Remembering the 1906 Earthquake and Fire
How City Employees and the Park Aid Station Helped San Francisco in its Hour of Need
By Ryan Kelly
This past Monday, April 18, marked the 110th anniversary of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed 28,000 buildings and instantly displaced 250,000 city residents from their homes. San Francisco parks and park employees were key in sheltering the victims of the disaster and starting the city on its long road to recovery, but one little unassuming building at the east end of Golden Gate Park played a huge role in the immediate hours after the quake.
Many buildings in the park were damaged by the earthquake, including McLaren Lodge, the Sharon Building, the de Young Museum, and the modern day Park Aid Station located on Stanyan Street, which was then known as the Park Emergency Hospital.
The stone hospital structure was built in 1902 as a collaboration between the Parks Commission and Board of Health that oversaw the city’s public health services. The population in the western part of the city was growing and it was meant to serve the whole region, not just the park. The structure cost around $9,000 to build, with the Park Commission providing $3,000 along with labor from park employees.
The emergency hospital served the western settlements of the city until that fateful day on the third Wednesday of April in 1906, at 5:13 a.m. During the initial quake, the Park Emergency Hospital partially collapsed, disabling the facility. Luckily, none of the staff was seriously injured, and they salvaged supplies from the building and moved their hospital to the park tunnel at Haight and Stanyan.
As the city’s clinic near City Hall had to be abandoned because of fire, the number of victims from the earthquake began to swell at the makeshift hospital in the park. Medical professionals and volunteers from all over the city swarmed to the park, where they worked with park staff to serve the injured and eventually set up an additional ten triage tents around the collapsed clinic. Park employees and other volunteers built a water cauldron to purify the city’s tainted drinking water for the park’s refugees, using stones from the collapsed chimneys of McLaren lodge.
In the city’s darkest hour, fires that erupted in the wake of the earthquake turned night to day in the park, raining ashes over the area. Food, water, and other critical supplies dwindled while the city burned and the number of refugees grew. However, staff and volunteers from the city’s public health and its park services were joined together to serve those in need. Lucy Fisher, a nurse who worked in the park, later remembered:
Near the Haight Street entrance we found the nucleus of a hospital in the midst of beautiful foliage and sweet-scented shrubbery. I believe it was the trees, the sound of bird notes at dawn, and the odor of fruit blossoms that saved us from insanity those terrible nights that we worked there.
Parks around the city served as makeshift camps in the ensuing months after the quake, with Golden Gate Park becoming the city’s largest, sheltering an estimated 40,000 people at its peak.
The shelter of our parks, and the dedication of city employees and citizen volunteers, nursed San Francisco back to health. Today, the former Park Emergency Hospital is known as the Park Aid Station, rebuilt from the stones of a collapsed mansion donated by its owner. It now houses the Department’s Natural Areas and Volunteer Programs, a continuing example of how city employees and volunteers work together to serve our city.