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…
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!!
Monday, April 23 – The six-year-old kid rested this weekend at the Coliseum with about 5,000 friends, each driving 1.4 mommywagons and playing or watching volleyball on 88 courts. This number includes his two granddaughters. He is back to work now, will probably put up a new “bike ride” Wednesday….c’mon back!
Well, we’re back to school after our Easter Break, which we still call “Easter,” by the way. I gave all my brochures that I collected from my bike ride last week to Dad so he could buy a new car but he decided to keep the Buick he got from Mr. Scott. We’re taking it to New York and back this summer, I’ll have to do a lot of writing about that trip!
I wanted to finish up a story of cars, by adding some pictures of trucks but a few friends have asked about the new TV station coming to town, and the big tank that’s being torn down out on Fifth Street. Since the new TV station is being built across from the gas storage tank, that’s where I’m heading today.
Down Vine Street I go from Sunnyside Drive on my bike. Safeway is building a new store on Vine, the second of the “big” supermarkets in Reno. Don’t know what’s going to happen to the little markets – “Mom & Pops” Dad calls them. I better hurry up and write about them soon before they’re all gone. I ride east on Fifth Street, past Reno High School [left below]and the Babcock Memorial Kindergarten [right]. Until WWII it was the only Kindergarten in Reno and your parents had to pay to send you there. I pass by the new Sewell’s market between Sierra and Virginia Street, and press on beyond University Street and the Western Pacific railroad tracks on a street that’s not a street, named on the Sanborn map as private, owned by the railroad, but named “East” street. In a few years it will be called “Record Street” probably for those pretty girls in my class, Dale and Nikki. Their dad sells plumbing stuff south of the Lincoln Highway but it’s nothing to do with East Street. A brand-new Western Pacific locomotive, diesel-electric at that, is heading up north to Alturas and a couple guys are blocking Fifth Street while it passes.
I’m at Elko Street now, and can see the big gas tank, which is on a full-block lot between Fifth and Sixth, and Alameda Street and Eureka Street. [That’s a picture that I found in my World Book Encyclopedia, not a photo of the one in Reno, which I’ve never been able to find. But they’re all pretty much the same – the sides move up and down along the rails – this one’s down about 12 feet or so.] Pretty soon the City would re-name “Alameda” street to “North Wells Avenue.” That big square block is owned by Sierra Pacific Power Company and that’s where Reno’s early natural gas is made, mostly for cooking and less-so for heating homes. But all that would change. Dad’s friend Mr. Probasco was building homes after WWII away out east of Sparks almost east of Stanford Way, and heating them with a central gas furnace in the home. They were the first home furnaces in Reno and Sparks using gas as a fuel. They weren’t forced air, but they worked well! Dad tried to tell me how they made gas but it was pretty complicated and people who read about it all scratched their heads, so I’ll just write the simple view of it here:
If one smashes coal hard enough, a gas is produced. And that’s what they did at the Alameda Gas Plant. A “retort” smashed the coal then collected the gas that that smashing produced. Coal was brought into that plant on railroad cars. The gas that resulted in the compression was routed into a big tank, whose sides were free to move up and down. The weight of the tank pushed the tank downward, and forced the gas within the tank to go out into the gas “mains,” which were all over pre-war Reno and Sparks, on the north side of the Truckee River.
Natural gas was being brought into the power company’s generating station east of Sparks, so they elected to make another run from the power plant to Reno. The retort building was dismantled, and the tank soon after was taken down. We all got our gas at our homes through the same mains as before, but it was put into the existing mains at a different location (eventually north of McCarran Boulevard and Hug High School). But I’m only a six-year-old kid, so I don’t know that yet. I also don’t know that the power company began storing transformers which are basically tanks of PCB, which fall over and spill the stuff on the ground. And PCB is one of the most toxic liquids known to man, and the square block was so contaminated with the stuff that it was decided by someone to just leave it alone, that the cost of cleaning it would exceed its value. So that’s why there’s nothing on the lot now but an X-ray building, on an area that wasn’t contaminated.
And that’s the story of gas coming to Reno and Sparks. I might write that when the new bridge over the Truckee was built in 1937, the gas lines were brought to southern Reno. And that little known to most and I’ll probably get spanked for writing this, but the big fire that I can’t write about until 1957 was probably in all truth caused by a bum hookup in the Sierra Street area, and just stayed kinda safe until it blew in 1957. I’ll attach a “link” at the end of this writing to tell you about that. And if you ever go to San Francisco, as we’re going to do again one of these days soon, you might have seen “Gashouse Cove” on a sign or the name of a neighborhood out by the Marina – that’s where the early city of San Francisco had its gas retort. But that has nothing to do with Reno and I shouldn’t even write about it.
I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (Dad says that and I think it’s funny!) by threatening to write about the new TV station in the same letter with the gashouse and retort, so I’ll work on that later this week. And we should talk about old groceries more; there’s one on the corner of Alameda and Fourth Street where my little (!) friend Benny Akert works – his parents own it. He dreams of growing up and running a store to sell discount liquor – he says he’ll just call it “Ben’s”. And another little playmate of mine, a foxy little gal named Beverly Pincolini, her family has a grocery store a couple blocks away, called “Pinky’s”! Bev would graduate from Reno High with me in 1959 and marry a guy named Fabio Reginato, the lucky dude. But I don’t know anything about that yet, of course. I thought a Pincolini Reginato Fabio was one of those new-fangled sports cars from Europe!
Come back in a week – I’ll tell you all about KZTV’s grand opening! Now – if you want to read more – click here whatever “click” means! and read about the big fire down on Sierra Street in 1957.
See ya later…….
Well, I haven’t written for a while, been pretty busy at Mary S. Doten School, but we have a weekend free so we’re hopping in the car to go see Grandma in Petaluma. Petaluma’s a little farm town right next to Napa and we’ll go through Napa to get there. Mom was born in Petaluma; her mother – my Grandma – came with a whole bunch of sisters and brothers from Ireland to be school teachers in the Valley of the Moon, but a few moved from Asti to Petaluma and Napa so I have relatives all over Sonoma County!
I should tell you that Dad just came home with a new car, a 1948 Dodge sedan, gray. He keeps leaving the back-up light turned on and killed the battery a couple times. Our neighbor John Sala gave it a “jump.” We’re loading up the new Dodge to go to Grandma’s in Petaluma. My little sister Marilynn is old enough now to ride in a car seat hung over the front seat of the car. It will take about seven or eight hours to get to Petaluma; one of these mornings I’ll write about the Giant Orange and the stuff along Highway 40.
We’re off now – and I’ll fast forward the trip, took over seven hours this time, we stopped along the way a couple of times. When we got to Stornetta’s Dairy on the Napa Highway we knew we were close! (I heard that the dairy would be lost to a fire [pictured left] many years later, and it was as popular with the residents as were the California Missions and the wineries…) I wish I could write you more about that big fire, but this is 1949 and it wouldn’t happen for many more years so I don’t know anything about it.
We pass through Napa after turning off the old picturesque Highway 12. Napa is a tiny little town, like so many along our way. It’s got one main street and everything on the street caters to agricultural stuff – a John Deere dealer with big green and yellow tractors sitting outside. Boot and clothing stores, hand tools. Many signs are in another language, Dad says Spanish but Mom, who grew up 12 miles away, said they leaned toward the Portuguese language, as the town of Napa was heavily-Portuguese occupied. She said her hometown, Petaluma, was mostly Italian and Irish. There were many other little towns along the way between a place on the main highway called the Nut Tree that opened in 1920, and Petaluma to the north toward the Redwood Highway – Highway 101.
We got through Napa and saw many grapevines along the way – acres of wooden frames with the vines hanging from them. There were big propellers every once in a while, and a lot of little pots. Dad says the pots burned kerosene and the big fans blew the heat over the vines to keep them from freezing. We went into Petaluma by a beautiful old brick building that looked like the Southern Pacific engine house in Sparks next to the roundhouse that was being torn down. The big building was the bag mill, where the bags for the crops and grain that supported all these little towns, were woven. The building was a real beauty.
Petaluma is a nice little town, much like Napa, with almost no one except for the full-time residents living there. Petalumans raised chickens and was known as the egg-capital of the west coast. McNear’s Mill processed the grain from all over the valley, and shipped it every morning aboard the Steamer Gold, from the end of the Petaluma River. Napans raised grapes, mostly for dining but also finding their way into the wine industry. People had been drinking wine for years but I guess never put much interest into grapes and wine – wine was red, and blush. A smattering (like that word? I’m not supposed to use it according to my teachers…) of men from San Francisco and Europe were starting to take more interest in grapes and wine, and were slowly moving to Napa. There were already some beautiful old buildings there operated by the few “vintners,” a hoity-toity word for grape growers. But I don’t recall wine as being that big a deal. But they sure had some pretty buildings and ranches – it would be a shame if a fire ever came along and burned them – they’ve been there since before WWI, some of them.
And I should write you that one of the big industries was making kegs – wooden barrels – out of oak wood for the wine to age in. This industry was really taking off! One guy even had an orchard for cork trees, because corks were necessary for bottling wine and most of them in 1949 came from Portugal. Hence, the Portuguese influence in Napa.
And speaking of wine, when we arrived in Petaluma, Dad sat on the front porch of Grandma’s house on Harris Street, which was an old railroad house that was moved across town and my mother came home from the hospital to it in 1916. Grandma joined Dad on the porch with a bottle of red wine that Dad picked up down Western Street at Volpi’s, and they laughed and giggled as usual while Mom freshened up.
Later that night, we loaded up in the Dodge, and with my great-aunts Isabel and Marge and Iola and uncle Vic and Earl and a few other relatives, in a couple other cars, and we all took off for dinner at the Green Mill Inn, which was a pretty popular roadhouse in Cotati. We went through Sebastopol, Calistoga and a few other old towns, all with some beautiful homes and businesses dating back to the turn of the century, and even to California’s statehood. Sonoma, for sure; Rutherford – we passed through them all.
And we’d do it many times again in the years to follow – Dad and Grandma on the porch with a jug of red, Mom freshening up, all the old ladies sitting around Aunt Kate’s Bosendorfer upright piano that had come ‘Round the Horn from Galway, all singing the old songs they’d learned as children. Or, they’d have more red, all together, and commandeer the Green Mill Inn’s piano and sing of the Emerald Isle. Good times, in the Sonoma Valley. Possibly the prettiest part of California, I’d probably get an argument to that from Santa Barbarans, where I was born ten years before. In 1955 Frank Loesser would even write a Broadway musical about it, “The Most Happy Fella” (in the whole Napa Valley..)!
But beautiful country, old buildings, tree-canopied streets, some picturesque old rock wineries and quaint downtowns – Napa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Calistoga, Sebastopol, Stornetta’s Dairy, the bag mill, McNear’s grain elevator – I hoped that nothing would ever come along to alter it…..
C’mon back in a while, we’ll ride Highway 40 or walk the Truckee’s banks – I never know ‘til I start writing
POSTSCRIPT: I WAS REMINDED THAT MY “LITTLE SISTER MARILYNN” REFERRED TO AS “NOW OLD ENOUGH TO RIDE IN THE CAR SEAT,” RETURNED TO NAPA AFTER COLLEGE AND, WITH HUSBAND ERIC, TAUGHT IN THE NAPA COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR OVER 30 YEARS!
Napa schoolhouse photo credit AP
Photo Stornetta’s Dairy courtesy Joe Fazio