The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The night they drove old Dixie down. Written by Michael Shannon

“They’s hardly a family lived in this country for two centuries didn’t have a boy who served in the War Between the States as it’s called, particularly here in the south.” Marvelous Marv Huff, Hillsville, Virginia, my friend.

Now you can get yourself elected and say all you want about that horrible war, it’s a free county after all, but likely you don’t have the slightest idea why those boys went off.

We had a bunch in our family, both sides too. Eight. The 23rd New Jersey volunteers, 116th Pennsylvania, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment, 4th North Carolina regiment and the 2nd Mississippi which fought in nearly every battle in the east.

Corporal Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. Army of the Potomac.19 years old, 1862. Shannon Family photo ©*

In the south, the vast majority of soldiers were from what used to be called subsistence farms. A farm that supported a single family. Most southern soldiers did not own slaves, they couldn’t afford them nor were they needed to work smallholdings.

The average Confederate soldier did not own other men and never thought to. That required far more money and capital and, for that matter, need than the average southerner had in the first place. Not all southerners were in favor of slavery and many objected it on moral principles, in the second place. In light of the journals and letters of those that lived it there were as many opinions as there were writers. In fact, only about three percent of all southerners owned any slaves at all; and while the majority of southerners of all classes did at least tacitly support slavery as an institution, they probably would not have been willing to fight and die for it as a single idea or to preserve it as a permanent state of affairs. What they feared more was the freedom of millions of slaves, who they saw as their inferiors. They also regarded slavery as a way of life in the society they and their parents and their parents before them, had been born into. Millions of black slaves had been born into it and accepted their bonded role in the world as a painful but quite natural reality. Abolition of slavery was for most Americans, including and especially southerners, especially slaves, an abstract idea, almost unimaginable.

The seeds of the conflict were sown in 1797 when the constitution was written. The impossible task of balancing power in the government between the less populated southern states and the larger populations in the north, when representation was predicated on population as it still is set in motion an inevitable confrontation between the cotton, rice and tobacco growers, which formed a monolithic economy and the growing, diversified industrial north. An economist will teach you that all wars are fought over economics, or to put it simply, money. Money leads to power and power starts wars.

Barely any education or none at all didn’t lead to introspection for the young man volunteering to go fight. Didn’t then, doesn’t now.

What many of the Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting for was to defend what they believed to be their Constitutional Right to secede from the Union of the United States. This question had been born during the Constitutional Convention eighty years previous; it had been argued and debated, often violently, on the floor of the Congress; compromises had been reached, but agreement on the question remained elusive. From the beginning, those southern leaders who were involved in the framing of the Republic contended that no federalist or centralized government should have powers to impose laws or other regulations on the states without the individual permission and will of the states.

If you think that idea has changed you’re not paying attention. The states of the confederacy, because of their absolute belief in states rights. Agreed on practically nothing. History in high school did not teach me that some states didn’t send soldiers to fight with Lee, but kept them home to defend the state itself. Railroads made no effort to have their rolling stock and rails match at the border. Trains had to be unload and reloaded every time they crossed from Georgia to Tennessee or into South Carolina. Jefferson Davis could not force any state to co-operate with the central government. He could suggest but the governors could and did ignore him.

On a more fundamental level, though, the average Confederate soldier enlisted, fought, and often died or suffered in battle because of an innate loyalty to his home, community or town. He was often pressured into volunteering by family, or by friends, and often joined up and fought to support friends and family, terrified more of shirking his duty or of coming home in disgrace than of dying in battle. For the most part, the average soldier was minimally educated, minimally literate, generally devout, and committed to his hearth and home first, to his state second, and to the federal government and flag, if at all, third. Most had never ventured more than a few hours’ travel from the place where he was born. Outsiders of any kind were viewed with a suspicious eye. They felt they were taking a stand to protect their own freedom; they also believed that God was on their side, because they firmly believed they had the moral high ground.

You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it

Besides, where are your men and tools of war to contend? The North can make a steam engine, a locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth living right at your side.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
William T. Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (now Louisiana State University) 1860.

After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant was to write:

“. . . No foe fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought . . .”

Put those two together, and you pretty much have it.

“Meanwhile, perhaps no soldier in either army gave a better answer — one more readily understandable to his fellow soldiers, at any rate—than a ragged Virginia private, pounced on by the Northerners during a Confederate retreat.

Lean as wolves, photographer unknown. National Archives.

“What are you fighting for anyhow?” his captors asked, looking at him. They were genuinely puzzled, for he obviously owned no slaves and seemingly could have little interest in States Rights or even Independence.

“’I’m fighting because you’re down here,’ he said.” That’s the answer a Southerner would give you as to “why are you are fighting?” if you were a Northerner, he would say: to you “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” He was being invaded and he thought … to defend his home.

An unnamed citizen of Frederick, Maryland noted watching the regiments march north toward Sharpsburg in September of 1862. “I have never seen a mass of such filthy strong-smelling men. Three in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell from them was most offensive… The filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are all well armed and equipped, and have become so inured to hardships that they care but little for any of the comforts of civilization… They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw, their features, hair and clothing matted with dirt and filth, and the scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance.” Another observer described the Confederates simply as “a lean and hungry set of wolves.”

They would inflict terrible casualties on the union army. With less than half their numbers, Lee’s regiments fought the union to a draw. They were hard and they knew it, they wore there toughness as a badge of honor. Boys can endure under the worst circumstances. Pride does that.

“Lean and hungry as wolves.” Confederates captured at Gettysburg, 1863. Matthew Brady photo.

As the civil war stumbled to it’s forgone conclusion in the spring of 1865 only one of my eight ancestors who enlisted in 1861 remained with the army. One had his enlistment expire, one was sent home for being only fifteen and four had been killed in battle. Sadly the three of the four were the brothers Hooper from Iredell County, North Carolina. Private Nelson Hooper, married with a pregnant wife was shot at Malvern Hill. He died in Richmond two days later. In his last letter home written in the hospital he said how he hated the war and just wanted to go home.

The country settled nothing. The politics are still alive. Human Bondage is gone but not in the least forgotten in this country. The war created devastated families and a world of widows. A family hangs by a thread, for Nelson Hooper’s daughter, born after his death in Virginia, was my great-grandmother.

James Martin Cayce, Company C, Calhouns Rifles, 2nd Mississippi Regiment. 1861, Army of Northern Virginia. Shannon Family Photo ©*

Sergeant James M. Cayce who served with the 2nd Mississippi Regiment and who was present at 1st Manassas, Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill at which two of the Hooper brothers were killed. He was at South Mountain, 2nd Mannassas and Sharpsburg, the single deadliest day in American Military history.

Five of the ancestors fought at Malvern Hill, during the seven days battles, two died there. That’s how closely held is our history.

The second Mississippi went in with the North Carolinians on the first day at Gettysburg, losing heavily at the Railroad Cut fight. Two days later, the nearly destroyed regiment went up Cemetery Hill against the Union right with Pickett’s Virginians. They anchored the Confederate left with the the other Mississippi regiments. They suffered horribly. Those that returned; those who walked and tumbled back down that hill were 91 officers and men, out of 492 which came down the Chambersburg Pike with Colonel Joe Davis on July 1st. Scarcely ten were unscathed. They were so proud that they walked backward so not to shame themselves by being shot in the back. Grandpa James Cayce was one.

Confederate prisoners Fort Delaware New York. National Archives.

A day later he was captured and sent to the Fort Delaware military prison in New York where his chance of survival was less than on the battlefield. Treatment of prisoners by both governments was terrible and some prisons in both the north and south had well deserved reputations for bad treatment, bad food and high death rates. Nevertheless Jim Cayce hung on and was paroled in a prisoner exchange in 1864. Paroled meant he was not to return to the army but of course he did just that.

He returned in time for the Battles in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Two battles, over the course of ten days that caused nearly sixty thousand casualties. Sixty thousand. Say it again, sixty thousand men and boys slaughtering each other for reasons that by this time in the war have ceased to have any real meaning to those in the middle of it. It had become just murder.

Confederate prisoners fort Douglas, 1863. National Archives.

I am tired and sick of this war. It’s glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never fired a shot or heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance. War is hell.”

General William Tecumseh Sherman, Army of the United States.

At the end, in the final weeks of the war the remains of Lee’s starving army stumbled southwest trying to escape General Grant’s onrushing Yankee army. Barefoot, clad in rags, with nothing to eat, tens of dozens of soldiers simply walked away and headed home. With only about 24,000 soldiers under arms, Lee faced more than 114,000 under Grant. Hoping to catch up with a trainload of food parked at the railroad on the Danville Line. General Stoneman’s union cavalry had shut them off, pulling up the rails and burning the ties. They were cut off and falling back were attacked and heavily defeated at Sailors Creek. The Army of Virginia lost almost 9,000 killed, wounded and captured that day. Three days later on April 9th, 1865, it was all over.

They sat down in Wilbur McClean’s house, crowded into the parlor. Terms of surrender were agreed upon, Grant and Lee shook and it was over. Just like that.

My grandfather, Jim Cayce was one of only 18 Mississippians of the 2nd left to surrender. He hung on to the bitter end. As they paraded on the last day, no one hung their head. Beaten but not defeated.

Rolling the Regimental Flags for surrender, April 1865. Richard Norris Brooke painting, A McCook Craighead Collection.***

As one old soldier said, “Well, my great grandfather walked up to his 78-year old father who was behind a plow in the field and said, “Go on to the house, Daddy, I’ll finish the plowing.” I imagine that most others got back into their old lives in the same way.

There are no letters or journals stating what Jim Cayce thought about why he served. He had gone “To See the Elephant.” He saw it and he came home. Nearly seven hundred miles from home he began to walk. What he though we don’t know.

His must have been the same way it is today. Veterans come home. They say nothing. Combat is too horrible and when they say you wouldn’t understand, you won’t. Put it in a box in your head and close the lid.

2nd Mississippi Regiment reunion with General Robert E Lee. Sgt. James Cayce, 9th from left, back row. Shannon Family photo.

If you pay attention, you can see that they are still unbeaten. For what does a poor man have? He has his pride which he holds in a clenched fist. Would you make him give it up? What does that accomplish?

Since the end of the Civil War the former Confederate states have provided nearly half of our military, more than their share. The same sense of duty still sends them of to defend their country.

So why? Their home, their family, their neighbors families, their state and their friends. If you don’t believe these things are worth fighting for, you are not a Southerner.

Sometimes history can be boiled down until one single thing can represent the angst and the despair that the defeated must hold in their hearts. It’s not history, it’s personal. Always was, always will be.

Levon Helm said this better than any historian ever could; in a song. Listen to it. See what I mean.


*Front Piece, Itawamba County veterans of the 2nd Mississippi Regiment, reunion.

**I’ve written about his great-grandson Donald Polhemus in the series about the destroyer war in WWII. NAQT is the title.

***The captured and surrendered regimental flags were returned to the states after forty years in 1905. Some still remain in Northern museums.

The Ancestors:

James Martin Cayce, Company C, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 24. Married

Shadrick N. Cayce, Company K, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 15

William R Hall, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment. Rockbridge, Virginia. Age at enlistment, 41, married w/ 7 children

Thaddeus Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Seven Pines, VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina. Age at enlistment, 18

McKamie Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA 1st Bull Run, VA 1861 Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 16

Nelson P Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Malvern Hill ,VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 24. Married

Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd New Jersey Volunteers. Age at enlistment, 18. Northhampton, New Jersey

David Shannon, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, KIA Petersburg, VA 1864. Lackawaxan, Pennsylvania. Age at Enlistment. 20

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.



Uncle Jackies Radio

Written by Michael Shannon

Jackie made a radio. You might think that it was no big deal and perhaps it wasn’t. But when he told me about it I was pretty impressed. I was just a kid myself then. We didn’t have a television until I was eleven so I grew up very familiar with the radio. It lived in the kitchen where we spent most of our family time until television came along and broke apart family conversation and time spent together. Not just being in the same room but talking to each other, sharing and listening to my parents talk.

The thing about the radio is that, like books, you have to use your imagination to fill out the story. With TV its all done for you. No imagination necessary. What you see is what you get. Radio was better, way better.

But, I digress. If you know anything about the history of radio particularly the technical part, how it works and how it’s made your are ahead of the game. You don’t though, do you?

Prisoner of War made radio, Stalg Luft 17-B, WWII. The crystal radio set belonged to Sgt. James L. Cast, an American gunner whose plane was shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in April 1944. Hidden in a soap dish. If found, immediate execution.

Politicians are always complaining about how things used to be so much better in the olden days. As usual they are full of manure. They’ve, if they ever knew at all, what things were really like in the past. My dad nearly died from Rheumatic fever when he was a little boy. That would have been in 1922. My dear aunt Patsy was the first person in Los Angeles county to contract polio. She was married with two small children and pregnant. That was in 1957.

Consider that my uncle Jackie; born in 1909 he was at risk for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Strep throat, Chickenpox, Whooping cough (pertussis), Rotavirus, Tetanus, Influenza, Hepatitis B. Diarrhea killed thousands of children each year. Of course Old Yeller had to die, Hydrophobia was fatal. The plow horse could take a child’s head off with one kick. Mothers and babes died in childbirth all the time.

A trip to an old cemetery will show you how dangerous it was. Life in the first half of the twentieth century was a risky business.

The only thing I can think of that was good for kids like my dad and uncle was the lack of almost anything you might consider “Modern.” If they wanted a toy, they had to build it themselves. On the old ranch, both my father and his brother would point out to us, when we were growing up ourselves where they dug a cave or built a fort in an old Oak tree. Behind the house, built in ’23 were rows of home built cages where they kept the squirrels, raccoons, weasels, possums and any other creatures they could trap. They didn’t kill or eat them. They would take care of them for a while and let them go. It was a game. There was a big cage at the end of the row where they kept the screech owl they caught in the grain silo.

My dad said that in 1920 they had a hog, they named him Flu, that was right after the Spanish Flu which had killed an estimated 21 million people around the world. People were helpless against the virus so naming a pig after it was like a spit in the eye of fate. People used to do things like that. Dad used to lead Flu around with a rope. Flu carried a passenger; a goat who stood on his back. The three of them were friends as he told it.

Pleasures were simple then. An orange and a new pair of socks knitted by your aunt Sadie was what you got for Christmas. If that seems. well I don’t know what it seems but dad always said he was glad to get them.

So kids got by.

On Christmas 1920 the boys received a book from family friends, the Gavins. Printed in 1913, it was titled “The Boy Mechanic.” It was illustrated with 800 separate drawings and not a single photograph in the lot. Dad said it was the best gift he ever got until he met my mother 22 years later. He kept her and the book all of his life.

The Boy Mechanic, Shannon Family Treasure.

The book was essentially a book of instructions from which a boy could make nearly anything his little heart desired. It was a long list of how to’s. Build a boat, build a windmill, a bow and its arrows, a device for electroplating, a dog cart. How to build a dry cell battery, necessary because the ranch had no electricity, so if you wanted build a wireless set you needed the battery.

The book spells it all out. Uncle Jack built both. Like thousands of other kids across the country he worked his way through the book. He said that it was one of the best presents her ever got. That’s saying something for a man who lived to be 95.

Jackie Shannon, 1928. Shannon Family Photo. ©

As they were growing up in the late twenties, kids made things. With nothing to distract them they taught themselves the things that quite literally won WWII,

When have you ever seen a movie about life in a Nazi Stalag Luft camp where the American prisoners didn’t build a radio receiver in order to follow the BBC’s nightly broadcast? The commandants strictly forbade the practice in order to keep the prisoners ignorant of the wars progress. Do “The Great Escape,” “Stalag 17” and Hogan’s Hero’s, ring a bell? In a place where there was literally nothing to build a wireless, they did.

When Sherman tanks were being killed by the dozens in the hedgerows of France, A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts, who during a discussion about how to overcome the bocage, as the built up hedges were known, said “Why don’t we weld on some saw teeth like and put them on the front ah the tank and cut right through them damned hedges?” A sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Curtis G Culin thought it was a good idea. Some destroyed German hedgehogs dragged up from the beaches of Normandy were cut up and welded to the front of the tanks and they began busting right through the barriers.

When B-25 bombers were being used for ground support strafing in the Pacific, pilots complained about the lack of firepower in the nose. Grounds crewman didn’t put in a requisition or ask permission they simply installed six machine guns in the nose and the problem was solved.

My bosses in high school, Tom and Bill Baxter were both Navy aircraft mechanics in the Pacific. Bill told me stories about how they would cannibalize smashed planes, wrecked jeeps and any other scrap they could find to repair the F-4U Corsairs they worked on. He said woe to the pilot who left his plane to go into the headquarters building to deliver mail because when he came back out he was likely going to be missing some essential part. He said they would swarm the plane and strip out whatever they needed in just minutes.

A European veteran who worked for my dad after the war was some kind of creative mechanical genius. I realized when I was older that many of the tools and machine we had were crafted by him. Once he went to our little airport , bought a Lycoming engine which had been removed from a wrecked aircraft and brought it home, He made it run, mounted it on a welded steel frame bolted to the back of a Caterpillar tractor and dad used it as a wind machine on our fall tomatoes. He invented a device which could top four rows of celery at one time saving labor in harvesting, no more hand work, no more hacked fingers. One winter he bolted three foot length of 4 x 4 lumber to the tracks of a Cat so it could be driven through flooded and muddy fields. It worked so well that other farmers wanted to rent it.

He had come out to California during the depression from Missouri on the back of a Ford flatbed with his parents, brothers and sisters. A 1700 mile trip riding up high on piled mattresses and furniture. It was a marvelous thing to watch him work. I didn’t know until I was nearly in high school that he could neither read nor write. He’d use a length of wood, a stick actually, to measure with.

This was in the days when you could ring Bert Cattoir at his garage on Bridge Street and describe the sound your cars engine was making and he could tell you what was wrong with it and how to fix it.

It strikes me that an entire generation of kids grew up learning the art of Make-Do. They went off in 1941 and won the greatest war in history. Many came home and used the GI Bill to go to college. It was the most consequential explosion of invention ever seen.

Those folks never questioned the value of an education. If you were their kid you had better do well in school. My parents would have never, ever questioned a teacher or the curriculum. They understood that school was to teach you to think; to analyze, to build a foundation on which you could build a life. They weren’t wrong either. From the early fifties until the seventies, schools produced the people who sent us to the moon. For a while in our history, education of that sort took on a value not seen since.

I think that The Boy Mechanic and books like it were the reason. Today it’s still in print. You can get one for your kids. Better yet turn off the TV and the I-Phone, send them outside and lock the screen door. My mom did.

Colin Patrick Shannon, Ben Hodges. Shannon Family Photo ©

Kids will find a shovel and dig a hole, they will take two sticks a nail and hammer together an airplane. Let them use their imaginations.

Cover: Learn by doing. Miss Hollands 8th graders, Branch Grade School 1956. Gene Terra, Ruben Cavanillas, Don Talley and Billy Gularte. Shannon Family photo.

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 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.



The Tea Cup

Annie Gray

Written by Michael Shannon

San Andreas fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
Earth divided
Plates collided
such an awful sound….
Nathaniel Merchant, from “San Andreas Fault, 1995

Annie “Nita” Gray, 21 yo. Family photo ©

Just across the bay in Berkeley Jack’s sweetheart Annie Gray was a student at the University of California. She was my grandmother to be. Annie lived as a boarder with the dentist, Dr. Arvan Meeks and his wife Minna in their home at 2610 Derby Street just a few blocks off campus. She was a sophomore.

Meeks Home, 1906 Shannon Family photo. ©

Annie, the Meeks family and the other two girls who lived there were awakened by the rumbling and moderate shaking which was quite unlike the feeling in San Francisco. The Meeks lost some china but otherwise the house they lived in was undamaged. Since the family was out of bed, they were quick to see that a broom and dustpan would clean up the mess so everyone went back to their rooms and dressed for the day. The cook made breakfast for the family and afterwards they decided what to do. Doctor Meeks was going to go downtown to check on his office, Minna was to stay home with the children and the girls were going to walk around Berkeley and do a little sightseeing. It seemed safe enough since there was little visible damage to the homes around them. Across the bay from San Francisco Annie and her friends took in the damage in downtown Oakland where, with its unreinforced brick buildings there was some brickwork in the streets and heaps of fallen terra cotta but other than the occasional broken window there wasn’t much to see.

In Berkeley, a 100-foot water tower fell unleashing a small flood, an explosion in a cooking oil factory threatened to spread fire throughout the industrial district and a large, deep crack opened up toward the west end of University Avenue stretching for several blocks. A workman picking up lumber at a West Berkeley wharf said he was nearly swept into the bay by a 4- to 5-foot wall of water that arrived about 10 minutes after the earthquake.

A split on the north end of East Street from the earthquake. East St. is now the Embarcadero. San Francisco, California: 1906. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Around Berkeley, 5,000 chimneys suffered damage or turned to rubble, including that of geology professor Andrew C. Lawson, who had recently named the San Andreas fault. He took the name given to the valley in which it ran by the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola who passed through in 1774. Local wags joked that he had named it after himself though Portola mapped it and gave it it’s name on the feast day of Saint Andrew more than two hundred years before Lawson.

Lawson was to lead the geologic survey studying the earthquake from his office at the University. The results were the first comprehensive look at the fault and the geology associated with the movement of the earth. The quake gave birth to the serious study of why and how faults worked.

As the sun rose they looked across the bay and saw the rising smoke from fires scattered about the city. Smoke began to rise in billows from the parts of the city they knew were residential and small businesses areas. Dense columns rising from the Hayes Valley and the Mission district south of the Slot. Both these areas, they knew, were densely populated. The cheap and flimsy wooden homes and businesses were built of redwood and pine which was bone dry or full of pitch and was as flammable as tissue paper. Building codes were nonexistent in those parts of the city and if they had existed, a simple passing of money from one hand to another would solve any problem.

San Francisco in 1906 was, despite modern day revisionist history, as big and sooty, smoggy, brawling, vulgar and thoroughly corrupt as a city could be. In the south below Market and Mission, “South of the Slot,” as residents wryly called it with no particular charm intended was where the factories, manufacturing plants and Iron foundries belched gouts of reeking smoke into the air fueled by low-grade coal. Ships boilers were coal fired as were the locomotives of the Southern Pacific Railroads locomotive which sat in the marshalling yards twenty four hours a day adding to the yellow gray cloud that daily drifted across the lower part of the city. Built chock a block with each other, stores, houses, hotels and factories were a mishmash of wooden building, many of which had little water service and almost none, sewers. Few had any indoor plumbing.

Just to the south was Butchertown. In 1868 a group of butchers purchased eighty-one acres of submerged and waterlogged tidelands and a “Butchers’ Reservation” for slaughtering animals was built . Filled with marshes, creeks, and bayside mud flats, this area of southeastern San Francisco had remained largely undeveloped despite several attempts at residential housing. The city banished the slaughterhouses and the smells, sounds, and carnage that went with the process from anywhere near the city center. An abundant water supply and the area’s relative isolation must have appealed to the meat men: offal from butchering could be easily disposed of in the ebb and flow of bay tides or Islais’s creeks meandering channel. Related industries quickly followed: tanneries, fertilizer plants, wool pulleries, and tallow works joined the industrial community of the area. Workers came with the industries; the greatest number of neighborhood residents worked in the surrounding industrial plants of the area. Though some residential development had preceded the butchers’ move into the area, sustained development of land was a result of the jobs Butchertown created.

On warm spring days the miasma of odors from “South of the Slot” was enough to knock a man or woman down. On some days, Annie said, the San Francisco perfume could be smelled up on the campus of the University.

From miles away damage to the city it didn’t seem too bad though, they didn’t know yet that the San Francisco Fire Department, long considered one of the nations finest was in ruins.

The city’s fire chief Dennis Sullivan had been raging at the city fathers for years that the city was a tinderbox just waiting for a match to be struck. He had long argued that the city needed a saltwater firefighting system, after all, the seven square miles of the city was surrounded on three sides by the bay. He also wanted the freshwater cisterns which had been built decades before under the streets but had been long neglected, repaired. He was ignored.

Dennis T. Sullivan. SFFD museum

Just the year before, the National Board of Fire Underwriters had declared that, though in theory, the fire department could deliver 36 million of water a day it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop a major fire. Chief Sullivan again went to the city’s fathers but was again completely ignored.

Rich and complacent, the Mayor, and his fixer Abe Ruef, the Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad, Claus Spreckels and the Silver Kings of Nevada were occupied with money making and from their mansions up on Nob Hill didn’t give a sniff.

As the college girls watched the city from across the bay, Chief Sullivan’s worst fears were already beginning to come true, and for the Chief himself, tragically so. The Chief had jumped from his bed a the first sound. His official residence was Engine Company 2 on Bush between Grant and Kearney. The station was snug against the wall of the California Hotel. The Chief and his wife lived on the third floor and when the quake struck he ran for her door. Before he could get to her a bank of huge smokestacks from the hotel came down through the roof. Sullivan and his wife fell along with a mass of heavy brick and lumber all the way to the first floor. Mrs Sullivan suffered only minor injuries but the Chief, his chest crushed and skull fractured would die the next day, April 19th. When his department needed him most he was gone.

Annie and her roommates returned to Doctor Meeks home and were sitting in he parlor trying to figure out what they could do. Arvan Meeks had gone down to his office to check for damage and Minna was left alone with the girls and her eight year old son Charles.

The three young women thought to go up to campus and see if there was any damage to the school. Other than being awakened early there didn’t seem to be a thing unusual about what the day would bring. Annie and her friends assumed they would be attending classes as usual. They gathered their books and got ready to leave.

Bacon Library and South Hall, UC Berkeley. Family Postcard.

The girls, being just 20 were both thrilled and excited and wanted to go up to the campus to look around. They promised Minna they would do nothing remotely dangerous and left by the front door. Doctor Meeks having returned loaded them in his auto and headed down Derby to Shattuck Avenue.

From there they could take the streetcar up to Hearst Ave and then walk into the campus. Coincidentally the car crossed Dwight Way, the street on which my father would be born six years later. The Petrolia hotel on the corner had part of its frieze and all of its awnings littering the street. Entering the campus by crossing Bancroft they were surprised to see that except for a broken window in South Hall, the campus was otherwise untouched. In fact, classes had started as if nothing was amiss. Annie said that when they arrived on campus the only unusual activity was the mustering of the University Cadet Corps. Some were in formation already and others were running half dressed across campus to join their mates. A soldier boy passing by told them they were for the city and would be taking the ferry over to help keep order in San Francisco.

They asked why order was needed and he told them that the city was nearly destroyed. This was the first real news from San Francisco they had had. It immediately occurred to Annie that Jack might be in danger or even killed.

They decided to go to over to Stiles Hall which was the home of the YMCA where a large crowd of students had gathered on the steps to see what news they could get. While in conversation with others the doors opened and the announcement was made that the hall would be the headquarters for the Earthquake Relief Organization. It was said that volunteers would be needed for the anticipated flood of refugees from the City which were already stumbling off the cross bay ferries. They would need to be fed, clothed and given somewhere to stay. Annie and her roommates decided to see if they could be of use and went inside where tables had been set up so volunteers could be signed up for jobs. All three signed up for kitchen duty. They were going to head back to the Meek’s, change clothes and then return ready to go to work.

As they descended the steps they stopped to watch wagon loads of tents headed up campus to the football stadium. The second of Cal’s football stadiums, it was built in 1904 and could hold 20,000 fans. The tents, brought in from Mare Island by the Navy would be set up on the football field for the refugees who had nowhere else to go.

In Berkeley they were not aware of what was happening in the City for several hours. Time was spent looking around at the damage to the university and the city and beginning to make plans as to what to do. We assumed there was not too much damage across the bay as Berkeley was relatively untouched by any kind serious damage. We felt optimistic about our own damage and assumed it must be so in San Francisco until several hours later when we saw the beginning of the dense black cloud that would soon engulf the entire city. By noon we had learned by messenger that a large portion of the city was afire.” 

Washington Irving Stringham, Professor of Mathematics, UC Berkeley

At the Meek’s Annie tried telephoning the Craigs to check on Jack and the family but the operator told her their was no communication with the city by telephone or telegraph. All the lines across the city were dead and the main exchange building on New Montgomery Street, she thought, had been destroyed or heavily damaged. She said there was no connection across the bay at all.

By this time, though it was still mid-morning columns of smoke could be seen rising from the business district and east of Market street. Annie and her friends were all worried but knew there was nothing they could do but help those that would soon be arriving from the city. Jack will be all right she thought and I’ll worry about it when I have to. The three of them headed off to campus to go to work.

“We saw he first refugees arrived by ferry and a sorry looking lot they were. They only brought what they could carry and were dirty and bedraggled. Some were in serious shock, moaning and crying helpless with grief and fear. Their stories made me frightened for Jack. We knew little about what was happening in the city.” Annie Gray in a letter to her friend Hattie Tyler. May 15th, 1906

Annie Gray and Hattie Tyler. Shannon Family Trust (c)

In the early afternoon people began arriving on campus. Most had walked up from the ferry landings. Haggard, worn, most wearing whatever clothes they had had time to throw on they were covered in dust and smelled of destruction. Entire families of all stripes, wealthy and the poor carrying or dragging the little suitcases they had been allowed to carry aboard the ferries the were bewildered and lost. My grandma said it was the saddest thing. Yesterday was fine, today all was lost.

The refugees were given sandwiches and soup and then registered so they could be found somewhere to stay. The people of Berkeley and Oakland generously responded by setting up temporary camps, dispensing food, listing jobs, and even taking in the homeless. City officials had quickly taken measures to ensure public order and health as city and university officials were struggling to deal with thousands of disoriented, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous strangers, many separated from their loved ones. Berkeley with a population of twenty-six thousand was to grow its population by half in the coming weeks.

When Annie arrived home at the end of a very long an exhausting day Minna met her at the door with the familiar buff colored envelope containing a Western Union Telegram. Annie quickly seized it, praying it was from Jack. She torn open the envelope and pulled out the flimsy yellow paper printed with the companys logo and the senders address. She read from the tiny strips of paper printed with the message and then pasted to the form. It read….


The telegram was from her brother Bob Gray. She had been hoping it was from Jack. She wasn’t worried about Bob. He was safe at home with the family in Santa Maria.

She wouldn’t go home but she would keep the money.

To Be Continued….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.

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The Tea Cup

It is inevitability dismaying to all those who like to think that the earth and its inhabitants and all the events that occur upon it have any importance at all in the cosmic sense. From a great distance there was essentially nothing to see. But something did happen. The planet shrugged, oh so briefly like a horse rippling its skin to rid itself of a fly.  A blink of the eye and it would have been unnoticed. A brief ripple gone unseen on the blue green and white planet still bathed with lunar light at the tail end of the night. No more for the earth than a momentary shrug.


      Laugh thy golden laughter;

Then, the moment after,

Weep thy golden tears!

                                                                                                                   Sir William Watson, “April” 1903


The Little tea Cup. It sat on the sideboard in my grandparents house for 75 years. To look at it you’d think, Annie, my grandmother, could have found something much grander to display on the cabinet. After all the hand crocheted Irish linen runner was a work of art and ancient. The emerald colored twin vases were embossed with real gold and the Seth Thomas clock was a thing of rare elegance. The little cup was of no special make, just a cheap knock-off you might pick up at a white elephant sale.

Like many things in life it held a personal story shared by my grandparents of an event both shocking and forever memorable as, perhaps the most consequential experience of their long lives.

Perhaps this was a secret thing. They never spoke of the cup and I can say I never gave it any thought until I was a grown man. My father told me the why and wherefore after my grandfather died.

You see, the tea cup was in fact a cheap thing of no particular value if you count its history in monetary terms but it was of immense value if you knew the story of how it came to be there.

Jack Shannon, 24. 1896 Ellis Street, San Francisco


On a Wednesday morning, a work day for most but a school holiday for the kids, the Great San Andreas fault slipped its plates with a small ripple at 5:12 in the morning and then roughly 25 seconds later, shattered the north coast of California with the greatest earthquake in the states recorded history. One of the greatest ever recorded worldwide. In the year 1906 San Francisco became only the latest place on earth to suffer from a series of quakes and volcanos. A massive undersea quake off Ecuador in January; thousands killed. Sixteen days later St. Lucia in the Caribbean rocked violently; then five days later, the Caucasus mountains, the border between eastern Europe and Asia cracked open. Four weeks later Formosa, off the coast of China experienced an extremely destructive temblor. A very large loss of life and property devastated the island. Shortly after the volcano Vesuvius blasted rocks and boulders forty thousand feet into the air completely destroying several towns at its base. Scientists believe the eruption equaled or exceeded the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  After ten days of destruction Vesuvius quieted itself on the 16th of April. After three months of disturbances there was some small reason to believe that the earth had done its worst.

The vibrant and fast growing, young west coast city of San Francisco was waking to a new day, the pinkish eastern horizon behind Mount Diablo cast a faint glow over the sleeping city  The air was moist and chilly in the way that mornings are on the coast of northern part of California. Some early risers hurried off to work and the night dwellers of the Tenderloin and Barbary Coast were headed off to bed.


The earthquakes epicenter was very near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.  One important characteristic of the shaking intensity noted in Lawson’s (1908) report was the clear correlation of intensity with underlying geologic conditions. Areas situated in sediment-filled valleys sustained stronger shaking than nearby bedrock sites, and the strongest shaking occurred in areas where ground reclaimed from San Francisco Bay failed in part due to the filled areas of un-compacted soils liquefying, causing buildings to literally sink like ships in a storm.

Downtown along Market street architectural details on the facades of its great business section rained down on the street below killing workmen just beginning their day. Crushed under heaps of broken terra-cotta stone and brick, dray horses and their drivers were smashed and died instantly, the blood of both men and horses trickling down the gutters. Frame buildings lurched off their foundations breaking water and gas lines beneath them, many flimsy wooden buildings in the poorer residential areas simply collapsed into  heaps of rubble, crushing and trapping the people inside.

The day before there had been a street fair. Jack was enjoying the last moments of sleep on that Wednesday morning. He was tired after being up late, celebrating, being Irish and all. Down on McCallister street they had had an orchestra playing and booths set up on the side of the street where punch and beer were to be had. The fun had gone on until the early hours of the morning. Jack said he had come in about 2am, dumped his suit on the floor and crawled into bed. Gerald woke up, sniffed the air and said, “Uncle Jack, you sure do stink.” Jack laughed and replied, “It’s just a little smoke and beer Jerry, it was a great party, now go back to sleep.”

My grandfather Jack lived on Ellis Street, west of Van Ness with his half brothers family in a two story victorian house at 1896. He had just woken, swung out from under his quilt and sat rubbing his eyes when a sound like a rapidly approaching train began to increase in intensity. The rumble became a roar. He stood when the first shaking occurred. He took a step and put his hand on the wall when suddenly the blast broke over the city like a an avalanche and the ground jerked like a cat shaking a rat. He stumbled and fell to his knees to the sound of Adelaine screaming down the hall. Crockery smashed down on the floor, sash weights were banging inside the walls like a drumroll and the boys, Frank and Geralds beds were sliding across the wooden floor, their metal wheels screeching  as they hit the wall.  The wooden house groaned under the strain, windows rattled in their frames and the doors opened and slammed closed with bangs. The crashing of crockery, screams of the terrified children pierced the clouds of dust rising from every corner of the old house. There was no need to speculate what was happening. Jack, against the violent shaking, tried to stand but could not. The rolling shudder seemed to last forever but in reality no more than sixty seconds before it suddenly stopped. Everyone rushed through the house, gathering in the parlor, shaken, pale and briefly undecided on what to do.                   From down the hall as Adelaine came running into the room holding six year old Mabel.  Everyone in the family quickly came to the conclusion that they needed to get out of the house. Would there be another, bigger than this one? Neighbors came flying from their rooms, out the doors, down the front steps and onto Ellis Street, joining hundreds of terrified other residents, most still in bedclothes; barefoot. Women had their hair down clutching robes against the cold trying to preserve a little modesty. In the cool and still dark morning, the crowds were silent as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t. The great quake had lasted no more than 60 seconds by the clock, a lifetime measured by heartbeat.

  The Craigs house had windows broken, the front porched lurched like a drunken sailor man and hung askew, separated from the house but the house itself stayed on its foundation. Not all houses were so lucky. Houses built in the 18th century were not typically bolted down. A typical home might have baling wire embedded in concrete and then wrapped around the sill to hold the foundations in place but older home might not have concrete foundation at all but were simply built on redwood posts sunk into the soil beneath. In a fortunate co-incidence, the light unbraced walls of houses could flex and absorb some of the quakes energy which meant hundreds of homes in the residential sections.survived with little damage. Photos of the old painted ladies leaning on each other are common but it didn’t them take long afterwards to jack them back up onto their foundation to allow families to come home.

The Craig’s house suffered little damage, most of it cleaned up with a broom and dust pan. The only serious damage was to the gas stove which slid a short way across the floor, breaking the gas line. It seemed a small consequence, but it was repeated thousands of times across the city and along with the shattered water system, was to have a grave effect in the coming days.

Jack worked for the phone company at the time but going to work seemed unnecessary in light of the massive destruction of the poles still swaying from the effects of the shaking. Lines were down everywhere. He helped his brother-in-law Bill Craig move his wife and kids out of the house and down to nearby Jefferson Street Park. The smell of gas filled the house with fumes and no sensible person would have stayed inside. They humped the old wood stove down into the street and away from the house, a sight that would be all too common in the following days as houses were much too dangerous to stay in.

San Francisco Earthquake Split

A split on the north end of East Street from the earthquake: 1906. Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Jack had left his family in the park and headed down Ellis Street headed toward Van Ness. He was a young man who had sought adventure all his lifetime and this seemed an opportunity. Whatever adventure there was, it lurked outside. By the time the family was settled in the park throngs of displaced, confused and frightened people were out on the streets. Jack willingly joined the crowds heading downtown. When he arrived at Van Ness he could look out over the city and see the huge dust cloud raised by the grinding earth and the collapsing buildings. With the Western Addition behind him the view to his right towards Bernal Heights and sweeping around to the South of the Slot, as the area below the Mission District used to be called. The Slot, being the cable car cut down Market Street that ran down towards the ferry building and the turntable where cars were turned around. He could see Union Square and the Tenderloin though the view of Cow Hollow and washerwoman’s cove was blocked by Pacific Heights where damaged building were plainly visible.

The city gave off an odd smell, a combination of escaping gas, unburned coal still smoldering in a thousand iron stoves and every kind of dust. Dust from broken brick and masonry, dust from the streets, dust from stables and thousands of houses shaken like rags. Dust rising into the sky, dislodged from every home and building by the shaking turning the early morning light a vague pinkish and dirty yellow.

Turning onto Van Ness, it was a walk of just four blocks to the intersection of Larkin and McCallister where he got his first clear view of City Hall. There were broken windows aplenty and many front porches leaning like drunks against lamp poles. Near his house three older victorians leaned against each other in a temporary embrace but this, this, was beyond anything Jack could have imagined. The gaudy pile that was the new city hall, hailed as a monument to the glory of San Francisco by its boosters was completely ruined. Eight millions of dollars and twenty-six years of planning and work was completely destroyed in forty seconds. The steel columns holding the cupola which rose high above Market Street were nearly naked, it looked like a massive bird cage, the concrete and cladding stripped away, the steel tinged pale pink in the light of the rising sun.. At the ruined entrance he said he could see the blue clad arm and leg of a policeman, crushed as he made his way into the building in those early morning hours. On the very top of the tower the iron statue of the Goddess of Progress, twenty feet tall with its torch held aloft still wore its garlands of light and pointed toward heaven as if to mock the hand of man. The rest of the enormous building and everything in it was no more than a pile of rubble. When the fire reached it the next day, it would take four days to eat its way through the city’s paper records.

City Hall. Private Collection©

Jack was amazed at the damage. He was also not amazed. He said that the city of San Francisco had taken graft to a near perfect level, a thing that even ordinary citizens knew of and were secretly proud of. He said, having lived in New York, that Tammany Halls best efforts couldn’t match size of the money trough that Mayor Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz and his fixer Abe Rueff’s cronies fed from. A fine city must have the best of all things in order to call itself so. If favoritism and graft existed they needed to be the best. City Hall epitomized this attitude.

My grandfather said that knowing about the robber barons and their minions who ran the city was one thing but seeing it was another. The massive columns that supported the facade had collapsed, one falling across Larkin Street and shearing the entire front off an apartment building. The Argyle Hotel on Larkin had its roof sagging under the weight of broken masonry flung from the Hall in the forty seconds it had taken to destroy over twenty years of construction and millions of dollars of public money. The broken columns lying in the street, he said, were full of sand, some with heavy oaken hogshead barrels inside instead of concrete. Considered by San Franciscans as the showpiece of the city it was a complete ruin, pointing its devastated finger directly at the grafters who built it. Jack said it was the worst damage of any large building in the city.

Ruined City Hall, Shannon Family Collection.

An hour later I was creeping past the shattered dome of the City Hall. Than it there was no better exhibit of the destructive force of the earthquake. Most of the stone had been shaken from the great dome, leaving standing the naked framework of steel. Market Street was piled high with the wreckage, and across the wreckage lay the overthrown pillars of the City Hall shattered into short crosswise sections.” Jack London

Fearing aftershocks, Jack kept to the center of the street. Broken brick, terra cotta decorations, glass, crushed delivery wagons hitched to dead horses were everywhere and getting worse. A milk delivery wagon was abandoned on the street, the horses gone and a steel telegraph pole lying across the crushed seat and broken wheels. Going down McCallister he met a policeman walking up from Market. When he asked about damage down there the man said it was much worse downtown but he thought the ferries were still running. Jack said policeman held a pistol in his hand and when asked why he said, “I’m shooting the poor horses that are hurt, there’s a lot.” My grandfather later told me thats not all they were shooting.

As he walked closer, behind him he heard the agonizing screech of the iron tires on the wheels of Engine 14’s steamer as it slid sideways around the debris littering McCallister, sparks were flying from the sliding rims on the wooden wheels and the three iron shod horses pulling the pumper at full speed. The firemen still only half dressed and hanging on to the grab bars for dear life as the the driver up on the high seat sawed on the reins, the brakeman kicking the brake bar, whipping the rig from side to side to avoid wrecking on the broken street. The big fire horses, knowing their job, loving their job, pulled her at breakneck speed. With flashing eyes and slobber flying from their mouths they headed down toward Hayes Valley where the first tendrils of fire were rising above the rooftops. Jack stood and watched as the steamer slewed around and went up Jones headed for what would be called the Ham and Eggs fire.

Rolling Out. Image: Collection of California Historical Society.

The wagon and engine companies didn’t need the alarm system to make a run for their rigs. In the old horse drawn days the firemen lived in the station houses with their horse. The equipment and horse stable were downstairs and the living quarters upstairs joined by the iconic brass fire pole. The third floor or attic space was used to store feed and grain for the horses.

Tumbling down the pole the men who staffed those companies had run the turn out drill so many times that they could have done their job blindfolded. The horse knew the drill too. By the time the first man hit the floor the horses would be stamping and banging the stalls, hooves clattering making a racket because they knew what their part was and they were ready to go. Over time the sturdy American bred Morgan horse was cross bred with the European Percheron for greater size and strength. Both horses were known for their even temperament. They were trained to remain calm around the rigging excitement and the action on the street while the men worked the fire.

The engines were parked behind and under the harnesses for the teams. The rigs hung from the ceiling on a wooden frame and were designed so the horse could simply stand in its assigned spot and the men could drop the pre-rigged harness over the back and hook up. Bridle and bit, collar and Hames snapped together, belly backer, traces, saddle, spider and hip drop would be quickly buckled, the engine pulled forward and tongue buckled on. The man holding the horse heads was being lifted off his feet and swung about trying to hold the horses so they wouldn’t bolt they were so eager to go. The driver and the brakemen would vault up to the seat, grab the ribbons and once the man at the head scooted aside, the doors opened, the engine would spring from the house with the firemen grabbing the bars and hanging on for dear life. Good crews could be out the door in a minute, sometimes less. That was the standard for companies in San Francisco.

The steam boiler and engine mounted on the wagon frame provided the power to operate the pump, which, when attached to a hydrant or cistern forced the water through the hose with tremendous pressure. The boilers fires were kept banked and tended by the boiler tender 24 hours a day. It took just a few minutes to get the fire going and build steam pressure in order to operate the pumps. In 1906, engine companies were at the peak of perfection and wouldn’t be topped for speed or efficiency until the development of the fire truck. San Francisco would burn but the fire companies did all they could under extreme circumstance to combat the massive fires to come.

All across the city, women who had gone back into their homes were preparing to cook breakfast without realizing that the chimneys and flues of the stoves were damaged. Brick chimneys had fallen, killing many people in their sleep. Falling across people still sleeping, the brick chimney’s weighed thousands of pounds and killed hundreds. The brick flues were the worst. As heat rose up them, dislodged brick and tar quickly caused many to catch fire. Flames probed through the broken brick, kindling the wooden frame buildings just like matches. Hundreds of fires started within minutes of the quake. Many were rapidly extinguished but in the largely wooden sections of the city the fires that would ultimately destroy San Francisco were already on the march.

Fallen Chimney, Image: Bancroft Library.

Dodging debris in the streets, Jack got down to Market and for the first time he could look all the way down to the ferry building faintly visible in the dust and smoke haze fourteen blocks away. He would walk down to the ferry and buy a ticket to Oakland and find Annie. He had no idea how much damage Oakland and Berkeley had suffered or how things were up on the University campus, but was going to find out. He began walking down Market Street. Far head he could see, down at the end of Market, the tower of the ferry building.

To be continued………Annies Story.