you know, not the house of straw, but maybe a house of sticks.

Woody: That's right. It was called the Cottage Plan. And the great thing about the Cottage Plan was not only we're gonna build some housing for people, but the idea was that it would translate into keeping these people in the city. Because these little cottages that they were going to build in the camps, which were all city parks, where the idea was that people would rent the cottages while they're in the camps and when the camps closed, people could take the cottages with them out of the camps to some lot that they bought.

David: A rent-to-own system.

Woody: Yeah, a starter house that you just drag out of the camp, put on a little lot that you bought in the Richmond or Sunset district for a hundred bucks.

David: Right.

Woody: And live there. So, it's like a starter home to get kind of resettled back into life.

David: So, y,ou said something, you said that the camps were built in the city parks. Now there are parks all over town and so did every city park have one? And why did they build them? Why didn't they just [00:07:00] build them all in one place?

Woody: Well, there were different reasons for this. One thing was, they wanted to disperse the refugees across the city because of a lot of issues. A lot of people did not want a refugee camp right next door to them. I mean, if you think about it today, would you want, you know, 16,000 refugees all in one place? It seems kind of like a logistical issue.

David: It seems like a health issue.

Woody: Quality of life. They wanted to spread 'em out.

David: I mean, these camps, they didn't have running water. They didn't have toilets.

Woody: Yeah. They had like, they set up that stuff.

David: They had.

Woody: They were just dirt camps mostly.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That was one issue. But not all the camps ended up having earthquake cottages. There were about 20 of them that ended up with earthquake cottages, and they were all spread through the city. The biggest camp with cottages was on today's Park Presidio Boulevard in the Richmond district. It wasn't the big city park.

David: So was that a city park?

Woody: It was planned to be. It wasn't a six-lane freeway then. It was a planned boulevard. So, they had like [00:08:00] 1600 of these cottages all lined up right there in the Richmond district. But there were camps south of Market, over in Potrero. There were…

David: Portsmouth Square.

Woody: Mission Dolores. You know, Dolores Park was all full of earthquake shacks.

David: Precita Park?

Woody: Precita Park, yeah. So, all over the city, these little shack camps went up.

David: Was there a camp in Washington Square?

Woody: There was. In Jefferson Square. Franklin Square, which is over near the old Seals Stadium.

David: All those old kind of little neighborhood park squares had these.

Woody: Yeah. And so, the idea with the shacks were, they were small. I mean, the smallest was, were like 10 feet by 14 feet. And then they had a medium size, which was 14 by 18. And a larger one that was about 18 by 24. And the idea was that they were different sizes for different sized families. An old lady might live in a type A, the smallest one, and a family of three or four might live in a type C. But they had no bathrooms or kitchens. Those were all [00:09:00] communal buildings in the camps.

David: Sometimes they'd have a stove.

Woody: Yes. You had to pay a little extra. They were always worried about creeping socialism. They didn't want give anybody anything, so they were supposed to pay a little rent. The refugees. But yeah, little stoves.

David: So, how many, how many were made?

Woody: 5,610. They kept good records.

David: Correct answer.

Woody: And they were mostly painted what color?

David: Park bench green.

Woody: Yeah.

David: That green paint.

Woody: That if you go to a park and you see a bench, that's the color.

David: That's why it's called park bench green.

Woody: Well, we just made up that name, I think.

David: We did?

Woody: Yeah. I don't think it's an official name.

David: Oh.

Woody: But why were they painting them green? The idea was that they somehow would meld in better with the parks.

David: Yeah.

Woody: To have these 1600 buildings…

David: It's a beautiful sylvan setting in the parks.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Unfortunately, we don't have any color pictures of them. Do we?

Woody: Yeah. I think the only thing we have is some colorized postcards. [00:10:00]

David: Colorized postcards, yeah.

Woody: They were made of redwood. Redwood was still plentiful back then. And they had redwood walls and fir floors. They had windows. And the windows, we always talked about this, earthquake shack expert Jane Cryan, who came around in the 1980s trying to save some of these old earthquake shacks, talked about these six pane windows. The little six light windows. Three in the top and three in the bottom. They had a lot of those. Kind of a signature thing. They had these eaves that kind of stuck out on the sides with little exposed rafter ends.

David: One of the things I noticed about the, about the rafter ends is that the roofs are very overbuilt. There's a lot of wood in the roof. And when you look at the sides of the buildings, they're almost like a little house of cards. But they have this heavy-duty roof on 'em.

Woody: Yeah. They're cute too. They look like the kind of house a little kid would draw, right? They have little gable roofs, and they kind of stick out a little on the end, and they're little [00:11:00] square boxes. I mean, rectangles. They're cute. I mean, we gotta give 'em that.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the camps were open about a year, these earthquake cottage camps.

David: So, from…

Woody: September.

David: September ‘06 to September, October, November of ‘07 or something?

Woody: Yeah. Some of them went to 1908, but they were really about a year after that they were really trying to close 'em down.

David: And they tried to close 'em down because?

Woody: They wanted to get these refugees out and move in and incorporate into the growing new city. They didn't want this refugee problem anymore.

David: Yeah. And they wanted their parks back too.

Woody: Definitely, people wanted the parks back. So, remember I said the idea was that people would rent these cottages for like two bucks a month, and then the idea was they were paying towards owning them, and at the end of the camps closing, they could take 'em away.

David: Right.

Woody: And that's what happened.

David: Right. So, you would just put 'em up on a, put ‘em up on wheels, and hook a donkey to the front, or a mule or a [00:12:00] horse. I don't know what.

Woody: A chinchilla? Some kind of pack animal. I mean a work animal.

David: Or Aunt Bessie.

Woody: Yeah.

David: You pull that thing down the street.

Woody: Yeah. They just stick 'em on wagons and drag 'em all over the city, actually.

David: But they're still pretty small.

Woody: Yeah.

David: To live in.

Woody: So, a lot of people, what they do is they take two or three and cobble them together.

David: Put 'em end to end or turn 'em sideways or whatever. Cut out sides, inside and make rooms.

Woody: Yeah. And it's funny, so we talked about there were 5,610 built. All built by union carpenters that just went out there and like put 'em all up real quick. And then when they closed the camps, I think there were about 5,300 that were removed. About 200 of them or 400 had been damaged or destroyed or anyway. So, about 5,300 ended up being spread throughout the city.

David: Not only through the city, but all [00:13:00] over Northern California even.

Woody: Yeah. There's some in San Rafael I think, and there's definitely some in Santa Cruz.

David: San Bruno has a couple.

Woody: It's a long way to go that people took these shacks.

David: What we see is we see a lot in Bernal Heights. And we see quite a few in the Sunset District.

Woody: In the Richmond.

David: In the Richmond.

Woody: So, you have, you want areas, I mean, if the area that they were dragged to are close to the camp, that's one thing, that makes sense. Right. So, there's a shack or a cottage camp in Precita Park and you have open land for sale in Bernal Heights.

David: Right up the hill.

Woody: So, people would buy a lot in Bernal Heights.

David: Right.

Woody: And the other places land was for sale were in our side of town, the western side of town. So, lots were for sale in the Richmond and Sunset and the Lake Merced area. All of those things were, were open for sale and cheap.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, these people could afford it.

David: Yeah, but one thing that I notice is that, so say you are a person that lived in the refugee camp and you [00:14:00] bought your cottage and you dragged it out to your new neighborhood.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I think once you got your little house put together, then first thing you would do is cover up that green paint.

Woody: Because it was a stigma, right?

David: Yeah. People didn't want to be thought of as living in a refugee cottage.

Woody: And I can at attest to that. Remember I said my great-grandparents got married? Well, there was some shame in that. I remember one side of my family, my grandfather's side, they were kind of like, we're not real happy that these people were refugees. I mean, they, they were refugees themselves, but they felt like the other side of the family was a poorer side. And there was some stigma. So yeah, people would paint the cottages, they would cover them with shingles. That was very common.

David: That's what I see commonly.

Woody: Yeah. They'd cover them with shingles, and you needed that layer of insulation too.

David: And speaking of that, I mean, some of the ones we've seen of the cottages, once you strip down the walls, you see the [00:15:00] interior of the original cottage covered with newspapers.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Would they do that in the camps?

Woody: I think they did, and also when they left the camps. They'd use newspapers and burlap and canvas, just to kind of keep the wind out.

David: Just to insulate the little drafty little house of cards that they had.

Woody: And then when they moved to their new place and they actually put up a real interior wall of beadboard or something, they just put it right over the newspapers.

David: Right.

Woody: So, when we talk about, are there shacks today? Is that an earthquake cottage, is it not? When we get into the walls and we can see a newspaper that's dated November 1906, it gives us a very big clue that it is an earthquake refugee cottage.

David: So, we could build some fake ones by getting some old newspapers.

Woody: Yeah. So, let's talk about that, David, cause we somehow got into the earthquake shack business. I don't know how. Well, I do know how, but out of the 5,300…

David: Who's idea was that?

Woody: Out of the 5,300 that were removed from the camps, people always ask, how many are [00:16:00] left.

David: Right.

Woody: And how many are left? We used to say, when we first got involved in this…

David: It was 20 something.

Woody: It was like 29, 30. But now we think there's gotta be at least double, maybe triple that, that we could probably point out today.

David: We claim there's 32 on our website.

Woody: There's more.

David: I think there’s more.

Woody: We know there's more. There might be 32 in Bernal Heights it turns out. And, are we talking about an earthquake shack site or are we talking about number of shacks? Because some of these, like you said, were cobbled together. They have three shacks in one building that are all put together.

David: Right. Or even four on one lot, as we discovered out on Kirkham Street.

Woody: Right. And if people want to know what an earthquake shack looks like, there's a couple that are set up in the Presidio, right near the main parade ground that Jane Cryan helped save in the 1980s.

David: We call 'em the Goldie Shacks.

Woody: We called them the Goldie Shacks named after the resident that was living there in the Outer Richmond. And [00:17:00] then we ended up saving four, well, really three earthquake cottages out on outer Kirkham Street in the Sunset District. We restored one and put it on display on Market Street for the Centennial of the 1906 Earthquake. So those, there's one of those in the zoo.

David: That one's in the zoo.

Woody: Yeah. San Francisco Zoo. And you can go see it there.

David: And the other two, well there were three. But really there was only material of three and you could only kind of get two of 'em built. So, the other two have been restored and they are in Oakland near, kind of near Jack London Square.

Woody: Yeah. Kind of an artist colony that uses artist studios.

David: Yeah. And there's a very nice replica of an earthquake shack inside the Randall Museum.

Woody: Yeah. That's probably the best way to feel what it was like to live in an earthquake shack. You can go in the Randall Museum up there on Corona Heights, and kind of see what it was like. They basically built a new one, carpenters [00:18:00] did, that looked just like one of the old. But people ask, how do you know an earthquake shack, David? How do you? Do I have one? Is that little building over there one? How do we find out? How do you tell?

David: Well, as you mentioned earlier, the only real way to tell is to dig into the walls. You know, pull off the shingles on the outside or dig in, you know, cut a hole in your drywall inside and…

Woody: We are not liable for any damages that might occur.

David: I mean, that's the only way to really tell. The other way to tell, I mean, there are other ways. You could look at the eaves. You see, if you see a whole bunch of rafters, small rafters sticking out, and you're like, wow, that's a lot of rafters. The other thing is, is that these buildings are small.

Woody: Right.

David: They are very small.

Woody: The biggest we talked about was 18 by 24. The smallest was 10 by 14. It's like this, a bedroom.

David: And so, if you have a house that that spans [00:19:00] the lot, the width of your San Francisco 25 foot lot.

Woody: That's too big.

David: That's too big.

Woody: Unless it looks like it was cobbled out of two buildings or something.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because that I think is the biggest clue for us. If we see a building that looks like it's three little gables all kind of attached together, well, there's no other explanation than it's three little cottages that were put together. And there's no other place these three little cottages are gonna come from except the earthquake camps. Other sort of signs, I think is the roof line. You know, we see these little houses with really steep gabled roofs, but the earthquake shacks had this very shallow pitch. They look like, like pup tents, you know, like in Boy Scouts or something.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That's a good clue. I'm just giving you clues because if you have a really steep roof, you don't have to dig into your walls.

David: That’s right.

Woody: It's not gonna be an earthquake shack.

David: Yeah. These places are small. I mean, the other thing you could do is you could look at the existing earthquake shacks that are out there.

Woody: Yeah.

David: In situ, as you say.

Woody: And compare and contrast. [00:20:00] Yeah. I do think that the only way we can really tell, we can get a good guess by the way the building looks, the size, the roof pitch. But you're right, if you get into the wall under the stucco, under the shingle and you see that park bench green redwood in there, or even better, newspapers that say November 1906.

David: So, there was a couple out on Moultrie Street in Bernal Heights a few years ago.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And they wanted to know if they had an earthquake shack and we thought they did. And they ended up renovating the building to the point where they tore off the interior drywall. And we found the whole thing just plastered with newspapers.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Right?

Woody: Yeah.

David: And they said, well, yep, this one's an earthquake shack. And then, all you have to do is turn around and look next door and see a building that looks almost like a twin of what this building looked like. And you can pretty much say that that one's an earthquake shack too.

Woody: Yeah. [00:21:00] I mean, I used to say that shacks travel in packs. Because not only can they be cobbled together in one building, but you often see two or three of them near each other. Because some entrepreneur or guy just took three or four of 'em and set 'em up on a lot to rent 'em out. So, you often see them in rows or kind of near each other.

David: But yeah, you can’t, you really need to go out and look at the ones that are out in the streets to see how people put them together.

Woody: Yeah. And if you look at our website, we have lots of pictures of earthquake shacks that we have found or identified or other people have identified. So that's a good way to kind of educate yourself as well. But that's it. I think it was an amazing sort of experiment. I mean, we had Hurricane Katrina where you had a similar situation with all these refugees and they built the FEMA trailers and all this. But this was all done back in 1906. A way to get all these people settled again and back on their feet and be homeowners for the first time even.

David: It was an unprecedented sort of [00:22:00] effort to rehabilitate the city and the population, I think.

Woody: Yeah. And when you talk about, like we said, if the earthquake is one of the biggest events to happen in San Francisco, these earthquake cottages that are still around, are really the most tangible reminder of that. You can't see anything else about the earthquake, but this kind of can be a physical reminder of this big event. So, we think they're kind of important. That's why we got involved in this. And, yeah, we hope, I think there's gonna be more found. I think there's gonna be more out there, just kind of unearthed.

David: Do you think, now this might be a controversial question for you, Woody, but do you think that all of the earthquake shacks should be saved and preserved?

Woody: Should they all be saved or preserved? That's more a technical question, I think, for a preservationist. I do think that if a building is in great shape and looks like an earthquake cottage, [00:23:00] then yeah, I think every effort should be made to preserve it. I think what a lot of people do is they end up finding out that there's some part of a broken up little building that has an earthquake shack in it and they wanna save it. But not because they wanna save it, but because they don't want a big building built there. You know? And so that gets tricky. People just wanna save anything that has anything that seems like an earthquake shack, cause they really don't want a three-story building next to their house. And, in those situations, I'm more like not as sympathetic. I think it, if it's a good example and it looks like earthquake cottage and it really kind of preserves that integrity, then yeah, I think an effort should be made to save it. So, I'm on the record. But don't come to me cause I don't think I can save them. We saved those three or four and that pretty much took all our time for four years.

David: Yeah.

Woody: We don't have the bandwidth that they say nowadays to save every earthquake shack out there, unfortunately. But…

David: But if you do go, if you think you have an earthquake shack, [00:24:00] then go to our website and use the resources that we've provided there. And check it out for yourself.

Woody: Yeah, and the Planning Department, the city Planning Department is pretty aware of it now too. So, I think they're on it. If they think there's a good example, they will step in and try to save it. But that's it for this week. Happy earthquake week, David.

David: Thank you, Woody.

Woody: Are you gonna go to the memorial at five something in the morning and…

David: Yes.

Woody: Okay. I'm gonna look for you there.

David: Absolutely.

Woody: I'm gonna look for you. This is the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast. We'll see you next time.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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