Sudden Death: Boys Fell to Their Doom in S.F.'s Forgotten Disaster

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Illustration by Mario Zucca.


At the dawn of the last century, holy war broke out in San Francisco. Its declaration was announced on the front page of the Nov. 25, 1900, San Francisco Call: "Hell Cannot Be Swept Away On Light Metaphor." Rabbi Jacob Nieto's sermon claimed the fiery underworld was an abstract concept rather than a literal reality, spurring fundamentalist ministers to counter that hell was not only real, but necessary. "The world needs it," they claimed, "as a logical, inevitable conclusion of that part of human life which breeds misery, misfortune, and suffering."

Today, the appearance of such an article in a major metropolitan daily — let alone atop page one — would be considered bizarre. A century ago, however, it was eerily timely. Misery, misfortune, and suffering were coming to San Francisco, and right quick. In that very week, hell — or, Nieto might argue, a metaphor for hell — would visit the city. Multitudes would be swallowed in a fissure and plunged to fiery death and torment below.

Front page of the San Francisco Call, Nov. 30, 1900.
Front page of the San Francisco Call, Nov. 30, 1900.
“The bodies of seven bruised and burned victims are laid out, awaiting the arrival of the coroner.”
Jonn E. Hare, San Francisco Examiner
“The bodies of seven bruised and burned victims are laid out, awaiting the arrival of the coroner.”

Whether this was an act of retribution for man's wickedness is a debate best left to the theologians of the last century. In our century, however, San Francisco's "Thanksgiving Day Disaster" remains the deadliest fate to befall spectators of an American sporting event — and, all but indisputably, the gruesomest. And yet, like the victims of the tragedy, the memory of "The Most Dreadful Calamity In Our History" has fallen down a hole, to oblivion.


"Thanksgiving Day dawned clean and bright and a fairer day could never have been desired by the veriest of football enthusiasts," chirped the San Francisco Bulletin on Nov. 29, 1900. "It was the kind of weather that brings out the holiday throng, the glory of fine fabric, of brilliant color, of beauty, and all that."

"And all that" had come a long way since the inaugural meeting of the California and Stanford football squads, a small-time affair in 1892 that was delayed for more than an hour because Stanford team manager Herbert Hoover neglected to bring a ball. By the turn of the century "The Big Game" had transcended a mere sporting contest, blossoming into a social event. Like San Francisco Giants opening days in the present, the mayor and all the political, industrial, and cultural movers and shakers made an appearance. The elite of yesteryear, however, traversed unpaved roads to a part of town in which they would likely seldom set foot. The hulking grandstands of Recreation Park, on 16th Street between Folsom and Harrison, were deep within a sprawling industrial zone. Lumber yards, tool and die shops, and metal works dotted the landscape; the yowling of stray dogs and the odor of canine excrement likely emanated from the city pound two short blocks away.

Into this neighborhood massed the largest crowd to ever witness a sporting event west of the Mississippi. They clutched newspapers in which front-page headlines actually used the word "Rah!" up to six times. Some 19,000 onlookers packed the stadium, and thousands more milled about in the dusty streets.

For those unable or unwilling to part with the hefty sum of $1 for a ticket, however, there were other ways to catch a ballgame.

Like many turn-of-the-century cities, San Francisco's sporting grounds were hastily erected amid active factories and warehouses. Thousands of eyes turned to the neighborhood's newest addition, the nearly completed San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works, just across the street from the ballpark. The plant occupied an entire block between Folsom and Harrison on 15th Street, and was slated to commence full production the following Monday; the fires of its gargantuan east furnace had been kindled only days earlier. Its rooftop offered an enticing endzone-to-endzone view of the field from above the ballpark's northern wall. The indigent, the impulsive, the reckless, and the devious advanced on the glass works.

Testimony at the subsequent coroner's inquest described scenes resembling the breaking of a siege. Young boys dug beneath the factory's 8-foot wooden fences topped with 2 feet of barbed wire and threw open the gates to the waiting masses. Factory management claimed the interlopers broke down portions of the fence or piled up lumber seized from a nearby barrel manufacturer and climbed over it.

The year 1900 was a rotten one for factory superintendent James Davis. In February, a Call article headlined "Thrashed His Employer" noted that a San Francisco and Pacific glassblower who didn't take kindly to Davis' criticism "beat him so severely he is now confined to his bed." Facing oncoming hordes, the same paper now reported, Davis impotently waved a metal pipe at the trespassers as they streamed past him and seven factory employees.

Well before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, the factory's shiny, corrugated iron rooftop was packed with 500 to 1,000 spectators. It "was black with people," reported the Chronicle. "So densely were all the roofs packed, it was a matter of comment among the multitude which thronged the stands on the Folsom Street side."

Every factor that would lead to "San Francisco's direst calamity" was now in place. Factory employees wandered the streets in a futile attempt to locate a cop willing to evict the freeloading invaders. Those freeloaders, meanwhile, were massed atop a rooftop only required to withstand 40 pounds per square inch — hardly adequate for a football crowd, even in a hungrier era when the average Cal or Stanford player weighed 170 pounds. Worse yet, fans clambered to the highest accessible point, the 100-foot-long rectangular ventilator rising 4 feet from the apex of the roof. This open-sided structure was supported only by wooden braces — and, ominously, the fans' perch was directly above the hottest portion of the factory.

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28 comments
s1conrad
s1conrad

As a long-time resident of the City, I only know key historic moments: Gold Rush, 06 Quake, WW2, Summer of Love, Milk-Moscone asassinations--but this forgotten tale was riveting (not to mention gruesome).  It proves the layered history of SF is almost endless, and not forgotten

Ckcarter13
Ckcarter13

@followingthis wow I just read this how horrifyingly sad.

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@JamesDRobinson Sorry for my naivete, is shade a 52 book, love earth 2 , keep hearing about shade from podcast. Advertising works.

Egalitarian
Egalitarian

"But there is one last detail, and it's the worst of all: The broken, burning, shrieking victims were, in large part, not men. They were children."Joe, I need help here, how many men is a child's life worth, can we trade?  2.45 men for every child?  While we're at it let's make every man's vote only count for 2/3rds a person since his life is not worth the same as women or children. 

stanflouride
stanflouride

Great (if horrifying) story! Often the phrases 'of-the-century' or 'of-all-time' were and are bandied about by the news media and yet time and time again they are superseded by current events that push them into the shadows of the past.

 

An addendum I'd like to contribute:In 2003 a gentleman who is a member of "Old Blue" the hardest of the hard core Cal fans was taking my Haight Ashbury walking tour, which includes a stop and story about the Haight Grounds baseball stadium (on Waller between Stanyan and Shrader), site of the first few Big Games.My iteration included the story of Herbert Hoover and the missing football and the guy corrected me. He told me the Berkeley players were 'so drunk they could barely stand up' so they stole and hid the football, forcing Stanford to send someone on horseback downtown to buy a new one.Berkeley lost the game 14-10, which may or may not have been a result of their hung-over team.

 

Fortunately, that sort of thing doesn't happen in college athletics any more because we've evolved. Right?

romanmars
romanmars

@BackStoryRadio @sfweekly One of my very first radio stories was about this! Based off John Marr's story in the zine Murder Can Be Fun.

EskSF
EskSF

@burritojustice Thanks! I am speculating, but "Recreation Park" may have been the go-to term for ballparks of the era

EskSF
EskSF

@burritojustice It was gone by 1905. The 1899 Sanborn insurance map refers to it as "Base Ball Grounds." Papers called it Recreation Park

Laura Palmer-Cobb
Laura Palmer-Cobb

That has got to be the saddest story I ever read. Those poor boys. Oh, my heart breaks.

followingthis
followingthis

@Ckcarter13 Yeah. So sad. And they were mostly kids. :'(

JamesDRobinson
JamesDRobinson

It's part of that world @mytruthoryours but premiered a month after the big launch.

joe.eskenazi
joe.eskenazi

I think your self-assessment is spot-on; you do need help here.

 

Best,

 

JE

BackStoryRadio
BackStoryRadio

@romanmars @SFWeekly That's awesome! Is the link online? Looking and wondering whether gone internet illiterate for not finding...

burritojustice
burritojustice

@EskSF I need to do a baseball / sporting grounds summary post, if only to keep track. Too many damn (Recreation|Central)+(Grounds|Parks).

burritojustice
burritojustice

@EskSF I'm guessing it wasn't around long enough for it to really have gotten an official name. (Great article, btw, nicely done.)

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@JamesDRobinson thanks youra gem. Off to give a comic book shop a chance to sell me it and inevetibly buy several other comics I don't need.

JorgeChurano
JorgeChurano

 @joe.eskenazi Egalitarian has a point Joe, and it's a little rude to just shrug it off and make an insult.Why is the detail of shrieking death pangs coming from children and not grown men the worst detail of all? What if it were men? Does this story even get told again? What if it were men, and they were leaving orphans at home. That's pretty sad, isn't it?

romanmars
romanmars

@BackStoryRadio @SFWeekly Nah, it was before you were required by law to post everything online.

mytruthoryours
mytruthoryours

@Dolliedqwmm3 whatever link you sent me does not work

coyotemoon
coyotemoon

@JorgeChurano @joe.eskenazi If we have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand. Children are innocent, and never got to see their potential realized, and left behind horrified mothers, fathers, and siblings who would be forever changed.

BackStoryRadio
BackStoryRadio

@romanmars @SFWeekly I am always happy to be reminded that there was indeed such a time and we didn't just dream it.

 
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