In 1906, the earth jolted beneath the feet of the 400,000 people of San Francisco, California. An entire cityscape of buildings, homes and parks were completely disrupted by the chaotic quake on April 18. Possibly even more destruction was caused by the three day fires that followed. 250,000 residents were left as homeless refugees struggling to survive.
Where to Sleep?
Thousands of homeless families were sheltered quickly in 11 large campsites organized by the United States Army, the San Francisco Relief Corporation and San Francisco Parks Commission. Washington Square, Dolores Park, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio were a few of the sites where about 20,000 people sought refuge in military issued tents. The tents were given numbers, much like a home address, and camps were scattered with intersection directories. As winter approached, 5,500 wooden “cottages” were constructed by the Army and its local relief collaborators.
The Far From Cozy Cottages
These cottages were smaller than most of our living rooms. Type A was 140 square feet, and Type B was square 252 feet. They were one room, and had no kitchen or bathroom. Space was tight, but the 16,000 tenants who had the opportunity to call one home, had basic shelter thanks to the walls and floors made of redwood and fir. Tenants paid $2 a month toward the final price of $50.
When the camps started closing in summer of 1907, tenants were encouraged to purchase the houses and were pretty much given the homes so long as they promised to move the structure off the original site. Many people willingly complied and hauled them off to private lots around the city, often combining two or three together to make a larger home.
The Cottages Make A Comeback
Jane F. Cryan – deemed the “shack activist” brought preservation of the shacks into the foreground of public interest in the 1980s, with the story of her “little red house” dwarfed by large modern structures. It is no longer red but can be seen here in the Sunset District. After that, the shacks made a nostalgic comeback among the hearts of San Franciscans. They are still being renovated, preserved, and increasing in property value! Today, the $50 shack of 1906 is sold for around $800,000!
- Refugee shacks - survivors of 1906 Quake and Fire. Carl Nolte. sfgate.com website.
- 1906 Earthquake: Refugee Camps. NPS.gov website.
- 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks. Outsidelands.org website.
Property containing 1906 earthquake shack approved for demolition. Sarah B. Richmond District Blog website.