Red Cross in SF: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

The American Red Cross (“ARC” was established in 1881 by Clara Barton after she spent time with the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Months after its establishment, the American Red Cross provided assistance in the aftermath of the 1881 Thumb Fire. It also aided in the recovery after the 1889 Johnstown Flood. It received its first Congressional charter in 1900 and a second one in 1905. Per its charter, the ARC was to provide relief for the military and to provide disaster relief at home and abroad. It was that latter charter purpose which was the basis for the Red Cross’ first major relief efforts in San Francisco.

Red Cross agent on bicycle and refugees walking at Market and Ellis, 1906.Red Cross agent on bicycle and refugees walking at Market and Ellis, 1906. (wnp37.03977; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Not long after its second Congressional charter, the ARC came to San Francisco to aid in the recovery efforts after the April 18, 1906 earthquake and fire. Within days after the earthquake, they had set up a headquarters at 2510 Washington Street. A still-standing Methodist Church at Broderick and California streets was handed over to the ARC for their relief efforts. Advertisements for needed items for the ARC were placed in the want ads of the local papers. They also established some relief stations at private residences located at 25th and Guerrero streets (Sanborn house), 2301 Laguna Street (Crocker house), 305 Buchanan Street (Scott house), and a few others.1 Donations were solicited from around the country for the massive disaster relief effort.

Red Cross tent and Southern Pacific information booth in Golden Gate Park, 1906.Red Cross tent and Southern Pacific information booth in Golden Gate Park, 1906. (wnp27.2595; Miles Brothers / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Within ten days of the earthquake, a Red Cross and Mayor’s fund had received over $600,000 in donations. The ARC worked hand-in-hand with the Army to supply and provide assistance at refugee tent camps that were set up in parks around the City. The Red Cross’ work in San Francisco after the earthquake would continue for several years.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the ARC, then still relatively small, sent a ship with medical personnel and supplies to Europe to provide relief. With the entry of the United States into the war in 1917, the ARC began growing rapidly to keep up with the demand for medical relief to the military. To meet this demand, local chapters began around the country, including one in San Francisco.

Red Cross Parade on Market Street near McAllister, May 18, 1918.Red Cross Parade on Market Street near McAllister, May 18, 1918. (wnp36.01866; DPW Horace Chaffee – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

As the fourth year of World War I raged on, the Red Cross was hard at work providing relief for the military. On Saturday, May 18, 1918, the ARC kicked off a nationwide war fund drive with large parades across the country. In San Francisco, about 30,000 marchers, almost entirely women and girls clad in white and carrying flags, made their way down Market Street and by a reviewing stand that included civic officials and American and Belgian military officers. The Belgians had participated in a military parade in the City just a few days earlier on May 14, 1918. The Red Cross Parade in New York had 75,000 marchers and was led by President Wilson.

View of Irish Hill property with Red Cross vehicles, May 20, 1918. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)

The nationwide war fund drive that was kicked off at the parade featured a competition among several “divisions” to see who could raise the most money. The divisions were captained by local notables such as M.H. deYoung, John Britton, and Jesse Lilienthal. Vehicles with Red Cross placards fanned out across the City to seek donations from businesses and private residences. In the first four days of the San Francisco war fund drive, nearly one million dollars was raised. On Sunday, May 26, 1918, police were stopping drivers so Red Cross nurses could pitch the driver for a donation.2. Donations were even received from prisoners at Folsom State Prison. During the drive, de Young kept attention focused on it by putting a cut-out donation slip on the front page or the first page of the local section of the Chronicle every day. At the end of the drive, San Francisco had exceeded both its initial goal of $1 million and subsequent goal of $1.5 million.

Red Cross Hospital Business Office building at Fulton and Hyde Streets, circa 1919.Red Cross Hospital Business Office building at Fulton and Hyde Streets, circa 1919. (wnp27.2314; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

While World War I raged on in 1918, a new threat emerged, a worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. After the first case of the Spanish Flu was diagnosed in San Francisco in September 1918, thousands of people in the City became infected quickly and hospitals quickly became overburdened with patients. The ARC was getting ready to open a new administrative building at Fulton and Hyde in the Civic Center area at that time. They quickly converted the administrative building to a hospital in order to treat patients infected with the Spanish Flu. Only after the pandemic subsided was the building reconverted to administrative uses, but that did not last long. The building was torn down a few years later.

Red Cross banners flying on Market Street near 5th, 1945.Red Cross banners flying on Market Street near 5th, 1945. (wnp27.7149; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The ARC has maintained a San Francisco office ever since World War I, aiding the military during World War II and providing disaster relief after the 1989 earthquake, among many other things. With people shut in during the current COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals are suffering critical shortages of blood. The Red Cross is seeking donors. Visit their website if you can help.


1. “No Danger of an Epidemic” San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1906, p. 8.

2. “Police And Nurses Stop All Drivers” San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 1918, p. 7.