Remembering Mechanics’ Pavilion

Mechanics' PavilionBecause the damage brought on by the San Francisco 1906 earthquake was so  widespread, it has become possible to overlook many of the individual disasters  that took place 104 years ago this week. One such example concerns the fate of  Mechanics’ Pavilion, San Francisco’s first major indoor arena. Once considered  the “Madison Square Garden of the West,” the pavilion became one of many  casualties of the great earthquake, but not before having one last fling with  notoriety.

Built in 1882, Mechanics’ Pavilion was a large barn-like structure that  stood in Civic Center at Grove and Larkin. With a seating capacity of nearly  11,000, the building was originally set up for concerts, political conventions,  circuses, and religious assemblies, but within a few years, was best known for  holding major prizefights. John L Sullivan became the first of several world  champions to appear there, staging a number of exhibition bouts in 1884, and  returning in 1886 to knockout Paddy Ryan in three rounds. Mechanics’ Pavilion’s  most controversial fight took place on December 2, 1896, when Bob Fitzsimmons  faced Tom Sharkey in a major heavyweight contest. Both competitors were  dissatisfied with the list of possible referees, and the job ended up being  handed to famed lawman Wyatt Earp. With a sellout crowd looking on, Fitzsimmons  appeared the victor after sending Sharkey to the canvas in the eighth round, but  was as surprised as anyone when Earp declared Sharkey the winner due to a foul.  Whether Earp’s actions were sincere, or part of a betting coupe, has never been  determined.

In 1901, the State of New York temporarily banned professional prizefights,  making San Francisco the epicenter of boxing for the next several years. James  Jeffries, the heavyweight champion of that time, defended his title four times  in the City, three of those bouts taking place at Mechanics’ Pavilion. Jeffries’ match with Jim Corbett, on August 14th 1903, became the most financially  successful fight in San Francisco history up to that time, as 10,600 patrons  paid over $60,000 to watch Jeffries defeat “Gentleman Jim” in ten rounds.

It was 5:12 am on April 18, 1906 when San Francisco was hit with a 7.9  magnitude earthquake. Although Mechanics’ Pavilion survived the impact, nearby  Central Emergency Hospital was not as lucky, much of it turning to instant  rubble. By 5:30 am, patients from the hospital, along with people injured in the  quake were brought into the arena, whose doors had been forced open. By  mid-morning, Mechanics’ Pavilion had become both hospital and morgue, as beds  from neighboring hotels were being brought in by the hour. Unfortunately, by 1  pm, flames from the Hayes Valley fire reached the roof of Mechanics’ Pavilion,  and chief surgeon Dr Charles Miller ordered the building evacuated. Within  hours, Mechanics’ Pavilion was gone.

Now the site of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the 62,000 square foot  block has continued its role as a San Francisco major entertainment spot, now  totaling almost 130 years.