January 6 Rune reading on the eve of Epiphany.

I made up my own reading structure, which is borrowed from the arc of la pièce bien faite, the well-made play. There is a plot (rising action, culmination, falling action, and conclusion) and it is tightly and formulaically structured. However, runes are indirect and enigmatic, the exact opposite of a well-made play which delivers endings the audience expects. Runes don’t do that.

Depending on further contemplation, there might be other interpretations of this reading. But it’s early days yet, and I have all year. Quotes from all three rune poems, and the Prose and Poetic Eddas are italicized. 

Reading from left

Ihwaz: a yew tree, old & venerable, with a thick trunk, gnarled branches and a root system that’s capable of penetrating stone. It is attacked by time and the elements, and is “the greenest in winter,” as the Norwegian rune poem points out, meaning it thrives even during the season of death. The yew stands solidly in churchyards, and also in Golden Gate Park where the San Francisco Call praised it. “One of the prettiest of the smaller trees are the specimens of the English yew, the same wood from which merry Robin Hood is said to have fashioned his bow. This tree is scarcely more than shrub here yet. It belongs to the genus Taxus and is a slow-growing, long-lived evergreen of moderate height and spread of branches. In Europe the yew is much used in graveyards.” The yew stands for thousands of years, doubled down into its strength and toughened by its resolve, a guardian of flame.

Tiwaz: the first appearance by a god in this reading. Did you know that Tyr took care of Fenrir, tenderly, like a parent? Only Tyr had the courage to approach it and feed it. When the wolf was bound, Tyr laid his right hand in the wolf’s mouth as surety. When the wolf realized his betrayal, he bit off the hand that fed him. All the gods laughed, except Tyr who understood what was at stake: the honor of the gods (honor is everything). Wrong action is met by right, and imbalance corrected when justice steps in. This action involves everyone.

Kenaz: it sits at the apex of this reading, as something inflamed, something that has collected itself fully to blaze forth, to erupt. Whether that causes a disgusting pimple, a painful lesion, or becomes a flame that provides warmth and light is one question. What caused it to combust? Did it emerge from Ihwaz, the tough old yew? What does it encourage? What does it expel? 

Mannaz: it descends from Kenaz, which feels right; those who gather within a hall value the bright pale flame. There is a clear warning in the Anglo Saxon rune poem: every man is doomed to fail his fellow. To be beloved among kin is comforting (and in these days of pandemic surges, possibly hazardous.)  Augmentation of earth; augmentation of dust. We were without fate once, inanimate, without vitality. We relish our illuminated/inflamed consciousness. But hubris may hound us. Awaken your fate.

Ansuz: (If you offer an invitation and hospitality, the gods will attend you.) Hail, Odin, All Father, ancestor, son of Bor, son of Buri and Bestla, giver of breath and life.

Dagaz: Either Nótt or Jörð gave birth to Day (or maybe Jörð was his sister), but he was as bright and beautiful as his father’s people. We have never stopped waiting for the sun to rise, (and have noted when it appears not to) to make his way through the sky with his horse Shining Mane. Dagr is beloved… a source of hope and happiness to rich and poor, and of service to all. What do we sing before his father’s doors? How glad is our song?

How completely does a new day put paid to the errors of the past?

Do you understand yet, or what more?

A English yew (Taxxus bacata) directly across from the Conservatory of Flowers on the south side of JFK Drive.

Edward Creely and the changing city, 1870-1920 Part 3: The Great Cow Cull of 1896

Map of the Excelsior Homestead, 1869. Image from The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1896, the Excelsior Homestead was only partially mapped. Russia Avenue was the southernmost boundary on the Sanborn Perris maps; beyond that, the largely undeveloped land lay far beyond the municipal pale. With few or no structures such as schools, churches, or homes, there was little to insure. There were dairies of course, almost 60 of them, but in those days, dairies were so improvised and ramshackle that insuring them was perhaps beside the point. What mattered to the dairymen, latter-day versions of the bóaire, an Irish term meaning “cow lord”, was the wealth their cows created because of the milk they gave. 

The Excelsior Homestead was the place of the cows, Ait na Bo, a shifting and uncertain territory, hard to map, and difficult to regulate. Back then, the Excelsior would have looked like a prairie in the wet springtime, and the hooves of the cattle cratered the place, looking for something to eat other than brewery slops, which they were accustomed to being fed. There wasn’t too much space for the cattle to wander; the dairymen needed to get their cows back, as Sunnyside historian Amy O’Hair pointed out to me in a recent conversation, so that they could be fed and milked.

“These were urban dairies, remember,” O’Hair said. “They weren’t riding after their cows on horseback, like they had done on the Ranchos.” 

Nicholas Hansen’s dairy, the California dairy, was located at the intersection of Amazon and Vienna Avenue, across from John Linehan’s dairy, the Green Valley Dairy, also on Vienna Avenue. Although spacious by today’s reckoning, there were still opportunities for Hanson and Linehan to have neighborly chats, perhaps over the fences that bordered their properties, where they may have found time to discuss topics pertinent to urban dairying, such as which breed of cattle was best suited for the scrubby grass land of the Excelsior or how to prevent milk fever, or even comparing notes on the best way to evade inspection by Milk Inspector James Dockery, then hot on the trail of all impure milk.

The Excelsior, a great place to conspire because of its remote location, was also the perfect place to spread zoonotic diseases, like tuberculosis. Opportunities abounded for the bacteria in the hinterlands of the Excelsior, no matter how open the place was. A cow, infected with the bacteria, could easily infect a dairyman, leaning against its flank in a milking shed, or a child, if that child drank its milk.

As we’ve spent the last year learning, the Victorian fear of unclean miasmas has some basis in truth: the viral load of the Delta variant of COVID-19 lingers in the air with the power to infect the pulmonary system of other human beings and so does tuberculosis, specifically Mycobacterium bovis (Bovine Tuberculosis) a strain discovered by the American epidemiologist Theobold Smith between 1896-98, four years after the tubercle bacillus had been first identified by the German epidemiologist Robert Koch. During the drive to regulate dairies in San Francisco, there were contemporaneous debates over the exact pathogenicity of M bovis and its connnection to pulmonary tuberculosis. Koch, who vacillated on this last point (he doubted the connection) developed tuberculin in 1890, and while it didn’t cure human tuberculosis (he had claimed it would), it did, and still does, detect the presence of the bacilli.

That year, in Stockton, California, C. A. Ruggles, President of the State Board of Health and Dr. Orvis, a veterinarian, administered the first tuberculin test in California to a herd of cows at the state insane asylum, determining that out of 11 cows, eight were afflicted with the disease. One calf was found to be “literally filled with” the large, very disgusting granulomas characteristic of M. bovis, which develop as a defense against the invading bacteria. The sick cows were quickly killed. “These tests are said to be the first in the state,” reported the SF Chronicle, promising that more tests would be done.

And it was so. Relieved to have something- anything!- to control the incidence of the pathogen, and the intransigence of the bóaire, Koch’s failed cure was put to good use to regulate the health of the city’s cows, who lived wherever a plot of land could be staked out. Actual pasturage was negotiable; historian Khaled Bloom estimated that a total of 4,324 cows were kept in the city’s 106 known dairies in 1880, many of which were located in the middle of the city. Four thousand cows, a number that came from the 1880 federal agricultural census, was likely an undercount, something Bloom acknowledges, and a fact lamented in 1888 by Richard G. Sneath, owner of the Jersey Farm Dairy in San Bruno. He claimed there were as many as 7,000 to 8,000 cows in the county of San Francisco. Sneath called these places “filthy” and complained that they were controlled by “foreigners” who fed their cows on brewery slops.

These slop-fed cattle produced more than 22,000 gallons of milk from the city dairies in Cow Hollow, Corona Heights and along the Mission and San Bruno roads, from urban “milk dealers” like Hansen and Linehan, whose dairies were about hour away from downtown San Francisco on horseback. Milk inspections had started the year before, enraging the dealers, but at Dockery hadn’t visited the dairies themselves. Hansen and Linehan may have felt protected from Dockery’s intrusions by the remoteness of their dairies. But things were about to change. Had Hansen or Linehan read the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 4, 1896, they may have realized that new round of inspections was about to descend on their dairies.

Hundreds of Cows Must Be Killed” ran a story in the SF Call, advising city residents of the decision taken by the Board of Health to apply the tuberculin test throughout the county. At least 300 cows in the city and county were said to be afflicted. The board, who had been “quietly gathering information” on feral dairymen and their diseased cattle-Linehan, a known scofflaw, was probably at the top of this list – assured the public that everything was under control. Rules and regulations were being formulated to govern the actions of Board of Health inspectors Dockery, Meat Inspector Ben Davis and Dr. Creely, who had been hired that week as the Board’s veterinary surgeon. It took more than three months for the plan to be put into action. 

Sick Cows at the Almshouse

On April 17th, the Board of Health’s Great Cow Cull of 1896 began. That day, Creely, Dockery, and Davis arrived at the San Francisco Almshouse to test the cows who provided the inmates with milk. Politics may have dictated the Almshouse as the first stop in the Cow Cull:  Philip L. Weaver, the superintendent, was on his way out after James H. Budd, the newly elected Democratic Governor, took office a year earlier. Budd had political favors to pay back after his election, and the Almshouse was a gift he intended to give to his friend Edward “Ned” Reddy, a “close friend” of the governor, and brother to former State Senator Patrick Reddy, both born into an immigrant Irish family from County Carlow.

Mayor Sutro defended the beleagured superintendent, charging Governor Budd, and the governor’s men on the Board of Health with shutting Sutro out of the ensuing investigation into the health issues afflicting the almshouse. Weaver, an “overbearing man who gave himself airs”, according to a former Almshouse doctor, had spent his year prior to the inspection simultaneously fending off calls for his removal and begging the city for money to feed the Almshouse cattle, as well as his inmates, an awful state of affairs brought about for the simplest of reasons. There was no money in the city’s treasury, it having been exhausted after unrestrained election spending.

As Weaver explained in a letter sent to Mayor Sutro on April 26, 1895, “Our cattle and horses are hungry and we have no feed. We have three days’ stock of flour on hand and no more will be delivered on your contract when that is gone, and 900 people crying for bread.

Dr. Fitzgibbon from the Board of Health candidly admitted that Weaver’s tenure was at an end, simply because of the patronage politics and the ruthlessness of the Democratic machine.

It has practically been decided…to make the change and give the place to Mr. Reddy, whose brother secured Governor Budd’s promise to that effect. We have nothing to say about Mr. Weaver’s management of the institution, which I believe to have been excellent, but things have shaped them that way, and unless something is brought  up to change the present condition of affairs the change will be made.”

Hence the inspection: although it was in line with official policy and reflected real anxieties over public health, it was also politically expedient. The Chronicle called the inspection a “hecatomb.” They weren’t wrong about the sacrificial aspect of it: the victims were all unwilling. The cows, who suffered, were sacrificed to public welfare; the resentful superintendent saw his career killed, and the city’s dairymen saw their financial well-being offered up for a still-shaky theory that M bovis killed children, a hypothesis that was being debated in academic conferences, far from the rural fields of the Excelsior District, where all that the dairy men understood was that they were going to lose a lot of money.

On the evening of April 15, the hecatomb commenced. Testing cows with tuberculin was a lengthy and arduous process. It took Creely, Dockery and Creely’s nephew, Andrew Harrigan, three full days to test 34 cows. After securing the cows in the barn- partly to ensure none of them were let loose by Weaver- the men took the cow’s temperatures on the hour for eight hours. On Thursday morning, a sample of milk was taken for the city bacteriologist Mr. Spencer to inspect, and 2 centimeters of tuberculin was injected into the neck of each cow. There was another eight-hour wait, to see if there was a rise in temperature, which was a sign that the cow was infected. If the temperature had risen above 104, the cow’s fate was decided.

Meat Inspector Davis, who had clashed with Creely before, declared that there was a simpler way to tell if a cow was consumptive.

Before they used tuberculin,” Davis said, “I would just run a cow on a jump (line) for about thirty yards, and if she coughed, why, I would just hit her on the head with an ax. It never failed, and I will guarantee a man to pay him the value of his cow every time I kill one under that test and no consumption is found.” It was a quicker way of doing the work, he opined, but since the government had stepped in, the old way of doing things had to change.

The old way of killing cows hadn’t changed. Humane methods of dispatch depended on the slaughterer’s skill with a gun, or an axe. The cows, after having needles stuck in their necks and thermometers thrust up their bums, were in no mood to play nice with the health officials. On the first day of the inspection, Davis got kicked and Creely had to jump down a drain hole to escape the bovine wrath of the cows. 

The three-day inspection was over by 4 pm on Friday April 17th. 31 cows were declared unfit. The next day, on a windy and sunny Saturday afternoon, the cows were led outside to the pasture. 

For four grim and bloody hours, each cow was dispatched. Creely, a humane man, who was described by the Chronicle as “the Ko-Ko of the occasion” (the Mikado had opened the year before) killed the first cow with an axe. It was not a clean kill. The cow kicked as it died, almost striking the face of an Almshouse attendant. After that, Creely insisted that a single shot to the head was the most humane method. 

The next cow, old and white, understood what was afoot and ran around the yard in a panic. After calming the animal with some alfalfa, Creely drew a police revolver “borrowed so long ago from the police department that he imagines it’s his own,” the Chronicle reported snidely. (The editors of the Chronicle plainly despised Edward Creely, and never missed an opportunity to throw a jibe his way.) Creely took aim, and fired. The shot went wide of the mark, causing the cow to panic, and run. Creely followed her with the drawn gun, trying to find his mark as the chaotically moving target dashed back and forth. Wheeling around with the loaded gun in his hand, which prompted his colleagues scatter, Creely shot the cow point blank through the brain. This went on until he ran out of ammunition. Then he used an axe. In this terrible way, the cows were slaughtered, the men and the grass splashed with blood and the carcasses of the cows dissected then and there in the gruesome pasture. 

The lungs of the cows were displayed to the journalists from the Call and the Chronicle as proof of the necessity of the slaughter. “The little white patches and protruding buttons told their own story,” reported the Call, which also mentioned the financial toll the sacrifice had taken from the Almshouse. In all, it would cost $1,200 to replace the dead cows. The 70 to 80 gallons of milk they provided daily for the inmates needed to be sourced elsewhere.

Superintendent Weaver fretted over this and other things, too, namely his regret that inspections hadn’t happened sooner. His regret was probably real, although he was also in mourning for his career. According to the SF Call, the inspection came about because of a tip from a disgruntled ex-inmate, who’d been evicted by Weaver on the grounds that he was fit enough to work. Weaver blamed the poor condition of the cows on another Almshouse employee who hadn’t bought the bran feed Weaver had told him to, though with what money is unclear. In any case, the superintendent’s protestations were in vain. He was relieved of his position as superintendent by the Board of Health the next month and formally replaced by Reddy. Weaver argued his case until the year he died, in 1902.

So much was sacrificed that day- a man’s career, as well as the cow’s lives. The elderly white cow running for her life at the end of a rope in the city of St. Francis was no longer a symbol of wealth and prosperity, but instead a symbol of disease, city corruption, and death. Her destruction should have assured the good fortune of her executioner, Dr. Creely. But “politics” does often creep toward an uncertain end, and there is certainly nothing new about unscrupulous or morally weak individuals seeking personal gain in newly created political environments. The cow lords, while on the defense, still had power.

Instead of seeing the Board of Health as a tool to fight disease, Creely may also have seen it as a new platform to burnish his reputation, and strengthen his influence. The glanders controversy four years earlier had shown him that without status and influence, telling the truth could create the kind of trouble that brought men like Philip Weaver down. Public health and the truth mattered to Edward Creely, but he was aware, crucially, of its often high cost: community censure and opprobrium from those on the wrong side of reform. Navigating the entrenched influence of the milk dealers was a tricky business, as Creely’s next inspection at Nicholas Hansen’s dairy–his last–would show. 

Sept 26, 2021: posted as the shadows lengthen and the air chills. Ironically, I became lactose intolerant this summer. Mooo. Many thanks to Amy O’Hair, a true Dairy girl, for her meticulous work, listening ear, and wonderful writing. Also Hiya Swanhuyser, LisaRuth Elliott, & Tarin Towers. Also you, for reading.
Sources and recommended reading are:
Sunnyside History Project https://sunnysidehistory.org/
“Market-Oriented Agriculture in Nineteenth Century San Francisco” by Khaled Bloom
Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, Vol. 44 (1982), pp. 75-91
Published by: University of Hawai’i Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24040265
“Dairying in California” by Richard G. Sneath, The Overland Monthly,1888 ,https://archive.org/details/sim_overland-monthly-and-out-west-magazine_1888-04_11_64/page/386/mode/2up
I believe tuberculin was distributed by the Bureau of Animal Industry, a branch of the USDA created by an act of congress on May 29, 1884, to establish “reliable official information concerning the nature and prevalence of animal diseases and of the means required to control and to eradicate them, and, also, the necessity of having an executive agency to put into effect the measures necessary to stop the spread of disease and to protect the animal industry of the nation”.

From Feminism to Famine: LookHuman and the meming of St. Patrick’s Day

(NOTE: This is an essay I wrote on St Patricks Day in 2017 and posted on Medium, and am reposting here four year later. LookHuman still have really stupid tee shirts for sale, but not the tee shirt discussed below. )

This month, Irish America was alerted to the fact that LookHuman, an online retailer based in Columbus, Ohio, had created a special tee-shirt for St. Patrick’s Day with the following message: “My potatoes bring all the Irish to the Yard. And they’re like that famine was hard”. I looked at the shirt, and wondered how much anger (and I got some: outrage is a natural resource I’m rich in) I should expend. I have to pick my battles. There’s no shortage of bullshit in America these days and the badly punctuated meme-shirt was so loutish, and stupid that it was hard feeling anything other than scorn.

It’s seasonal, this outrage. It starts in February when retailers start selling their supremely crappy St. Patrick’s Day-themed merchandise. Cinco de Mayo gets it just as bad. As soon as we get clear of the green-tinted juggernaut that is St. Patrick’s Day, shirts with messages like “Keep Calm and Swallow the Worm” or “Drinko de Mayo” will become available.

I was familiar with LookHuman’s meme-y-merchandise because their shirts were being worn at the Women’s March in San Francisco. So how did this company get from Feminism to Famine? Why did someone think of combining Kelis’s song of sexual confidence with the worst disaster ever to befall Ireland? Did some designer, high on the reality of living in a Trumpian world, decide to design the most offensive tee-shirt they could think of? That’ll teach those dead people to whine about their lack of food! And what, pray tell, does LookHuman’s stated mission of giving “everyone the ability to express their passions, personalities, and identities, no matter what kind of nerd they are” mean? Are Famine nerds a thing?

Not so coincidentally, my friend Vicky had given me a pile of vintage St. Patrick’s Day-themed postcards a week earlier, and in the aftermath of the Famine/Milkshake shirt, I developed a new-found respect for the artisanal quality of the postcards and their messages, which wished good things for people, like health, wealth, and safety. Among the cards were several ink-tinted images of the lakes of Killarney that were printed around the turn of the 19th century. I squinted at the tiny words printed on the margin: “Lawrence, Publisher, Dublin”, it read.

“Lawrence, Publisher” turned out to be an entrepreneur named William Mervin Lawrence, who was born in the GPO and opened a photo studio on Sackville Street opposite his birthplace in 1865. Lawrence hired a photographer named Robert French, who took nearly 30,000 images of Ireland, mostly landscapes, from about 1870 to 1910. French retired in 1914. Two years later, the events of the Easter Rising destroyed Lawrence’s studio and the images that were stored there. Thankfully, most of French’s landscapes survived, having been stored offsite.

French, a Dubliner, knew his country well. The Lakes of Killarney were a perennial favorite in cities like San Francisco, which hosted many immigrants from Kerry. French took full advantage of the landscape in Killarney, and the lakes that thread their way between the valleys. One postcard, entitled, “At Innisfallen”, shows a classic composition: the drama of the landscape and its lake is offset by a fisherman sitting quietly in his boat, near the shore. It is very peaceful.

French also took pictures of other things. “Eviction Kilrush” is the name of a picture he took in County Clare in July 1888. On that day, the cottage of Matthias McGrath was destroyed by a battering ram wielded by agents in the employ of McGrath’s landlord, who wanted to “clear” his estate of tenants. McGrath was evicted, and his family arrested for resisting the eviction process. “Eviction Kilrush” is one of a series of photos that shows evictions in County Clare during the Land Wars, a roughly thirty-year period of agrarian resistance. The period was defined by the struggle of Ireland’s tenant farmers to rid themselves of landlordism, the system by which the land of Ireland — and the lives of the Irish who depended on that land — were held in the grip of absentee landlords.

The Land War is a thrilling episode in Irish history and if you don’t know anything about it, you should. In comparison to earlier, unsuccessful movements for national sovereignty, the Land War is notable for its success. In his book “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World“, Marxist historian Mike Davis lauds Michael Davitt, a supremely humane man with one arm, for his brilliance in organizing Ireland’s tenant farmers, many of whom only narrowly survived the famine. Davitt, and his champion in Parliament, Charles Stuart Parnell, launched the movment in 1878 in County Mayo, Davitt’s home county, with meetings between Davitt, Parnell, sympathetic clergy and tenant farmers. They organized tenant farmers into a sustained and disciplined movement that fought for and won the Three F’s: Fair Rent, Fixed Tenure and Freedom for the tenant farmer to sell his interest in his holding. In San Francisco, it was a popular cause: fundraisers were held at the Grand Opera House and local branches were quickly formed. Branch Number 1 of the Irish National Land League held a meeting in October of 1881, raising $136 dollars, which would be about $4,000 today.

This wasn’t enough to help the tenants in County Clare. By the time French showed up with his huge camera and supply of glass plates, 200 tenants of Captain Hector S. Vandeleur who had been negotiating for reduced rent for over a year recived eviction notices. Later, the battering ram was dragged from cottage to cottage as the land clearances on Vandeleur’s estate began in earnest on the morning of July 18. Twenty-two people were evicted from Kilrush, and their homes destroyed. “Eviction Kilrush”, “The Battering Ram Does Its Work” and other pictures he took that day immortalize the abuses of the landlord system in Ireland, and depict very clearly what was at stake during the land wars. French’s attitude towards the brutal evictions he witnessed aren’t made explicit in the curatorial notes that accompany the images, which are held by the National Library of Ireland. But his photos show how picturesque ruins get made. Entire communities got disposed of, leaving destroyed cottages behind, which lived on in 20th-century postcards as symbols of Olde Ireland, in craggy, picturesque landscapes.

Mathias Magrath’s house, Moyasta, Co.Clare after destruction by the Battering Ram. French, Robert, 1841-1917 The Lawrence Photograph Collection

Ruins are a favored haunt of tourists, but the stories behind them are almost always terrible. An image of thatched cottage, complete with cows is quaintly pleasing. The picture entitled “Donegal Natives” taken by French is too: just look at the cottages, with their neat thatch, and the stone wall behind them. If you look long enough, though, your eyes might refocus on the chain of taut hands of the “natives” whose controlled anxiety emanates from this picture. Who looked at this picture? Did they see ruins?

“Donegal Natives”. French, Robert, 1841-1917 photographer.The Lawrence Photograph Collection, National Library of Ireland

Time does not heal all wounds, no matter how much of it has elapsed. Calling the famine “hard” shows that LookHuman, for all its edgy politically-themed “expressiveness” has no stomach for understanding anything, not feminism and certainly not famines. (Don’t buy your political slogans off the damn rack, people. Make your own tee shirt.) I wanted to know the story behind the tee-shirt, but unsurprisingly neither LookHuman, nor its parent company Print Syndicate, would answer requests for an interview from me, preferring to cower behind their hastily offered (we’re so sorry! we didn’t meant offend!) apologies.

A couple of days after mulling all this over, I ran into a friend on the street. I told him about the tee-shirt. We agreed that we missed the days when St. Patrick’s Day cards were just corny.

“What’s wrong with wishing people good health? Or good fortune?” he asked. “What’s wrong with wishing people luck?”

I agreed. But it’s funny: luck makes me feel wary. My family was lucky. But for every lucky family, there were thousands that were not. I know something about the famine and what it did to people, their families, their communities, customs, memories, their days and nights, the music they made, the love in their hearts, their gossips and quarrels and human needs, and their terrible fear, and bewildering grief. What kind of luck is that? I wonder whenever the subject of the famine comes up.

I never heard the famine called An Gorta Mor until I took a beginning Irish language class at New College. We learned it from Mrs. O’Hara, our Dublin-born múinteoir. The first sentence I ever said in Irish in her class was something I’ve said — along with billions of other human beings — so many times in my life, that I figured it would be a sentence I’d actually use.

Tá ocras orm, I said. I am hungry.

Reposted March 7, 2021

The Italian: Francisco Cerini and bottle dealing in San Francisco 1858-1880

“Information on the origin and early development of the secondhand bottle trade is elusive.” Jane Busch, Re-use in the Eighteenth Century Second Time Around: A Look at Bottle Re-use

Francisco Cerini, my great-great grandfather, was born in Florence Italy in 1836, and was living in San Francisco by 1858. An adult relative told me that Francisco, or “Frank” as he called himself in America, arrived in California with a bible and a gun, and on the run from Garibaldi, but this is doubtful. Francisco may have flounced out of Italy in a fit of anti-Republican pique, but both items were purchased in San Francisco. He probably bought the gun, a Colt 1851 Navy revolving pistol, first.

There was one object he did arrive with: a pendant with a portrait of himself as a child, wide-eyed, poised and dressed in a manner that looks vaguely orientalist, but is perhaps authentically Florentine. He looks like the son of a prosperous house, one well-off enough to commission a portrait of their young child. Much later, someone had the portrait made into a full-sized painting, which ultimately made its way to my grandparent’s house in Newport Beach, where it hung on the wall behind the sofa.

Francisco Cerini, circa 1844, as a child in Florence, Italy

I think it was from his avidly anti-Communist grandson, Bunster Creely, in whose house the portrait hung, that the dramatic story of Francisco’s escape from Italy originated. But it’s all guesswork. The guy who would know—Francisco—said nothing of the matter, nothing that survived the ages, anyway. He died of the DT’s in 1880 leaving behind a widow, four children and an empty bible, stripped of information and as meaningless as an unused date book.

Francisco must have had fond memories of Florence because he named his daughter, my great-grandmother, after the place. Both she and the name “Cerini” which we have since used as a first name, are the only signifiers of that long-ago home– that and polenta, which my father called “cornmeal mush” when I was a child. My grandfather Bunster called it by its real name and had a habit of saying “po-lenty of polenta,” in a resigned manner when my grandmother served it to him.

Florence Cerini Creely, age 18. Photo taken in Oakland, CA, 1888

Francisco left Italy as young man, maybe 20 or so, leaving behind a family history we know nothing of, only the trivial fact that his surname means  “candle” or “match”. Come appiccare un incendio senza cerini? How to start a fire without matches? How do you set your life aflame in a barely constructed city, far away from where you were born?

In those days, San Francisco did nothing but burn. In 1858, the year Francisco first appears in the city directory, seven fires ripped through the Barbary Coast, near Sullivan’s Alley, now called Jason Court, which was where he first lived. Sullivan’s Alley was a short walkway between Jackson and Pacific and a notoriously bad street. It’s easy to romanticize the Barbary Coast now that it’s been tamed by the passage of time and self-guided walking tours. But when Francisco was living there, it was a tense and terrible place where murder, robbery and rape frequently occurred. It was also full of saloons, which might have given him his metaphorical match. Francisco Cerini was a bottle dealer.

I don’t know if  Francisco mucked around in refuse heaps, or if he left that for others, but whatever he did, he wasn’t facing too much competition. Only five or six bottle dealers show up in the city directory during his twenty-two year career. Bottle dealing was apparently a niche trade in a sprawling recycling enterprise that mined the city for its rubbish, like the Sierra was mined for gold. In fact, the two are often compared to each other, in recognition of the fact that placer mining, and scavenging have a lot in common. When Francisco found an intact J.H. Cutter whiskey bottle, did he experience a sense of striking it rich? (Was he prone to compulsion?)

Discarded glass bottles were certainly easier to find than gold. In the first decade of the city’s existence, demand for bottles was high, and supply was low. When Francisco arrived in San Francisco, there were roughly 60,500 people in it, and none of them was making glass. It is a demanding medium that needs skilled labor and a large factory equipped with melting pots, furnaces and enough fuel to combine silica, lime and soda ash and coloring ingredients into glass. The resulting bottle had to be sturdy enough to hold whatever you were decanting into it, alcohol mostly, but also camphene, laudanum, linseed oil, vinegar, bitters and later, milk.

It took more than four months for anything to arrive from the east coast in those days, so until glass production kicked into gear in San Francisco, one had to make do with what one could find, or pay someone else to find.  Hence the bottle dealer: a man who knew where the bottles were buried, knew how to get them in bulk, and had enough determination to dominate the trade. My great-great grandfather, who was a highly motivated individual, must have walked around Chinatown and the waterfront among the brothels and saloons, looking for bottles, seeing glints of amber and green, and experiencing the same kick of visceral pleasure I feel when I find something of value that has been discarded in the Mission District.

1865 advertisement for broken glass from the Pacific Glass works.

Baker and Cutting, the first glassworks in San Francisco, opened in 1859, a year after Francisco got into the trade. They failed fast and closed in less than a year. A year later, the San Francisco Glass Works opened.  “Number of men employed, 10. Capacity, 4,000 pounds per day. An abundance of material for the manufacture is to be found in this State, and a remunerative field is thereby open to the enterprising proprietors of these works.” Francisco and his neighbor, a man named Joseph Zanetti who was also a bottle dealer in Sullivan’s Alley, were among those enterprising men, along with Guiseppe Tomosino who had a bottle depot in Sullivan’s Alley.

Francisco does not appear in the 1860 census or the city directory. He may have been displaced by a fire that broke out in the alley in July, or the neighborhood might have been so insane that census workers avoided it. He re-surfaces in the 1861 directory as an employer, with Guiseppe Tomosino as his sole employee. Both were living at 813 Montgomery. Francisco had since diversified and was also dealing in burlap bags that according to my grandmother’s precise notes were used for vegetables (One of his buddies was a vegetable dealer named Luigi Giannini, whose son Amadeo founded the Bank of Italy, later the Bank of America.) He also dealt in rags, which were valuable to paper mills, like the Pioneer Paper Mill, whose depot was at Davis and California, then as now, was a brisk 15-minute walk from Francisco’s place of business on Montgomery street.

Francisco was a relatively well-off man, and his career as a bottle dealer doesn’t square with my understanding of that. As a child I was told by another adult, dreaming of the lost past, of the Cerini house, which had a carriage stone with a large “C” engraved on it. The house and the stone was located in Oakland’s Central Homestead, on a city block that Francisco also owned. Bottle dealing might have been enough to start some kind of life in the growing city, but was it lucrative enough to allow Francisco to purchase a city block?

The Daily Alta reporting on the scavenging operations at Oregon street below Drumm, allowed as it might be.

It is not a business to which a man of refined taste and a delicate sense of smell and touch would be expected to take with any degree of satisfaction, but nevertheless it is evidently a paying one,” the Alta reported in 1867, adding that “… many a miner delving wearily in the mud along the foothills of the Sierra, and even more of the more pretentious merchant and stock operators of our city would willingly exchange profits with these rank smelling rakers of refuse…”

Maybe. But turning a profit depended on how intact the bottle was. Francisco may have sold broken glass to the Pacific Glass Works, which used shattered bottles as “flux” in the clay pots used to manufacture glass. They paid one cent for a pound for green and black glass. 100 pounds of broken glass, which works out to about 30 dollars, is both a lot of glass and a lot of effort. But even if Francisco was a sinister “padrone”, a Fagan-type character who used child labor to scavenge for him (which hopefully he wasn’t) broken glass was not a stable foundation for financial security.

Family can be. It’s likely that Francisco met his future wife, Mary Cassandra Conley, because of trash. Mary was the daughter of Martin and Celia Conley, Irish immigrants from County Galway, who came to San Francisco before 1860 from Massachusetts, where Mary was born in 1848. Martin was a junk dealer who lived with his family on the opposite side of town from Francisco at 638 Brannan street between 5th and 6th streets, across from the trainyards and beyond those, the open and garbage-strewn banks of Mission Bay.

I have no idea exactly where Mary, who had enormous blue eyes, met her handsome Italian husband, but narrow streets with no cars make small towns out of growing cities and l’amore trova sempre la strada. In 1862, the two were married. By 1863, they had their first child Giovanni, and shortly after that, Francisco moved his business to a warehouse at 207 Davis and his family to 455 Tehama street near 6th, where his daughter Florence was born in 1868. His in-laws lived less than a mile away, which is maybe why the family lived in the Irish South of Market and not in the Italian neighborhoods on the north side of the city.

In those days, the view down south on 6th street was an uncomplicated one. When Francisco headed out in the morning to start his workday, he hitched his horse to his wagon in his barn, and made a decision about where he’d go that day. He could have turned left toward the sparkling waters of Mission Bay. Along its banks sprawled a community of les glaneurs, garbage gleaners living in ramshackle huts and making some kind of living from the city’s refuse. This area was called “Dumpville” and the Conleys lived on the edge of it. Dumpville spread over twenty acres from Channel street between 6th and 7th streets through the trainyards and wastelands of Mission Bay and was rich in raw–very raw– materials. Broken glass recovered from the site was shipped to China, and cans were smelted on the spot at a plant near Channel and 6th street.

Martin Conley and Francisco did business with this community of city miners, which formed the bottom tier of refuse collection.  Both men, however,  occupied the middle tier by virtue of being property owners. Francisco owned a five-room house and warehouse, and his father-in-law, who was once described as a “pedlar” in voter registration documents, declared ownership of $5,000 of real estate in the 1870 census.

“Dealing” and “peddling”, both relative descriptions, based on biases inherent in census- and self- reporting, are terms that conjure up images of itinerant, almost picaresque rootlessness. Neither word really captures the commercial or social nuance of a life supported by monetizing the city’s garbage, which is what allowed both men to purchase property–land and houses– in the city. This was the basis of real wealth and the ticket out of the environs of Dumpville.

Reselling bottles to wholesalers was probably how Francisco made his money. If he headed downtown in his horse-drawn wagon to his tin-roofed warehouse, he was there to do business with merchants in the wholesale district. His customers are now the legacy merchants of early San Francisco: Ernest R. Lilienthal who owned the Cyrus Noble Distillery, was a client and so was Arpad Haraszthy, the owner of Haraszthy & Co, and son of Agoston Haraszthy, the Hungarian who is credited with producing California’s first sparkling wine. To Haraszthy, Francisco sold his precious cache of used champagne bottles, making it possible for the family to bottle and sell their domestically produced champagne.

Francisco Daneri and Henry Casanova, importers and jobbers of wines and liquors, 27-29 California.

My energetic bottle-dealing great-great grandpa was one of many sole proprietors in the city at that time who helped develop something we like to call a “supply chain”, a mostly invisible amenity of cities (“invisible” until items like toilet paper vanish from market shelves.)  In the years before the advent of the transcontinental railroad, wine and liquor merchants needed supply chains to get their hooch in a bottle and into the hands of their paying customers. But how much money was a single bottle was worth? Who knows? As of this writing, this extremely granular fact has been impossible to pin down. Business records were destroyed en masse in the 1906 earthquake, along with everything else, and so the hypothetical line item in F. Daneri & Co’s business ledger showing how much they paid my great-great grandfather for a single bottle will have to remain a hypothetical.

But I have that exact rarity: business records that survived because Francisco died in Alameda County. Neither the handwritten inventory of his warehouse or the list of merchants who owed him money sheds any light on how much he made per bottle, simply the sums of money that Haraszthy, Lilienthal and other merchants owed his estate. The inventory does show the kind and quantity of bottles that Francisco had on hand at the time of his death: 1,000 champagne bottles, among others, as valuable as a dragon’s hoard because they cost more to manufacture. Champagne bottles needed extra glass to provide buttressing against the effervescent kick of the bubbles. A bottle could cost .10 to .12 cents to make. It’s reasonable to assume a resale value of .5 to .7 cents for a champagne bottle, and maybe more.

It was harder to resell a bottle if it had a business name and address stamped on it. These personalized bottles circulated through the city, like colorful business cards. A plain bottle with no label could be resold to anyone, but merchants who paid glassworks good money– $35 to $40 dollars– to have custom molds of their names and addresses made might have been tetchy about their stuff. A name is a promise of quality and a claim of ownership. The process of buying a personalized bottle back may have been seen as something shady, like paying a ransom.

B.F. Connelly thought so, anyway. Connelly, a man who sold soda water, ran a daily ad in the North Bay papers, declaring his determination to deal directly with the appropriation of his private property. Saloon keepers and others with a steady supply of bottles would also sell to bottle dealers, who in turn sold to anyone, including their client’s competitors. If you an imagine a Hoteling bottle being sold to Francisco by a saloon keeper, who then sold it to the Cyrus Noble Distillery, you’ll have some idea of the ways in which recycling undercut bottles becoming privatized, and also a reason that bottle dealers fell under suspicion.

Paying to get your property back might have been galling, but there were other reasons to look askance at refuse dealing, like theft. Bottle warehouses and junk shops were easy places to part with ill-gotten goods. Scrap metal stripped from train yards, books, jewelry, street furniture–anything that could be carried off–were often redeemed for at least a part of their value in junk shops.

In 1871, Assemblyman Charles Goodall introduced a bill to prevent junk dealers from fencing stolen goods received from “hoodlumatic” looking young men, demanding that no junk dealer purchase anything from anyone under the age of 16, unless they were accompanied by an adult who was 21 or older and who was prepared to vouch for the provenance of the items. The state adopted his legislation, which impelled junk dealers to register all sales in a “six quarto” notebook.

B.F. Connolly’s warning to bottle dealers.

Francisco fell afoul of this law in 1872 and was convicted on a misdemeanor charge for failing to “keep a record of his business purchases as a junk dealer” and ordered to appear for sentencing. This is the only time his business is mentioned in the city’s newspapers, a surprise for me. I have gotten used to seeing my other three great-great grandfathers’ businesses advertised. Francisco never ran a single ad, and after his slip up, never appears in the papers again.

In any case, glass was good to Francisco. That, and the rent he received from his house on Tehama street, allowed the Cerini family to move to Oakland, where Francisco made one of his characteristically expansive gestures by purchasing a city block bordered by Market and Myrtle streets, between 10th and 12th. He would live there for less than a decade.

Francisco’s bottle business could have been one of the enterprises that evolved into Recology, but he died of the delirium tremens in 1880, taking his dealership with him. His warehouse, which included a staggering array of bottles, including 35,000 absinthe bottles, was sold to C.J Pidwell and Co. He must have been on a daily bender for years–perhaps dealing in bottles led him to hitting the bottle. (Was drinking with his clients part of making a sale?) He was in very bad shape on May 11th, the day he or his wife Mary, whose middle name was Cassandra, summoned his lawyer and set his affairs in order. He made his last will and testament as he suffered through the seizures and hallucinations that accompany the DT’s and could only mark a shaky “X” instead of his signature. That “X” marks the spot where something of the man himself- his signature-could have peeked through the impersonal facts of his life as recorded in census records, probate documents and directory listings. He died on May 13th, at 8 pm, three days after making his will.

He was buried at St. Mary’s in Oakland, a quiet Catholic cemetery at the end of Howe Street. His estate paid nearly a thousand dollars for a 15-foot tall marble marker. This is his final resting place, and it contains multitudes, mostly Conleys: Mary and their still-born infant daughter are buried with him, as is Mary’s mother Celia, sister and brother-in-law Margaret and John Guerin, and children from her second marriage in 1883 to Nicholas Williams, a neighbor and witness to Francisco’s will.

Francisco’s untimely demise might actually have been quite timely. His death, and Mary’s marriage to Nicholas, a policeman and respected pillar of the community, allowed her to avoid the kind of fate that met other women whose husbands drank away the family fortune. Still, the site shows that his family mattered to Francisco. I think he wanted something simple and very human: to be with them. The grave and the empty bible survive as a post-mortem versions of the large house on Market street, which is long gone along with all the tensions it may have contained. For the man whose livelihood was built on glass, death came as a final, unbreakable certainty, unlike the pistol and the bottle, both only earthly defenses against life’s infinite unpredictability.

Francisco Cerini’s big marble marker in St. Mary’s Cemetary, Oakland, CA. Photo by Piet Bess, Francisco’s great-great grandson.

Written with love for my great-great grandfather Francisco Cerini who has always been a part of our family.
Busch, J. Second time around: A look at bottle reuse. Hist Arch 21, 67–80 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03374080
Many thanks to Eric McGuire and Richard Siri of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors for answering my questions and generally setting me straight about bottle resuse in San Francisco. https://www.fohbc.org/
Thanks and love to mia cara Miriam Childs, for providing accurate translations.

Elizabeth Creely in Jason Court, aka Sullivan’s Alley, in Chinatown, San Francisco, February 2021.

Vivre sa vie

Let me tell you about a beautiful Cancerian man who had the soulfulness and swagger of a young Frank Sinatra/with phosphene blue eyes back in the days when we were in love.

Usually, he shows up in Dreamland to smirk at me, and sidle around & make it clear that booting him from my life (he didn’t do anything wrong, by the way: I could not love) did not clear him out of my dreaming mind. Apparently, that’s a different process.

In my dream last night, he showed up, but this time it was because I was in his house. He looked at me and said and here you are, accusingly, resignedly, and I said yes I know unhappily.

He lived in a house with a fantastic & illuminated portal that glowed, under which he stood like a young American titan. The portal was designed with Modernity in mind and was from that time during the Depression, when America needed to hold onto the past and look to the future, and sanctioned buildings and cars that (Janus-like) were vintage and futuristic, like the Citroën he drove.

I felt like a Goddard anti-heroine fragile & otherworldly & out of time in that car, never knowing where I was. Once, we left Los Angeles at 3 in the morning, and drove down the 405. The sky was murky, and gas flared from refineries in those tough little cities on the outskirts of LA, just before the river. My head was in his lap & his hand was on my head as he drove like a hero through a disaster zone.

I rooted around in his house. There were things of mine in there, I realized. I found a pair of black sling-back open-toed pumps. I took them, knowing they were old but still belonged to me, and that they had been point of friction for his soul, an irritant, a mote. In the meantime, he was stalking around, attending to other things, talking to other people, keeping me in his peripheral vision at all times.

Suddenly, I saw that the fantastic portal had gotten dismantled & pulled down. He was standing on the other side and laughing at me. To get out, he said mockingly, you will have to jump in, and pointed down to a moat filled with water that I hadn’t noticed before. It formed a barrier between his house and places that were not his house.

I don’t think I hesitated. I am not afraid of water. I jumped, and was fully submerged in the turbulent moat for several heartbeats. Water rushed around me & over me, and I fought back, pushing it out of my way. Then I swam to him and looked up. He put his hand out and I took it. He pulled me out of the water, and we embraced. We held each other closely, so closely.

We have never done this, I thought.

It is so sad, he said, holding me. It is just so sad.

Mission Mumbles: Pandemic Time

At some point during the first Shelter in Place (I assume there will be more) my neighbor, the venerable Mrs. Rivera, who has lived in her apartment for more than a half a century, began greeting the neighborhood as her late afternoon ritual.

Mrs. Rivera is tiny, and very old with a cap of snow-white hair, and large dark eyes. She’s cheerful and gracious, except when her family, who take very good care of her, asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Then she screeches like an owl. Even now, after recovering from surgery, and stuck in her bedroom because of the plague, her interest hasn’t waned in the comings and goings of the neighborhood that she’s lived in for much of her life. Of course the coming and goings these days are much different.

I became aware of her new role as the 22nd Crossroads greeter last month as I sat at my desk, WFH, or trying to. The Mission district is distracting, and I am often distracted by the sidewalk dialogue, which is usually some weirdly confident FinTech guy discussing the uncertain future very energetically.

A couple weeks ago I heard someone say, “Are you OK?”. They didn’t sound OK, so I drew my drapes back to see what the matter was. A jogger stood before Mrs. Rivera’s window, looking concerned. I ran down my steps and looked up. There was Mrs. Rivera looking down at us.

“Hello! Hello!” she called out, sounding like Mark McKinney’s head crusher from Kids in the Hall. She waved. The jogger gaped at her, agog.

“Are you OK?” he asked again. He was confused by her sudden appearance and didn’t understand how his boring afternoon jog had suddenly turned into an improv game.

“She’s fine,” I told him. “She’s just saying hello to you.” I waved at her and walked back inside.

She kept it up. I’d be working at my desk, and would suddenly hear her muffled cry. “Hello! Hello!”  I’m crushing your head, I’d mentally add. The jogger — it was almost always a guy — would stop look up, squint and ask her if she was OK.

She was attracted to the joggers, who appeared in swarms after 3 pm. Both they and she were better than a clock, which I’ve discovered is useless after a certain point, there being little difference between 2 and 4 pm. Pandemic time as told by the position of the sun, the sounds in the neighborhood and the type of neighborhood activity is better than a clock at telling you where you’re at in the temporal scheme of things.

Mornings are silent. The early afternoon is merely quiet. At midday, people line up along Florida Street to get their groceries from Gemini Bottle Company, which has adroitly transformed itself from a high-end bottle shop to a general store (they can get you quail eggs, I was informed by the affable owner, and also basics like milk, bread, cheese and champagne.) Delivery services start distributing packages from their trucks.

Late afternoon brings the aforementioned joggers, dogs and their walkers and even less sound. The 7:00 pm church bells from St. Peter’s ring (or toll depending on one’s mood) as the evening salute to healthcare and other essential workers starts up. People clang bin lids, clap kitchen implements together and play “Taps” on a trumpet. This brings the curtain down on the day.

After that, people go inside, and the evening is ushered in. The night becomes tenderly hushed. The aural burden on the city’s soundscape has been lifted so much that at times as I sit outside in the evening, I hear voices from blocks away, clear and yet distant, the way voices sound in remote camping sites in the Sierra Nevada.

The night that two men were shot at 14th and Guerrero, my friends and I were sitting (distantly) around a backyard fire near Folsom and 25th. We turned our heads towards the sound of explosions in the manner of animals who, startled by a footfall, freeze in fearful anticipation. We weren’t hearing the gunshots, it turns out, just fireworks, but at that moment it was hard to tell. What simmers underneath the placid atmosphere is the dread knowledge that slow burning emergencies like this one will cause some people to lose their shit, murderously.

There are other sounds, too, less alarming — the heavy, slightly panicked sounds that joggers make, birdsong at odd hours (I heard a mockingbird singing at 8 pm), and the wind, rattling the dry trees late at night. It’s incredibly peaceful, for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve gone full circle in some ways. The city felt silent to me when I moved here in June of 1991, which may have had something to do with the fact that AIDS was en route to killing 20,000 people in San Francisco. Had I understood that, I would have translated the silence very differently.

I get it now, though.

A lot has happened, but very little time has passed. Most of what has happened still happens: the past seven weeks have been as repetitive as hand-washing, or the admonitions aimed at the current administration from public health advocates. This has not moved the needle one whit: Trump and his fellow cult members are unmoved by the I-Told-You-Sos’ issuing forth from scientists (who did.)

It’s impossible for me to draw any real conclusions about anything during this inconclusive moment. What will the future bring? Who knows? It feels as immobile as I do. Most nights, I sit on my porch looking through the scaffolding that’s left over from a lead abatement process long concluded but still standing because it’s non-essential to take it down. I don’t mind it. It frames the view, making ordinary neighborhood sights look as staged and eventful, like a New Yorker cover by Eric Drooker.

This matters, because I don’t know what I’ll remember about the spring of 2020 (or the year.) Which image will stick with me? Will it be the scene of domestic tranquility I’ve seen night after night as my neighbors sit down to dinner? Or will it be the woman I saw last week, striding through the cobalt-blue evening, silent as a huntress in the woods, carrying that elusive, highly-prized commodity: a roll of toilet paper.

Written on May 6th, 2020 in San Francisco on day 51. Rest in Peace, Courtney Brousseau. I am so sorry. 

The Mystery of Cherry Lake.

Cherry Lake is the name of a private residential community in Newport Beach. The lake that gives the place its name sits roughly 26 feet above sea level on the northern bluffs of the Upper Newport Bay. Its depth is 17 to 19 feet. It is long, rather than wide, and lozenge-shaped. A water-gate prevents debris from being swept into it from a depressed area that runs from the intersection of Santa Isabel Avenue and Redlands Street. There is a concrete dam on the southern edge that impounds the water with two six-foot pipes inside a catch basin. When it rains fiercely, the impounded water overflows into the pipes that run underneath Irvine Avenue at 23rd Street and through the Santa Isabella Flood channel that drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Twenty houses ring the lake and many of them have docks. “I’ve seen those docks underwater,” Rodney Medler told me. I’d left a note on his door—can I see the lake? —and he’d called and invited me over for a look. Medler, a retired property manager with the rakish good looks of the actor Sam Elliott, lives on 23rd Street. His backyard faces the lake, and he also has a camera trained on it, so that even when he isn’t outside, he can see it, the better to catch lake-crashers (they’ve had some). Cherry Lake has lily pads. When they die off in the fall, the tuberous roots, which are a ghastly greenish-white, float near the surface of the water, looking like the arms of a monster: the Cherry Lake kraken, perhaps. There’s a slide in the middle. People swim in the lake. It’s a special place.

Cherry Lake has a distinctly retro feel to it. The name hearkens back to the technicolor gloss of the post-war era in Newport Beach. Back then, the colors were bright, and women wore coral-colored lipstick as they water-skied in the bay or drank cocktails at the Village Inn on Balboa Island with their handsome husbands. In those day, everything was gay, and people lived their lives gaily, according to the local newspapers, the Newport Ensign and the Daily Pilot, who never hesitated to use this adjective to describe the mirthfulness of everyday life in Newport.

There was no water skiing on Cherry Lake, although there was fishing. “There are fish in there— bass, catfish, bluegill,” said Rodney. “We fish. But we just catch and release though. They’re like pets!”  A woodpecker flew across the lake just then, in a flash of black and white.

“Look at that!” said Rodney. “We get all kinds of birds here. We got some ospreys last year.”

“They must love the fish!” I said.

“Yeah,” Rodney said. He laughed. “We make it easy for ‘em.” The lake was different, he told me. Not only was the bottom unlined, it was spring-fed.

“There are six springs in the lake,” he told me genially. “When you swim, you can feel the water temperature drop. And that’s how you know.”

I’d heard about the spring: it was the lake’s creation myth. But there was nothing plausible about the lake (coastal lakes are relatively rare in California.) It was obviously man-made. But by who?

It was a joint effort. Lawrence E. Liddle, the property owner, joined forces with realtor Jack W. Mullan in 1956, according to papers filed with the Newport Beach Planning Commission. Together, they built a lake.

Picture of Jack W. Mullan ((1924-2004) from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Both men took their cues from the recent past. In 1955 the Vogel Company, a realty firm, advertised a “lakefront” home on Cherry Lake, with guaranteed swimming rights. A year later, the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture graded the area and installed a desilting basin. How Cherry Lake fared during this rough treatment is unknown. But community memory is tenacious, and the recollection of what the site had been probably encouraged Liddle and Mullan.

Liddle, born in British Columbia, kick-started the development of Cherry Lake, appearing as the principle of “Lake & Bay Park, Inc.”. He drops out of the historic record as represented by city filings and newspaper mentions after a time. Mullan, however, stayed in the news until his death in 2004.

Mullan, an adventurous man, was a big-time developer in Newport Beach. As the vice president of the California Real Estate Association in Orange County, he designed neighborhoods out of the raw materials of the Southern California landscape. His large-scale vision was acquired during the war after enlisting in the Air Force. He flew P-38’s, the workhorse fighter aircraft that could bomb landscapes or document them. A renowned photo reconnaissance pilot, Mullan was trained to do the latter, and continued to fly them after he and his wife moved to Germany after the war. Mullan managed the operations of the Aero Exploration Company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma a firm that specialized in aerial photography. The company had an outpost in Frankfurt, then at a low point in its long history, the cityscape having been almost entirely destroyed from 1939 to 1945 in nine separate bombing sorties.

The view from the skies above war-scarred world stayed with Mullan, who found civilian uses for his Air Force training in post-war Southern California. Mullan “pioneered the use of aerial surveys in subdivisions” according to his brief biography on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He moved several times before settling in Newport Beach, and once there, began shaping the landscape of semi-rural Orange County.

Mullan didn’t just develop housing tracts, he provided “estates”, with an emphasis on exclusivity, and all the trappings thereof. Golf courses, clubhouses, private roads and lakes were popular design features of the exurbs, built for those in white flight from diversifying city centers. Mullan took all this to its fullest expression, and masterminded Orange County’s most iconic mid-century housing developments, the “Carriage Estates” in Mesa Verde, for example, which were located on the bluffs above the Santa Ana River.

His most enduring legacy is his credit as the co-designer of a new kind of housing development, called a “condominium”. He oversaw the design of the first legal condo development in California called Vista Bahia, appropriately: they (still) overlook the top of the Upper Newport Bay, at University Drive and Irvine Avenue. I marveled at the grounds of Bahia Vista as a child, walking to swimming lessons at the YMCA. The grounds were impeccable with coarse St. Augustine grass and sculptural hedges of Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).

Bahia Vista embodied Orange County’s two great loves, an expansive view and privacy. Mullan built it in anticipation of the coming population surge, which involved more people demanding more of everything housing, parking, and recreation except density.

He had some defeats. In 1965, the year I was born, Mullan headed the Newport Dunes Hotel Corporation, which intended to develop the Newport Dunes into a Spanish-themed 244-room hotel and restaurant complex, covering 6.4 acres, and facing “the quiet waters” of the lower bay. A fifty-year sublease was planned between Mullan and the county, but the plan was scuttled in 1967 due to bureaucratic hesitance to commit to the costs of construction. The complex was never built.

But Mullan still built plenty, some of it above the Upper Newport Bay. Within a decade, the bluffs between Mesa Drive and East 16th Street were transformed from small farms divided by eucalyptus windbreaks and dotted with ramshackle buildings into family homes plotted on streets whose names memorialized the cities of old Europe: Grenoble, Marseilles and Seville.

1907 Long Beach Press ad for prime land in Newport Heights.

In the mid-fifties, Mullan founded a realty firm and opened an office on the peninsula at 434 32nd Street in Newport Beach, close to Via Lido and just around the corner from my grandfather’s office, the Weist-Creely company, then selling parcels of augmented mudflat on Lido Isle for under one hundred thousand dollars. They were joined by P.A. Palmer, R.C. Greer and others, all of whom were jockeying to sell the undeveloped and sometimes barely terrestrial land of Newport Beach.

In 1958, after he was granted a permit by the city of Newport Beach to post subdivision signs, Mullan hung two advertisements outside a temporary sales office near the old ravine at 23rd Street and Irvine Avenue, and ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times, alerting the public to a new development with natural allure. “Lots overlook the picturesque freshwater lake,” the ads boasted, mentioning that all utilities were undergrounded, and all architectural designs subject to approval, in order to maintain the harmoniousness of estate life. (There was no mention of the lake’s decidedly un-glamorous stint a year or two earlier as a desilting basin). He and Liddle dubbed the development the “Lake Park Estates.”

The “freshwater lake” was, of course, Cherry Lake, a name not in keeping with the nature of the place. There are no lakes called “kirsch see” in Germany, but there are a few Cherry Lakes in Canada, where Liddle was born. Arranging the site must have been a monumental effort: Mullan, Liddle and their engineers had their work cut out for them. Cherry Lake, and the houses arranged around it, sit on top of what once was a 25-to 40-foot ravine.

Ad for Lake Park Estates, Valley Times, July 8, 1960

After talking to Rodney, I developed an obsession with the mythic spring of Cherry Lake and went looking for proof of its existence. The Sherman Library, which is housed inside an adobe house on Dahlia Street in Corona Del Mar, specializes in the history of the Pacific Southwest, and Newport Beach. I sent them an email, asking hesitantly if they knew anything about it. Jill Thrasher, the head librarian, called me back almost immediately.

“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “Anything?” I said, feeling dumb (water? a hole in the ground?). I explained that I wanted to see the bluffs of the Upper Back Bay as they were in the early 19th-century, before they were developed.

“Creely,” she said. “That name sounds familiar. Are you related to Bunster Creely?” I told her I was. (The library holds some of my grandfather’s personal library.) She said she’d call me back, and I hung up with low expectations. I didn’t expect much. I’d hadn’t given her much to work with. She called back a day later, her librarian’s natural calm slightly ruffled.

“I think I may have found something you’ll really be interested in,” she said. I shuffled into the library that day feeling foolish—what did I want with that old lake, anyway?—and sat down. Jill had USGS coastal survey maps, or “T-sheets”, as big as posters, spread over the library’s long tables. She tapped one with her finger. “Here’s Cherry Lake,” she said.

The United States Geological Survey, which formed in 1879 to inventory the mineral and hydrological resources of the United States, did all historians (credentialed or not) a big favor by mapping the coast of California. The maps from 1927, 1935, 1942 and 1949 all showed, in spidery lines, a sharply incised ravine thrusting like an accusatory finger out of the Upper Newport Bay, and into Costa Mesa, to what was now Orange and Monte Vista Streets.

In 1927, ’35, and ’42, the area was shown as a marshland. Dotted and dashed lines were interspersed with tufted clumps of grass, symbols that looked exactly like the natural feature they were documenting.

In 1949, after the USGS started using color, a thin blue line appeared for the first time, running down the middle of the ravine. “That’s the symbol for a stream,” Jill said. The past swam before my eyes.

Excerpt of 1949 USGS Newport Beach map

In 1949, my hometown was still being assembled. Irvine, and Tustin Avenue, Santa Ana and Orange Streets were paved. Irvine had yet to cross the ravine and stopped at 23rd Street. Orange Coast College was platted and partially built. The bay had been labeled too. “The Narrows,” a poetic name reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s minutely detailed map of Earthsea, was an area directly downstream from the old creek.

Cherry Lake, it turns out, was much more than just a spring. It was mostly a creek that ran through a deep ravine, fed by the artesian belt that Newport Heights was known for. If there were springs, they likely watered the creek south and west of Santa Ana Avenue. There was still more to know: the 1935 T-sheet shows a wetland complex complete with a good-sized pond nestled into what is now the intersection of Bear and Bristol Streets in my home suburb of Mesa Del Mar. (It was still there in 1942.) Looking at the place in the terrain view on Google reveals the remnants of an old bluff curving around the lake between Private Road and Santa Isabella. Today, as you cross Irvine Avenue you are traveling above a ravine that once cracked this area in two.

The earliest appearance of the stream appears on an 1858 U.S. Survey plat map of James Irvine’s property. The northwestern bluffs of the mesa are indicated just under the boundary line with the notation “rolling land.” Another line with another tiny notation “stream of alkali water” appears to the north, cross-hatching the boundary line. But there are no symbols for a spring on any of the historic maps.

This mattered to me, because it mattered greatly to Cherry Lake residents, who, undeterred by the improbability of a spring-fed lake, have always insisted that their lake is spring-fed. But if the old maps didn’t provide proof, community memory did. In 1992, Mullan told Joanne Lombardo of the Newport Beach  Ad Hoc Historic Preservation Committee that Cherry Lake was the original well site for Newport and moreover gave the place yet another name: Indian Wells/Springs, which is how the area is identified in the official inventory. Naturally, I called the city.

“Springs? In that area? I’ve never heard that,” said Bob Stein, a civil engineer and hydrologist for the city. “We have seeps around there. But Cherry Lake is probably fed by normal urban slobber.” He meant runoff.

“It does have a relationship with the Upper Newport Bay. Have you seen the Santa Isabel Flood Channel? It’s kind of a pit,” he asked ruefully. “I’d love to do some restoration around there.” He was curious to know more. “Tell me what you find out!” he said.

“According to the map we have, there’s no outlet,” said Linda Candelaria from O.C. Flood control. “It’s a private lake. We don’t monitor it but we’re all kind of curious now. No one has heard of it. You’ve really piqued our interest.”

“Cherry Lake? A spring? We have no idea,” said the woman who sat behind the desk at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center in Upper Newport Bay. She looked puzzled. “I’ve never even heard of the lake.” A Parks and Recreation staffer, strolled over, regal in her khaki uniform, and said, “I wonder if that’s where the fish came from.”

“What fish?” I asked.

“We found a bunch of dying fish once, about three years ago. Over there,” she said and waved in the direction of Irvine Avenue. “They were just lying there. I wonder if they came from the lake.”

Carla Navarro, from the California Department of Fish and Game said in an email to me, “Cherry Lake is private, self-contained, and does not drain into the estuary.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be interested in anything you dig up. The lake has been a small mystery to me.”

Bob DeRuff, a former Engineer with the Irvine company, provided actual proof. He remembered the spring clearly because he touched the “natural, fresh water” himself.

“That’s a freshwater marsh,” he told me over the phone. “I used to have a copy of a 1875 hydrographic map. It showed the location of springs around the bay, which included that area. I got it from the Irvine Company—had it in a closet, in the back. One year, I moved and I didn’t take it,” he said sadly. “In high school (he went to Newport Harbor High), I remember a place along the road there, where Irvine is now, up around the lake. I remember getting out of the car with a friend. The land was wet. It was almost like a pasture, but there was a rock outcropping and there was water running out of the ground, over the rock. It must have been artesian enough that something was forcing it out. It was just running out.”

“The whole area was a gully,” he said. “I had a friend who built a house on Irvine Avenue, who had to fill the ground with pea gravel ‘cause the water ran so consistently. He needed it to percolate. You know, until the eighties, Irvine Avenue would come apart on a yearly basis. There was so much water seeping in from underneath. That whole area was wet. You can still see it in the area across Irvine Avenue.” He was talking about the flood channel, known colloquially as the 23rd Street creek.

Plat of the San Joaquin Rancho, 1868

Other people had memories, too. “That place? Oh, honey. We called it the run-off. It was terrible,” Francis Gowen Kennedy Moran told me. Fran—our childhood name for her —grew up in a house on the corner of 20th Street and Tustin Avenue, which ends above the artificial shores of Cherry Lake. She remembered it all.

“Honey, it was a marsh. It was a mess — just a mucky swamp. Full of mosquitoes. They didn’t know what to do with it. People were always getting into car accidents there.”

I could see that. Tustin Avenue is flat until it intersects 23rd Street. Then the edge of the old bluff gently descends into the basin holding Cherry Lake. Fran continued with her story. “In those days, Tustin dead-ended into the run-off, and there were no stop signs on Tustin, so people would fly down the street in their car and launch themselves into the swamp. And then my dad, who was a doctor, would be called in to patch ‘em up.”

I thought about those heedless people, gaily motoring down Tustin Avenue in the daytime, or through the velvety blue August nights. Did the sulfurous odor of the swamp fill the air? Did croaking frogs and whining mosquitoes provide a soundtrack on hot summer nights? Crashing your car into a swamp and riding your horse over the bluffs to the edge of the cliffs of Corona Del Mar, as my aunt Cerini once did: these were things people could do back then, in non-developed Newport Beach, a place of crashing surf and glittering starlit nights.

Fran’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Now listen to me, Betsy. That’s not a lake. It’s a swamp. They turned it into a lake. But it isn’t real,” she said. “You’ve made me really curious. Tell me what you find out, okay?”

US Coast Survey, Topography In Vicinity of Newport Bay, 1875

The last person I called was Larry Honeybourne, with the county’s Environmental Health Water Quality Section (he has since retired). Honeybourne had a measured, precise way of speaking that busy people who dole out technical information to the public often have.

“Why do people think Cherry Lake is spring-fed?” I asked.

“Well,” Honeybourne said. “It isn’t impossible. There are artesian situations in Orange County. Fountain Valley is called Fountain Valley because of artesian wells. Orange County is an alluvial basin. It’s great for storing groundwater. So there could be springs, if we weren’t taking out more than we put in.”

But they are. Orange County’s water table is overdrawn and has dropped below sea level. The ocean, sensing an opening, has rushed in to fill the gap. At the moment, much of the water filling the subterranean cracks of the Newport Mesa is coming from the sea. The spring that Bob DeRuff knew in his youth may have dried up long ago.

“The ocean is at your front door,” said Honeybourne. “That’s what we tell everybody.”

Fine, I thought, but what about the damn spring? No one answering the phone with polite and perplexed voices at various agencies seemed to know anything. I called my sister Emily, a field scientist who lives in Alaska, to report my findings and the mysteries that remained. Spring or no spring? And why doesn’t anyone know?

“Betsy, “said Emily, exasperatedly.  “Government agencies won’t know about a spring.” She was right. They aren’t in the business of history, but resource management.

Resource management, though, does create archival documents, and it is in one of these that the mythic spring of Cherry Lake officially appears. In 1952, an engineering firm with the snappy name of the “Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts Engineering Company” prepared an environmental report for the Irvine Company on the suitability of their land for urban development.

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Company report to the Irvine Company, 1952. To read full report, click here. UCI Library Special Collections and Archives

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts concurred with the Irvine Company’s opinion that development was the fate of the area, and noted on page 22 that the “active spring” at the “foot of 23rd Street,” which had been marked on charts 75 years ago, might play a part in some suburb’s future. “Around this spring, a park with lawns and interesting planting,” could be of value, averred the report’s author, due to the availability of “natural fresh water.”

“Well there you go,” said Emily briskly when I reported my finding to her. “Fran is right. It isn’t a lake. Cherry Lake—who came up with that name by the way? It’s silly— is an accident.”

Accidents aren’t as well planned, I thought. The place was just devoid of a past. Ah, the developers, I thought. Those mid-century men, consulting maps, and compasses, grading hills, filling land and damming water sources as they built for the future. They knew what had been there. They had proof. Caught between the past and the future, were they able to forget the habitats they had paved over? Did they remember the scent of brine, or the appearance of an enigmatic petroglyph, or the biblical sight of a spring gushing out of a rock? Maybe. But their memories had died with them, and anyway, they probably didn’t talk too much about it.

“What did Cherry Lake look like?” I asked Emily.

She sighed and said, “Want to go for an imaginary walk?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

She and I started walking on the mesa southeast toward the ravine. “So, this is what we’d see,” her voice said, out of the telephone clutched to my shoulder. “First thing, we’d see a bunch of shrubs. Remember- we’re on top of the bluff. So think about what grows there. Sage, for one thing.” She meant the clumps of Artemisia californica, the ubiquitous silvery green sage that forms the top note of the scent of the California coastal chaparral.

“Try to see coastal oak,” Emily urged. I saw old man oak, the gnarled trees that look more like a shrub, with fang-toothed leaves. “The color of the landscape changes,” said Emily, “as we get closer to the ravine. Can you see that?” I could. The soft grey-green of the artemisia sharpened into yellow- and olive-green as the tops of sycamores and willows appeared. The smell changed, too, from the lemony scent of the artemisia to the dank heavy odor of water. There was a faint suggestion of sulfur.

We stood on top of the ravine and looked down. Below us, fringed by red-rooted willows was a pool of dark water. A pond. Not a lake.

“If we went down there, we’d step in mud,” said Emily. “And then suddenly there’d be water, open water, like a little pond.”

“It was beautiful then, right?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “We would have loved it. I have to go to sleep, babe. You have a better idea of what it looked like?”

“Yes,” I said.  We hung up.

Rendering of the proposed Upper Newport Bay Development from the Knappen-Tippetts_Abbott Engineering Co. report

There’s no mystery to the origins of Cherry Lake: it’s private, not mysterious, a post-war folly that started in the skies of the Pacific Theater and came down to earth when Lawrence Liddle and Jack Mullan stood at the top of a deep ravine and beheld murky water pooled in the bottom. If there’s a mystery, it’s this: what do you see when you look at a landscape, and why? I guess it depends on where you’ve been. Mullan, who had beheld the ravages of war, saw something comprehensible, an opportunity for serene, untroubled beauty.

Cherry Lake is both real and unreal, an artifact twice over. It was a spring-fed stream dividing an arid plain in two, then a desilting basin and then, finally, a suburban fantasy. No one can transport an entire world to another place, Avengers-style, but with the means and the drive, you might be able to re-create a spatial simulacrum of place, scaled down for the suburbia, and far more secure. The earth as seen from the cockpit of a P-38 must seem so malleable. It is easy, as Mullan knew too well, for places to change (to vanish), and for landscapes to be exchanged for another.

Cherry Lake, 2019. Photo by Rodney Medler

Finished in San Francisco on April 18th 2020, 31 days into shelter in place, and eight years after I started researching Cherry Lake.


This is dedicated to my brother James W. Creely with love. Many thanks to the Jill Thrasher at the Sherman Library, Bob DeRuff, Julie Goldsworth of the Irvine Historical Society, Andrew Page of the Newport Beach Public Library, the fabulous Fran Moran, and the staff of the UCI Special Collections and Archives.


I over-researched this essay. If you want to see some of the cool papers and maps I found, head over to this repository and check ’em out.

Rendering showing a proposed crossing at Dover and Pacific Coast Highway from Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Co. 

Mission Mumbles: My United States 2020 Census

Dear Census Bureau:
I just filled out the online census form, and to be perfectly frank (by the way, that’s not my name–don’t list me as Frank), I was sort of underwhelmed. In my opinion, you didn’t ask enough questions about the actual respondent (me). During this historic moment, citizens of the United States are having a lot of thoughts and feelings about things like the future, that people in the actual future (if there is one) are going to want to know about, especially from people like me who live in vibrant neighborhoods such as the Mission District, which, no matter what happens, will always be popular.

I’ve suggested some questions below that maybe you can include in your online census, or provided to census takers (is that still going on?) as icebreakers. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m just not sure that Buzzfeed should know more about me than the census does. All those quizzes I’ve taken online are going to go away into the Internet someday, and then where will I and other millions of Buzzfeed followers be? I love finding out what kind of wand I’d be in Ollivander’s Wand Shoppe on Diagon Alley as much as anyone does, but I’m smart enough to know that all that quiz data isn’t used for the census, and it just seems like the many, many questions that I answer on Buzzfeed might help answer the many questions my descendants might have. (I have no descendants, but you know what I mean.) Plus, it would make it more interesting.

I want to make sure that the denizens of the future, whatever they are, will know who I was and why I chose to live in the Mission District, the city’s greatest neighborhood (also I’m worried no one will know it was called the Mission District. My neighbor Connor, who is 27 and a total dick, won’t stop calling our neighborhood the “Ea-Mi” on Nextdoor even though I’ve told him a thousand times to knock it off. Also have you guys thought about posting a Nextdoor version of the census? I think that’s a good idea.). Anyway, I might not be able to stop Connor from talking out his piehole, but I can at least stop future readers of the Census from repeating his stupid idea.

Following are some suggested questions. They don’t even have to be “official”. Maybe just use them to get people interested in answering the actual census. Like a warm-up!

My carbon footprint: It’s really low. I bike and walk and would take public transit if it hadn’t closed down. I haven’t used a drone yet. Is that low carbon? Anyway, I want the people of the future and their viral overlords to know that I was thinking about them and trying in my own small way to help.

My porn star name: Suki Mendoza! Isn’t that perfect?

Current Netflix binge: It’s not Netflix. It’s “30 Rock” on Hulu. I have a date with Jack Donaghy every night, and it’s helping me get through this crisis. You know that scene where he has a heart attack trying to have sex with his uptight British fiancé? (“Here it comes, Donaghy! Ride it! Ride it to hell!”) This is my current Covid-19 mantra.

Preferred domestic animal: It would be a cat, but I’m allergic, so it’s nothing. It’s definitely NOT a dog. In fact, please put me down as a “non-dog” person.

Celebrity I most resemble: Well, Buzzfeed thinks I look like Rita Wilson, Tom Hank’s wife. I’m sure she’s a nice person and all, even during her infectious phase, but I don’t think I look her.

My morning temperature: It’s fine. Who wants to know?

Last night’s dream: You know those dreams where you’re trying to dial the phone, and the buttons are too small, and you keep making a mistake, and then you start screaming at the phone and freaking out that you’re going to miss your plane? Please note for your records that this was my dream at 2:26 a.m. on March 27, 2020.

Number of Facebook friends: 637. I look forward to meeting them all as soon we are allowed to breathe the same air inside again.

Cat I most resemble: I tried to take that quiz but it broke my computer so I don’t know. I have to leave this question blank.

Uber or Lyft?: Check your assumptions, people of the future. I said I biked.  

Where I see myself in ten years:

Harry Potter wand I most resemble: I got ivy. I don’t understand this. Ivy is a vine. How do you make a wand from a vine?

These are just some of my suggestions. I’m sure if you reached out to America and asked them what they think you should ask, people might be more motivated to fill out the Census and you wouldn’t have to threaten them with a house call (if that’s still even happening.) And then the people of the future would know everything we know now, which admittedly is not a lot.

Give it some thought, and if you decide to use my questions, I expect you to give me full credit.


Elizabeth Creely

(Also: I’m vaccinated.)

Written at the 22nd street Crossroads on 3/28/2020, on the 13th day of Shelter in Place. Have you stopped touching your face?


Edward Creely and the changing city, 1870-1920

Part Two: The Great Glanders Epidemic of 1892

The San Francisco Veterinary College at 1818 Market Street, near the intersection of Octavia. I think Edward J. Creely is the last man on the left with his hat pushed up.

To return to the story of Edward John Creely: prior to his involvement with tubercular cows, he may have been briefly employed by the industry that created them. In 1890, a “J Creely” appears as a “dairyman” working at 35 Eddy Street, in a building known as Washington Hall. It housed the retail offices of three dairies, the Guadeloupe, San Mateo and New York Dairy, the latter owned by scofflaw dairyman George Smart, who would go on to poison the Lent children after selling their mother milk adulterated with formaldehyde in 1905.

There’s no proof that “J Creely” was Edward Creely, but it probably was. Industry regulators often find work as the employees of industries they later regulate (or fail to.) There was also more than one J. Creely in the city. Creely, his father and brother all had the same initials (Edward Creely was christened John Edward.) To avoid confusion, he swapped out his first name for the second throughout his professional life. But in any case, Creely père and frère were too busy to take up sideline gigs as a dairymen. Edward wasn’t. In 1890, Edward, who started his college studies at St. Ignatius College, finished them as a veterinary student at the University of New York. He returned to San Francisco, where highly-trained veterinary surgeons were in demand.

Creely didn’t linger at 35 Eddy street for very long. As the son of a horseshoer, horses were what Creely knew, and horsepower was what the city ran on. San Francisco had hundreds of horses on its payroll. In the 1891-92 San Francisco Municipal Report, the fire department reports having 88 horses scattered among its 34 stations, and a hostler and veterinary surgeon on staff to tend them.

By 1891, Creely had opened his first establishment, which catered to horses. Called the New York Veterinary Hospital, it was located at 510 Golden Gate Avenue, and was one of several veterinaries that stretched along the avenue from Hyde to Webster Street. Isaac O’Rourke, who specialized in equine dentistry, was located at 331 Golden Gate Avenue, followed within one block by F.A. Nief at 434, Creely at 510, and Ira Dalziel at 605. The “San Francisco Veterinary Hospital” was the last of the bunch and lay the furthest west at 1117, close to the intersection of Golden Gate and Webster street. This hospital was owned by William Egan and Peter Burns. Egan was Creely’s landlord and owned the property at 510 Golden Gate. Both Egan and Burns would later become antagonists of Creely.

New York Veterinary Hospital, 510 Golden Gate Ave, San Francisco, CA circa 1892. Picture courtesy of Kathy Creely

The first announcement that the New York Veterinary Hospital was open for business ran on January 24, 1891 in the Pacific Rural Press, a paper for farmers and agricultural businesses in California. Seven days later, Dr. Creely made the news for his feat of fitting a draft horse suffering from ocular cancer with a glass eye, earning the gratitude of the horse’s owner, Le Roy Brundage, who didn’t want to lose the entire animal for the lack of an eyeball.

Uncle Edward who boasted of a state-of-the-art facility with steam baths for the hard-working horses of the city, kept upping the ante in the highly competitive world of veterinary surgery. In 1893 he saved a choking horse by inserting (he used the terrible word “ramming”) a teakettle spout into the horse’s trachea. The spout was later replaced with a conventional breathing tube. This got him some media attention, and an offer to become a columnist for the Pacific Rural Press.

“Of Interest to Many Readers: Beginning with the first issue in October, the Pacific Rural Press will furnish a veterinary department, which will be in charge of Dr. E. J. Creely, D. V. S., of this city. Any questions relative to diseases of cattle and horses, stock, hogs, poultry, etc., will be answered promptly and intelligently, the idea being to furnish free information to our readers that will be of value to them.”

The ledes in his column read like the titles of penny dreadfuls: Mare With Mysterious Trouble, Crack In the Frog, Cows Killed By Ergot, Treatment for Nasal Gleet in Horses, and Glanders and Farcy and How To Detect Them, among others.

But the attention he received from the press wasn’t always positive. A year before his promotion to veterinarian-at-large for the readers of the Pacific Rural Press, Creely created some bad press for all the right reasons, namely glanders, an infectious and ultimately fatal disease caused by a bacteria called Burkholderia mallei.

Glanders attacks a horse’s respiratory tract, and first appears as a foul discharge leaking from the nostrils. If the horse is not destroyed, the disease migrates to the skin, causing subcutaneous ulcers to develop. At this stage the disease is called farcy.

Glanders is floridly disgusting, and easily preventable by providing humane living conditions for horses, which were hard to come by for the 18th-century urban horse. Horses pass it among themselves when squeezed into crowded stables like the St. George livery on Bush street, which stuffed as many as 150 horses within as little as 5,200 square feet. This gets a horse about 35 square feet, which is very little. A moderately proportioned horse needs at least 60 square feet to fit comfortably into a horse trailer. 

All this infectious proximity came with a human cost as well. Glanders is a zoonotic disease; it jumps from horses to humans with ease. No human was known to have died from glanders in San Francisco when Dr. Creely offered a startling observation free of charge: glanders, he said, was at epidemic levels in San Francisco, killing horses, and maybe humans, too.



The lede in the San Francisco Examiner on Monday morning, April 4, 1892 couldn’t have made the stakes much higher. 

“EPIDEMIC OF GLANDERS: The Dread Contagion Raging Throughout The City. Horse Dying By The Score.” 

The story started with a dead horse, dumped in front of Creely’s surgery, with a placard attached to its neck, reading “glanders”. The placard might have been an attempt to comply with city ordinance no. 1880, which advised horse owners with that they must place a bright yellow placard, the color of caution, around their horse’s head to warn others that the stricken animal should be avoided. (This measure was mostly ignored.)

The Examiner reporter called to the scene asked an obvious question to Dr. Creely, who at the age of 25, was probably the youngest practicing veterinarian on the avenue. Was there an epidemic of glanders? In the article that appeared a day later the Examiner stated that Creely and “other veterinary surgeons who are in a position to know” thought there was.

“The public do not understand the great risk they are taking handling, being around or even driving behind a glandered horse,” asserted Creely, before going onto name two individuals who he claimed died from glanders: a man with the colorful nickname of  “Mustang Wilson”, as well as the Sheriff of San Jose who died after his horse tossed his head, and his infected snot, in the sheriff’s face.

“There is scarcely a livery stable in the city that is free from it,” concluded the Examiner, in an unattributed quote, that nevertheless was understood to have come straight from the horse’s mouth, Dr. Creely, the only veterinary surgeon willing to be quoted by name.

The allegation that public liveries were hotbeds of infectious diseases resulted in a flurry of articles in the Call, the Examiner and the Chronicle. Although the story ran almost ten years before the bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco, the city was used to being sickened and killed by their living conditions. A “dread contagion” was not only plausible, it was half expected.

Liveries were the mobility business of the day, providing last mile, and longer, transportation solutions to San Franciscans. The allegation that they were responsible for spreading glanders sent shock waves up and down Golden Gate Avenue, which was home to the aforementioned cluster of veterinarian hospitals as well as several public liveries. All of these establishments existed within one square mile of each other.  By today’s Google reckoning, walking from the first livery on the avenue—Crittenden and Bailey’s stable at 24 Golden Gate Avenue– to the last, Charles F. Robinson’s livery at 1212 Golden Gate Avenue, wouldn’t take more than 22 minutes.

This is the very definition of a tight-knit community: proximity and mutual dependence. Charles Taylor’s livery stable at 310 Golden Gate was located directly next to W.H. Carpenter’s (later Isaac O’Rourke’s) veterinary surgery. This symbiotic pattern of livery stable interwoven with veterinary establishments made pragmatic sense—having a vet nearby is a bonus, as anyone whose been awakened at 3 a.m. by a sick cat will tell you—but the street pattern undoubtedly incubated a political culture that had implications for the regulatory aims of the city. The co-mingling of vets and livery owners had the potential, and the profit motive, to hold health reforms hostage to baser concerns.

Golden Gate avenue with its hundreds of horses may well have been a hot zone of infection. From 1891 to 1892, 11 glandered horses were recorded in the city’s official municipal record as having been destroyed. But the avenue was probably also prone to outbreaks of professional censure, slanderous gossip and petty corruption as well. William Egan, Creely’s landlord and competitor, sarcastically refuted Creely’s claims of a looming epidemic in an article in the San Francisco Call on April 7.

“(I) say without hesitation that it is ridiculously and grossly exaggerated and full of misstatements,” said Egan, going on to draw a fine distinction between contagious disease and an outright epidemic. Glanders, he said, was only contagious, and could only be spread through contact with the “glandinal” discharge of a horse. The bacteria wasn’t airborne, he claimed, and therefore lacked the power to spread as widely and quickly as epidemics spread.

Egan claimed special insight into the situation due to the fact that he was on the payroll of at least seven city liveries, St. George’s among them. He saw no conflict of interest in using insider knowledge to downplay the story and chose, instead, to cast doubt on the whole affair by calling out Creely, whose youthful “inexperience” was derided as mere ignorance. He was joined in this by several other veterinarians, who also had business arrangements with city liveries. All of them warned of the panic that Creely’s comments were creating. Owners were reportedly already removing their horses from public liveries.

Dr. Edward Creely in front of the New York Veterinary Hospital, 510 Golden Gate Avenue in 1892 ready to admit an injured horse. Creely is to the right wearing a bowler hat. Note the ambulance. Picture courtesy of Kathy Creely

The controversy also threatened to derail a hotly anticipated city event: the thoroughbred horse race slated to take place that month at the Bay District Racing track in the Richmond district. Hosted by the Pacific Coast Blood Horse Association, the city was welcoming wealthy men and their expensive steeds just as the story broke. The owners, who had spent thousands of dollars on their thoroughbreds, were thoroughly freaked out at the prospect of stabling their investment next to glandered horses. There was big money –$1,900 was collected at the gates–and social status at stake. Senator Stanford, James Fair and W.H. Crocker were expected to attend the race, as well as experienced turfman like Creely’s uncle, the famed horse trainer Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, who was planning on racing his two-year old filly “Bridal Veil”. All of this sporting glory was being jeopardized by Creely’s comments.

On April 12, an apology, so penitent as to be slightly craven, appeared on page 7 of the SF Call from Creely to the community of angry livery owners, and veterinary surgeons. “He is not responsible …for the assertion that glanders was raging in the livery stables. Quite the contrary, the doctor does claim that the livery stables are the last place in the world to find a case of glanders..” The apology hit most of the three “R’s” now in wide use. It responded to the growing enmity expressed by his colleagues, expressed regret that he had said it (although he stuck to his story that he hadn’t said it) and assured the readers of the SF Call that it would not happen again. The last claim wasn’t true.

In June the imbroglio reached its apex. Creely announced in the San Francisco Chronicle that he would seek twenty thousand dollars from publisher W.R. Hearst for libel, saying that the statements supposedly “emanating” from him had not, especially the claim that public liveries were menacing equine and human health. Creely said (and this is the only part of the whole affair which is undoubtedly true) that the story had “injured” his reputation and profession. He was referring to his professional community, clearly, but his family must have said something. Whitehat owned three liveries at various times in San Francisco, and was in the brutal business of racing horses. Creely’s father occasionally sold horses, too. But of those admonitions, nothing remains but speculation.

In any case, Creely’s public shaming was short-lived. By the following year, he had a column in the Pacific Rural Press and he was still being consulted by the Chronicle, who were trying to figure out how much of a threat glanders really posed. In January 1893, a man died from glanders in Los Angeles. Creely repeated himself. “It simply adds force to the warning which everyone who drives horses or takes care of them should heed against exposing himself to an animal who has this contagious malady. There is nothing more dreadful than death from glanders.” That April, Creely was appointed to the position of the city veterinarian, for the princely sum of 40 bucks a month, over the objection of Peter Burns, William Egan’s partner at the San Francisco Veterinary Hospital, located down the avenue.

All in all, the episode looks like a monumental miscalculation that backfired. What motivated Creely to make his claims? There are no recorded human deaths from glanders since the Health Office (later the Department of Public Health) began reporting deaths in 1865 in the city’s municipal reports. Was the dead horse a publicity stunt gone wrong? Were his accusations an ill-conceived attempt to knock out the competition? Or was Creely telling the truth? 

If so, then the tragedy of the deaths of all those horses, who with magnificent necks, flaring nostrils and impenetrable dark eyes, carried the city’s business on their backs and or pulled it behind them, was deepened by Creely’s failed attempts to do the right thing. He may have tried to put public health on an equal footing with pecuniary considerations, and raise the alarm around the hazard that unregulated stables and liveries posed to the health of San Franciscans. He may have begun his career with the best of intentions. But in a city surrounded by equally ambitious men equally capable of corruption, his good intentions might not have mattered.

Dr. Edward Creely surrounded by his students in his “operative surgery” on June 24th, 1892. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creely

Creely prospered, despite two high-profile incidents of petty corruption in 1896 and 1909. He not only managed to secure a series of city and state offices; he’s credited for founding the second veterinary educational institution in California. The University of California opened their college first, on the northwestern corner of Post and Fillmore in 1896, later moving to U.C. Davis. On April 28, 1899, Creely, Mulford Pancoast, H.M Stanford, Joseph Sullivan, and John Murray filed articles of incorporation with the state, which officially founded the San Francisco College of Veterinary Surgeons and Dentists at 510 Golden Gate.

There’s nothing remotely horsey about Golden Gate Avenue now: the 1890’s are too long ago in geological and urban redevelopment terms for any trace of the community of veterinarians and stable owners to remain. The 1906 quake and fire destroyed it. After the earthquake, Creely moved his hospital/college to 1818 Market. In 1915, he announced plans to build a new college on 10th near Stevenson, but that building never materialized and the college closed in a few years later. This may have had to do with his advancing age– he was 50, an age that was sometimes fatal for Creely men– and the fact that horses were vanishing from the city. The resonant clopping of their hooves on the macadamized streets was being replaced by different sounds.

The site where the first hospital and college stood now hosts the American Academy of English. The only image that remains of the New York Veterinary/San Francisco Veterinary College is a picture of Creely standing on top of the building in June of 1906. He’s either in the process of cleaning up, or re-building in the aftermath of the disaster that leveled his competition, and reshaped the city he lived in.

USETHISONEOffice of Dr. E.J. Creely, first veterinary hospital in S.F. June or late May, 1906. Golden Gate Ave. (#510), near Polk. Creely is barely visible on the roof of the building. From the California Historical Society, and available at the Online Archive of California


Unquiet title, unquiet land: the history of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company’s lawsuit to quiet title in the Mission District.

On August 18th 1898, a 56-year old woman named Ellen Riley died in her home at 707 Florida Street, which she shared with her husband Michael and five of their seven children. A native of Cork, like her husband and many other naturalized Irish living in the Mission District, she was waked at home, and memorialized at St. Charles Borromeo on 18th and South Van Ness.  

Two weeks later her grieving husband was killed by an incoming Southern Pacific train. He’d just purchased a new windowpane from J.H. Kruse’s hardware shop at 23rd and Shotwell, and was walking home along the SP right-of-way between Harrison Street and Treat Avenue with the freshly cut glass tucked under his arm. At 9:30 am, as he neared the intersection of 22nd and Harrison Streets, a train he may or may not have heard (grief can preoccupy a person to the point of insensibility) smashed into him.

Riley was thrown 15 feet and died almost immediately, his arms, legs and skull fractured. SP Engineer A.C. Thyle later told a judge he threw the emergency brake as soon as he could, but to no avail.

The San Francisco Examiner reported that the corner where Riley died was particularly hazardous because of the acute angle of the track as it plunged past an old “rookery” and into the intersection. Residents who used the right-of-way as a migratory route through the neighborhood resented the blind spot that made an otherwise perfectly good pedestrian corridor into something unpredictably violent. They had complained about the hazard, but their protests were “ignored”.*

There are no trains now, but the right-of-way has maintained its ability to disturb the neighborhood. Today, the complaints center on the fact that no one knows who owns the right-of-way, least of all the San Francisco Assessors-Recorder’s Office, who assess the value of all property in the city. They didn’t know until December 2017 that the State Board of Equalization had transferred the parcel containing the right-of-way to them ten years before.

Two years and several articles later, no assessee or owner has been found. Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu’s office has steadfastly claimed to have tried to identify the assessee, which is different than being the owner, while just as steadfastly refusing to discuss how they came to that conclusion, or what they know.  

In general, nobody’s talking. What seems to be haunting the place these days isn’t the battered ghost of Michael J. Riley, as one might expect, but the spirit of Gilded Age obfuscation, leftover from the days of the railroad barons.

In the instance of the strange case of the right-of-way-nobody-owns there are only known unknowns. Most of them are kept in a banker’s box in the Superior Court of California’s storage space in Contra Costa County. If you request this box from the staff of the reading room at the San Francisco Civic Center Courthouse at 400 McAllister Street, it will be brought to you in due time, and you will be free to peruse roughly 800 legal documents that comprise the 1992-1996 Southern Pacific Transportation Company vs Earnest R. and James W. Heinzer First Amended Complaint for Quiet Title, Trespass and Slander of Title. This is the formal name of the legal action, which is the last time someone took legal action to prove or “quiet” title.

Southern Pacific’s legal action against the Heinzers took five years to settle and was inconclusive. At first, Southern Pacific included other property owners in the lawsuit, who meekly moved their stuff off the right-of-way– this is the “trespass” part of the action– leaving only the railroad company and brothers James and Earnest Heinzer to spar under the jurisdiction of Judge Daniel M. Hanlon.  

The Heinzer brothers, whose green warehouse is on Treat Avenue, were one of four businesses who received shipments of freight from Southern Pacific Transportation Company. The Heinzer’s warehouse and the Atlas Stair Company are the only buildings left on the right-of-way from the era of rail deliveries to Mission District manufactories.

In 1991, Southern Pacific, faced with a shrinking customer base along the “old main line”, stopped service and tried to sell the right-of-way for about a million bucks. The Heinzers objected to this, saying they risked being put out of business if the trains stopped delivering their freight (this was a spurious claim- they, like other small industries in the area, were getting their stuff delivered by trucks.) Later, after offering to buy the right-of way for far less than it was worth, they filed a quit claim deed they got from a distant relative of John Center, the original landowner, and a notice to preserve interest in the parcel.

Southern Pacific Transportation Company objected to all of this –this is the “slander of title” part of the lawsuit–and filed suit. The rest would have been history were it not for corporate reticence, the inaccessibility of the legal documents and the reluctance on the part of the public to plow through piles of badly copied legal documents in order to understand what happened.

But the 1994 judgement is mercifully clear:  Judge Hanlon found that Southern Pacific didn’t own the parcel, and had only inherited an easement from the predecessor railroad, the San Francisco-San Jose railroad. The SF-SJ RR ran through the land donated by John Center, a 19th century land baron who owned most of the Mission from 1850 until his death in 1909. An “easement” means you have the right to use the land, but you don’t have the privilege of selling or profiting from it.

Reading the documents is a real slog, but there are moments where plain language pokes its head over the parapet of legalese and makes the situation a bit easier to understand. The John R. Hetland Deposition is one of those moments. Hetland, a respected and beloved professor of law at UC Berkeley, and expert in real estate law, was retained by Southern Pacific as an expert witness. In his deposition, Hetland takes pains to explain why he felt the Heinzers had no claim. He foresaw the confusion over ownership and suggests on page 36 that asking Southern Pacific for their side of the story might help clear matters up.

I doubt this would have helped. Southern Pacific, which went out of business about three years after Hetland made this suggestion, didn’t like discussing its business with the general public. Neither does Union Pacific, the purchaser of Southern Pacific’s assets, who have disclaimed any interest in the right-of-way in emails to me.

No one knows where the original title, which was drafted in 1863, is. It was probably destroyed along with the Southern Pacific freight offices in 1906, leaving only a typewritten copy of the original deed** to be offered as evidence of ownership in 1994. The typewritten copy was turned down by Judge Hanlon, who found it was “without proper foundation”.

This could be said of every piece of property in San Francisco. The unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land in San Francisco has passed through the prism of settler violence and speculation, leaving contended property titles as artifactual evidence, much like the right-of-way itself functions as a historic remnant of California’s railroads. Historian R. A. Burchell notes in his book “The San Francisco Irish: 1848-1880” that San Francisco’s claim to possess title to 17,754.36 acres, which was first pursued by the city in 1852, wasn’t fully recognized until 1884.  

The period of contention between the old Californios trying to prove ownership with their surreally distorted diseño maps and speculators, like Center and his buddy Samuel Crim, another Mission District land baron, form a specific chapter in the Mission District’s history, one in which unquiet titles begat unquiet social conditions, like the Mission Dolores Squatter Riot that took place on the night of October 9, 1867.

The riot was an armed grudge match between Center, Crim, and Supervisor James H. Reynolds, all of whom claimed title to the same parcel on Howard (South Van Ness) between 22nd and 23rd street. On the night of the riot, Center and Crim led 70 men brandishing guns and bayonets through the Mission to rip down Reynold’s holding and other “shanties” in the neighborhood. The Reynolds faction, threatened at gunpoint, shot first. Fire was returned, wounding three men and killing a fourth, an Irishman from County Meath named Peter Bradley, who was with the Center-Crim gang. In the aftermath, Reynolds, Center and Crim were arrested and charged with assault with the intent to murder.

In any case, the settling of the Mission continues. In the last year, the Assessor-Recorder’s office has divided the right-of-way into three parcels, for reasons they prefer not to discuss, citing California revenue and tax code section 408. The Assessor’s office did confirm in an email to Mission residents that they’re seeking taxes from dead people and defunct family trusts associated with these three parcels.

The John Center Company, which was dissolved in the mid 20th century, is on the hook for $211,653. William Henry Crim III, a descendant of Samuel Crim, and who might be dead, is being billed $61,514. Celia Wehr, a woman who lived next to the right of way in 1910, and who is certainly dead, has been billed $9,676. (That the deceased are being taxed by the assessor’s office adds a surprising twist to the adage that death and taxes are inevitable.)

So now what? If no taxes are paid within the next four years, and the land is declared abandoned, the parcel will revert to the city, who will then have the choice to auction it, or keep it unowned, with protection against profit, and develop it as open green space, sort of like it was a long time ago, before missions, ranchos and land speculators began to purchase the place now called San Francisco.

The destruction of the original title, which was accidental, now seems determinative. Prior to any official decision making, this parcel has managed to revert back to its natural state of being un-owned, which is to say un-sequestered by deed for future profit. It feels misguided to investigate missing titles on unceded territory when the deeper identity of this place— land used for a common purpose—seems so determined to assert itself. Land has spirit, too, quiet but persistent.  

Map of the Mission District “Pueblo Lands” circa 1865. Please note the Embarcadero, or pier at the mouth of Mission Creek, close to the modern day intersection of um…Harrison and 17th? If you know for certain, tell me.

Written on a sultry day on October 6, 2019. We’re six days into the month. No fires yet.

*The San Francisco Examiner, Sept 6, 1898, “Killed by a train in the Mission”. May the spirit of Michael J. Riley rest at the right hand of God and in peace.

** The typewritten copy of the original title is not among the uploaded documents. I ran out of time. Sorry about that.