Sure – Herb Caen is my role model; make no mistake. I’ve always wanted to have a deadline six days a week in six decades as he met. And yeah, I use his heds once in a while, but I don’t think I ever knowingly used one without attribution, especially since he passed away in 1997 (and yes I went to his service, which was at just about any pub in San Francisco that first week of March!). So when you see A Pocketful of Notes, as above, or Out Of My Mind, or These Things I Like or others in this column, look for attribution to him.
Sadly, one of his trademark names, this the one of his mythical ace researcher who he’d dispatch to the darkest corners of The City to ferret out some facts, is no longer relevant. The name he gave this person was Etaoin Shrdlu, and at one time in journalism circles it drew a lot of yucks, for all right down to the newest-hire copyboy knew what Caen meant. Now in the 21st century I used it once, only to find that only I and the Big Dude Lerude knew whereof I wrote (OK, Jim Richards makes three).
In the golden days of the newspaper biz, the type was made by dumping molten lead into a mold created by a Linotype machine, which was already on the pathway to oblivion when I enrolled on The Hill in 1959 (but legendary Professor Higginbotham required a class be devoted to it, 16 weeks. He also decreed hand typesetting, a la the Gutenburg Bible) for another 16 weeks. When the Linotype operator knew that he made an error, he’d drag his right index finger from the top to the bottom of the dominant row of the machine’s keyboard, like a typewriter’s ASDFKL: line, but vertical on a Linotype. On the Linotype, it made a line reading ETAOIN SHRDLU. This line stood out like a sore thumb to the copyeditor, who would pull the lead from the elaoinshrdle line and the one above it – the one with the error.
Caen named his mythical researcher Etaoin Shrdlu, to the great amusement of newspaper people. I used it, one time (with attribution to Caen) and knew that I’d never do it again. No one knew what the hell I was writing about (which is not uncommon). So – should you see that person’s name mentioned in type, that’s the story. I give all my heavy research to Carmine Ghia, who first appeared in my column in 1999. And, is now about as relevant at Etaoin.
Here’s a classic Herb Caen squib that got the phones in San Franciisco pretty well tied up, probably in the 1950s. Once a year or so, Caen, in the Chronicle and Don Sherwood on morning drive-time on KSFO radio, would make some wisecrack that would actually tie Pacific Telephone’s switching equipment in a knot, with listeners or readers telling their friends stories like this:
The gentleman was up and getting ready for work, breakfast and then catch the 10-Monterey (22-Fillmore, 30-Stockton, whatever) to his office downtown. He’d just stepped out of the shower, and was still in his birthday suit when his wife called him, “Honey, the sink seems to be backed up. Can you take a look at it?” He grumbled but pulled a towel around himself and went into the kitchen. He knelt with his head under the kitchen counter looking at the plugged trap when the family dog ambled into the kitchen and drug his wet nose across his master’s nude posterior.
The guy reared up and struck his head on the sink cabinet quite hard, and knocked himself out. His wife found his unconscious body and couldn’t revive him so she called the ambulance. The ambulance crew couldn’t revive him either so they loaded him onto a gurney and were carrying him down the half-stairway to the street. One asked the wife how this happened, and she told them.
The ambulance crew started to laugh, one so hard that he lost his grip on the gurney. The gurney fell, the naked unconscious husband’s wrist was broken in the fall. They reloaded him and carried him to the ambulance and drove him to Harbor (Presbyterian, St. Francis, UC Parnassus, whatever) Hospital. There the doctors set his wrist in a cast.
The guy came to shortly, wondering why his head hurt, his arm was in a cast, he was breathing through an oxygen cannula in his snoot and he was in a backless hospital gown, when the last recollection he had was looking under the sink with a pipe wrench in his hand…
Caen photo at the Fairmont © SF Chronicle
In the early 1960s I bade fairwell to Reno and the University of Nevada and came to roost in a boarding house in San Francisco, known as the “Dair House” on Bush Street between Taylor and Mason – two blocks from Union Square.
Life was easy at Dair House; I paid them $115 a month and they gave me two good meals a day, a big breakfast on Sunday, clean sheets once a week, a sunny south room with a view to Sutter Street and free television (Andy Williams in Living Color!). For another $22 a month my Jeep got a parking spot at the new garage at Mason and O’Farrell Streets.
(Pictured above, Arthur Fiedler in the helmet and some clown named Klem Kadiddlehopper, looks a lot like Red Skelton…)
Early on in my tenure there I met the neighbor, who lived in the house across Bush Street. I’d noticed the house before; I had thought it was a fire station but had also noticed that the doors to the apparatus bays never opened, nor did any engines ever leave it.
It was a private residence, the home of San Francisco’s fire chief. Built to look like firehouse. Wowee.
Its occupants were Fire Chief William Murray and his wife Alida. Murray had been the chief for about ten years, and was one of the most respected and revered men ever to live in The City – by both the fire community and all its other residents. San Francisco loved its fire service, and Murray was the top kick. And he was a nice man besides, funny as a crutch!
Our nexus was my Jeep. The chief loved Jeeps, and our relationship jelled when I lent it to him to take Mrs. Murray around the block one afternoon. They were gone over an hour and I heard later they hit a considerable number of fire stations, showing it off to the boys!
One weekend morning I was washing it and he came out the door. “Karl, do you know who Arthur Fiedler is?”
“DO I KNOW WHO ARTHUR FIEDLER IS?”
Arthur Fiedler was the larger-than-life conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, probably the nation’s finest. Immensely popular in the music world… I had a couple of his albums – my favorite was a classic on RCA Red-Seal called Concert in the Park – the park being the Pop’s home facility in Tanglewood, outside of Boston. Still have it 50 years later – my friend Deidre McCormick recently transferred it onto a CD. Fiedler was a legend…
I responded to the chief in the affirmative, the chief saying “Fiedler’s coming to town for the Pops summer season and staying with us – you want to meet him, be here at 10 a.m. next Saturday.”
Next Saturday I was indeed outside on Bush Street when a SF Fire Department hook-and-ladder came over the crest of the hill across Taylor Street (Bush is a one-way street down a pretty good grade toward the Ferry Building). No siren. In a jumpseat next to the tillerman was seated, Arthur Fiedler.
For the uninitiated, Arthur Fiedler was known as a fire-department junkie, who made friends with the fire service in every town he visited. No less than Herb Caen, writing in the Chronicle, once wrote that “Every time Fiedler comes to town [for the annual Pops concerts], something goes up in smoke!” He was followed by a car with his luggage, and staying with the Murrays for this, the summer concert rehearsal and S. F. Pops Stern Grove Summer Concert, toughest ticket in The City.
Sigmund Stern Grove is a beautiful tree-lined concert venue about a block square, out 19th Avenue on Sloat Boulevard toward the SF Zoo. To that shady grove each summer, the SF Pops orchestra and about 5,000 of their fans would congregate to be seated at tables with red-checkered-tablecloths and mimeographed (remember those?) music lyrics and the program, BYO picnic basket lunch and wine. Fiedler would hold forth for two-and-a-half hours of the greatest music in the world – classics, modern, and even the Beatles.
“You wanna go to the concert, Karl? We’ll leave from here, next Sunday morning.” I jumped at the invitation. And the following Sunday morning, a hook-and-ladder came over the Taylor Street bluff and we hopped in…out 19th Avenue we went and turned into the grove off Sloat Boulevard.
The hour came for the concert – Fiedler, resplendent in a white morning coat with tails, his silver mane tumbling over his collar, strode onto the music pavilion of Stern Grove, as he had done before on half-a-dozen summer days before. The crowd knew they were in for a treat. As is custom, he shook the hand of the first violin – the San Francisco Pops Orchestra’s captain. He raised the baton, and mesmerized the Grove’s denizens for two hours – Aaron Copeland, the Gershwins, Sibelius – their Rhapsody in Blue brought tears to all our peepers. Most of the repertoire was taken from composers still among us.
And then – the moment that all awaited. Five thousand people in Stern Grove knew it was coming, marked by the seven introductory notes of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-dee-yay.” Now I know that younger column readers, if such there be, never heard of Aaron Copeland, Arthur Fiedler or probably Karl Breckenridge and think I must be daft, but all knew that the concert would end with Fiedler’s signature “Song Fest.” One of the greatest thrills I’ve ever known was hearing five thousand voices – the strong, the soft, the young and those older – lifting their voices in unison, almost, to the music they’d waited a year to hear, and many who had played every stunt in the world to gain admission to Stern Grove, where the tickets were free but “sold” out almost a year ago. One could probably hear us to Stonestown.
Some used the lyrics sheets available on each table, but most had grown up with the tunes and averred the sheets, singing from memory – “Sweet Adeline”…”Bicycle Built for Two”… “Tavern in the Town” …. “Mandy” … and a half-hour’s worth of such old barbershop tunes – for some reason, the Cal fight song was quite popular. A couple tunes came from “The Music Man” which was newly on Broadway… a couple more from Rodgers & Hammerstein, then “You’ll never walk alone” and “Sunrise, Sunset” became instant favorites new to the Song Fest perennial collection.
The music ended, but no one moved for a while, content to enjoy the shade and finish their wine. I rejoined the Fiedler party, which was actually about a dozen people. Most boarded large sedans for the trip back to their host hotel – the St. Francis, as I recall. Dr. Fiedler and I roughed it, he again in his white helmet, catching a fire truck, for this trip a “triple,” not the aerial we rode out to Stern Grove.
I was amused to see the firemen on that apparatus snap to at the sight of the white fire helmet, emblematic the world around of a fire chief. Fiedler’s had “SFFD” and “Fiedler” on the crown, proof that he didn’t just find it lying around!
Inbound on 19th Avenue we traveled, with the flow of the heavy traffic – no drama from the siren or red lights – just a few of the guys out for a Sunday ride (in the patois of San Franciscans, “inbound” is travel toward the Ferry Building……).
We arrived at our respective homes on Bush Street, and disembarked the LaFrance. I thanked Fiedler and Chief Murray profusely, and crossed Bush Street to my basement room in Dair House – kicked off my shoes and flopped down on the bed.
“Did all this really happen to me…?”
photo chief residence © Art & Architecture magazine
text © Karl Breckenridge
Fiedler and Skelton – who knows?!
The Artown challenge continues! If you’ll bookmark this URL I won’t have to post it all month..
I have it on fairly solid authority that the John Mackay statue was originally destined for the Statuary Hall of the State Capitol Building in Carson City. Upon arriving with the statue aboard a V&T train, its creator, Gutzon Borglum, was informed A) that there was no statuary hall in the building, and B) that if there were, it still would not stand there because the State as a whole was still not enamored with Mackay, Fair, Flood, O’Brien nor their ilk for the waste they had laid upon the Comstock while lining the streets of San Francisco with gold. Say goodnight, John.
Following some frenzied cabling back-and-forth between Carson City and New York City, and conversation with the officials at the fledgling Nevada State University, it was decided that the statue would be placed at the north end of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Quadrangle.
The donor of the statue, John Mackay’s son Clarence, subsequently came to Reno to view the statue and was displeased that its background was a ramshackle corrugated tin shed. Clarence then endowed the Mackay School of Mines structure in its place, and commissioned the famed New York City architect Stanford White to design it.
That was supposedly 1906. Several other events happened that year: Stanford White was caught in flagrante delicto on the roof of a building that he had earlier designed, Madison Square Garden. He was caught in the act of, er, winding the clock of Evelyn Nesbit, the toast of Broadway celebrity style and élan, by her husband Harry Thaw, described by most as not a well man upstairs, that being charitable.
So – Stanford White met his maker, after accepting the contract to design a building for the Mackay family, and sending off his design for another building he’d designed as its basis, which I think was a Carnegie Library in Framingham, Massachusetts. I think. That design was sent to architects Faville & Bliss, prominent in San Francisco (and yes, principal partner Walter Bliss was from the Lake Tahoe Bliss family). The firm had designed quite a few buildings in San Francisco, and later some buildings for the University of Nevada.
It gets better: On April 18th 1906, an earthquake of epic proportions reduced that city – and many Faville & Bliss buildings including Charles Crocker’s St. Francis Hotel – to charred rubble. The firm had more to contend with than a tiny university’s building in Reno.
Here, I prove the theory that one finds more when he’s looking for something else, than the original quarry of the research: Once while seeking out a fact for a story about San Francisco in the SF Fire Department’s excellent museum/library, I inadvertently saw a listing for “Faville & Bliss, Architects” in an old Polk’s City Directory, c. 1905. Down the hall in the same building, on Franklin Street, as I recall:
“Frederick Delongchant, Architect”
Delongchant was Delongchamps’ original surname. It challenges reality to think that Faville & Bliss, with a good percentage of their architectural works in San Francisco in ruins (and at the University of California in Berkeley, I might add; the East Bay caught it also), and, a young architect who graduated from the Nevada State University two years before, right down the hall, and sensing that they needed one more infinitesimal job 200 miles away like Custer needed Indians, didn’t take White’s rolls of plans to Delongchant and say, “Good luck!”
I don’t know that for a fact. Some of what I write is incontrovertible fact – White was a goner, we know that; Delongchant graduated from the School of Mines, not yet the Mackay School of Mines. The earthquake. The years fit: Mackay graduated in 1904; the earthquake and White’s demise were 1906, the statue and the building were dedicated on Mackay Day 1908, but could have been there a year or two longer.
And why did this assortment of stuffy University mavens bristle when I speculated at that meeting that Delongchant/Delongchamps was the horse behind the Mackay School of Mines’ design? EVERYONE wants a Delongchamps work. Unless they have to surrender a Stanford White design to get it – Delongchamps was prolific and a hot item locally, but far short of a Morgan, Williams or a Lloyd Wright. A White design on one’s campus ranked it up with a modern Piano, Saarinen, I.M. Pei or Gehry design.
I could hear them cackle: “This upstart columnist says the Nevada campus lacks a Stanford White design…” Not what I said, Dearies:, what I inferred was that Frederick Delongchamps influenced the Mackay School of Mines building…
This story is offered with the reminder that no less than Mark Twain borrowed from me his credo, “Never let the facts interfere with a good story…” Much of it was told me by an elderly lady with an indelible memory, whose father had had an integral relationship with both the early University of Nevada and with the Mackay family. But – take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy the totality, if not the yarn’s most-minute details. And if you want to dispute it, bring some facts, not the thin air that a university professor hung his hat on a decade ago!
© Karl Breckenridge 2019
Our editorial staff last evening, New Years Eve, played hooky from our bounden duty to readers of updating this site, and instead streamed a classic: “Smokey and the Bandit” – the Bandit, Snowman, Fred the Basset, the Frog, Beaufort P. Justus, still ranking up there with Butch and Sundance and with Igor and Frawnkensteen for the three greatest shit-kickin’, no-brainer, New Years Eve flicks ever made!
Thanks for coming back and viewing – as in the past 12 years, the site in 2019 will be no different – poorly-written and -edited notes about God-knows-what, arriving on your screen with little or no forethought nor schedule – this year with hopefully a bit more reader participation, wherein I’m downplaying the “comments” feature of the site in favor of including my email address below and inviting everything from a short squib about a past column to your submission of a complete new column, that I can post for all to see. Don’ worry about the gramer or speling – I’ll fix that for you. Photos are welcome and encouraged with releases and accreditation, and no downer stuff – this remains an upbeat, non-political place to visit and relax.
On that score, I encourage newer readers to utilize the WordPress “search” function in the box below. Type in a keyword and then click the box and scroll down. You may just find what you’re seeking. If not, email me and I’ll try to help. There are over 420 posts on the site and I don’t know myself what’s posted here! But if it’s somewhere we’ll find it, or maybe just write a new one for all to enjoy.
Now – it’s the kickoff day to a great year, the sun’s out – let’s make a dandy!
KarlBreckenridge490@gmail.com (a new address for column/website traffic; don’t panic, the old live.com address still works. Usually.)
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…
Last weekend I took off on my Schwinn over Highway 40, to visit my kids and grandkids in San Mateo, a bit south of Mills Field airport near San Francisco. And the fact that the six-year-old kid is pedaling to meet his son, daughter-in-law and their two pre-teen daughters – his granddaughters – tells the reader just how screwed up the chronology of this little story is going to have to get to make any sense at all!
So – that said – I packed up some peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and Oreos to keep body and soul together, and took off westward along Highway 40 to get there. Pedaling down the road, it dawned on me that this would be a good adventure to write about, so I started taking some notes in my little spiral notebook as I stopped to take each breather. And I soon realized that there’s a whole lot to write about, whether a six-year-old kid is actually driving a Honda (they make cars in Japan? MacArthur just signed a truce with the Japanese aboard the battleship Missouri a few years ago. Now they’re building cars?) Or keeping notes in a spiral notebook or with a digital dictating machine (built near the Honda plant!) [a vague reference to my actually driving a Honda on the trip; the point pretty-well lost.]
Thus along I go, taking lots of notes of stuff that needs to be written up and some pictures with my Brownie Hawkeye camera. And the sheer volume of notes is growing. I make a decision: I’m going to target one or two things I see along the way in 1950 and write about them, and if anyone from Reno and Sparks cares about another trip to San Francisco, I’ll go back another time and get some more of the notes I made.
The guy at the A-frame bug station down along the Truckee River asked me if I had any fruit or stuff, I told him just a couple PB&J sandwiches. Once I wrote a whole column about the San Francisco Men’s Fishing Club down the hill on the Truckee that’s been there since 1903, and even talked to their lady in SF where the club has run from for so many years. The UP Railroad built the club to build up traffic from SF to the Truckee area. But at the last minute I was asked not to publish the column, so I didn’t. But someday I might.
I breeze through Truckee and rest at the train station and enjoy one of my sandwiches. A couple trains go by in both directions, and it’s obvious that the diesel electric engines are taking over – a few trains pass with steam cab-forward locomotives, but they’re really dinosaurs – the last one went through Reno on a revenue run a year ago, but they’re still the loco of choice, helping the diesels with the heavier trains. My goal is to get through Truckee along Highway 40, then ride my bike up Donner Pass, over the Rainbow Bridge on the highway, get a picture of that refrigerated trailer that went over the guardrail and stayed at the bottom of that canyon for so many years! Dad always pointed it out when we drove down to Petaluma to see Grandma Frankie. But what I want to get to by daylight is the Southern Pacific roundhouse at Norden. I’ll make it OK.
The hill from Donner Lake up to Soda Springs is a grind, but I pedal it anyway, then ride along the road that goes to Norden. There’s a lot going on in that neck of the woods, but most people don’t ever see it because they stay on the main road. There’s talk that someday there may be a “freeway” alongside Donner Pass and Highway 40, that will cross the summit at a lower altitude. But I probably won’t live long enough to see that!
I make it to the roundhouse, and there’s a cab-forward parked in it, being turned around to follow a train back to Truckee, acting as a brake. The “Mallets,” which they’re not but everybody calls them Mallet anyway, are still in frequent use on Donner Pass, but I was lucky to get to see one being turned on the turntable. I got a picture of it.
The second thing I want to write about hasn’t happened yet, nor will it for another two years, when the SP’s “City of San Francisco” passenger streamliner got snowbound four miles west of here in 1952. I’ve written about it before here, but there’s one story I keep trying to get told, the story of Jay Gold, a thirty-something employee of Pacific Gas & Electric, that had headquarters in Drum, a little to the west. Gold was the operator of PG&E’s Tucker Sno-Cats© when there were darn few of the machines in the Sierra. Jay heard about the stuck train, and spent the next four days taking his Sno-Cat back and forth, up and down the mountain assisting the rescuers and medical people tending to the people on the train. He worked about 18 hours each day, three of those days in blinding blizzards.
The people finally got off the train and to Nyack, long story (I put a link to that saga at the end of this piece). No passengers were injured. Two SP engineers in a rotary snowplow were scalded to death when the plow overturned.
And Jay Gold died, a month after the rescue was over. Cardiac arrest. He knew, as did very few others, that he had a heart condition, prior to the rescue.
He worked himself to death, literally. His widow was entreated to a trust fund by the State of California, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and PG&E. But – to my knowledge, there exists no lasting tribute, plaque or remembrance of the man. And I’ve looked, and written of him in the past. To no avail.
It’s been over 60 years, but I’d still like to see Jay’s name somewhere around the scene of the stranded streamliner, or Truckee. Maybe on the train station which has become a popular tourist stop.
Funny, all this coming from a six-year-old writer……..
OK, I’m pedaling down Highway 40 again now, to the last stop on this visit with you and for my second PB&J and the Oreos. We’re going to the place Jay worked, to the power plant and reservoir that many grownups get a big kick out of calling “dumb foreplay,” whatever that means that gets everybody yukking it up. The place was there a year or two before the UP railroad went by it, and the owners put up their own railroad to the UP trackage to help build it. It’s actually known as “Drum Forebay,” and is now a major operation of PG&E, and as a matter of fact is the point at which PG&E sells and buys power to NV Energy and other utilities. The forebay – reservoir – was named for Frank Drum, an early California power executive who was instrumental in pulling a number of entities together into mighty PG&E.
And Jay Gold worked his Sno-Cat out of Drum [pictured above]
And with that, I’m going to sign off. I’ve a lot more notes and one of these days I’ll write again of my Ralston Street-to-San Mateo adventure!
I’m dedicating this column to my 1949 next-door-neighbor who rides with me on many of these adventures, Henry Philcox. Hank is a half-a-year older and a school grade higher than I, and now lives on the southeast coast. I saw him when he was in Reno for the Reno High School Class of 1958 60-year Reunion last month, from which he left for his home not knowing whether Hurricane Florence had spared it.
Hank will be back riding along with us soon…!
The six-year old-kid took the liberty of adding Joan Anglin’s comment below – it’s too good not to get out to the world:
“I remember driving from San Francisco to Reno in a snowstorm. We were just creeping along, and everybody was behaving themselves, except for the people in front of us who kept flashing their high beams at the Truck in front of them. Nowhere to pull over, so we just kept on going. Finally there was a passing lane, and the truck pulled over slightly and then curved back and blocked the lane.
“The driver got out, walked to the back of the truck with a baseball bat and without a word broke both headlights of the car behind him. He got back into his truck pulled over and let everybody pass. The car without lights pulled over behind the truck and that is the end of the tale as far as I know. I wasn’t on a bike either, but in the 1947 Packard that was Jack Reimers pride and joy”
Ol’ RHS buddy Dee Garrett just checked in; here’s what he had to say:
“Way back in the late 40’s myself & neighbor Mat Conlin ventured out on a bike ride to Verdi.
“I am sure we had our peanut & jelly sandwich as well as a package of hostess cupcakes for a snack.
“With our one-speed bikes either from Oden Cycle Shop or Western Auto Supply we ventured west thinking that the trip would be a breeze. It kind of was until we got to that long upgrade road near Verdi that crosses the river and our legs & one speed bikes were pooped out. Oh yes, we were maybe 12 & 13 years old.
“Not having cell phones and knowing smoke signals will not be seen in Reno we got a message somehow to Mat’s mom to came and rescued us & she did.
“Lesson learned from this, wait until the better & lightweight bikes are built and that we have grown up & had better sense .
“So that is my take on a bike ride to Verdi.
“Keep up the great stories no matter how old you are.”
The location of the stranded “City of San Francisco” here
Norden turntable photo © Southern Pacific Railroad
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…