On the morning of April 18, 1906 – 115 years – the ground beneath San Francisco shook angrily and violently. Buildings fell. Fires broke out, fueled by severed gas lines, and allowed to spread by fractured water lines.
The San Francisco earthquake, all 7.8 magnitude of it, sent a rude wakeup call to the mostly sleeping residents of the City by the Bay when the first jolt struck at 5:16 a.m.
As they got up, the U.S. Army, the Army’s Corps of Engineers, and the California National Guard stepped up.
The Army’s Department of California, led by Brigadier General Frederick Funston, didn’t wait for orders from above, or a declaration of martial law. He directed Captain Meriweather Walker to send 5 officers and 140 troopers to protect federal property at Fort Mason.
Engineers, federal troops, and the California National Guard then took to the streets to prevent looting. Those first troops maintained order for more than 24 hours before being relieved. They returned to Fort Mason where thousands of displaced victims began to swarm the post and the nearby Presidio looking for refuge from the flames and destruction.
More than 250,000 San Franciscans found themselves homeless. Within three days, the Presidio provided more than 3,000 tents and created mini towns with street grids and name directories on its historic grounds. The Army distributed 13,000 ponchos, 58,000 pairs of shoes, and 24,000 shirts, according to the National Parks Service. The Army ran 21 refugee camps throughout the region, keeping them sanitary and safe. It helped establish children’s play groups, community gatherings, and tried to facilitate as much of a return to normal life as possible under the circumstances.
The Army also worked with the city to build cottages that the refugees could buy for $50 and then move to lots for permanent housing. Two of them remain on display at the Presidio today.
The Presidio Army General Hospital and Army field hospitals also handled the flow of injured and wounded because too many of San Francisco’s other hospitals were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake or fire. The Army medical team enforced sanitation standards that prevented outbreaks of typhoid and other communicable diseases.
Major General Adolphus W. Greeley, commander of the Army’s Pacific Division, lauded the Army’s response and responsibility, compelling Harper’s Weekly editors to opine, “The business of the Army is to meet emergencies, and in such a case as that of San Francisco its training and its system are invaluable.”
The city quickly began rebuilding, and the Presidio’s encampments closed in June 1906.