The backstory: In 1987 – I, as a Reno member of a San Francisco writing group and in an effort to get the membership off their butts and give up their Dick-and-Jane level of prose, challenged them to write a piece about what would happen should the Golden Gate Bridge fall into the Bay. As part of the challenge I wrote the first chapter, trying to inveigle some of them to get aboard and write a second, third, final chapter, each independent of the preceding author’s work. I threw down the gauntlet, but none came forth with any subsequent chapters. I said to hell with it and forgot about it until I was recently invited to write a SF-based piece on the Ol’ Reno Guy thing. I dragged the following out – it was typewritten, so I just recast it on my laptop exactly as I wrote it originally. Anybody want to add a chapter? Go for it; I’ll gladly make some space available here!
It was created on a tide-swept body of water a hundred feet more than a mile across, with currents ravaged by the influx of fresh water from nine major California rivers.
Eleven-hundred feet south of the San Francisco Presidio Joseph Strauss, generally credited as the designer of the project, began work on an Art Deco tower which, in the ensuing two years would rise 746 feet above the high-water line of the Bay. The tower would be built of steel boxes, three-and-a-half feet square, welded together in multiples and form the massive base, to then taper off as the tower rose above the water. It was topped with a flat plate, upon which would rest ten round steel pipes and a saddle to support a cable. The pipes and saddle were to roll freely during construction.
On the dry land of the Marin shore 4,200 feet to the north, another like tower was built, a duplicate of the one rising out of the water. When completed, skeptics swore that the two towers, viewed from a distance, had a noticeable lean away from each other toward their respective shores. In fact, each tower was 12’-6” off plumb; the cagey engineer knew that the massive load each tower would bear would tug the tops of the structures together to form straight lines. What the critics missed in the years to come was that the towers remain slightly off-plumb inward, to compensate for the curvature of the earth and thus appear parallel from a distance.
One morning a slim galvanized wire, about the diameter of a pencil lead, was stretched across the water, lifted to the top of the north tower, then allowed to sag across the span and rise back up to the top of the south tower. The wire, by then over 7,000 feet long, was connected to a steel eye in a 60,000-ton concrete block on the Marin shore. The spinning machine then pulled a like wire back along the same route, and it was connected to another anchor block adjoining Fort Point in San Francisco’s Presidio. When the spinning machine had made 432 trips across the bay, it had completed a 2-7/8-inch cable. It would make 60 more like cables on each side of the towers. With the completion of each cable, the saddle resting on the pipes atop each tower would be moved hydraulically slightly toward the center of the span, so that when all 61 cables were complete, the resulting two 37” main cables for the bridge would be exactly centered on the top of both of the towers. Both of the sets of 61 cables were spread from the main cables and anchored at the Fort Point and Marin (Lime Point) anchorages.
The two main cables, originally hexagonal, were compressed to round with hydraulic presses and wrapped with light wire. The pipes at the top of each tower, placed to enable moving the saddles, were grouted into place permanently.
Lighter galvanized cables, woven on shore in a plant on the Marin side, were suspended down from the main cables every 72 feet in groups of two, holding a steel structure which would soon support a roadbed six car-lanes wide and a sidewalk on either side. Consideration was give to the fact that most of the weight would be borne on one side of the bridge during the morning commute and transferred across the span in the evening as automobiles returned to Marin County.
The pavers followed, and the electricians placed the revolutionary sodium-vapor lights in the bridge’s Art Deco theme [pictured left]. While this work proceeded, the untold story remained the construction of roads leading through the Presidio and Waldo Grade, where a tunnel had to be bored. The access roads accounted for a major part of the expenditure for the bridge, but lacked the flair and excitement of high-steel work over a body of water!
The two slim towers, out of plumb three years before but now bearing the weight of 96,000 tons of steel plus 24,000 cubic yards of asphalt paving, pulled together to appear truly vertical. The massive concrete anchors for the main cables at either end of the span yielded, according to the best surveying techniques available in 1936 – and later confirmed by more modern techniques – not a fraction of an inch [the north anchorage is evident just to the north/right of the Lime Point landing in the photo below].
On May 27, 1937 the bridge opened to foot traffic, followed a day later by the first cars to cross the span. The pedestrians, on this wind-calm day absent of any vehicles, could scarcely sense that the roadway beneath their feet, at the midpoint of the span, could rise or fall 15 feet, or swing toward the blue Pacific or Alcatraz Island a distance of 27 feet.
Fifty years passed, and on a bright day in late May of 1987, the noise of cars clicking across the steel expansion joins in the roadway abated, and a pedestrian crowd returned to relive the opening of the span. It was a day of celebration; a day when the bridge reached its 50th birthday. The red-oxide paint on the structure, chosen as much for its rust-resistant properties as its Golden link to the Bay’s early heritage, appeared a little brighter than the day prior. The water below was bluer; the sun picked up the silver in the Goodyear blimp Columbia, slowly orbiting overhead, and the mufti of the ship’s company assembled on the flight deck of the carrier Enterprise, laying on the hook bayward of the Gate. The skies were clear, and the revelers could see the Farallones twelve miles to the west and the verdant hills of Mt. Diablo to the east. Indeed, not a day to be without extra film for the camera.
A two-inch valve opened in the air pipe supplying the foghorn at midspan, just as it had opened every twenty seconds during foggy days for the last 50 years. The rush of air powered the typhon to a throaty toot that could be heard to Alameda, temporarily drowning out San Francisco’s own Huey Lewis & the News, performing on a barge 220 feet below the bridge. The horn signaled that the bridge, for the first time in 50 years, was open exclusively to foot traffic.
People, eventually 800,000 of them, give or take a couple thousand, came in all shapes and sizes; in jogging shorts and late-1930s costumes. They came alone and in groups, some as snakes and serpentines, the old and the young, and those in-between, to walk the Gate. The crowd amazed even those who had years before become accustomed to the sea of humanity convening annually a few miles away during the Bay-to-Breakers footrace.
A Golden Gate District shuttle bus stopped at the Sausalito Vista Point, and deposited another 40 celebrants. Among that group was a family with Bay Area roots. Indeed one of the group – the matriarch from nearby Petaluma – had walked the bridge when it opened in 1937. Some came from near – Napa – others came over the Sierra from Reno, and one journeyed from faraway Tucson. They had come, as so many others did, to walk the bridge as a family. Some might have the opportunity to do it again 50 years hence at the bridge’s centennial. For others it was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. They walked down the slight grade, directed by the matriarch: the large, the small, the old, young, middle-aged; the good, the bad and the ugly.
Five-hundred-ten feet above the group, far from the noise of the crowd, unseen by any living thing save for possibly a seagull resting on a cable clamp, and only a few hundred feet south of the Marin tower, a suspension cable, 2-7/8 inches in diameter plus the thickness of the galvanizing and some 25 coats of red-oxide paint; a cable, scheduled to be replaced in a dozen years pair-by-pair; a cable which, with its miles of neighbors had supported the span under which passed the soldiers and sailors who waged then returned from three world-wide military conflicts.
A cable which had tacitly overseen Marin County grow from a bedroom community to a major force in the Bay Area economy, twisted, unwitnessed. A few bright strands of wire appeared through the dull coating of paint. The family below, intent on the music of Huey Lewis and the messages being scrolled across the flank of the blimp Columbia, didn’t feel any movement under their feet, nor did they see the few falling flakes of red oxide paint, dislodged by the cable’s splaying. They couldn’t see, five-hundred feet above in the bright morning sun that a side of the cable, which had hung in shadow for five decades, had twisted slightly and was now illuminated by that sunlight.
The massive weight borne so diligently by that cable had been slightly cast onto the strands of the adjacent cable systems, and the Petaluma family far below had no way of feeling that the neighboring cables’ load had been invisibly increased, and that their strands too, had rotated, ever so slightly.
The geometry of the German engineer reliant upon every component doing its job was literally beginning to unravel. As the matriarch led her brood under the Marin tower toward the throng now approaching them from the Presidio, they missed the real drama, slowly but inexorably taking place five-hundred feet above them, that would reshape not only their lives, but the fate and future of the entire Bay Area…
A fortnight ago I surprised Hank Philcox and a few others right here with my revelation that I’d written a Herb Caen column. Which was ‘way before disc, and I can’t now locate in print. But I will. [Caen pictured below right, atop the Fairmont Hotel]
My better inclusion in Caen’s column came in 1966, when a bad guy entered George Heaney’s pawn shop downtown and stole 18 uncut gems. The perp was cornered soon after by the fuzz, and taken to a room in the newish Reno police station and held until, well, until the gems reëntered daylight, ‘nuf said there. The crime was duly reported in the Nevada State Journal. And probably the Reno Evening Gazette.
I – then living in Reno – wrote Caen at the SF Chron, 500 Mission Street, adding a dimension to the yarn. Remember at this juncture in time, one didn’t phone Caen ‘lessen they were named Wilkes Bashford or Willie Brown; there was no such thing as a fax in 1966, and the mere whisper of emailing a document would get one incarcerated for mental observation. Hence the Nevada State Journal clip of the yarn traveled to Mission Street via snail mail, together with my assessment of the caper.
Nor was there digital access to the Chron following its publication, so the waiting game began. Filching a Chron each day after a few days had passed, to see if Caen had nibbled at the bait, a week went by. Then, pay dirt.
“Our man in Reno Nevada reports that…” and so on, Caen’s usual making something out of basically nothing, and concluding with my comment.
At this juncture I’ll clarify that I shared the same given name with my father – Karl – a practice that should be made illegal in modern, computer times. He gets killed in 1971, Union Federal Savings calls my home loan. My mother, Mrs. Karl, passes years later, and my Visa card goes bye-bye. Can’t be too careful. But Hank Philcox, among others, know that my parents’ credo in life was, “What will people think?” What will people think of Karl Breckenridge, a bastion of Reno business, sending some smartass comment into Herb Caen. He was embarrassed; I was severely chastised. (But I loved it!)
I asked society undertaker Ted Williams of Walton’s while dining at Brickie’s in preparation for my mother’s funeral service if I could place on my parents’ gravemarker at Mountain View, the simple words, “what will people think now?” Ted declined. Oh well, no matter.
Caen’s words and my comment were picked up in the Reno Gazoo back when it still had a local presence and a personality, and eventually received nationwide exposure when it was picked up by the UP, now UPI, wire service. Karl the Elder was definitely in the national bright beam, and boy was he pissed!
Hank Philcox knew Flo and Karl the Elder, and can appreciate this story.
Anyway, that was my shining moment in Herb Caen’s column, not in the stand-alone columns that I and a few others wrote when he was hospitalized, c. 1983.
Oh by the way, the comment was: “Reno records the world’s first 18-jewel movement.”
No big deal…
When last we met, I described meeting a friend who gave us a predawn ride from the SF Marina to Market Street, for the 100-year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake – the morning was April 18, 2006. What I didn’t really develop was the participation and organization of the San Francisco Fire Department. The event was basically rooted in the fire services of San Francisco and more outlying communities.
Don Young, who I’ve profiled in a 2016 RGJ column, is a retired chief of the Sparks Fire Department – a man with his wife Maddy that you should know. Soon I’ll dig out the column I wrote about him, and figure out how to convert it from Gazoo-print to WordPress. Watch for that. But right now, Don writes, in response to the piece her of a couple of days ago: “The Sparks Fire Department changed the rules in 1964 to honor the State of Nevada Centennial and the firemen were authorized to sport facial hair and wear uniforms like you have on. [in the photo with Linda at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street]. My wife and others made the shirts out of heavy red flannel and we also wore jeans as a work uniform. Thanks, Don”
And we thank you Don, known by his license plate as “XSFD” – ex-Sparks Fire Department. You’ll read more of him soon, right here. His official department portrait seen above right was taken by SFD’s Jeff Spicer. Pretty cool.
Also in the column of a couple days ago, I mentioned the 1908 photograph of Reno and Sparks, taken from an airship, better described as a kite, by the Lawrence Airship Company out of Chicago. I won’t waste space here; you can read more of it in the preceding post. But – I did allude to 17 prints of it being discovered downtown, and my ownership of one of the originals.
The backstory there is, that in 1957 there was a major explosion and fire in downtown Reno (I’ll put a link to it at the end of this post). In its aftermath, some workers in the A. Carlisle Company, on the west side of Sierra Street just north of Home Furniture on the First Street corner, were mopping up after the fire. They pulled a large ozalid-process machine for making blueprints and about as big as a big deep freeze, away from a wall and voila! They found behind the printer, 17 original prints of the photo, in pristine condition. My dad scored one of them; it’s hanging to this day in a relative’s law office. There were only 17 known until recent technology and the expiration of a copyright allowed them to be copied – and copied in better detail than the originals. So – there’s more than 17 around town now. Lawrence’s brochures and records indicate a price of $18 per copy, a pretty penny in 1908.
OK, still writing of fire department stuff vis-à-vis San Francisco and the earthquake, let’s pay proper attention to the American LaFrance Company, who in 2006 had been supplying America, through its several incarnations, with fire trucks. San Francisco was a prime customer and LaFrance took it upon themselves to make a statement of gratitude. They sold the City 16 new “triple” engines, but put a little extra into them before they were delivered starting in February of 2006. The engines were painted a “retro” color, darker red and almost a purplish-brown, to emulate the color engines the City used before WWII. But the piece-de-resistance was the gold-leaf treatment – I don’t know whether the engines are more striking by day with the sun dancing off the heavy gold-leaf that covered the engines and station numbers and SFFD ownership, or maybe they were more so at night, with other light sources lighting up the gold. Top that with heavy silver plating on the bumpers, trim and the big bells on the front bumpers with the LaFrance eagle atop them, and those are 16 pretty trucks. They remain in service, immaculately-maintained these 12 years later, and are still head-turners when cruising around the Streets of San Francisco.
Now, we’ll put the SFFD out of service for a while, but return to a tale of a local guy, a Sparks Railroader who ran the Sparks Fire Department. If you’d like to read the post that preceded and inspired this go here and it will open in another window, or if you’d like to know more about one of Reno’s major downtown fires in 1957, click here.
See ya in a week or two; I’m going to get the six-year-old kid off his butt and writing about old Reno!
This is not the six-year-old boy writing, for a much older man gave him four-bits and told him to go to the Tower Theater for a flick. I need his magic little computer to write a letter I couldn’t get to on time last week.
Our story begins about 4 ayem on April 18, 2006 in our motel on the corner of Buchanan and Lombard – the Marina in San Francisco. We had stayed there quite often in the past decade. But – on this clear and not-terribly cold Bay Area morning, we brushed aside the cobwebs of a few hours past, climbed silently into our garb, and slid out the door of room 301 – our perennial choice of rooms – to the nearby elevator. A few other turn-of-the-century clad folks were in the lobby and outside on the sidewalk. The streets, while still almost dark on this mid-April morning, were quite busy, and Muni buses were already filling the streets on a weekend schedule. (This was a Tuesday…)
We walked with a few more earthquake survivors the short block to Chestnut Street. The collector trolleys of the approaching bus marked it as a 30-Stockton, which would take us to Market.
Here, the fun begins, and we meet the lady that we would know only briefly – maybe 20 minutes during the trip to Market Street. She stopped, and waved. “Hop in,” she said, and so we did. We spoke, possibly for the first time for any of the three of us, that April 18th. “I’m Donna.” “Hi, I’m Linda. This is Karl. Thanks for the lift.” Little else was said until we reached Market Street. “I’ll go park. You guys have fun.” We said thanks, exited her car, and Donna was off in near rush-hour traffic. We would never see her again, but she became a huge part of that day in the years to come.
It was 4:30 in the morning. The streets were filled.
At that juncture, we were no longer Linda and Karl from Reno, Nevada. In her assumed role (everybody on Market Street at that hour had an assumed identity) as Linda Patrucowrowski, she was on her way to meet Ada Funston for coffee, Ada’s husband being Gen. Frederick Funston, commander of all the Army troops in the Bay Area. They were meeting on the patio of General Funston’s quarters at the Presidio.
By prior arrangement, the wealthy Linda Patrucowrowski and her suave-but-reserved SF fireman friend, like so many SF firemen a first- or second-generation Irishman of humble beginnings whose name was Callen O’Breckenridge, were meeting friends Janet and Paul O’Meaney, another son of Erin on that corner of Market and Fourth Streets. It was 4:40 a.m. In 38 minutes, (oh, OK; actually 38 minutes-minus-100 years) all that would change. Paul would capture a photo of Linda and Callan at Lotta’s Fountain – a landmark on Market Street endowed by Lotta Crabtree for the horses, people and dogs of San Francisco 40 years before.
At 5:18 a.m. San Francisco was changed, changed endlessly; a terrible moment was born, to paraphrase the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. An earthquake and incipient fire would reduce 40 percent of the City to rubble within a few days. Patrucowrowski’s four-room suite at the nearby Palace Hotel [above], built by men with streets named for them in faraway Reno, William Sharon and Billy Ralston, although only a few years old would be reduced to rubble, and Linda would take up residence with 45,000 other survivors in Golden Gate Park that night. She would ultimately secure quarters in an “earthquake house,” designed and quickly built in a month, following the quake [below, right].
She would never again see her swain, the handsome Callan, for he perished in a collapsing building in the Financial District alongside San Francisco’s popular fire chief Dennis T. O’Callahan [left], an Irishman who had come through the ranks of SFFD and also died in the aftermath of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Convening about daybreak that April 18, 2006 morning near Lotta’s Fountain, which turned into the meeting place for the quake’s survivors in 1906, the San Francisco press nominated Linda as their darling, and we spent the entire day hearing “Oh, we saw you on TV this morning!” We met, “we” being a crowd of mostly-costumed celebrants, 11 people who were alive on April 18, 1906, and one that those 11 welcomed into their exclusive group: A lady who was born exactly nine months after the earthquake. Golden Gate Park must have had some creature comforts…!
Here’s a little aside to all this: Many in Reno have seen the large-format, sepia-tone photograph taken by the Geo. Lawrence Company’s captive airship, from 1,000 feet above the present Reno High School and pointed northeast. The backstory is, that the airship/kite had been in SF for a year prior to the earthquake, taking pictures of The City for property owners, the San Francisco Fire Department, and for the insurance industry. The airship was packed and ready to be taken back to Chicago when the earthquake struck, and the decision was made to re-photograph the work it had done to assist all in assessing quake damage. Hence, it came through Reno in 1908, the date of the Reno picture. One of the 17 known original prints of this picture is in my possession; the image below on this page (identical) is scanned from a Library of Congress-held gelatin-silver 19.5 x 50 inch print copyright claimant Geo. R. Lawrence Co.; Chicago, IL, November 21, 1908; L/C control no. 2007663909 released for publication without restriction
It was a fun day, a day of learning and enjoying and reliving. And a day that established our relationship with a friend, a Bay Area-gal named Donna Booher. We have stayed In touch now for these past 12 years, and I publish this – in part for fun and information, but in remainder to say to Donna: Sorry not to extend our usual greeting and offer to meet on the 30-line at Buchanan and Chestnut, but, we might be standing there at 4:3O ayem next year; one never knows!!
Effective on the first, which is to say the first chance I get, I am going to start a new venture. I have been invited by a San Francisco friend to submit somewhat regular posts to a Facebook website of and by San Franciscans – about, San Francisco, and my memories and experiences in that enchanted city. He/they want a Herb Caen-type, three-dot column; I reminded him that I don’t live in the City, nor did I grow up there, nor do I have a great number of resources to rely upon as I do for Reno and Sparks. He said do it anyway.
And so I will. I have no idea where it will land, but I have a wealth of San Francisco stuff in my noggin, and a lot of photographs, and two sons and their families who live there, and friends I can call if I get stuck. And I will.
But, in the near term, such a column will evolve, and I’m going to put it onto this website. Unless I can figure out how to make a companion website through WordPress. But, as a forewarning, that’s where we’re going. I’ll still post the meanderings of the little six-year-old kid remembering Reno from his Ralston Avenue home. And I’ll post old websites, taken mostly from old newspaper columns – after 29 years in that paper which name escapes me, I’ve a trove of stuff and stories yet to be told.
I’m not quite there yet, so I won’t trouble y’all with that web page’s name, but as the site matures, I’ll clue readers in – if you’re in Facebook you may request membership in the group, which is not a difficult thing to accomplish. If you’re not on Facebook, it’ll be posted here way you may read it
And that’s the way it is, September 18, 2017. Come back once in a while. God only knows what will appear on this site…!