The Cow Counties

The Cow Counties

Chapter One

Written By Michael Shannon and Minerva “Libby” Dana

After gold was discovered, the drive to progress and the action in the new state of California moved to the north. San Francisco and Sacramento grew at an astonishing rate driving the population from around twenty-three thousand statewide to one hundred fifteen thousand in less than a year.

The history of California’s counties began when the “Treaty of Peace,” the vow of Friendship, and set border limits between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic was signed on Feb. 2, 1848. The treaty ended the Mexican War and placed California under jurisdiction of the United States. Better known as the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it was named after the city, near Mexico City, where it was signed. Treaty copies were subsequently exchanged and ratified in the Mexican city of Queretaro on May 30, 1848, and the treaty was proclaimed by President James K. Polk on July 4, 1848.

Californias first constitutional convention established a committee, chaired by General Mariano Vallejo, that considered the creation of California’s first counties. On Jan. 4, 1850, the committee recommended the formation of 18 counties. They were Benicia, Butte, Fremont, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Monterey, Mount Diablo, Oro, Redding, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Sutter.

For most of the Californios the transfer of government from Mexico to the United States would be an unmitigated disaster. Representation in the new government for Californio landowners, most of whom spoke no english, effectively neutralized their political influence. In time this would lead to the destruction of the great Ranchos. Rancheros were forced to prove that the land they owned was really theirs. The application of American property laws, administered through American courts and lawyers was decidedly one sided. Years of litigation and the high cost of lawyers all of whom were Americans advocating in American courts eventually either bankrupted the Rancheros who were then forced to sell off their land or who simply had their titles stripped away and seized by the state.

The rancheros who were American or British better understood the legal process and most of them eventually prevailed though at a financially high cost.

In the central, coastal Counties the Dana, Branch, Price, Hartnell, Sparks and the Den brothers all were granted clear title but only after a period averaging seven years.

For two decades after the beginning of the gold rush these counties were derisively referred to as the “Cow Counties.” The coastal counties were effectively cut off from the the northern and southern regions of the state. The sparse population was relatively static. Most imported goods had to come by sea to the few landing such as Cave Landing in San Luis County or Santa Barbara’s harbor.

A Californio Vaquero, Granger 1852

The southern counties had no gold. What they did have was cattle. Perhaps as many as a half million by 1850 grazed the pastures of the great ranchos. They were the basis of a financial system based on trade for there was no monetary system of note until the Americans came. Dry cow hides were loaded for Boston and ports east where the were used in the manufacturer of many kinds of leather goods. In return the Rancheros received manufactured good they could not make themselves. Sparsely settled, California had no distribution system and few craftsmen. They relied on imported goods from America, China and South America.

A rancheros family might dine on fine china from Asia, wear silks and satins and read the finest books from Spain but they had no gold. The Branch family of the Santa Manuels Rancho walked on carpets from Persia. Everything had to be traded for. Separated by miles and miles of rough dirt tracks, they made the best life they could. The Ranchos were located in mostly uninhabited areas and covered vast acreages. The isolated Ranchero’s were happy to welcome travelers along the El Camino Real and Fiestas would be organized at the drop of a sombrero. Californios were famous for their hospitality and their open handedness. In the first two decades of the Rancho system, the haciendas were splendid places to visit and many young men riding the trail found their brides while visiting. By the time of the gold rush there were cousins scattered all over coastal California. They weren’t snobbish either. Many rancheros were former Mexican soldiers, or Indian Vaqueros.

Casa Dana, Nipomo Rancho.

Cattle were first driven into California with the the first Spanish missionaries in the late 1700’s. Milk and cheese were produced at the all Franciscan Missions. The hides were used for shoes, clothes and dozens of other needs. The Mission fathers used the native population as labor teaching them the necessary skills to maintain the vast mission holdings. The friars did their utmost to destroy native culture, replacing it with their own ideas of civilization. Thousands of native men were trained as riders in order to control the herds of cattle because it wasn’t possible to fence all mission lands.

In between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican government confiscated California mission properties and exiled the Franciscan friars. The missions were secularized–broken up and their property sold or given away to private citizens. Secularization was supposed to return the land to the Indians. It did not. The “Neophytes” were left to their own devices.

In San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, far removed from anywhere, the year 1828 saw the first land grants. Within a few years the owners of these Ranchos took up residence. The beautifully named ranches began to appear. The Arroyo Grande, Santa Manuela, Corral de Piedra, the Rancho Nipomo, sibilant, liquid names that rolled easily off the tongue.

During the next two decades the Hacienda system was established. Homes, service buildings, bunkhouses, and corrals were put up and gradually the ranchos grew into a self supporting system which provided employment to the thousands of trained “novices” abandoned after the missions were closed. The native “Indios” intermarried with Mexican “Soldados” from the presidios and the native Californio was born. Added were the adventurers who came from all over the world. New Yorker, Francis, “Don Francisco” Branch who came overland from St. Louis with the Wolfskill party of fur trappers or Captain William Dana who came by sea from Boston. Both men ended up in Santa Barbara where they opened stores and traded in goods from around the world. Don Francisco, besides running his store, continued in the fur trade, killing and skinning Otters and seals then selling the pelts to the Russians at Fort Ross in Northern California.

Rancho Santa Manuela, circa 1860.

Ambitious and determined to make their homes in California they both married girls from prominent Santa Barbara families. Converting to Catholicism they became Mexican citizens. This qualified them as permanent residents with all the privileges and rights that came with it, including land ownership.

By the beginning of the gold rush the ranchos along the coast were firmly established operations. Each one ran cattle herds numbering in the tens of thousands. Ranging over the verdant green hills, the Vaqueros, by now a singular breed of man, flamboyant in their dress and manner, said to never walk if they could ride, courteous to women, deadly when insulted and intensely loyal to their masters worked the ranches. They preceded the American cowboy by four decades.

Take a break from this reading and listen to Dave Stamey’s Vaquero Song. cut and paste this link to Google. Dave Stamey was born and raised on Captain Dana’s Nipomo Rancho and come by his gift honestly:

Tales of Vaqueros roping Grizzly bears with their hand braided lassos are legion and undoubtedly true. It is said that the best of them could rope a chicken on the fly. If that’s not true it ought to be.

Vaqueros lassoing a Grizzly, James Walker 1877

Near the house I grew up in are the remains of the pits used to capture Grizzlies on the Santa Manuela Rancho of Don Francisco Branch. His home was on a hill just a mile from our house. Tales of the rancho life were everywhere as many of his descendants still lived in the Arroyo Grande Valley.

In 1848 the Rancheros in the Cow Counties began gathering huge herds of the free roaming longhorn cattle in preparation for driving them up the state to the mines to sell for beef. The cattle, heretofore used almost exclusively for their hides suddenly had taken a new and potentially very lucrative value.

Great difficulties of terrain prohibited driving them north. The Cuesta, just above the pueblo of San Luis Obispo was impassable for great herds of wild, not semi—wild, but truly wild, cattle.

The Tulare Indians who had plagued Don Francisco’s Santa Manuela and Arroyo Grande Ranches, came over to the coast from the southern Jacquin valley through the Pozo, crossing the Pine Ridge and into the upper valley in order to steal horses and cattle was also not a good trail for droving.

Instead the combined herds were trailed up the Cuyama river bed until entering the Cuyama valley on the Old Chimeneas Ranch. From there the broad valley in the springtime provided enough grass to feed a moving herd. Herds from the Cuyama Rancho of Don Cesario Lataillade joined them there. Once over the ridge of the Elk Hills above todays Maricopa they crossed the valley and then turned north toward the mines.

These trail drives were just as perilous as any across Texas would be some twenty years later. Though not as wide as the Arkansas or the Red rivers the Texas herds had to cross, the Tule, the Kern, Kings, Kaweah. and Merced. If the herds trailed north up the east side of the valley into gold country they were confronted by the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, Calaveras, Mokelumne, Consumnes and the big nasty American river. All of them were exceedingly dangerous to cross with cattle and horses in the late spring when the drives took place. Vast amounts of water from snowmelt ran far across the valley before ending in Buena Vista lake or Tule lake. If the herds turned north towards Stockton, moving along the west bank of the San Joaquin River the had the shorter drive but had to sell to middlemen at Stockton for less profit.

California Vaqueros, painting by James Walker, 1875.

Some of the tribes in the valley were still dangerous and had reason to be. Since the first Spanish explorer, Gabriel Moraga had made his way to the valley in 1800, the local Miwok, Paiute and Yokuts bands had been decimated by disease and killing. Taking cattle and horses for their people was practiced constantly. Rustling was very common and in the days of single shot muzzle loaders, hard to defend against.

By the 1850’s banditry had become a scourge. Immigrants of bad intent had arrived from the east coast and Australia and for a few years made San Francisco and the gold country very dangerous for a man with anything of value. Life was very cheap. In the days before photographs that could be used to identify the badman he had to be pointed out by a witness. Better to leave no witnesses. Hanging the bad man, if he was caught was a common solution. Rustlers, horse thieves, killers, claim jumpers and a host of other crimes met short thrift at the end of a rope. Hangtown in Placer county came by its name honestly.

White men weren’t the only culprits either. Californios, Mexicans, the Chinese and natives were routinely dispossessed, robbed, shot, their women raped and so disdained by the immigrant American that in 1850, the first elected governor of the state, Peter Hardeman Burnett, a former Tennessean who himself had enslaved people, though he opposed calls to make California a slave state, ihe nstead pushed for the total exclusion of African-Americans in California. Burnett was also an open advocate of exterminating all California Indian tribes, a policy that continued with successive state governmental administrations for several decades, which offered $10.00 to $25.00 for evidence of dead Natives.

James Hardeman Burnett

Burnett also proposed limiting immigration of non-citizens and expulsion of people of Mexican descent. Though forced to resign after just a year by moneyed interests in the state who recognized that all this was bad for business.

As evildoers were captured or hung, some saw the writing on the wall and slipped south into the Cow Counties where the population was small across the vast area they encompassed. With small populations still centered around the old mission churches outlaws could and did dominate law enforcement. They could and did pack juries with their own kind. Saloons and bars were numerous and populated by rough men who had no visible means of support. White and Mexican bandidos were everywhere. So much so that the tracks between ranches and little towns were sprinkled with the bones of men who had been waylaid, robbed and killed for what they were carrying.

The notorious Jack Powers, Gambler, horse-thief and noted killer lived for a time in San Luis Obispo and was reliably said to have left numerous bodies along the Camino Real.

San Luis Obispo Pueblo 1864. California Historical Society.

Pio Linares, his sidekick and and second son of Vicente Linares who owned the Tinaquiac rancho in Santa Barbara county also operated out of San Luis Obispo until he was shot to death by a posse in what is now Laguna Lakes.

Tiburcio Vasquez and his gang also headquartered in San Luis Obispo. Numbering as much as twenty desperados it was a formidable group and not to be trifled with.

Salomon Pico, scion of the very prominent Pico family of old California worked from the Los Alamos Rancho. A educated landowner, handsome and dashing he is said to be the inspiration for El Zorro, “The fox so cunning and free.” In fact he was a stone cold killer and riding south from San Luis Obispo county was extremely dangerous journey for a man carrying a poke of gold received for the cattle he had sold to the forty-niners.

By night, Salomón Pico with his gang, worked the El Camino Real south of El Ranch Nipomo, ambushing men riding south from the gold fields. Many of these parties of two or three, were never heard of again after passing San Luis Obispo. In later years along the road between La Graciosa and Los Alamos numbers of human skeletons were found in the countryside with a bullet hole in the skull, accounting for the mysterious disappearances of so many. The victims were mostly Americans whom the Californios felt were enemies, and the crimes which the gang committed were never divulged by the locals, or if brought to trial, resulted in an acquittal because in this region the Californios were still in the majority and Pico was connected to its influential members. His uncle was once the Governor of California.

The gangs avoided conflicts with county officials, who in turn seemed to let the bandits alone. Protected by a local population who resented the intrusion of the Americans they were difficult to capture.

During the early gold rush there were no towns of note between Monterey, the old Mexican capitol and San Luis Obispo. Returning south up the Salinas valley, where pioneer writer Alfred Robinson noted that the wild country between that town and the Las Animas Rancho of Don Jose Mariano Castro (Gilroy) where one could be assured of hospitality, was so wild, the trail only as wide as a single horse and the stands of chaparral, willows and native grasses were as high as a mounted man’s head. To ride alone was to risk your life. Another days ride and a stop at Rancho Posa de los Ositos and Don Carlos Cayetano Espinoza at todays Greenfield then on to the Old Mission San Antonio. San Antonio mission itself was the scene of a brutal and Horrific series of murders.

As the gold rush was going on, a lot of precious metal was being shipped up and down the coast of California. William Reed along with his family bought the old mission and set up boarding house for travelers along the old Camino Real. He took payment for food and lodging in gold. The dust and nuggets were buried somewhere on the mission grounds for there was no other place of safekeeping.

The death of the Reed family, their employees and servants is an example of the dangers of living in the Cow Counties in what were later called the “Bloody Fifties.”*

A group of travelers who spent a night at Reed’s included a man named Joseph Peter Lynch who had deserted from General Kearney’s command at Fort Leavenworth, and Peter Raymond who was an escaped convict and murderer already, having committed murder in the gold rush town of Murphys. These two had killed and robbed two Americans who they had encountered while traveling south from the bay area. While at La Soledad Mission, they teamed up with two deserters, one named Peter Quinn, the other Peter Remer who had jumped ship from the British warship HMS Warren, docked in Monterey Bay. Lastly, there was Sam Bernard who was accompanied by a Native American boy known as John, who was fleeing the Soledad Mission. This group arrived at the San Antonio Mission on December 4th, 1848.

Mission San Antonio de Padua. Circa 1865. California Historical Society

The group left the next morning. Realizing that Reed must have more gold hidden at the mission, they soon returned. Reed denied the existence of the gold. One of the men, Sam Barnard, pretending to get more wood for the fire went outside, returned with an axe, and hacked Reed repeatedly. Mortally wounded and bleeding from horrific wounds he was dispatched by the Indian Boy John who stabbed Reed with a knife until he was dead. The group then went through the Mission murdering the rest of the occupants who ran screaming trying to get away from the killers. Antonia Reed, pregnant was brutally struck down. Four other children died. As many as eleven people were slaughtered, including Reed, his family, servants, and guests. The bodies were dragged to the old carpenter shop and thrown in a heap. They were all eventually discovered by a mail carrier named James Beckwourth. They were later buried in one large communal grave at Mission San Miguel.

Two nights after the killings, the group camped for the night at the Corral de Piedra rancho in the area of the Corralitos, in the Arroyo Grande valley, less than mile from the home of Don Francisco Branch and his family.

A 37 man vigilante group chased the men down at the crown of Ortega Hill, overlooking the present town of Summerland. Bernard was shot and killed, John the native boy ran into the ocean and drowned. Peter Quinn was wounded and captured; Joseph Lynch and Peter Remer were also captured, and later confessed their crimes. Joseph Lynch, Peter Remer and Peter Quinn were executed by firing squad, in Santa Barbara, on December 28, 1848, near the corner of De la Guerra and Chapala Streets. They were buried in the cemetery of Mission Santa Barbara.

For thirty years, beginning with the gold rush the Cow Counties were a very dangerous place. The only justice was vigilante. It took many, many years to rid them of the scourge of those evil men. When my own grandfather was a boy in the 1880’s, south San Luis Obispo county’s supervisorial district was still commonly referred to as the “Bloody Fourth.”

The following is an article written by my grandmothers classmate at Santa Maria High School in 1904 and published in the High School Revue. The author is Minerva Elizabeth “Libby” Dana, Granddaughter of Captain William Dana owner of the Nipomo Rancho in southern San Luis Obispo county. The story she relates takes place in 1856. William Dana Jr was her father Davids brother. Though just seventeen when she wrote this account she speaks as if she was a participant. It’s a family story of the best and truest kind.


Rancho Santa Manuela, Don Francisco Branch and most of his descendants are gone. Casa de Santa Manuela has long returned to the good adobe earth from which it was built but the family of Captain William Goodwin Dana still own the remnants of Rancho Nipomo and play a prominent role in the little town of Nipomo California, and yes, there are still cows in the hills of the Cow Counties.

Casa de Dana at sunset.

Looking much the way it did in 1856 the old adobe has been restored and is open as a museum. Visit when you can. The spirit of hospitality still abounds on El Rancho Nipomo.

Note: *Bloody Fifties they were. Uncounted people were murdered for their goods. The phrase “Dead men tell no tales” effectively describes the M O of the Desperados of the time.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.


Minerva Elizabeth “Libby” Dana was the granddaughter of Captain William Goodwin Dana. Her story was printed in the Santa Maria High School Review in 1904. She was a classmate of my grandmother who was born on the Punta de Laguna Rancho of Don Luis Arelanes near todays Oso Flaco in northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo County. Though the Ranchos are gone my family still lives on the Santa Manuela and my grandparents lived on the Bolsa de Chamisal.


The Tea Cup

Chapter Four

Annies Story

The girls were exhausted after a long and stressful day. They didn’t take time for dinner but changed into their nightdresses, leaving their clothes scattered about their rooms, something my grandmother never did on a normal day.

Annie took the telegram and put in the top tray of her trunk. She was too tired to think. She said her last thought was of Jack, wondering where he was and when he might knock on the Meeks door. Her last sight of the city across the bay was the massive clouds of smoke, the fires making a dull reddish gold beneath the columns which seemed to reach the sky.

On Thursday morning everyone was up early Myrtle, Blanche and Annie were to return to Stiles Hall and serve breakfast for the thousands of refugees who were everywhere in Berkeley and Oakland.

Still in their nightdresses, they helped each other put their hair up. No woman in 1906 who was respectable would be caught dead with her hair down. Girls wore their down until they left girlhood behind when they were about fifteen or sixteen. Part of growing up. Girls to women, as a sign of the coming more serious time of life, put their hair up.

Annie Gray, 1906. Shannon Family. ©

The Gibson Girl pompadour was still the style. Every woman let their hair grow a long as possible, Annie’s reached her waist. The combing, ratting and rolling up of the hair into a bun at the top of the head then surrounding it with the rolls, all pinned up with hair pins. (The bobby pin was not invented until women started bobbing their hair after WWI). Sometimes for a more casual look a chignon was turned in the back and just the front was ratted and rolled.

Each girl dressed for work and an anticipated long day. First the chemise. The first of the undergarments made of soft cotton because it was next to the skin. Next Annie would slide into her corset or stays as they were beginning to be called. More flexible for the type of day ahead than the older whalebone corset, it was then fastened to the stocking tops with the three hanging garters for each leg. For this day her stockings were cotton instead of the usual silk. Around her waist she pulled up a petticoat which she tied at the rear. Over that the silk camisole* and finally a checked pattern housedress, likely with two pockets in the front. The dress was in two pieces, a bodice, fastened with both snaps and more hooks and eyes. Then a skirt buttoned at the waist and closed by snaps down the side. Topped off with a matching belt, tied in the back with a bow she was almost ready to go. Slipping into her low heeled button shoes she quickly pulled each button through an eye with her button hook.

Things moved more slowly in 1906 but to the people who lived then it was completely normal.

After breakfast the three young women walked down to Shattuck and took the streetcar up to Bancroft Way and then walked to campus, crossed the street and walked up to Stiles Hall where they would work, feeding the refugees and offering what comfort they could. The refugees were fed bean sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and whatever cheese and meats could be scrounged from neighborhood stores and gardens. Annie said that horse drawn wagons rolled up to Stiles Hall during the day loaded with what spring vegetables farmers were able to pick and not one ever asked for a dime in payment. Local people walked or rode to campus carrying blankets, quilts, pillows and clothes.

She didn’t know yet that cities and towns all over the country were loading trains with food, clothing and other essentials which, in some cases like Los Angeles, trains would arrive at the depots before the morning of the 19th.

Annie said the most important thing they had to deal with was the influx of refugees that flooded across the Bay. “Most of the people were in terrible condition,” she said, “They were in shock. it was the biggest peacetime evacuation in United States history at the time.” “There were lines of terrified people shuffling up towards the campus. Even at night you could hear them walking by the house.”

Doctor Meeks was using his automobile to pick people up at the wharf and drive them up to campus. There they were checked in, fed, given bedclothes and assigned somewhere to sleep. The tents from Mare Island had been erected at the stadium and were already filling.

In the days following the quake and fire, about 123,000 San Franciscans came to Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda County. They arrived by train, having traveled down the peninsula to San Jose where they were turned away by city government and police. Most returned to the trains and traveled up to the Oakland area.

Pass to San Francisco from San Jose. Private collection

Any kind of boat that would float transported those fleeing the destruction. The cross bay ferries and anything else that floated, including Chinese junks and Italian fishing boats were crossing back and forth.

As a load of people came down the gangplanks of the terribly overloaded ferries and then fire equipment and men from Oakland and Berkeley were loaded for San Francisco. Hundreds of men from Oakland boarded the return ferries to try and help the city.

She was told that some boatmen were charging fifty dollars or more to make the trip. Desperate people paid. She learned that one mans disaster is another mans opportunity. She was a kind woman and she said stories like that broke her heart. “It was a terrible cruelty,” she said.

Cross Bay Ferry Santa Clara, Bancroft Library.

She said that in Berkeley “People came together” Everyone who could help did. Nearly every resident opened their door to friends or strangers, and at the University of California, Berkeley, students gave up their sorority and fraternity houses to shelter the refugees. With twenty-one Fraternities and seven Sororities, they housed and fed hundreds of people.

Badly shaken by the quake and the flames that followed, exhausted San Franciscans straggled to safety after hours without food and water. My grandmother said it went on for days. Families with a child carrying nothing but a Teddy bear, still in their pajamas, some walking on bare feet. Dirty faces streaked with tears. Some still wore their nightclothes and clutched an odd assortment of personal belongings.

She saw a man walking in his long johns wearing a silk topper. She said grown women were in all kinds of undress but not one had neglected to put their hair up and pin on a hat.

At the time a town of 26,000, Berkeley took in 8,000 displaced San Franciscans in the first two days following the earthquake. At its peak, the city housed 15,000 refugees. Here it was that Oakland outdid herself. During the afternoon and night of the 18th thousands of refugees from San Francisco came to Oakland and the people of city fed them and found places for them to sleep. On the next day the plans for relief had been fully developed, so that no one who entered from the San Francisco was hungry or without a place to sleep. Hospital supplies, boiled potatoes, oranges, oats and clothing eventually began rolling into town from around the state and across the nation. All night long we could hear people shuffling on the sidewalk with packs on their backs, family treasures including clothing rescued from their homes, hopefully seeking shelter here. Tens of thousands of people had been shaken out of bed and now possessed nothing but what they could snatch before the fire reached them. Desperation cannot describe what we saw in their faces. Most lost everything.

People liked up for relief, Oakland City Hall 1906.

Annie told me that, “There was no thought of looking to the government for anything, They did what needed to be done, and they did not hesitate.”

The churches had people sleeping in pews, the Odd Fellows and Masons took in as many as they could. No one seemed to be concerned about who these people might be. Pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes, the poor and the rich were treated equally. Evil was temporarily suspended.

Annie said they fed Isaias W. Hellman, purported to be the richest man in the west and owner of the Wells Fargo Bank who stopped at Stiles for a bite to eat. His bank was to burn to the ground on the 18th. The Hellman family bought the old Dunsmuir estate that same year. Perhaps he didn’t want to return to the city very badly. He ate the bean sandwich though. It made her laugh. She said the high were brought low like everyone else.

Wells Fargo Bank Building 1906. Genthe Photo

There was something she wasn’t laughing about though. Where was Jack? She half expected him turn up at any moment. By this time she knew that the phone and telegraph lines were down indefinitely and there was no way to get a message across.

The Oakland tribune had loaned its presses to the three biggest papers in San Francisco, The Morning Call, The Examiner and the Chronicle. They published on Thursday the 19th scarcely 24 hours after the quake. With no distribution possible, the bundles were simply put out on the sidewalks for anyone to take. They carried the first written eyewitness accounts of the disaster.

When they could take a break from kitchen duty, Annie, Blanche and Myrtle along with the twins, Edith and Ethel who were volunteering at the lying-in hospital that had been set up in Hearst Hall sat together on the steps of Stiles Hall and scanned every word written. Heads together they read. Not a single word of good news was printed there.

Joint Newspaper morning of April 19, 1906. Shannon Family Trust.

All these girls were women of privilege. None were farm girls or daughters of laborers. They all came from wealthy or prominent families. Annie was raised by her very wealthy aunt and uncle and never lacked for anything. Her father was a farmer/rancher and owned oil wells in the Orcutt area of Santa Barbara county. Blanche’s father owned a Dry Goods and General Merchandise store in Santa Maria California. The two young women had known each other nearly all of their lives. The graduated in the same class of 1904 from Santa Maria High school.

Blanche’s family store, Her father is standing in the doorway hatless. South Broadway, Santa Maria California. SMVHS

Myrtle’s father owned a large dairy farm in Mission Valley, San Diego. The Hovey twins lived with their widowed mother in Berkeley and though not wealthy their mother worked as a senior bookkeeper for the Southern Pacific Railroad. They managed.

All this experience was new to them. Working in Hearst Hall, particularly the first few days when many refugees were coming in with burns, broken bones caused by fire and falling bricks or glass and expectant mothers giving birth was something entirely new. They were called earthquake babies and there were many.

At the end of the long day they looked across the bay and stood for a while watching the city burn. I was agonizing, they all knew people that lived there and had no idea how any of them had fared. The chances of seeing someone who knew the person you were worried about were slim. Thought the exodus from the city would amount to half its population of four hundred thousand there was little chance you might see someone who carried a note or had any information.

Santa Maria High School Class of 1904. Annie Gray right rear, Blanche Schwabacher sitting with glasses. Shannon Family.

Blanche and Annie decided to walk up Strawberry Creek to get a better look at the city. They climbed the hillside, found a level area and sat down on the blanket they carried. In the early evening they could see dozens of others intently watching as San Francisco went up in flames. The black , sulphur colored yellow and gray clouds shot through with the deep red and orange from the fire were lit from within, boiling twisting and flickering like the gates of Hades. Annie said she could close her eyes and still see them seventy years later. It was terrifying but they couldn’t look away, spellbound by the sheer horror of it. They could hear frequent booms which she said sounded like artillery. They didn’t know it was the sound of buildings across the city being dynamited for firebreaks. The Hearst Examiner which she had just read that morning was one of the big Market Street buildings brought down by the explosions. All on San Francisco’s newspaper row was lost.

The two friends leaned against each other, then embraced and began to cry. Where was Jack, where were the Craigs? Where was anyone they knew. Would they ever know?

*The family still has one of her pink silk camisoles, embroidered at the neck with handmade lace. We also have a the white pleated skirt from the same period and the ubiquitous button hook for her shoes. Most amazing of all, we still have the telegram which was framed and hung on the wall for decades.

To Be Continued….

Next Jack’s Story.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



The Tea Cup

Written By: Michael Shannon

Jack Shannon

You could not tell but it looked as if

The shore was lucky in being backed by a cliff,

The cliff being backed by continent:

It looked as if a night of dark intent

Was coming and not only a night, an age.

Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific,” 1928

Jack paused at the entrance to Jones and looked right to see the Post Office building at Seventh and Mission. He told me that it was to be the site of one of the most courageous attempts to save a building during the fire. At that time of the morning though it didn’t seem damaged at all.

On Wednesday morning at a quarter past five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working-class ghetto, and in the factories, fires started. There was no opposing the flames. There was no organization, no communication. All the cunning adjustments of a twentieth century city had been smashed by the earthquake. The streets were humped into ridges and depressions, and piled with the debris of fallen walls. The steel rails were twisted into perpendicular and horizontal angles. The telephone and telegraph systems were disrupted. And the great water-mains had burst. All the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man had been thrown out of gear by thirty seconds’ twitching of the earth-crust. Jack London

He turned and looked down Market. In the distant he could just make out the tower of the Ferry building.

The mornings mist, the shaken dust and the first tendrils of smoke drifted in his vision. People were beginning to come up from the Mission and over from the residential areas of the Hayes Valley. Clouds of smoke were rising from somewhere down around Davis and Front streets and to his right flames were visible on Fremont. Already there were fires along Howard and what looked to be several down Sixth Street in the heart of the Slot.

At first it was mostly men walking up and down Market, staring at the destruction, brick and broken pediments, shattered glass, dead horses smashed and their wagons destroyed by falling Terra Cotta decorations fallen from the friezes of the big commercial building along both sides of the street. As he began walking down towards the bay he saw another dead man. On the corner of Market and Powell, a delivery driver and his horse were both half concealed under debris fallen from the facade of the largest office building in the west. Built by James Flood, one of theVirginia City Nevada’s Silver Kings. Primarily a stock manipulator who invested in Banks and real estate, much of his San Francisco holdings disappeared in the fire. A poor saloonkeeper who along with his business partner William O’Brian managed what was thought to be a hair brained scheme to corner stock in the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, which became the richest silver mine in Nevada history, churning out, in it’s heyday, $1,500.000 every day seven days a week. His former mansion was the only one of the Nobs homes not to be completely destroyed. Gutted by the fire, it was sold and refurbished. Today it is the Pacific Union Club, a well known landmark in the city and on the register of the National Historic Trust.

Soon, as the murky sunlight revealed the heaps of broken brick people began arriving on the streets, throngs of the curious were coming downtown to see the spectacle. Jack said it looked like every man woman and child in the city was out in the streets. Survivors were transfixed by the destruction. They stood and watched, speechless. Jack said when they did talked it was in quiet, hushed tones as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was communal shock.

There was no real organization early on Wednesday just an occasional policeman seeming as bewildered as the rest of the crowd. Coming up market was a single horse drawn wagon with a cord of dead for a load. People moved aside but paid little attention to the macabre scene. They would get used to it in the coming days. No one had hired the wagon, the driver had just taken it upon himself to do something. Jack said the destruction, though mainly superficial, the crumbled state of Markets business district was simply overwhelming and hard to take in.

My grandfather began pushing through the crowds headed down toward the waterfront. He said most people at this stage just stood in small groups talking and wondering what was going to happen next. No one seemed to be planning anything, overcome with the enormity of what they saw. The destruction had barely begun.

He spoke with a policeman who had witnessed the quake standing by his call box and talking to a grocer at the eastern end of Washington Street. Washington is one of the longest streets in the city. It butts up to the Presidio in the west and then by fits and starts makes it’s way past parks, rises and falls over Nob, Russian and Pacific Heights where the rich swells live, passes through Chinatown and ends at the Embarcadero amongst the warehouses of the produce markets. The officer said, “The earth rose under me and I fell to my knees. It came down Washington in huge undulating waves. The entire street and all the great buildings on it rose and fell, rose and fell, an unstoppable wave of brick, stone, wood and cement. Both Washington and Davis streets split, the cobblestones dancing and water spurted out of everywhere. The buildings around me began to tumble and some fell, collapsing in heaps of brick and wood. I had to dodge flying bricks which shot from the surfaces of building nearby. It was pretty hot. The top of the building at Washington and Davis fell and killed a man.”

Jack said that as the police came up Market they herded the crowd along and away from the fires. He walked for a bit with another officer who had witnessed the earthquake from the middle of the street in front of his station near Chinatown. He told Jack that he though he was gone when the Phelan building lurched out over the street, every windows shattering spraying across the width of O’Farrell and Market. It hung for a long moment then creaked back onto its foundations with a horrifying screech of steel and concrete. The tallest building in the city, just across the street, built with Claus Spreckels sugar fortune and home to one of San Francisco newspapers, The Morning Call, which had once employed a writer by the name of Samuel Clemens, the Call had lurched first south then north with a massive groan and cracking. The Oberon building shuddered then its entire front gave way crashing into O’Farrell in a choking cloud of dust.

Claus Spreckels Morning Call building on Market taken from Sutter St, 1903. Photo SFPL history Center.

The next was almost on top of them . The fires in the Mission district and South of the Slot were beginning to merge as one. He said that just on the edge of awareness he could hear the crackling and snapping as the flames licked away at the wooden buildings that made up the combined residential and wholesale district just a block or two below Market Street. He turned down Fourth just past the huge Emporium building with its big display windows blown out and scattered nearly all the way across the street. He wanted to get a closer look, worried that the way to the ferries could be blocked by the crowds on Market.

The fire department was woefully underprepared for what was coming. With eighty stations scattered around the city, none in Chinatown though, it could only field thirty-eight steam pumpers. The Insurance underwriters had noted the steamers, at best, could only muster 70% of their rated capacity. The seven hundred fire fighters were woefully undertrained and the ladder trucks didn’t have the capacity to go above the second story of any building. The chief was well aware that the city had burned to the ground six time in its fifty-eight year history and according to the insurance companies report San Francisco had violated all underwriting traditions and precedents by not burning up.

As he turned down Mission Street, he saw that at the corner of Third and Mission a four story wooden rooming house had completely collapsed. It was no more than a splintered heap of shattered wood and even from a block away he could hear the screams and cries of the people trapped inside. There was a crowd of men and women scrambling over the wreckage clawing at the debris with bare hands trying to pull out the trapped and injured. He said he ran down and joined them. They could hear the cries for help deep in the pile as they frantically pushed and pulled at the broken building dragging the injured and the dead out and carrying them out to the street. A man pulled from the wreckage told them there were many dozens of people underneath. He said the quake caught most of them still asleep with no chance to get out.

Jack looked down Mission towards the waterfront and said he could see the fire streaming up from Fremont and First. The Steamer Engine from Company 38 was making a hasty retreat in his direction, dragging their hose and looking for the next hydrant. The fire was moving fast as they hooked up at the corner, dragging the hose over to defend the wreckage. A hose man took his wrench and turned the valve on the hydrant. Nothing happened, he didn’t look surprised but quickly turned it off then on again. Nothing.

All over the city Firemen were finding that the water system was shattered. Forty-four inch cast iron mains had been snapped like straws. In places water was pouring from the streets as the cisterns emptied. Nearly all the high pressure mains were out of service. Desperate crews took to opening manhole covers and pumping raw sewage to try and stop the fires. At the waterfront hoses were coupled in long strings and the pumpers used salt water from the bay. My grandfather said he saw other more lighthearted outcomes. In some residential areas children were playing in the pools of water draining from the fire department’s system.

Still early in the morning and thousands of people milling about the streets, some watchers on rooftops and still other crowds visible up on the sides of Nob Hill. Jack began to worry that the ferries might stop so he turned and began to hurry down Market. Not far ahead he saw the fires had joined and the area of lower Market Street were a wall of flame. To his right the fire was greedily consuming all the area south of the slot. The ramshackle hotels and apartments buildings which hadn’t collapsed were going up like tissue paper. At the southern corner of Third and Market a Fire department steam pumper appears, the exhausted horses stained with soot and lathered being led by a fireman and the pumper itself being pulled along by a half-dozen volunteers. The fire so vast and dangerous that the only possible thing to do was to save the machine. Jack grabbed on with the rest pulling the rig around the corner and a ways up Market until the found a hydrant. While a man turned the valve and they hooked up hose a fireman told him that down on Steuart Street a pumper had been hooked to a fireboat and hose run along the street toward the fire and they thought they might be able to save the ferry landings. He also said that Jack couldn’t get down there because the fire was a hurricane and there was no way around it. The police and the army were pushing people up from the waterfront and away from the advancing inferno.

Jack didn’t have to be told to get moving, streams of people who had gone down Market to see the destruction were now hurrying back up away from what had become one enormous inferno, consuming everything in its path.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning…..

To be continued:

Next, Annies story.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.




Written by Michael Shannon

Working on the railroad all the live long day.

It was a bet between two railroad builders. Charles Crocker, one of the so called Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad and Wily, rapacious Doctor Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad, wryly captioned “Uncle Pete” by the men who built it.

Charles Crocker was only 47 at the time of the great race, Thomas Durant was 49. Still young men.

As the roads closed in on the designated place where they were to meet at Promontory Point in Utah. In a fit of excess pride, Durant ordered his construction bosses, the Casement brothers, Dan and Jack to lay as much track in a day as they could.

Tough as nails and given to dressing like a Cossack, Jack Casement worked his men hard. The crews lived in 20 cars, including dormitories, kitchen, dining car and an arsenal car containing a thousand loaded rifles. They moved west accompanied by a mobile town that could be put up and torn down in a day. Called “Hell On Wheels” its only purpose was to supply the largely Irish workforce with all the requisite vices.

Track crews worked seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. They were paid a dollar for each days work. Much of the money went to the pockets of the thimblerigs, gamblers, bartenders and the ubiquitous “laundresses” that followed the road.

On the 24th the Union Pacific broke all records by laying six miles of track. Charles Crocker and his Chinese “pets” were invited to match that. The “Pets” was a derogatory term applied by other Central Pacific men to the Immigrant Chinese. Refugees from China during and after the Taeping revolution the Chinese had proven to be steady and hard working. Personal cleanliness and with a diet of vegetables and rice they were free of disease, did not drink and worked as steady as a metronome. By the time the Central Pacific hit Utah, they employed between ten thousand and fourteen thousand men, nine of every ten, Chinese.

Crocker beat it by a mile. Then the Union Pacific Casement brothers came back with seven and a half miles, working from three in the morning until almost midnight. But the Central Pacific was not to be beaten.

A $10,000.00 bet, $2,200,000.00 in todays currency, between two men with giant egos hanging in the balance, Crocker and his crews timed the final go so the other road wouldn’t have time to challenge whatever they did. Crocker and Durant epitomized the robber barons of the nineteenth century. Big risk, big reward.

After a day of careful planning, work began on the morning of April 29th, 1869. They were ready to go. A continuous line of five trains loaded with rails, spikes, fishplates, bolts and nuts were backed up to the end of track. Wagons loaded with water, hand tools and stacked high with ties were driven in and parked alongside the prepared roadbed. Thousands of men took their places and at exactly 7:00 o’clock a locomotive engineer carefully following the minute hand of his open pocket watch reached up and yanked the whistle cord sending up a piercing shriek of live steam and the great day was kicked off.

A train of sixteen cars loaded with iron rail and materials for two miles of track was pushed up to the front. Men climbed on top and threw off the fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes. Others punched side stakes out of the right and left alternate cars. The rails were then rolled off and in eight minutes the sixteen ears were cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army. The flat cars were then flipped off the track and the locomotive was then pulled back out of the way and another train of rails brought into position.

As soon as the material train was gone, small iron hand cars were put on the tracks. Each had a crew of six Chinese working under white bosses. Sixteen rails were loaded on each car, together with a keg of bolts, a keg of spikes, and a bundle of fish plates. Two horses with riders were attached to the car in tandem by a long rope. As soon as the car was loaded and the crew on top, the horses were off on the jump. One side of the roadway was kept clear for the horses racing ahead with the material cars. On a down-grade horses were detached and the car went flying along with one of the crew acting as a brakeman. The horses ran alongside and, when a level was reached, the nearest rider hooked on again. The first car out from the material dump only had to a short distance, while the last cars had to go perhaps two miles.

At the same time empty cars were returning on the single track, all of them at full speed. As a full car came closer, the crew on the empty car jumped off and lifted their car from the rails, while the loaded car went past without slacking speed. There was no halt in the continuous stream of materials to the front.

When the loaded car neared the rail-head, its gang stepped off and another gang jumped on with picks. They broke open the kegs and cut the fastenings on the fish plates. The keg of bolts was thrown to one side to men who filled their buckets and distributed the bolts. Other men distributed the fish plates. The spikes were poured out over the rails on the car and as the rails were pulled off the spikes dropped through the floorless car and distributed themselves.

At this point the picked crew of Irish rail handlers, working under Track Foreman H. H. Minkler and Gang Foreman George Coley, came into the picture. A single horse pulled the car up to rail-head, where it was blocked by a wooden-framed iron track gauge. Four men worked on each side of the track. Two men seized the forward end of the rail with their tongs while the two rear men slipped the rail to the side of the car so it rested on iron rollers. The two forward men trotted ahead the length of the rail, thirty feet, the rear men dropping the rail in place, where it was bolted and spiked by the track gang. The car was then pulled forward to the next track gauge and the procedure repeated.

The track went forward at the rate of almost a mile an hour. A correspondent for The Alta Califonian , a San Francisco newspaper, timed the track layers. He wrote: “I timed the movement twice and found the speed to be as follows: The first time 240 feet of rail was laid in one minute and twenty seconds; the second time 240 feet was laid in one minute and fifteen seconds. This is about as fast as a leisurely walk and as fast as the early ox teams used to travel over the plains.”

The rail handlers were only eight of several hundred men at the front, everyone of whom was an important cog in the smooth-working machinery. Ahead were three “pioneers,” the most advanced men, who, with shovel and by hand, butted the ties to a rope line measured from the track-center spikes set by the surveyors. About half the regulation number of ties were placed at first to insure having sufficient for the ten miles.

Just behind the rail layers came the spikers, bolters, and those who distributed the materials. The brawny Spike Men swung once to set the spike then one-two and she was done. A steady pace, three notes on the steel spike and on to the next one.Then came the gang that surfaced the track by raising the ends of the ties and shoveling enough ballast to hold them firm. Immediately following was a surveyor who sighted the line of the rails and, by motion of his hands, directed the track straighteners. Then the tampers, 400 strong, with shovels and tamping bars.

When a halt was called for the midday meal, six miles of track had been laid and the men were confident they would reach their goal. A number of Union Pacific officers had lunch with Stanford, Crocker, and others of the Central Pacific. They were ready to extend congratulations. “Victory” was the name given the spot where lunch was taken. The station is now called Rozel.

After lunch the work went on, but not so rapidly. The ascending grade on the west slope of Promontory Mountain was more difficult than the section covered during the morning and there were many curves. Considerable time was lost in bending rails, which was done by placing the rail on two blocks and forcing it into the desired curve by blows of heavy sledge hammers.

When the forward march was halted at 7 o’clock, ten miles and 56 feet of new track had been added to the Central Pacific. Jim Campbell, boarding boss and later superintendent of the division, jumped into a locomotive and ran it back over the new line at a clip of 40 miles an hour just to prove that the job had been well done.

If the roadway had been perfectly level and straight, these men could have laid fifteen miles of track. The task had involved bringing up and putting into position 25,800 ties, 3520 rails averaging 560 pounds each, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material making a total of 4,462,000 pounds.

From the first “pioneer” to the last tamper, about two miles long, there was a line of men advancing a mile an hour; iron cars with their load of rails and humans dashed up and down the newly-laid track; foremen on horseback were galloping back and forth. Keeping pace with the track layers was the telegraph construction party. Alongside the moving force, teams were hauling tool and water wagons. Chinamen with pails dangling from poles balanced over their shoulders were moving among the men with water and tea.

Farther back, locomotives were waiting with their cars of materials. All five train loads were used on that day. When one section was completed, the next material train was moved up as far as possible on the new track and materials for another two miles unloaded. In the rear of all this was the boarding house train and quarters of officers, a long line of wood houses built on flat cars, looking like a small town stretched out. In the valley below, continuous trains of wagons and mounted work shops moved along in parallel lines. It could only be compared to the advance of an army, which it was.

The men who did it have vanished from history. Only the tracklayers whose names were listed on the time book of the foreman George Coley exist. Their names, civil war veterans from both armies, Immigrants and working men from the teeming ghettos of Five Points and Hells Kitchen and Baltimore’s Pigtown are listed. The all-Irish crew of Conley, Kennedy, McNamara, Daley, Kelleen, Joyce, Carton, Egan, Elliott, Thom and Sullivan. Coley also noted that each man was given four days pay.

Crockers pets the Chinese might have been but the Paddy’s got the plum jobs. No Chinaman ever hogged a locomotive and no Irishman hung from a basket to clear the Cape Horn turn above Auburn for blasting.

It was the greatest public works project ever built in our country. It also began a period in which the railroad took on and reshaped America and changed American thinking. The luxury passenger express hurtling past small town depots, the slow freight trains chugging through industrial zones, the commuter locals shuttling between suburban stations and urban terminals heralded the forces of modernization and touched millions with the romance of the rails. The allure of the railroad and the metropolitan corridor that evolved around it lasted until the ascendancy of the automobile, when the railroad suddenly vanished from national attention.

Durant never paid up. Just like the robber baron he was.

In the middle of the twentieth century I could lie in my bed on our farm in the upper Arroyo Grande valley, snuggled down under a layer of blankets, my breath vaporizing on these cold winter nights and hear the whistle of the trains as they approached the many grade crossings over the farms. I heard it like millions of boys and girls and just like them I dreamed of the places I might go someday when I grew up. That high register moan called to us.

The bass notes of the big brass steam whistle carried for mile up our valley. I came through the night with a promise. We all heard it clearly.

Daddy would open the passenger door of his pickup truck and his little boys would climb up. We did it for two reasons, we loved him, loved to be with him and always looked forward to any adventure he might take us on. Every trip in that old truck was an adventure when you were twelve.

He would pull off the road just to watch the trains go by. Parked next to the tracks in Oceano we would stand by the rails and wave to the engineers. We were lucky to see the Southern Pacific’s gorgeous Coast Daylight passenger train in its black, orange and gold livery, the silver drivers whipping around, the locomotive wheels a blur, rhythmic gouts of white smoke whipped to shreds by the speed of the train. Buy a ticket in Our Lady of Angels and step of in Saint Francisco, cities with beautiful sibilant, soft names that drifted across the ear. The last days of steam soon to be replaced by the humming diesel electric, mundane, humdrum and just work-a-day.

Wonderful but, oh, the freights. Mile long trains trudging along carrying our vegetables from here to there. Dad’s celery bound for New York’s markets, Oliver’s Bell Peppers bound for Canada and POVE’s lettuce to Chicago and Atlanta. The beauty of the freights wasn’t in the look, they carried all the cachet of the men working the freight depot, chambray shirts, overhauls, sturdy shoes, hard hands long past looking at the train logos and wondering.

This was for us. Rolling by, boxcars emblazoned with the names and nicknames of all the railroads criss crossing America. The Grand Trunk, The Nickel Plate, The Katy, The Rebel Route and our own Frisco. As we tried to count the cars we saw the Feather River Route, The Wabash, Northern Pacific’s Main Street, the Texas and New Orleans, Tennessee Central and the Lackawanna. The old Susie-Q, The Possum Trot, The Yelllow Dog, The Blue Streak, The Rock Island and the Kansa City Southern. The Zephyr, Grand Trunk, the big suitcase, The Milwaukee Road and the Slim Princess.

There were stories from my grandparents about our little narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway which used to chug its leisurely way from Port Harford to Los Olivos down in Santa Barbara county. High-Ballin it was not. Thirty miles an hour was breezin’ for her.

Daughter of wealth and privilege, my grandmother would take the surrey down to the depot in Arroyo Grande with her friends and board for San Luis Obispo just to do a little shopping. During her high school days in Santa Maria she rode down on Monday and returned Friday evening. My grandfather to be, not born to wealth or privilege would pedal his bicycle over the dirt highway to meet her there. I don’t think we ever rode with my dad to the old dump on highway 227 without hearing that story.

Annie Shannon, center, Oceano Depot, boarding for the University at Berkeley, September, 1904.

Our little narrow gauge served communities from Los Alamos down in Santa Barbara county and up to San Luis Obispo and west to the harbor at Port Harford. It hauled sugar beets, rock from the quarries, oil, cattle, farm products and the people who lived here. It was so in tune with life in the Cow Counties of western central California that my grandmother could walk down the hill from her house and the train would pull to a stop so she could get on for the ride to San Luis to go shopping. Just like a bus.

As kids we didn’t understand just what the PC meant to them at the turn of the century. Every type of freight needed in San Luis Obispo county came by sea. There were few exceptions. Steam and sailing ships docked and unloaded goods directly onto the train cars which fed businesses all over the county. Milk, butter, cream from the dairies, wheat, vegetables, and fruit were hauled down to the harbor and sped of to San Fransisco and Los Angeles. County baseball teams rode the train to the port and traveled overnight to play games in Los Angeles. Redwood from Cambria’s now long gone forest was shipped up north to build homes. Crude oil from the Kettleman Hills came by pipeline to Port Harford where it was loaded onto steam tankers headed for Richmond and Martinez in San Francisco’s east bay to be refined. The Pacific Coast was a literal lifeline for the isolated central coast until the coming of the Southern Pacific in 1904.

As the story goes, when the last of the tracks were pulled up in 1939 and shipped as scrap to Japan, the Imperial Japanese warlords would ship them right back in 1941, or so my dad said anyway.

No more boxcars. Instead, big fifty-three foot containers emblazoned with names like Costco (China), Maersk (Denmark), Evergreen (Taiwan), Hapag-LLoyd (Germany) and OOCL (Hong Kong). It’s different.

Not even the sound that generated the Hobo term “Rattler”, the clickety- clack of the trucks wheels rolling over the bolted joints on the tracks. The rhythm of the rails provided the inspiration for a thousand tunes that wrote the history of our country from the freedom trains rolling north from the Jim Crow south, headed up north to Kansas City and Chicago and all point in between or the fruit and grain pickers moving west for the apple harvest in Washington state or bean pickers in our own little town of Nipomo, California. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo, Bob Dylan and all those guitar pickin’ boys from Texas wrote it all down and put it to music. The rhythm of the rails.

Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Doobie brothers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits; it’s as if you don’t have a train song in your play list you lack. For generations trains were part of the heartbeat of this country.

The rails, they’re all welded joints now and silent. No one writes about Amtrak.

Most of the old roads are gone. There are only four major railroads left now and only one slow freight graces our community with its presence today. It doesn’t even stop here anymore. The trucks killed it. There are no more of those esoteric names we loved as kids; all gone now and little kids look to something else to fire their imaginations

Cover Photo: New York Central and Hudson Valley RR, Locomotive 999, the first to pull a train at one hundred miles an hour. She did a mile in 32 seconds in 1883 for a recorded speed of 112.5 mph. Sporting 86 inch drivers her record stood for 21 years. She pulled the elite Empire Express on the Hudson River route for 16 years. She was retired in 1962 and now is of display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



Mister Cuddle Wuddle.*

Written by Michael Shannon

Wishing cannot make something true of course but it can form a vivid picture in the mind. “Consider if you will….”

A long table set in a second story apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, France. The walls are hung with painting set so close together they create a mural of and by complete unknowns. The door to the apartment, before you turn the latch and open is plastered with strange drawings glued so close together that some are almost completely hidden by the newer.

The unheated apartment is full of life. Men and women bump and jostle. Everyone is talking, everyone is smoking. They flirt, they drink, argue and yet all are friends. The little Spaniard who made the drawings, the Beetle Browed American writer and war veteran glares at his fellows as is his wont, The poets Joyce and Eliot nodding and leaning into each other as they argued, passionate and critical. Having just arrived, arm in arm, the Cubist and the Impressionist made their hellos to the composer and his wife Linda Lee. Cole nodded in return, his fingers drumming a rhythm only he could hear. Sitting on the couch, the delicately handsome F. Scott held court with Ezra the poet, Sinclair the ever self- revealing, Sherwood proud of his self-education, a tweedy bunch of writers discussing some esoteric tenet of their craft.

The hostess leaning back on her sofa, seemingly rooted, part of its form, solid, immutable, surveying the room. her birdlike companion, her lover, Alice with her hair so short, her soulful eyes hung above a noble, knife edged nose, hovered just behind. Gertrude glares at the portrait the little Spaniard had painted. It looked nothing like her, not a mirror image but, as the painter said,

“Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.”

“The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas” and “The Alice B Toklas Cookbook,” bookends for an extraordinary life.

Years will pass, decades. The guests will scattered to the four winds. Their commonality will always be connected to that room. That so many gifted souls could be connected to one person….

“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice—deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices. Alice B. Toklas

Charlie Chaplin who knew her created a cinematic representation of her famous phrase, “a rose is a rose is a rose.” He gave her a nod in his 1952 film Limelight, in a scene where the protagonist says, “the meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose. That’s not bad. It should be quoted.”

Happy Birthday Gertrude Stein, thanks for everything, Mike.

*Mister Cuddle Wuddle was Alice B. Toklas’ pet name for Gertrude Stein.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.



Uppity Women

Featured Photo: Abigail Adams, a clever woman.

Written by Michael Shannon

In days when people talked to each other by letter there was a small difference between letter writing men and women. Important men wrote for posterity, fully aware that their letters would be read by historians. Women wrote to communicate knowing that in most instances the missives would be relegated to the fireplace when they died.

Have you ever wondered why this should be of any importance? It’s important because most of our history was written by men. As Abigail Adams wrote to her continually absent husband, particularly when he was attending the continental congress, “Don’t forget the ladies.” She and many of the women married to or friends of the men who created our constitution were whip smart and concerned that the framers would do nothing for the rights of women. No surprise; they did not. They did nothing.

It’s often said that winners write history. That’s a fact. Most people have heard this often, most often used to describe some war or another. It’s not often used to describe who gets to write history but it applies.

James Thurber famously and I believe correctly said; “Women are wiser than men because they know less and understand more.”

John Adams should have listened to his wife. You can read her letters. She was very smart. She was also, as she spent most of her married life running a farm, buying and selling property and running a business while her husband was spending years abroad or in Philadelphia much better educated in the things that count. Unlike Thomas Jefferson she was never taught Greek and Latin. She could not read Homer and Virgil in the original, a not uncommon thing for wealthy educated men in the 18th century. James Madison was another educational savant. Madison and Jefferson are primarily responsible for the foundations of our country, such as they are. Keep in mind that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..” No mention of women’s Rights or Happiness. What they meant was that education and wealth conveyed those rights. The rest could go fish. Little of that has changed.

Consider this little bit of history. Wyoming passed the first woman’s suffrage law on December 10, 1869, and women voted for the first time in 1870. The word suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, meaning the right to vote. Every United States History course taught in our high schools includes this little snippet in their curriculum. I learned it, so did you. Why then it must be true. It’s in a book, a history book to boot. No problem.

It’s not true, tidy, easy to teach and memorable, but not true. The truth is far more interesting; a great deal more than just messy and reflects poorly, or should I say badly, on men.

Likely overcome by the heady atmosphere following the vicious civil war that separated the colonies from Britain and perhaps influenced by their wives, the New Jersey legislature voted to extend voting rights to all citizens in 1776. They didn’t specify that they had to be men or women, just citizens of the state of New Jersey. In the first election under the new constitution women showed up at the polls and voted. To legally vote a woman had to own property, a rather narrow category seeing that only widows and single women could own land. A married wife had no such rights. She had no rights at all.

Nevertheless it was done. No on seemed to think anything of it. A few years later an attempt was made to codify the right under the United States Constitution. The word women was to be added but very stiff opposition made the point that such a change would be redundant because women were already voting, so there was no need. Think about how many times you have seen that argument used in politics,”We don’t need a law for that, every body already knows, so why change it.” A favorite smokescreen for Pols. It’s well polished from constant use.

Women had supported the revolution in every way they could including combat. Thousands had read Mary Wollencrafts “Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The book along with Mercy “Warrens History of the American Revolution” brought with them torrents of controversy. Wollencrafts personal history was used by anti-women’s rights groups to fend off reform. She had had the audacity to have a child out of wedlock and conceived a second before marrying the baby’s father. ( That baby, Mary Wollencraft grew up to write “Frankenstein” and marry Percy Bysshe Shelley ) Being a founding mother would not save one from scurrilous attacks of the lowest type.

Since Wollencraft was a tramp, nothing she wrote should be considered for serious thought. Ever heard that one before? Books like these were though to be dangerous because women with “Ideas” were difficult to control.

In 1790 the New Jersey legislature added “He or She” to the constitution since women had been voting the previous four years and they though it was important to codify the law. No reason to suppose that voting for women wasn’t to be forever enshrined in New Jersey.

Lets no forget it was New Jersey though. You should remember this state was the home of Tony Soprano and the Jersey Mob. None of them had been born yet but the natal home was already in a fine fettle.

Partisan politics grew increasingly bitter, elections got dirtier. Finally, many more women than were eligible voted in an Essex County election. Women had attempted to steal an election, the print press went wild, state legislators were tearing their hair out, or at least throwing their wigs across the statehouse floor. Women who had “Ideas” had rigged an election. Horrors!

Is there any proof that they did? The answer is no. None has ever been found but in 1807 the conservative legislature used the excuse of fraud to limit the franchise to, and I quote, “…free, white, male citizens of this state, of the age of twenty-one years.” By this they “….guaranteed the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state.” In other words, “Stop the Steal.”

“Dignity of the State”, my goodness, in a state were politicians chewed plug tobacco and routinely spat on the carpet and drank corn whiskey at their desks. Fistfights, canings and whippings have been common in our congresses for decades. Witness Florida Republican Cory Mills who presented fellow U.S. House of Representatives members with an unusual gift to mark the start of the 118th Congress: a grenade and a letter inviting them to “get to work on behalf of their constituents.” Mills joined a long list of self-congratulatory idiots, “endowed by his creator with certain unalienable rights,” to leave no doubt as to his superiority to women and the public in general. Yea. PS: The grenades were defused which was nice of him.

Ever since then, after more than two centuries New Jersey has been widely known for it’s free and fair elections. Cue laugh track complete with guffaws.

Now back to Wyoming. The state voted in 1912 to give women the vote. Give being the operative word here, as if it was ever mens right to give something that by reason should have been available to all citizens; or “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Stories abound in the history of Wyoming, remember only men could vote at the time, of those mothers and daughters who made it clear where their men were to stand on the issue. Ranch wives turned the tide. Biscuits and gravy was the currency, or perhaps other things if you get my drift. Nights are cold in December cowboy.

In 1920, universal suffrage became federal law and my two grandmothers, aged thirty-five and thirty-two, voted for the first time. It was a big deal for them but in reality just a small step into the future.

I grew up on story’s about how neither one was smart enough to vote anyway. In one famous incident, my grandmother refused to vote for Thomas Dewey because he had a mustache and she didn’t like. It always seemed as good a reason as any to me. I know people who wouldn’t vote for Mrs Clinton because she didn’t divorce her husband. She did throw a cell phone at his head though. Perhaps if that had been common knowledge it might have made a difference for her.

One hundred-seventy plus years had passed since Abigail had asked her husband to, “Remember the Ladies,” and until 1964 a woman could be refused employment simply because she was a woman. Up until 1974 a woman could not buy a home on her own nor could she have a credit card under her own name. Women were not allowed to make contracts or wills, could not buy or sell property, had little or no control of their earnings in most situations, and were discouraged from acting politically, such as hold office, even though they could vote. Women’s rights were minimal. Girls could not play organized sports in secondary or post-secondary schools and even today women’s sports are funded at a much lower rate than that for men. They still suffer from what is known as the “Pink Tax,” the charging of more for women’s goods than mens. Add some scent, put it in a pink wrapper and the price of a bar of soap goes up.

When you study history you must choose your path each and every time you are presented with something new. Constantly evolving as information is uncovered and studied it can be reliable and truthful or molded like silly putty in order to gain advantage.

Ask the women of New Jersey, it’s right there in their letters and journals.

Be a skeptic, look very closely, but don’t be a cynic. The road can be very long but eventually something good can happen, but you must work at it.

Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.