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.
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.
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.