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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 23: Camp Merritt

Guest Nicole Meldahl talks about the Richmond District's 1898 encampment of volunteer soldiers for the Spanish-American War.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jun 14, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 23: Camp Merritt Outside Lands Podcast Episode 23: Camp Merritt

(above) Camp Merritt, 1898

View South from about California Street and Arguello toward Lone Mountain and Odd Fellows Cemetery. Camp Merritt had two sections, located north and south of Geary Street (then Point Lobos). Narrow gauge tracks in foreground for the Ferries & Cliff House Railroad.

Podcast Transcription

WNP23 – Camp Merritt

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

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: This is the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. And David.

David: What? Yes, Woody?

Woody: We have a special guest with us here today.

David: We do.

Woody: Who is it?

David: It's Nicole Meldahl.

Woody: Who's Nicole Meldahl?

David: Nicole Meldahl is possibly the greatest volunteer the Western Neighborhoods Project has ever had.

Woody: Outside of you, ‘cause…

David: Or you.

Woody: Or you. Okay, outside of us, Nicole is the greatest…

David: Possibly. I don't want to, you know, we haven't really…

Woody: We’re really hedging our bet.

David: Differentiated between the other volunteers we've had.

Woody: You know, for a history podcast, we're never actually factual about anything.

David: History is malleable.

Woody: Is femaleable?

David: No.

Woody: What is this? Okay. Nicole, welcome.

Nicole: Thank you.

Woody: Nicole, why, how, first of all, what did Nicole [00:01:00] do for us?

David: Nicole…

Woody: Talking about her being a volunteer.

David: Is helping with our collections and she is creating an accessioning project for us so that we can keep track of all the stuff we have.

Nicole: They call that collections management.

David: That's why we need a volunteer like her.

Woody: That’s right. Because Nicole knows what she's doing and can know who the name is and we don't. Where did you come from, Nicole? Where did we find you? What, how did you like, just suddenly appear and change our lives for the better?

Nicole: Yeah, well, I found you guys because I read your website. And I also knew John Martini worked with you guys a bunch, and I think he's the best. So, I was looking for a little volunteer work, and I love what you guys do, and I found my way here.

Woody: Now, where were you working, or where do you work normally?

Nicole: I work at the Park Archives and Records Center for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Woody: And that's in the Presidio.

Nicole: It sure is.

Woody: Right. It’s, aren't those old stable buildings? They're like big brick buildings kind of under where Doyle Drive was, I guess. Doyle Drive is kind of...

David: [00:02:00] Malleable.

Woody: Yes, it's malleable. Like history.

Nicole: It's coming down as we speak. We're watching it come down.

Woody: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. I drove by there the other day and it's all like metal and exposed concrete rebar and stuff. But you’re working over there, but you're not from San Francisco. Not that we hold that against you. Most people are not. Where are you from?

Nicole: I'm from Southern California, Los Angeles. And yes, please don't hold that against me.

Woody: No, no, no, no, no. We like Southern California, don't we David?

David: Yeah, I love Southern California. Well, not that much.

Woody: Not so much of the love.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But how did you get into history? How did you get into archives and collections?

Nicole: Well, I was a little tyke in an antique store when I was a kid. And I've just always loved my own family history. And I was a history major in college. I came up here to go to San Francisco State in 2002 and just stayed. And I found the job that I have now with Golden Gate through an internship program at S.F. State. And just never left.

Woody: Now, you know, we're having you here, of course, because you are the special greatest [00:03:00] volunteer that the Western Neighborhoods Project has possibly ever had. But specifically, I know that the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Archives, is that the correct title?

Nicole: No.

Woody: I know that, I know that the place you work, which is...

Nicole: Park Archives and Records Center.

Woody: The Park Archives and Records Center for...

Nicole: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Woody: That you worked with some materials that have to do with the western neighborhoods of San Francisco, excluding the Presidio. And that is Camp Merritt. Something that we kind of talk about. We have stuff on our website.

David: We have a lot of pictures on our website of Camp Merritt.

Woody: Yeah.

David: What it was, was an encampment just south of Golden Gate Park.

Woody: North.

David: North of Golden Gate Park. I get confused with that.

Woody: It's malleable.

David: Maybe I shouldn't be a, and it was a big encampment for soldiers getting ready to leave for the Spanish-American War.

Woody: Yeah. Going [00:04:00] to the Pacific, right? What can you add to that?

Nicole: Well, the Presidio was one of the main staging areas for the Spanish-American War and Camp Merritt was only used for a short period of time because sanitation was so poor there that guys kept getting really, really sick. So, then they moved on to Camp Miriam which was in the Presidio.

Woody: Okay. Now I thought I remember reading that all these guys are coming over from all over the United States and they're going to San Francisco as a staging point, right? They're going to take off on ships to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish-American War. And I thought I heard originally that sanitation issues, at first, they were like, we don't want all these guys in the Presidio because it's just going to be a big mess. And I thought part of that was that that's why they put them at Camp Merritt. Which, Camp Merritt is actually the grounds of the old Bay District race track, which was a horse racing track. And it's in the Inner Richmond from roughly Arguello to Fifth Avenue, I'm guessing. Well, sort of Geary, but [00:05:00] more like Anza down to Fulton Street. Right?

Nicole: Yep.

Woody: So that was where the racetrack was. And the Crocker Estate, which owned the racetrack, said, okay, we'll lend this area out to the Army or, I don't know, maybe they rented it, for all…

Nicole: They gave it.

Woody: They gave it for all these volunteers to essentially pitch tents and wait while they were going, before they went to the Philippines, right?

Nicole: Yep, that's absolutely right, and I think you're giving the Army too much credit for how prepared they were and how much forethought there was to, will there be or won't there be enough room and sanitation. It all just happened so fast. Guys came out, supposed to have got their own equipment, but it never came. So, people came in these ragtag bunches and just sort of pitched tents. And it got better as it went along. Once the guys got here, they were able to sort of professionalize and train and drill and things like that. But when they first got here, it was kind of pandemonium.

David: So, are you saying that volunteers from across the country without being members of the army came out and said, [00:06:00] yeah, I want to go and I'll volunteer when I get to San Francisco.

Nicole: They would volunteer at whatever home state they were. And they would sort of gather them up and put them on a train and tell them, like, for Tennessee, they'd tell them, okay, once you get to Nashville, we'll give you all your equipment and uniforms. So, wear your worst clothes and you'll get better ones there. And for those guys, the Tennessee Volunteers, they got to Nashville and there wasn't anything there. So, they ended up coming to San Francisco wearing just these rags. And they were made fun of by San Franciscans and they were called the Raggedy Tennesseans.

Woody: We're very intolerant. Yeah, so basically, these are sort of state militias or something that just kind of formed ad hoc and said, oh, we're going to, we're going to give you all the stuff you need. You're going to go represent the state of Tennessee while you're fighting over there.

David: With no training. They were going to be trained when they got here.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Or somewhere.

Woody: Somewhere.

Nicole: Yes. And there were also regular U.S. Infantry and Cavalry units that were well trained. But a large part of the fighting population were volunteers that had no experience before.

Woody: And [00:07:00] they kind of had war fever, I guess, was kind of going across the United States. So, people wanted to...

David: Remember the Maine!

Woody: Right. Because they were talking about the Maine blowing up. A lot of patriotism. A lot to lead up to this. And we're talking 1898. Right?

Nicole: Yep, 1898.

Woody: And Camp Merritt's pretty much in the Richmond District for how long? You’re saying it was pretty short term, right?

Nicole: A few months. I think May it popped up and I want to say by the summer it was done.

Woody: What was the, so I think this is what I think was interesting. I know you were doing research over there. What was life like at Camp Merritt? I mean, we're talking about an old racetrack which essentially is a bunch of sand dunes and scrub and open area and these guys are just pitching their tents. I assume there's not really latrines built in to start. Well, have you come across anything? Did you come across anything that kind of explains what their life was like there?

Nicole: Well, most of my research has been done through personal letters written home. So, guys tell them what life is like. And I think it's kind of how life was in any army [00:08:00] camp, even probably now. The guys get together and they have a few beers, they play dice, they play craps. And they would get to go into town a lot too. They didn't spend, there was a lot of down time. But luckily, they didn't have to just sit in their tent. They got to come into town. And once they got into town, a few regiments were incredibly rowdy and not very well…

Woody: Boisterous?

Nicole: Urbanized, yes.

Woody: Can we call out any regiments in particular?

Nicole: Again, I'm going to bring up the Tennesseans. They were the only southern regiment to volunteer for the Spanish-American War. And this is, you know, post-Civil War, where this was the first conflict we've been in since then. So, a bunch of Southerners coming to a pretty diverse port town. There were some flare ups where you'd go into a mixed-race bar and everyone was served equally which no one really thinks of in 1898. And the Tennesseans didn't always like that.

Woody: Right.

Nicole: They’d start some brawls and some problems. But.

Woody: Yeah. [00:09:00] I know like Michigan had a big presence at Camp Merritt. In fact, there's still, there’s still, David, there is like one thing left over there, that we can point to today that recognizes that Camp Merritt was even there.

David: Well, I don't know. You mean the plaque?

Woody: The plaque. That kind of is the only thing over there that is like a physical thing that you could say, there was a Camp Merritt there.

David: Right. That's how I learned about it, actually.

Woody: And maybe…

David: Seeing the plaque up there. I was probably drinking beer, while walking down…

Woody: This is kind of like, well, actually, Camp Merritt is sort of like the origins of Beertown, right? We talked about Beertown in the Richmond district along Fulton and Arguello. And all those bars that kind of popped up, especially, and caused a lot of trouble after the 1906 earthquake burned out a lot of other parts of town. But the origins of it, I think a lot of saloons that were there, and other ones popped up and got even bigger with all these soldiers suddenly looking for something to do, right?

David: Yeah, I'm [00:10:00] curious. So, when was the Bay District Racetrack there? When did it close?

Woody: So, the Bay District Racetrack lasted into, just before Camp Merritt.

David: So, we're talking about May of 1898 is when Camp Merritt…

Woody: Right.

David: Was there.

Woody: I think the last real races at Bay District were in 1896.

David: Oh, alright. Was there any building left? Was there a grandstand? I mean, I look at our pictures that we have on the website and I don't see any grandstand or anything like that. Maybe it's just not the right angle.

Woody: Yeah. You know, Bay District never had a lot of giant infrastructure. Like the Ingleside racetrack. It has a big clubhouse and it has a giant grandstand. It has...

David: Ingleside does.

Woody: Ingleside does. Saddling pad. But Bay District was a little humbler. It opens in the 1870s. It has a little grandstand. It has more easily torn down infrastructure.

David: Right. And west of there was built the chutes? Was that later?

Woody: Yeah, so the chutes come in a little later.

David: So, there's pretty much nothing there.

Woody: Right.

David: Just an open [00:11:00] field and some graded track.

Woody: Right, and a few bars. So, it's funny, we talk about this, Nicole, in the Richmond District. There are some mixed feelings, I think, about these soldiers. Because you can imagine a lot of people be like, oh my god, there are all these volunteers are causing trouble, they're just a big nuisance. But then there's some business to be done, too, right?

Nicole: Absolutely, and the people of San Francisco, so, the Presidio was an open military reservation. People could come and go, unless there was some kind of secret, classified something going on in there, which really there was at the time. So, women would bring picnics to the soldiers, and it was quite the social event. And officers would mix with local debutantes, and it was quite a coup to marry an officer. So, we have all these amazing pictures at the Park Archives and Records Center of these dainty women with their little baskets hanging out. And we even have one where one regiment, we don't know which regiment it was, adopted this woman named Isabel [00:12:00] Murphy. And she became the honorary colonel. And they would raise the flag every time she came on to post, and they gave her this teeny little pistol, and made her a special holster for it. And we actually have the holster, or we have the pistol and the flag and a little picture of her with her regiment.

Woody: This in the Presidio?

Nicole: This is in the Presidio, yeah.

Woody: That's funny.

David: The Presidio has always been kind of loose.

Woody: Also, I think there's that weird chivalry going on there, right? That call back to, you know, this is the height of manly chivalry and all this. So probably adopting women and children…

David: Giving them guns.

Woody: And giving them guns. You never know. And, but, so, was the Presidio, even though it was kind of casual and open, and had this sort of relationship with the city, it had to be a little bit more together than Camp Merritt though, right?

Nicole: Oh yes. Oh yes.

Woody: You know, as far as guards.

David: Well, they had real buildings, I think.

Woody: Yeah, but I just mean like, as [00:13:00] far as casualness, you know. Camp Merritt, we see pictures of it. It's just a bunch of tents and guys sitting on boxes.

David: Can you imagine living out there, being a resident and going, wow. You know, you're living out in the country really. And then suddenly there's this whole community of ragtag Tennesseans and others.

Woody: There were some from Minnesota and Michigan and places like that. They definitely, I think, had an impact on the neighborhood, even for the short term. Now we're talking about business. But I think there was a lot of sickness there too. I mean people talked about that. I don't know what kind of stuff, if it was dysentery or, I don't know.

Nicole: Dysentery and influenza. The flu went around like crazy.

Woody: Oh really?

Nicole: Because of the fog. These guys are coming from parts of the country that don't get fog like this, and they were, all letters home talk about how baffled they were by this terrible weather, because they're supposed to be in California that's supposed to be this place where it grows fruit and it's supposed to be beautiful. But they would, [00:14:00] a lot of them would seek treatment. Well, they'd go to the hospital tent and they would just sort of, you know, give him a shot of whiskey and tell him to suck it up. And so, the men who were actually treated well were the ones who went and sought local remedies from people who lived in the area. So, people living around Camp Merritt would bring them into their homes, feed them, and give them, you know, these medicinal cures that probably wouldn't be sanctioned nowadays. But…

Woody: Probably involved a lot of alcohol.

Nicole: Yeah. It’s a lot of alcohol.

Woody: So, there's reverse adoption going on there, right? You talk about the Presidio adopting these city women and stuff. But then a lot of the people in the Richmond are adopting these poor soldiers who are not real happy, I guess. And in the letters, are they all, is anybody happy or are they all kind of unhappy living in the sand and the sickness and the cold and the fog and the fleas.

Nicole: The fleas, yeah. They're unhappy with that, but they also write home a lot about how beautiful the women are here. How gracious the city is. And a lot of them stayed here afterwards. They didn't go home because they [00:15:00] liked California.

David: Did they go, did they go to the Philippines? Everybody?

Nicole: They did. Not everybody. Some regiments never actually shipped out. So, they'd drill here for months and months and months and then the war would be over. But right after the Spanish-American War was the Philippine-American War.

Woody: Right.

Nicole: So, some of them went there, But, like the 8th, I think it was the 738th California volunteers never shipped out anywhere. So, some guys died in camp and their regiment never actually fought.

Woody: Yeah, we were looking at pictures here. We do have, we do see ladies in bonnets and such visiting the soldiers, right?

David: Hanging out with the soldiers.

Nicole: The difference between the officer's tents and the enlisted men's tents are baffling. Like, the officer’s tents are those huge round tents that you're used to seeing after the 1906 earthquake. And they have wood floors that are raised off the ground, and they have furniture. They have full china cabinets, and wood tables. And then these guys are...

David: And I'm looking at these enlisted, these rows of little pup tents that are laid out on the [00:16:00] sand. It has to be miserable.

Woody: So Camp Merritt was named after the officer in charge, I guess. And it's funny, I remember reading a story…

David: Not the same guy that Lake Merritt is named after?

Woody: No, I don't think so. And I do remember seeing…

David: I wanted to clear that up.

Woody: What's his name? It's probably in there somewhere.

Nicole: Wesley Merritt.

Woody: Leslie Merritt.

Nicole: Wesley.

Woody: Wesley Merritt, right.

David: Wesley.

Woody: I remember seeing articles about, you know, they talk about Camp Merritt and it's named after him. But he never seems to go to Camp Merritt because he's the officer. And he goes to parties and swanky welcoming or, you know, sendoff farewell dinners and all that stuff. He never seems to really actually go to Camp Merritt himself.

Nicole: He had a tent.

David: Really? He must have gone there.

Woody: He had a tent?

Nicole: He had a tent, but I don't know how frequented it was.

Woody: Every time I see him, he's like being put up downtown somewhere for some ball or party or, you know.

Nicole: Can you blame him?

Woody: No, no, no, no, no. And I like fog. But I can see it being a problem. So, Camp Merritt disappears [00:17:00] pretty quick, like you said, in 1898. Everybody goes off to the Philippines and we route Spain pretty fast.

Nicole: Yes.

Woody: But the bad, really bad side of this war is that, you know, when we're kids, in the history books we think of the Spanish-American War. But the war goes on far longer and has nothing to do with Spain after that, right?

Nicole: Yeah, once we kicked Spain out, the Filipino insurgents thought they were going to get their country back. And we thought we were going to be their patriarchs.

Woody: Right.

Nicole: So, we kind of moved in and started to set up our own government, and they didn't like that so much.

Woody: Yeah, yeah, they're like, hey, you're going to free us from Spain, thanks! And now we just have new colonial power over us. So that was, it's funny, but Camp Merritt's something that we don't talk about much, I mean, because I guess it was a short-lived thing. But it was kind of neat to have this giant Army camp right in the middle of the Richmond District.

David: Right.

Woody: That people don't know about. And the plaque is over…

David: Yeah, go on.

Woody: Is it on Cabrillo? It's on Cabrillo and 2nd Avenue.

David: Yeah. Is it back? Because we, it was there for years [00:18:00] and then you and I took a walk while drinking some beer.

Woody: No, we weren't drinking beer.

Nicole: It would be appropriate since most of the soldiers there took a walk and drank some beer.

David: Have you heard any of our podcasts?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Everywhere we go, in wherever the historical places, we're drinking beer.

Woody: We sound terrible on this podcast. We sound like we just drink all the time.

David: Anyway, we didn't drink any beer.

Woody: Can you pass me one right now?

David: But so, it was there for years and then it was gone. It was gone for a couple years, I think.

Woody: Disappeared. And this is, it's like a brass plaque on the side of a residence.

David: Yeah, and I mean it's kind of funny because it just says that this, I see a picture of the plaque and it says, it’s the campsite of the 13th Minnesota Regiment Volunteer Infantry, en route to Manila, May/June 1898, the Spanish-American War, Camp Merritt, placed by the California Historical Society in 1952.

Woody: Okay, ‘52, and they had actually veterans from [00:19:00] that regiment come out and…

David: That's probably how they, but, I mean, reading it now I realize it's just a tiny fraction of who was there.

Woody: Yeah, it seems like the Minnesotans are trying to take a lot of credit. But, when we went by and we saw the plaque was gone, and we all got kind of worried. And John Freeman, who lives out there and is a Richmond District historian, kind of was worried and contacted us. And then we found out that somebody had it in their garage. And they painted the building, cleaned it up, and put it back up. So, it's back up.

David: That was nice.

Nicole: But that must be really specific. Each, each regiment had a very specific area. And there was the Tennessee Avenue. There was the New York Avenue. There was the Minnesota Avenue, so maybe that's exactly where the Minnesotans were.

Woody: Was there anything else that, when reading your letters, that you're, you know, anything else that pops out. Any interesting anecdotes, any broad generalizations we can make about people from a certain state?

Nicole: The New York guys seemed pretty proper. I think they were the best [00:20:00] trained when they got here and they sort of looked down on everybody else. And so, the New Yorkers and the Tennesseans did not get along very well, because the Tennesseans thought they were slighting them, which they were. And the New Yorkers thought that they were beneath them. And they were directly across from each other. So, these guys just sat there and stared at each other the whole time and hated each other.

Woody: In the fog.

Nicole: In the fog, when they could see each other.

Woody: Well, that's great. Thank you so much for coming, Nicole. I'm sure we'll have you again, because you have knowledge of all sorts of things from where you work and from digging through our stuff. What's the best thing you found in our stuff that we have piled up here?

Nicole: Oh, gosh. Well, I love all the class photos from the ‘70s. Those little tykes are so cute.

Woody: Yeah, we have a lot of class photos. Columbus School, which is now Alice Fong Yu School. We have tons of them. So, you just like looking at cute little children posing, right?

Nicole: That sounds weird. I just like looking at, I like looking at the things that people don't normally look at. [00:21:00] Those are the things that are thrown away by everyone and like what you guys do here, everyone knows San Francisco and knows the Ferry Building and all those really important landmarks, but there's this whole life that exists out here and it's overlooked. And that's why I love the little overlooked things and historical ephemera.

Woody: Cool. Well, thank you so much for being our guest today, Nicole.

Nicole: Thank you. It was wonderful to be here.

Woody: Yeah, we'll have you back. And until next time, I guess. I'm Woody LaBounty. I guess I am. What do you think, David? Am I?

David: I don't know. You could change.

Woody: And who are you?

David: I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: Alright, we'll see you next time. Thank you.

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

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