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Palo Alto Centennial

The Peninsula mobilizes for war

by Don Kazak

If you stand at the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue and El Camino Real in Menlo Park and look south, you can see where the road goes uphill to cross San Francisquito Creek. Standing at the same spot and looking west, it's hard to see where Santa Cruz makes its half-left turn on its way up to the Alameda.

Now, with those two distant reference points in mind, imagine everything between them, where you are standing and the creek, which is a lot of real estate, 25,000 acres or so. That was Camp Fremont in 1917-18, home of the 8th Division of the U.S. Army, which was being trained to go to France and fight in trenches against the Kaiser's army.

Camp Fremont had 27,000 men at its peak, and a curious history. Construction began in July 1917; was halted for three weeks by the War Department at one point; saw its troops transferred to the East Coast; finally received the 8th Division, which was trained for France but ended up in Siberia; had a chance to become a permanent Army camp but was closed after the war; and saw its buildings all dismantled or moved, leaving Menlo Park much as it had found it--a sleepy little hamlet of 2,300 souls.

In between, a lot happened.

Menlo Park and San Francisco merchants rented every available store space, a post office, church, library and theater were built along with nine YMCA huts, the Bank of Palo Alto opened a branch in Menlo Park (and promptly closed it when the camp closed, to the dismay of Menlo Park residents), Beltramo's Winery and every other similar store and tavern within five miles of the camp in San Mateo County went "dry" by decree of the Army and county, Sequoia High School opened a branch on the base (teaching arithmetic, English, typing, shorthand and accounting) and then closed it because of poor attendance, and lots of guns, machine guns, hand grenades, cannon and whatnot were shot off in the interests of training the soldiers to fight.

The camp had infantry, cavalry and 10,000 animals--horses and mules-- which were based farther east on Ravenswood Avenue at a "remount station" near the camp hospital (which would become the Veteran's Administration hospital on Willow Road.)

The irony of Camp Fremont, of course, is that the 8th Division never made it to the fighting in France, with the armistice reached before they arrived. Part of the 8th did get to see some action, however--in Siberia.

But the area was not left empty-handed when the camp was dismantled 18 months after it was assembled. Besides the addition of new businesses in both Menlo Park and Palo Alto, Menlo Park had its first streets and its first water and gas services, left behind by the 8th Division engineers.

Camp Fremont also left behind some of its 1,000 buildings. Two popular restaurants of today, MacArthur Park--which once housed Palo Alto's first community center--and the Oasis Beer Garden are both located in former Camp Fremont buildings.

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