Party to top all parties — S.F. went wild when WWI ended
At 1 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, San Francisco held one of the greatest celebrations in its history.
Shouting and singing, an army of men and women flowed up and down Market Street, waving flags and banging on drums. Tens of thousands massed in public places to attend religious services and hear dignitaries give patriotic speeches. Exuberant drivers careened through the streets, honking their horns and dragging tin cans. The bash didn’t run out of steam until well into the next night.
The event that prompted this vast celebration and brought the city to a standstill: the armistice that ended World War I.
The Great War, as it was called, was the most brutal conflict in human history to that point. In four-plus years, an estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were killed. It was optimistically labeled “the war to end all wars,” perhaps an attempt at justifying the appalling slaughter. Yet in just 21 years, a rabble-rousing nationalist vowing to make Germany great again would hurl the world into an even bloodier conflict.
San Francisco, like other American cities, was deeply affected by the Great War. The U.S. was in the conflict for just a year and a half, and didn’t actually fight in major battles until early 1918. But in that short time, 116,000 U.S. soldiers died — twice as many as in the Vietnam War — and 200,000 were wounded. Hundreds of San Franciscans were among the casualties.
As word of the impending armistice spread, crowds gathered near City Hall. At 1 a.m., it was 11 a.m. in France — the hour and place set for the armistice signing.
What followed was no ordinary civic celebration.
At 2 a.m., with the Civic Auditorium “filled as it was never filled before,” a woman’s voice was heard, asking for a prayer for the dead. “Off came hats and ten thousand heads were bowed in the instant,” The Chronicle reported. “Silence cut clean across pandemonium — a silence without a voice for human ears.”
Then the city of 500,000 people let loose. Crowds filled Market Street all day long and into the next night. Stores and shops were closed.
“The great purpose to join in the joy of it all swept away all other purposes. Men and women walked the streets, signing, shouting, waving flags and ringing bells,” The Chronicle reported. Employees crowded onto company trucks “and took their part in the never-ending joy of victory over the unspeakable Hun.”
Union members paraded up and down Market, including 1,000 members of the Piledrivers and Warehousemen’s union and their band. There was never a moment when there was not some parade on Market as confetti rained down. Included in the throngs were people of varied national origin — Italians, Serbs, Britons and French — all marching under the flags of their native lands.
The downtown hotels were filled with people singing patriotic songs. The one that drew the wildest cheers was “Over There,” with its chorus, “We won't come back til it’s over, Over there.”
After 2 a.m., the throng left Civic Center and headed down Market to the Ferry Building. Mayor James Rolph, with a soldier on one arm and a sailor on the other, was supposed to be at the head of the procession but was swept up into the center. The municipal band was also supposed to be at the front, but in the frenzy marched off with the North Beach contingent.
Unlike the World War II “peace riots” that resulted in death and destruction, these celebrations were overwhelmingly peaceful. The police had virtually nothing to do.
“One or two infractions of the peace were noted in the din. The belligerent in one received, modestly, the earned congratulations of the policemen,” read a less-than-objective piece in The Chronicle.
“It happened in the alley skirting the Tivoli. Thither repaired two persons, one of which, with that incapacity of the German to understand psychology, had made a remark casting no credit upon American arms. The argument of persuasion was brief and to the point — of the chin. They took the skeptical one to the Emergency Hospital to ponder on the consequences of Teutonic ‘maladresse.’ ”
After the celebration ended, news of San Franciscans who had been killed in the war continued to trickle in. There was Mike Sutter, a hotel cook who had shipped out to Europe in July. There was Cpl. Chauncey Frank, who had gone to Lick Wilmerding and Lowell High and was on the first train of San Francisco
contingents who were sent to basic training in September 1917. He was killed in France, as was Cpl. Harry Dawson, who worked for the Municipal Railway.
For San Francisco, fall 1918 was a fraught time. The city had to deal not only with the death of its boys over there, but with a devastating epidemic that was killing even more of its citizens at home.
The great Spanish flu epidemic had just struck the city. On Oct. 9, 169 cases were reported; one week later there were 2,000. Before the epidemic ran its course, 45,000 San Franciscans would fall ill and 3,000 would die.
By happy coincidence, just as the fighting ceased, the epidemic eased. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, The Chronicle reported that only 15 new cases had been reported Monday, compared with 81 on Sunday.
On Nov. 21, the city declared the epidemic over. It was premature — the disease flared up again in January with 600 new cases — but the worst of the crisis had passed.
Six months after the armistice, on Memorial Day in 1919, a 15-acre plot in Golden Gate Park hidden away near 10th Avenue and Fulton, called Heroes Grove, was dedicated to the memory of the American troops who were killed in the Great War. Thirteen years later, an 18-ton granite boulder, purchased by the San Francisco Chapter 1 of the Gold Star Mothers of America, was unveiled there.
One of the lesserknown monuments in the city, it is inscribed with the names of the 761 San Franciscans — 748 men and 13 women — who gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars, but didn’t. Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/ portals. For more features from 150 years of The Chronicle’s archives, go to sfchronicle.com/vault. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
People flooded Market Street “as one great stream” on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. Many wore masks because of the flu.
Soldiers, including the 363rd Division, “San Francisco’s Own,” returning from battlefronts of World War I, get a heroes’ welcome and a parade at City Hall.