Nearly a century ago, thousands of troops would hike up Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park wearing gas masks, testing their preparedness for World War I.
Land where the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory now sits was then gridded with trenches, and an artillery range ran between Los Trancos and Madera creeks.
After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Menlo Park, Stanford and Palo Alto saw the rise and fall of a training ground for 28,000 troops at Camp Fremont that covered up to 68,000 acres of private land leased to the U.S. Army. The first troops didn't arrive until February 1918, and the war was over by November.
Though most of the troops who trained there never saw combat, the enormous wartime mobilization that resulted had a lasting impact on the Midpeninsula.
How and why Camp Fremont came to be, plus insights into what camp life was like are detailed in a new book by Menlo Park resident Barbara Wilcox. Entitled "World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay: The Story of Camp Fremont," the 144-page book is published by the History Press and Arcadia Publishing.
The Midpeninsula was an ideal location for a war training center for several reasons, figured civic and business leaders in San Francisco, particularly water and electricity providers, who wanted the added economic activity.
For the war effort, land had to be leased from local landowners, and the biggest landowner around was Stanford University. Stanford's trustees eventually signed over more than 6,000 acres of land, both on campus and off.
Though other elite colleges favored intervention in the war, Ms. Wilcox says, Stanford's commitment to war efforts was unique. "Nobody (else) had land on the scale of Stanford," she explains.
Camp Fremont worked with other landowners, too, some of whom were not thrilled with the prospect. Others who were more willing probably didn't know their land was going to be used as an artillery range. "I see through the evidence that people didn't really understand the ramifications of having the camp in their midst," Ms. Wilcox says.
Camp Fremont's main camp, covering about 7,000 acres, was bounded by Valparaiso Avenue, Alameda de las Pulgas, the San Francisquito Creek and El Camino Real, in what is now central Menlo Park.
Life at camp
The local impact of Camp Fremont on Stanford students and the broader community was complicated. As Ms. Wilcox writes: "Locals strove to prove their patriotism by making the troops welcome and giving them what they wanted, though conflict ensued when what the troops wanted most was alcohol and sex."
Over the course of a single month, 4 percent of Stanford's male enrollment went straight from Stanford into the camp, and overall enrollment plunged 28 percent between 1917 and 1918, threatening university programs and departments.
Stationing troops near the women's dorms caused an uproar, and led to strict curfews for female students. Other women had new opportunities. Stanford student Ruth Taylor became the Stanford Daily's first female editor. Camp nurses addressed injuries and sickness, including venereal disease, prior to the infamous flu outbreak in 1918.
Since most of the troops never experienced the trauma of fighting on the Western Front, the leading threat to life was the influenza epidemic. Though a quarantine was enacted after the first case was reported on Sept. 28, 1918, the quarantine ended after some troops were ordered to mobilize on Oct. 18. Throughout the epidemic, 147 of 8,000 Camp Fremont troops treated for respiratory diseases would die, writes Ms. Wilcox.
During the mobilization, to prevent the spread of disease, sick men were put in rail cars heading east with the windows wide open, she writes. Many men fell ill on that journey, reaching New York only to learn that Armistice had been reached before they were to leave for Europe.
Today, not much remains of the camp occupied by troops between February and November 1918, yet traces of its impact still exist in the infrastructure and layout of the region.
What is now the Macarthur Park restaurant in Palo Alto was originally located in Menlo Park. It was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan as the "Hostess House," where troops could go for supervised socializing with sweethearts and female relatives. The building later became the first municipal community center in the country. What is now the VA campus in Menlo Park was the original location of the Army hospital, and several original buildings are still there, Ms. Wilcox says.
Camp Fremont also created regional infrastructure, she explains. Federal funding to build a main sewer line linking Menlo Park to Atherton was obtained after serious negotiations, but ironically, didn't cover the costs of connecting the sewer system to the main part of the camp. The only people who got the privilege of real privies were engineers and residents of the camp headquarters. At the time, state health officials required sewers before Menlo Park could be developed. The sewer lasted until 2000, and according to Ms. Wilcox, laid the groundwork for downtown Menlo Park's current location.
Furthermore, the camp brought engineers to the area, and many stuck around after the war.
Kids continued to play in the practice wartime trenches as late as the 1940s, but when SLAC was built, it disturbed much of the trench field ground, Ms. Wilcox says. Munitions are still occasionally found, notably near the Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club. The most recent artillery shell found was on Nov. 30, 2015 at the Stanford Research Park. Today, Fremont Park in Menlo Park is named in honor of the camp and its veterans, Ms. Wilcox says.
Ms. Wilcox said her curiosity was piqued about Camp Fremont when a coworker at the U.S. Geological Survey told her the land surrounding SLAC contained buried World War I trenches. She selected it as the topic of her master's degree thesis at Stanford last year. She also wrote a paper called "Fremont, The Flirt"that was published in 2013 by the Stanford Historical Society.
Today, Ms. Wilcox lives on former Camp Fremont ground, on the site of a school that trained bakers and cooks for the troops.*
The book, "World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay: The Story of Camp Fremont," by Barbara Wilcox is 144 pages and published by Arcadia Publishing (The History Press). It is listed at $21.99 (ISBN 9781467118910).
Order it online through The History Press or Amazon. It will also be sold at bookstores including Kepler's, Barnes & Noble and the Stanford Book Store. It will also be available as a Barnes & Noble e-book.
Barbara Wilcox will speak about the book and Camp Fremont history:
● At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan 19, at a Stanford Historical Society event at Jordan Hall Auditorium (Building 420, Room 40), 450 Serra Mall, Stanford. Register online.
● At 2 p.m. Sunday, April 3, for the Palo Alto Historical Association at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story contained a typo saying troops arrived in 2018 rather than 1918.
*The name of the street where the author resides has been removed at her request.