Forty-five feet below the thousands of stamping feet loomed the squat, 30-by-60-foot east furnace. Fifteen tons of molten glass bubbled within at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature on par with a red dwarf star. This was the only furnace in action that day. More observant fans would have noticed the capping atop the chimney behind them glowing red as it emitted a persistent plume of smoke.

But the action was in front, not behind. And even onlookers who grew uneasy couldn't negotiate the crowd to descend. "I don't know how many hundred people were up there, but there wasn't an inch of standing room to spare," Arthur Schwarz told the Examiner. So they made the most of it: "All of us were laughing and jesting," Charles Taylor told the Chronicle. "Some of the fellows said: 'If this thing breaks, we'll all go down together.'"

Twenty minutes into the game, they did.


The glass works’ roof “was black with people.”
Jonn E. Hare, San Francisco Examiner
The glass works’ roof “was black with people.”
“Sectional drawing of the glass works furnace room illustrating how the accident happened.”
San Francisco Examiner
“Sectional drawing of the glass works furnace room illustrating how the accident happened.”

Countless thousands of bottles produced at the glass works would eventually be filled with "bitters." The ads for competing brands of bitters riddled the newspapers of the day, each claiming its brew was, truly, the most healthful of wonder drinks.

"This was a concoction with a lot of alcohol and a lot of laxatives," explains Jeff Wichmann, the author of Antique Western Bitters Bottles and an authority on glass factories of the era. "They'd put all kinds of herbs in them. It was supposed to be medicinal. But it gave you a really good buzz."

Crafting the vessels for alcoholic laxatives was not a happy life. Glassblowers, often barely into their teens, produced 100 dozen or more bottles a day in a process combining tedious repetition, intense labor, and danger. Blowers inhaled concentrated doses of the toxic vapors spewing out of the furnaces and befouling the factory; lung cancer was rampant.

On Nov. 29, 1900, the men tending the east furnace were Ignace Jocz and Clarence Jeter. As on any other day, they would have been sweating through sweltering heat and snorting stale, acrid air. Today, however, the roars of the crowd would have permeated the factory's din. And, soon enough, light would permeate the dark factory too, after the roof "Gave Way With Its Burden Of Humanity."

It came quickly and totally. "We could see a Berkeley player kicking the ball and all moved to watch him closely. Then the roof sprung like a gallows trap," Percy Fuller recalled to the Examiner. "I grabbed something and held. Those next to me fell.... I turned to the building's interior and saw a writhing, yelling mass of humanity struggling to get out of a veritable hell." More than 100 spectators disappeared into the gaping hole, pinballed off the joists and crossbeams atop the factory, and fell the equivalent of four stories to the brick floor below.

They were the fortunate ones.

Jocz and Jeter estimated an additional 60 to 100 people fell directly atop the glowing furnace. Had they broken through the brick furnace-top keeping the molten glass within "they would have withered in that heat like a feather in ordinary flame," said the grimly eloquent Jocz. "There were enough of them to have filled the oven."

Had plummeting fans penetrated the furnace, they would have been killed instantly and left no trace — the big oven was three times hotter than a crematorium. Instead, in a series of sickening thuds, they landed on a furnace-top heated to 500 degrees. Those who fell here did not die quickly or painlessly. Rather, they found themselves immobilized with broken bodies upon a surface as hot as a frying pan.

It gets worse: The furnace was secured beneath a series of iron "binding rods." These poles, resembling massive croquet hoops, enclosed the furnace like a cage. A number of the victims found themselves trapped in this cage, pinned between the rods and the red-hot furnace, and struggling to move after a 45-foot fall.

It gets even worse: Victims' falling bodies severed fuel pipes, and boiling oil spurted upon the their wriggling bodies, scalding skin and saturating clothing. The terrible heat of the furnace ignited the flowing oil. Gravely injured victims, already trapped atop the 500-degree furnace, burst into flame.

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.


The majority of those killed and an alarming portion of the maimed were boys — some as young as 9 years old. Boys were the least likely to have $1 — a sum with the buying power of $30 or more today. Boys were the least likely to consider the risks of leaping up and down atop a factory. And, in a coldly Darwinian touch, boys were the ones most likely to be pushed toward the back of the roof, into the least desirable spots farthest from the game action — directly over the furnace.

"We got all but one off the oven," recalled Isidore Ezekiel, a clerk who helped Jocz and Jeter pull the burning bodies off the furnace. "That little fellow, a boy of about 10 years, was actually roasted to death before our eyes.... His clothes caught fire and he simply screamed and lay still."

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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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