Edward J. Creely and the changing city, 1870-1920

Part One: The Cattle Raids of Creely

Edward J. Creely, looking pious. This is a tintype taken on August 4th, 1884 at Vans Department store, 111 4th street in San Francisco.

The key to the understanding of Ireland – Irish history, Irish archaeology, Irish culture, the great sagas – everything is based on cattle. Cows are everything and everywhere. Dr Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland

One hundred and twenty-four years ago, on a cold December morning in 1894, Edward Creely, San Francisco’s veterinary surgeon, and his colleague James P. Dockery, the city’s newly appointed Milk Inspector, drove to Butchertown, on the outskirts of San Francisco. Once there, the men changed into working garb, holstered their guns, and walked into the mudflats of Islais Creek. Creely and Dockery were preparing to go on a cattle raid.

In the early eighteen-nineties, the year Edward Creely’s story begins, the sight of a cow was commonplace, and encouraged San Franciscans to believe that there was fresh milk to be had. There was, if you owned a cow, or lived near one of the sprawling 1000-acre dairies in the Excelsior Homestead or the Sunnyside district.

There were plenty of customers to be had, too, and unscrupulous dairy owners knew that. They sold milk from cows afflicted with tuberculosis, and laced with formalin, or hydrogen peroxide. To increase the volume of milk, and their bottom line, the dairies diluted the milk with water contaminated with fecal matter, a practice described by a dairyman in an 1894 San Francisco Chronicle article about a new proposal before the board of supervisors: a dairy inspection ordinance.

“Cows must be washed thoroughly”, a cartoon from the San Francisco Call, Oct. 22, 1896

I have seen some of these milk mixers dip up water from a trough where horses drink and put it in the milk. At many of these cheap dairies the seepage from the barnyard has a deleterious effect on the water used for dilution.”

The free-range cows of San Francisco, eating and shitting freely, led to an even wider-ranging community of Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes cholera. Dairymen like John Linehan, whose daughter Julia married a Creely, milked the public of their money as readily as the early merchants of San Francisco mined the miners. Edward, my great-granduncle, lived a pretty good life as a prosperous and renowned veterinary surgeon. But he hit a couple low points along the way, mostly because of cows and their white milk. Both were his bete noir.

… a city is apt in the plenitude of its sanitary advantages, to pass through its early stages of growth and to develop into a metropolis before it awakens to a recognition of the truth that this heritage is exhaustible. ..ultimately it must throw around them the protective agencies of modern sanitary science.”

A.S. Lovelace, health officer for the Board of Public Health in San Francisco made this sober observation in 1896, after the first year of dairy inspections. It was likely the text version of an argument he’d made in city chambers trying to convince reluctant supervisors to spend money safeguarding public health. Lovelace must have known that the protective agency of “modern sanitary science” would be met with defensive indignation from industries that didn’t want, then as now, to be regulated.

The city’s first milk ordinance was introduced in 1893 by George Knight, attorney to the Board of Health. Smaller dairy owners opposed regulation, knowing that the cost of cleanliness would put them out of business. (San Francisco has always been steadfastly agnostic when grappling with the decision to regulate disruptive entrepreneurs.) Their stalling worked, for a time. The ordinance didn’t pass until 1896. But change was in the air. The standards proposed in 1893 provided a roadmap to a better, more hygienic future. Milk couldn’t contain less than 12 ½ percent of milk solids, among other things, and dairy owners couldn’t keep sick cows. But how was the city to keep track of the milk flowing from the thousands of cows ranged over 49 square miles?

James Patrick Dockery, 1864-1913, San Francisco’s first Milk Inspector.

What was needed was a city official who could perform inspections, enforce regulations, and keep wily dairy owners in check. In September of 1895, the city mustered the will to hire James P. Dockery, an energetic Irish-American, as San Francisco’s first ever Milk Inspector*. “He Will Destroy All Impure Milk,” promised the San Francisco Chronicle.

A mixture of virtue and outrage drove Dockery, a restaurateur who had experience dealing with crooked milkmen, who often paid thousands of dollars to secure the business of restaurant owners. They recovered their investment by selling the same restaurant adulterated milk. Dockery declared war on the dairies, declaring that they had “murdered infants” and could be tolerated no more.

He wasn’t wrong. Unsanitary milk was an inconvenience the city had learned to live with, along with deaths from infectious diseases. More than 20,000 San Franciscans died of “zymotic” or infectious diseases since the Board of Public Health started keeping records in 1871.

Dealing with the dairies was humane, but pragmatic, too. It’s tough to build a city if a significant percentage of the population is constantly wracked by acute digestive disorders. If city residents wanted more than protection from fires and vigilance mobs, the frantic relationship between consumer and producer —I got what you want/you’ve got what I need–had to be intervened with, and a new approach to the city’s future mapped out. Playtime was over for San Francisco.

That new approach, a reformist political movement termed Progressivism, played out in cities across the nation. The drive for hygienic dairies, and the concern for public health, signaled a sustained challenge to inefficient, corrupt “pay to play” politics and marked the onset of centralized city government, a strong mayor and a preference for regulation of industries. Pure milk could serve as proof that the city had shrugged off the florid uncleanliness of the Gilded Age that produced men like Chris Buckley, the Irish-born “Blind Boss” who ran San Francisco during the eighteen eighties and early eighteen nineties.

Cracking down on filthy dairies meant drafting municipal codes, antagonizing unscrupulous dairy owners, lobbying reluctant city supervisors and clashing with other men, equally intent on reforming San Francisco’s lackadaisical approach to public health. City Hall was a dumping ground for male ambition, and everyone sloshed around in it, including Dockery and Creely.

The city’s meat inspector, a man named Ben Davis, complained that Dockery’s vigilance was usurping his role as the meat health inspector. Creely, a political appointee who became the city’s veterinary surgeon in 1883, was charged with graft by “Doc” Burns, the former City Veterinarian who was replaced  by my great uncle. None of this slowed Dockery or Creely down. It was a heady time in city government, a moment to stand in stark contrast to other, more inferior men. Men possessed of ambition and civic virtue (real or imagined) could hitch their wagons to the rising tide of reform, and gain a lifetime of public approbation.

J. Tomkinson Livery and Stable located at 57, 59 and 61 Minna street, circa 1871. The boarding house at 55 Minna street is directly to the left of the stable. Image from the California State Library.

In the beginning, Edward Creely was a part of the solution, not the problem. He was born in Stockton in 1867, the first son of James and Margaret McCarty Creely. His father, a farrier by trade, moved the family from Stockton to 55 Minna Street, Ward 11, in the South of Market in 1870. The family dwelling sat next to the J.Tompkinson Livery, a stable that spread over two city blocks, making the densely populated neighborhood a forerunner to today’s transit village.

Edward grew up in his father’s horseshoeing shop on Mission street. James Creely managed to corner a vital piece of the horseshoeing market: the horses owned by the city and county of San Francisco. The Creely forge became a hangout for city politicos, major and minor. Edward grew up listening to the political chatter of the adults as he fired the forge and helped control the restive bodies of horses as shoes were hammered onto their hooves.

When Edward was six, his father moved the family to the outskirts of Butchertown, a famously disgusting place, and began working for Zhan and Langermann, blacksmiths and wagon-makers. Butchertown, which roughly corresponds with the industrial area east of Bayshore and south of Cesar Chavez, was founded in 1868 by butchers after they were forbidden by the city from slaughtering animals inside city limits. They bought 81 acres of land from the State, and carried on until 1971 as the city’s abattoir, aided by Islais Creek and the bay which formed a natural dumping grounds for the blood and guts issuing from the slaughterhouses.

The Creelys lived on Railroad Avenue, a street platted on a narrow spit of land surrounded by mudflats. The smells and sounds of the animals on their way to slaughter must have been wretched: I can’t imagine how my great-great grandmother felt about living with four children in such noisome and sanguine isolation. (Or maybe I can. The family moved back to the South of Market within the year.)

Twenty years later, Edward Creely was back in Butchertown helping conduct Dockery’s war on toxic milk, which was well underway. Dockery began that fall by stopping dairy wagons on their way into the city. Brandishing his “lactometer” (you can purchase one for 9.99 on Amazon) he tested the milk on the spot, usually on the side of Mission road or San Bruno avenue and dumped the entire contents of the wagon if the milk failed the Babcock test, named after the 19th-century chemist who devised the test to determine levels of butter fat and adulterants.

In his first month on the job, Dockery stopped 450 wagons, and boasted of dumping 2,000 gallons of milk, usually around midnight, and almost always over the heated protests of the milkmen. After dumping 25 milk cans from John Linehan’s Green Valley dairy** and being threatened by Linehan and his sons, Dockery made his intentions clear:  “… I want it distinctly understood that so long as I am Milk Inspector, I will dump every can of milk not up to the standard prescribed by the Board of Health. I will do this if I have to hold a gun in one hand while I empty the cans with the other.”

The press, impressed with Dockery’s alacrity and mindful of the affront to the local dairy industry, called these inspections “raids” which was fitting. Both Creely and Dockery’s Irish roots lay in places famed for cattle raiding, Ulster and Connacht respectively, which is where the legendary Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuilgnne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley) took place. In the winter of 1895 and the spring of the following year, readers of San Francisco newspapers were treated to a local version of the Tain, minus a queen named Mebh, as Dockery and Creely raided dairies, impounded — and occasionally shot– tubercular cattle and skirmished with resentful milkmen in the green hills and wetlands of San Francisco.

Dockery and Creely were in Butchertown to stop dairymen from grazing their cattle on swamp grasses and pickleweed. Grazing livestock in wetlands isn’t unusual, as in France, where agneau de pré-salé–lamb grazed in salt marshes– is a delicacy. But salty milk that tastes like shit has never been popular. The cow’s fodder was liberally laced with human feces, a carrier of Salmonella enterica, a result of the five city sewers that emptied their contents into the marshes of Islais Creek. The dairymen who gazed their cattle there did so because they couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to purchase) quality feed.

Ambition drove Edward into the marsh to chase cows in 51-degree weather. He was a young man, with a growing family and a newly opened veterinary hospital grandly named the New York Veterinary Hospital, located at 510 Golden Gate avenue, around the corner from his uncle John McCarty, who was also a farrier.

Edward, and his younger brother James and Tom were college-educated (the Creely sisters were not) and busy men with work that tended more and more to the white collar world. In 1893, Edward became a weekly columnist for the Pacific Rural Press, an agricultural newspaper printed in San Francisco, and began dispensing medical advice to livestock owners in Northern California who needed his help solving the problems of the grubby, frequently gruesome world of animal husbandry. Chasing cows was all in a day’s work. But it was nasty work. Decomposition is the way of life in a wetland, but the process, which makes short work of a strand of eel grass, isn’t equal to the task of breaking down the body of a dead horse, a sight that greeted Dockery and Creely that morning.

Going to Butchertown was Dockery’s idea. There had been an outbreak of typhoid in Oakland and San Francisco, which prompted the Milk Inspector to crack down on the “Italian swamp ranch community” who were known to pasture their cows in the marsh, near the Golden City homestead at Tulare and Illinois Streets. Dockery’s plan was simple. He was going to drive the cows to the pound, about two miles away and arrest anyone who tried to claim them.

Accordingly, the men began their muddy cattle raid by shooing the cattle west toward San Bruno Road. This provoked an immediate response from the owners of the livestock who emerged half-naked from the depths of the muddy swamp –“most of them had very little wearing apparel on,” the paper noted disapprovingly– and rushed Dockery and Creely, with sticks and dogs. The milk inspector and the surgeon fended off enraged dairymen by firing shots in the air, which drove the men and most of the cows away. The Mission police were summoned and the remainder of the herd taken to the pound. Two hours later, dairymen Alessandro Di Sante, Edwino Del Sante and Bartholomew Mozetti were charged with a misdemeanor and taken to the 17th street police station. (Dockery later bailed Del Sante out of prison to the relief of his children and weeping wife.)

All in a day’s work and yet the loss of a cow, no matter how sickly, has never been a small matter. The Pacific Rural Press reported that a good Holstein calf could cost around about $500, about $4,000 adjusted for inflation. In the same San Francisco Chronicle article about the proposal to inspect dairies, an unnamed dairyman noted that good milk cost good money and cited the Guadaloupe Dairy, located on Valencia Street, as an example, stating that they invested about $150,000–more than 4 million–annually in their operations. The shirtless men pasturing their cows along the creek may have owned their cows, but maybe not much else, certainly nothing resembling a dairy. Fodder and water could be free if you weren’t too picky, but infrastructure was for the rich.

“Inspector Dockery interviews Mrs. O’Brian”, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 10, 1895. Uncle Edward and Bessie the cow look on.

Still, a sickly cow had some value. This was the case with a cow named Bessie who had been caught up in the December raid. She was claimed by her owner, Mrs. O’Brian, who explained that Bessie’s lacteal fluid nourished her and her four children. It might have infected them too. The cow had been declared consumptive by Dockery. But in Mrs.O’Brien’s view, milk from a tubercular cow was better than nothing. Dockery released the cow into Mrs. O’Brien’s custody, an act of graciousness that “took by storm the affections of the people of Ireland,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was an easy gesture to make. Bessie was doomed. Destined to give what milk she could with the feed available to her, probably far less than two gallons a day, she was likely slaughtered in Butchertown when her milk ran out, and dumped into the bay to be washed back into the marsh by the tides. Her flesh and the flesh of other cows littered the landscape, like the brawling bulls of the Tain Bo Cuilgne, but unlike those mythic beasts, their bodies had no value and didn’t name that awful landscape.

Dockery wrote a report for the 1895-96 San Francisco Municipal Report detailing the results of his busy year. Out of 3,784 cows inspected, 36 were killed. More than 7 thousand gallons of milk was dumped and 228 warrants for arrest issued.

The same year, infectious diseases killed 472 people, mostly infants in the 11th ward, the first place my family lived in San Francisco. To be a baby in the 11th ward, or a cow in the Islais swamp was to share a common fate: illness and death due to disease spread by San Francisco’s commercial dairies. It would be another decade before the dairy industry was brought to heel.

“Milk Drugged With Hair Dye Poisons A Baby Victim”. San Francisco Call, October 1905.

Milk and dairy inspection lagged during the Schmitz mayoralty. This was how it came to be that in October 1905, Gladys May Tumalty, Edith Hays, and Ruth and Francis Lent, all infants and toddlers, drank milk containing formalin and hydrogen peroxide that came from the dairies of two of the city’s worst offenders, Linehan, and another dairyman named George C. Smart, owner of the New York Dairy. Formalin was used to retard spoilage and hydrogen peroxide was a folk remedy thought to kill Mycobacterium bovis, the bacteria that causes bovine tuberculosis. (It didn’t.)

Smart was smart. After paying a fine of $200 dollars, and narrowly avoiding a jail sentence, he launched the Dairy Delivery Company with John Daly and other dairy owners. They published a pamphlet in 1906, the year the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. It’s a masterpiece of re-branding. “Every operation is conducted on strict sanitary principles,” the company claims. The pamphlet shows clean rooms full of sparkling machinery, and not a single cow in sight.

Picture of the Dairy Delivery Company, sometime after 1906. The Mission District address, 3550 19th is clearly visible on the truck. Image courtesy of Glenn Koch.

In 1912, the Board of Supervisors passed city ordinance 2329 which set the standards for pasteurized milk. That year, just four children under one year of age died of cholera in San Francisco.

To each cow, its calf,” said the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, in his famous 6th-century anti-copyright ruling, meaning all rights revert to the owner. mac Cerbaill’s ruling is about restoration, and so, too, is the idea that undergirds public health, which has always been both desperately needed and a hard sell. Disease and illness carry more than bacteria: they carry stigma, too, a suspicion that people are sick because of some moral failing.

This is why oral hygiene is not covered by public health care plans, incredible as it may seem. You could have flossed more, the thinking goes. Perhaps someone thought you could have paid more for your milk, as they read about Gladys May Tumalty, the infant poisoned by hydrogen peroxide. It’s an old problem, this ambivalence about what we owe one another. But from time to time, it’s been settled as a question.

San Francisco legislators, faced with the “necessity of sanitary reform”, made it clear in their ordinances that a defining characteristic of what it meant to be a San Franciscan, beyond the accident of birth, was having access to untainted milk and later, inexpensive public transportation and a water supply that’s one of the best in the country. To each San Franciscan, their health: this ruling is lettered nowhere within city limits, but its spirit remains in the mission statement of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The mission of the San Francisco Department of Public Health is to protect and promote the health of all San Franciscans.

It’s a tall order. But as long as we live together, linked by the fluidity of water, grounded by the turbulent earth, and impacted by rapidly destabilizing climate, it will always be a better approach, this idea that by considering ourselves as part of a greater whole, we stand a chance of surviving.

* How much the city paid Dockery is unclear. The municipal report for fiscal year 1895-96 notes his position as Milk Inspector, but doesn’t list a salary. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Dockery claims that a state law empowers him; however, according to state librarian Angelica Illuca, the first state law that appears to directly reference Dairy Inspections is dated 1899. So, I don’t know. Was he a freelance milk inspector? In a San Francisco Call article dated November 1st 1895, it is noted that William Broderick, the city auditor has allowed JP Dockery’s “first salary warrant, in spite of all the talk to the contrary“. The city did pay him, but how much and under what conditions is, as of this writing, unclear to me.

** A digression (sorry!) John F. Linehan, 1841-1915, and his father, also named John, were major players in the dairy dynasties of San Francisco. The senior Linehan’s dairy was located at Laguna and Greenwich in Cow Hollow. After the city insisted that dairies remove themselves for hygienic reasons, the Linehan family opened the Green Valley Dairy in the Excelsior Homestead near Vienna and France streets. This move did not make them more hygienic, by the way. Delightfully, the Linehan family hailed from a town named Boherbue in County Cork, Ireland. “Bo” is the Irish word for cow, and the term “Bóthar” means cattle road. This is both utterly (udderly?) coincidental, and totally not.

With love and thanks to all who helped out with this piece, including Amy O’Hair, historian for the Sunnyside neighborhood, the lovely Glenn Koch for his help sourcing images of San Francisco’s dairies, Angelica Illuca, librarian at the Witkin State Law Library, Frances Kaplan, librarian at the California Historical Society, the Western Neighborhoods Project, whose podcast episode 289 is a must listen, the San Francisco Department of Memory, and Tarin Towers and Elyse Shafarman who have very good to me throughout this process.

From the mixed up files of the Creely-McCarty family: why Hannah got her gun.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh, as she appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner in June, 1910.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh is my 3rd-great grandaunt, and sister to Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, a source of dismay to his extended family. Hannah might have been as well, but by the time she shot the Sheriff’s deputy—not the Sheriff—at her home at 120 Ripley street, the Creely-McCarty family was preoccupied by other family scandals and may not have taken any notice.

The house on north side of Bernal Hill is still standing, trim and well-maintained, and gives no hint to the turmoil that peaked in June of 1910. I wonder if there are any bullet holes in the house, particularly near the side door. It received the worst treatment during the shoot out; that, and Sheriff’s deputy John A. Barr’s left and right cheeks.

Hannah’s crime happened during a trigger happy era in San Francisco. The graft trial of Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitt, and the 1907 Carmen’s strike both included shooting. Hardware stores like J.H. Kruse’s at 3145 23rd street, which is where Hannah got her gun, must done a brisk trade in the sale of small handguns during those years.

An armed woman facing down a posse of policeman might not have made the papers before 1910. But she chose her historic moment well. San Franciscan’s were tired of reading about the graft trial, and Hannah, as one newspaper account reported, was “known” around town, because she was Whitehat’s sister, and also because she talked a lot.

Hannah didn’t dislike media attention. There’s a picture of her, four months before the shooting, smiling for the camera and holding the corner of her collar in an unmistakably cocky and self-confident manner. She was in court that day contesting the claims of one E.W. Lick, money lender, to the rightful possession of the title on her house. Lick was trying to evict Hannah and her aged husband, John.

Eviction, along with rotten potatoes, would have been very triggering for Hannah. Although Hannah was born in Boston in 1859, her parents, my great-great-great grandparents Timothy and Mary McCarty, were not. They were born in Cork, Ireland in the early eighteen-hundreds, and had the awesome luck of surviving Trevelyan’s economic schemes for Ireland, which included exporting food out of the Ireland as the potato crop failed.

This isn’t the kind of luck I’d wish on anyone. I have no story about their life in Cork prior to immigration, but statistically the odds were not in their favor. Abusive and absentee landlords, terrible workhouses, like the one in Skibbereen, failed crops: the entire panoply of famine, death, displacement and British bureaucratic derangement formed the backdrop to their departure and arrival in America, and probably the rest of their lives in sunny California. Their only luck was their ability to get the hell out.

I don’t know what their immigration year was (looking for a McCarty in a census record from the mid-eighteen hundreds is a thankless task) but anyone who fled a famine no matter where it happened—Ireland, India, North Korea—knows this: the feeling that people are trying to get rid of you is not paranoic fantasy. They are.

In 1910, E.W. Lick was trying to get rid of Hannah and John. They purchased the property from the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society seven years earlier for $250. Adjusted for inflation (it comes out to $6921.73) that’s still a good deal. It’s a roomy lot: 5,625 square feet and 75 feet deep, and it backs up to a hillside. The house has neatly symmetrical second-story fenestration overlooking the street that made a perfect shooting gallery for Hannah.

A page from the 1907 San Francisco Block Book ,showing the lots owned by Hannah and her husband John. After Hannah accused Samuel Boyd of encroaching on her property, she and her husband sold a part of their original lot to Mr. Dettling.

The trouble began in 1905. That year, Hannah complained to the Department of Public Works that their surveyor improperly measured the lot next to hers, an error encouraged by a bribe offered to the surveyor from her neighbor at 130 Ripley, Mr. Samuel Boyd. This, she said, resulted in four and a quarter feet being deducted from her property. Her complaint was ignored. She was determined to be heard and to obtain justice, but sadly this ancestral vigilance, formed in the crucible of the famine in Cork, was her doom. Prior to the earthquake and fire of 1906, she borrowed $500 from the money lender Lick in order to bring suit against Boyd.

Today, a house stands between 120 and 130 Ripley, but in 1910, there was only an empty field and enough neighborly antipathy billowing across that empty space to make today’s Nextdoor.com dramas pale in comparison. Dumping mattresses is one thing: taking four feet and quarter inches is a trespass not to be born.

Neither Hannah, who was a tailoress, or her husband were working, which is perhaps why the Hibernia Bank foreclosed their $600 mortgage sometime in 1906 through their collection agency, Rauers Law and Collections Agency, which had the snappy motto “We Do Get The Money If The Debtor Has It!” The debtor didn’t have it, but Lick did, and so the die was cast and the drama began churning along.

Lick, whose name rhymes with dick (funny, that) secured a ruling that evicted the Welshes from their home sometime late in 1909, or early in 1910. Hannah refused to budge and ended up in court in February of 1910 for violating section 419 of the penal code, which forbids an evictee from returning to their former abode.

Hannah acted as her own lawyer: this was both affordable and in keeping with her forthright nature. She was helped by a mysterious young woman during the irregular proceedings that day, identified only as “Portia Gray”. Portia claimed she had been admitted to the bar “in another state”, but refused to say any more about it. She and Hannah carried on “whispered consultations” throughout the day, and got a continuance of the case.

Portia Gray never shows up in any other article, and no amount of googling has uncovered her identity. Was she a family member or friend, or maybe even a colleague sent by my great-grandfather James, an attorney, who was used to extricating his family from perilous legal situations? Who knows? Not me.

Things, meaning legal decisions, didn’t go Hannah’s way. Her husband was 74 years old, a veteran of the Civil War, and well within his dotage. This must have weighed on her. When she purchased the revolver from J.H. Kruse’s hardware store that June, one day after being served with a writ of eviction by Barr, the man she later shot, she did so believing that Lick’s men had no right to enter her home.

“I have been told by my attorney that they had no right to enter and that I could have a revolver there to protect my home,” she told a reporter as she sat in jail awaiting arraignment. No article specifies the type of revolver she purchased that day. It was the type you had to reload, which she did at least once during the shoot-out. Perhaps it was a Colt. That detail has been lost to history, but what happened a week later, has not.

It was 54 degrees and clear the morning of June 16, 1910 when Deputy Sheriff John A. Barr climbed the steps of 120 Ripley street, accompanied by Sheriff’s keeper James Logan, and two other policeman. They were there to remove Hannah and her husband from the house and place their belongings in the street. Her husband had gone to plead their case to the presiding judge, George H. Cabaniss, a superior court judge, and Hannah was alone, sick in bed, she said later, but ready to defend herself. When Barr arrived, he found the door barred against him.

Barr sent the other men around to a side door, and ordered Hannah to open up “in the name of the law”. That’s when she fired the first shot.

Hannah McCarty Welsh shooting at John A. Barr, as depicted by the San Francisco Call, June 17, 1910

The shot went wild, and ricocheted off the wall, near the two policemen crouched outside. Barr put his shoulder against the front door and forced it open. Looking up, he saw Hannah, half dressed, pointing her revolver directly at him. She pulled the trigger and shot him through his left cheek. The bullet passed through his open mouth, exiting above his right ear. He “staggered” out of the house and collapsed, not dead—he didn’t die—but perhaps wishing he was.

She fired her next shot at Policeman Logan, after he forced his way in through a side door. He promptly fled. Hannah opened her front door and stood on her porch, holding the smoking revolver. “I’ll shoot any man that tries to come in here,” she announced. And that’s exactly what she did for the next chaotic hour as policemen in squad cars answered the riot call and rattled up Ripley Street. A crowd of 200 people gathered outside the house, watching and waiting. A neighbor was sent inside to reason with her, but left empty-handed.

Finally, Detective Michael V. Burke from the Mission station forced his way through a back door—not before she shot at him three times—and subdued her. “Although the struggle was between a stalwart policeman and a frail little woman, she fought like a tigress,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle breathlessly the next day. Hannah was taken to the city prison where she was charged with assault to murder.

Hannah’s husband John arrived home and was advised that his wife was in prison. With the doors of his home closed against him, an eviction notice nailed to the front door, and his furniture and personal belongs scattered around him in the street, he spoke with the Chronicle reporter. “This is my property and no matter what my wife borrowed on it or what she was led into signing, it is still mine and they have no right to put me out,” he said. His eyes flashed. “Lick didn’t get it fairly. He has no right to my property.”

His neighbors—maybe the Mahoneys, who lived next door, or the Dettlings, or the maybe the McGarrigals or the Mulcahy’s, all of whom had witnessed the Welsh’s struggle to stay put—gathered around him, offering assistance. Someone gathered up his belongings, and someone else took him away, and gave him shelter that night.

Hannah was arraigned in Judge Deasy’s court on July 14th, and then declined to appear again, and vanished for a month. It was an open secret that she had returned to the scene of the crime and was occupying the house on Ripley Street. The long arm of the law caught up to her in September, and she appeared in Judge Dunne’s court after he threatened to jail her husband. The charges against her were read again, and bail set at $1,000 in cash.

She fired her attorney, Philip Boardman, and, insisting on representing herself, tried to convince the judge to throw out the case. “Shrieking woman breaks up court” was the headline that day: after failing to convince Judge Dunne of the merits of her argument, Hannah screamed so loudly that court proceedings in other rooms came to halt. She was removed from court and taken to a nearby paddy wagon, still screaming that she was being deprived of her rights.

Her persistence didn’t go unrewarded. In October, commissioners with San Francisco County Insanity Commission, announced that she was paranoic, and insane, due to her peculiar conviction that she was better able to represent herself and, moreover, that the courts and officers of justice were in a conspiracy and trying to cheat her.

The commissioners suggested that she be remanded to a private insane asylum. She was placed in the county jail while her friends (they are never named in any of the articles) were encouraged to find such a place. She was officially declared legally insane on November 10, 1910, by Dr. C.D. McGettigan, insanity commissioner, who said that she suffered from “litigious paranoia”. It’s not clear where she was held from November, 1910 to August 17, 1913: the Stockton State Asylum has no public record that shows her as an inmate. Perhaps she was at San Francisco General Hospital. Or perhaps the Creely/McCarty’s funded her stay at a private asylum.

Wherever she was, she proved to be a model inmate. Two years later, on August 17, 1913, Hannah was pronounced sane and released, three months after her husband John died at the age of 77.

Hannah bounced back. After her release, she lived on 24th street, near the intersection of Shotwell, a funny locale for a woman who hadn’t. She made her living as a vest-maker. By 1920, she was sixty-one years old, and working as a matron in the Orpheum theater and living in a rented room on Guerrero street. John’s pension as a veteran would have been available to Hannah; this, combined with her tailoring skills, may explain why, after so much strife, fraud and trickery, she was able to purchase a home at 1538 Church street in Noe Valley.

She passed out of this crazy world 35 years after her impassioned defense of her home, at the ripe old age of 85. She outlived her siblings, Margaret and Daniel, and possibly Catherine and John, too.

There’s no obituary for her, just a record from Carew and English, the funeral home that received her remains. The information in it came from her niece Anna Creely, and confirms the information we, who were born in the aftermath of our ancestor’s immigration, were told in sporadic moments of recollection: that her parents were Timothy and Mary (Rice) McCarty, that Hannah was born in Massachusetts, and that everything we never really knew, was true after all.

Less important, but most illuminating to me is this fact: Hannah was born under the astrological sign of Cancer the Crab, that clever, tenacious, legalistic, and resilient sign most associated with domesticity, and all matters pertaining to the thing we call home.

She and John are buried in the National Cemetery, in the Presidio, in grave 1015, on the west side, under a plain white headstone made by the Green Mountain Marble Co. in Vermont. Requiescat in pace.

120 Ripley Street as it appears today.

 

Written with love (and a very stiff neck) for Aunt Hannah and Uncle John.

“… the exiled Irish took with them the bitterest memories of the land system which drove them from Ireland… ” Mícheál Davitt, excerpted from the speech he delivered in defense of the Land League in 1890.

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The Creely-McCarty Incident map.

“James Creely overlooks the Bolinas Lagoon”, by Kate Creely, July 2018

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago, a man named James Creely rode a “handsome white horse” along the Bolinas- Fairfax road, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. After spending the night at the Ocean House, a hotel in Bolinas, he took the “Sausalito road” back to San Francisco. The Sausalito News wrote this inch-long article about Mr. Creely in 1886, functioning as papers often did in those days as social media in the truest sense of the term: short on particulars— how did he get there?—and big on image. In the 19th century, even though the Transatlantic cable was transmitting news from around the world with increasing rapidity, newspapers still paid attention to comings and goings of ordinary folk. In many way, the article is the late 19th century version of a Instagram post, in its broad outlines of a moment of sweet leisure in James Creely’s life. In common hashtag parlance, this is #horselife.

This moment lacks any further detail.  Perhaps that’s why his exploit made it into the paper. Like a long-distance athlete looking to set a record, maybe no one had ever traveled from San Francisco to West Marin on horseback.

The real mystery, though, is who this guy was. He may have been one of three people: my great-great grandfather, James Creely, who was forty-five that year, his son, my great-grandfather, James H. Creely, an unmarried law student, or still another James Creely, who first appears in the San Francisco city directories in 1859, and whose name is often misspelled as “Crelly”. I know nothing about this third Creely man. I feel confident in stating that he was my great-great grandfather’s uncle, but fools often feel confidence (and I have often been very foolish.) and I have no proof that he has any relation to my family. But I think he did. James is the name of my 4th great-grandfather, and riding a horse from San Francisco to Marin County sounds like something that certain members of my family would do, given the opportunity.

“James Creely on his handsome white horse”, Kate Creely, July 2018

My paternal grandfather’s family is almost entirely Irish and almost entirely made from the confluence of two families, the Creelys and the McCartys who joined forces in Stockton, California. Both families immigrated from Ireland in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

To wit: in 1849, Patrick Creely came to the United States with two children in tow: his son, James Creely, who was born in May, 1846 in Armagh, Ireland and James’s elder sister, Annie, who was born in 1840. Patrick Creely was naturalized in San Francisco in 1855, and lived in Stockton with his small family. In March 1859, Patrick bought some land from a man named William Eldridge and then died a month later of kidney disease, leaving his son and  daughter to fend for themselves. Patrick is buried at the Stockton Rural Cemetery in an unmarked grave with two other individuals named Connell, and his name is misspelled as “Crelay” in the handwritten register. There has never been any word on the fate of his wife, a women named Elizabeth (McConnell) Creely.

The orphaned son, James, lived with James and Susan O’Connell. His nineteen year old sister Annie, who picked up the surname “Campbell” from an unrecorded marriage lived elsewhere. In those days in San Joaquin, far from dense city centers, life and death—and everything in between— often went unrecorded.

In 1869, James pops into recorded history. He was, by then, a twenty-three year old man, who had married a woman named Margaret McCarty, the “belle” of the town, according to my grandfather. Annie was married, too, to a man named Solomon Confer. The Creely siblings held their weddings in the same location, month and year: September 1866, in St Mary’s, the Catholic church located in what is now the historic downtown of Stockton. By 1868, James and Margaret had two children, Edward and James. Annie and Solomon had three or four. All of them lived and worked in Stockton, Solomon at his brick factory—he is credited with building the original nave of St. Mary’s using his bricks—and James at his profession. He had become a ferrier, or horseshoer.

The 1869 city directory for Stockton lists an advertisement for “O’Connell and Crealy, Blacksmiths”, whose business was located on Market Street in downtown Stockton. Horses were very important to the Creely-McCartys. My family made their living as horseshoers, horse-dealers, horse trainers (and lost some of their living at the horse races.) Cattle figured into the family business, too, for a brief and controversial moment, but horses were the family business until automobiles appeared on the scene.

“James Creely looks over the Pacific Ocean” Kate Creely, July 2018

In 1871, James and Margaret pulled up stakes, and decided to try their luck in San Francisco, where I think they had family members, the aforementioned James Crelly/Creely and (I suspect) some McCartys.  Annie and Solomon stayed in Stockton, and had five children, four of whom died of tuberculosis. One of them, Charles Henry Confer, was the “head artist” at the satirical weekly, the San Francisco Wasp, until he succumbed to TB in Stockton at the age of twenty five. Annie died in 1880, and Solomon in 1902.

James and Margaret first appear in the San Francisco city directory in 1872, on Minna Street with four of their children in a one-room dwelling. In short order, they lived in five different places within a decade, making a circuit of the southern and eastern parts of San Francisco. For a time, they lived on the outskirts of the city, near Butchertown, the swampy southeastern part of the city located near Islais Creek, a hellish place of unregulated abattoirs, sickly cattle and befouled bay waters.

They moved back to the South of Market with their growing family, living on Stevenson, Minna and Natoma and Howard streets in one- and two-room apartments. Like many San Franciscans, they shared their living quarters with their children, and extended family. In 1882, James McCarty—likely a sibling of Margaret’s, or perhaps a nephew—listed his residence as 64 Natoma street, which is where James and Margaret were living with their seven children. Later that year, their nine year-old daughter Mary Emma died of epilepsy.

In 1890, the Creely family moved to Buchanan Street, and then to 510 Golden Gate Avenue, the address of their son’s veterinary hospital. Finally, in 1895, they made it into the Mission. Their house was located at 916 Florida Street, near the intersection of 21st.

Margaret lived another three years and then died on July 16th, 1898 at the age of fifty. She was probably worn out: she’d given birth eleven times, from 1867 to 1888, and was pregnant almost constantly for twenty years.

James and Annie Creely are the Ur-Creelys: the source of all of us who live in California. Only four of their sixteen children had children. Today, the family structure resembles an inverted triangle. Rather than growing, the family shrank a bit, and today instead of a descendant cohort that outnumbers the preceding generations, we have probably only broken even.

This reticence includes their social life: the Creelys-McCarty’s didn’t associate too much; didn’t hang out in the Irish-American halls in the South of Market and the Mission District and held themselves aloof from the buzz of Hibernian associationism that was common in the 19th and 20th century in San Francisco. I look at lists of Ancient Order of Hibernian pledges, men who wanted the protection of that benevolent society, but no Creely ever appears.

The Irish-American Benevolent Society hall, located at 5th and Howard in San Francisco. The building was sold and torn down around 1898-ish.

But they hob-nobbed with their friends and cronies—and contended with their enemies and foes— with energy and alacrity. Because of that, and because newspapers really were social media, the Creely-McCarty’s appear regularly in the pages of Bay Area newspapers: the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Alta, the San Francisco Call, and smaller papers, like the Pacific Rural Press. From the 1850’s on, more than 5,000 stories and advertisements appear.

Sometimes it’s a notice of a real estate transaction, or a advertisement for various veterinary hospitals. Sometimes, though—often enough to be satisfying—there’s a full-fledged story, with a nice dramatic arc and a great illustration. Some of the stories I knew about: great uncle Edward and the Jury, Whitehat McCarty and the Palace. There are stories I’ve never heard before: great grandaunt Hannah McCarty Welch and her determination to stay in her home, and great granduncle John McCarty’s beef with the Horseshoers Union.

There are other, sadder stories that happened later in the century. I remember my father’s life-long sorrow over the death of his first cousin, James, who perished in San Leandro in the forties: his friend drove recklessly and, after side-swiping a taxi, plowed into a gas station. The gas station exploded and killed James Creely, son of James Creely, grandson of James Creely, and great-grandson of James Creely, the blacksmith who may have arrived in Bolinas on a handsome white horse one May day in 1889.

What I’m saying is this: I know too much. So I made a map. This map shows the location of the residences, businesses, and incidents involving the Creely-McCarty family from roughly 1859 to 1920 or so. The facts are drawn from family story, city directories and census records, (NOTE: I haven’t been able to find James and Margaret Creely in the 1870 census.) Old newspapers, like the Daily Alta, and the San Francisco Call newspapers, have been invaluable sources. Also: old maps, which have helped me find streets that no longer exist.

The incidents are marked as such. Depending on my energy level and available time, I’ll be writing essays about the incidents—the small dramas—that I’ve discovered in the digitized pages of San Francisco and Northern California newspapers. This map might grow. It might not. Whatever happens I can confidently say that it’s the most complete account of where we lived and worked in this changeable state and city and what we (sometimes) did.

There’s been a Creely or a McCarty in San Francisco from at least 1859, and possibly longer. There’s just three of us here now: me, and my lovely cousin Gerald O’Connor, who has the luminous blue eyes of his great-Grandmother Margaret. My cousin Robert Skinner, who is a McCarty, lives here, too.

Maybe we’ll make some history. (I certainly try.). But in case we don’t, here’s the history we have made. All mistakes are mine and hopefully there’s some resemblance to actual persons, all of whom are dead. Here’s a link to a page which lists the family members that appear on this map. If you want to see birth dates and death dates, please follow this link to Ancestry.com, where that information is recorded. If I’ve missed anyone, feel free to fix it yourself. (Just ask me for editing permission :-).

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile: we live within reach of each other’s shadows (this is not a strict translation.) Shadows obscure, but they provide shelter, too. It depends on what you use them for, I guess. Shelter or shade, I love my family, and this map is a gift to it, them and you. Enjoy.

Elizabeth Creely wearing her great-grandfather’s bridle.

 

Finished on July 24th, 2018.
This blog post is dedicated to Elizabeth McConnell Creely, my great-great-great grandmother, whose final resting place is unknown. Your family did good out here in California. What is remembered lives.

 

Vótáil Tá: Repealing the Eighth Amendment

Tomorrow, three years and two days after the day that Ireland voted “ta” to the prospect of gay marriage, another referendum is scheduled. What is before the voters this year, in the Republic of Ireland, is the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland. It prohibits abortion. This all goes down tomorrow, May 25 (or today if you’re in Ireland. As I write this, it’s 6:59 in the morning. The polls open in less than one minute.). Time is of the essence: history is being made, and I must race ahead of it and the outcome and collect my thoughts.

I took BART to SFO today to join a courageous woman named Krista who decided that what she should do was hold a sign at Gate 91 in SFO’s International Terminal, applauding the Irish who were flying home on the once-a-day direct flight to Dublin to cast their vote. She showed up two days before the referendum, holding a colorful sign that read “Thanks For Flying. #hometovote. Trust Women”.

Krista Kobeski at SFO well-wishing Irish citizens flying home to vote in the May 25 2018 referendum

“I don’t know what the regulations in the airport are, but I figure if I stand here, out of the way, it’s ok,” she told me. Krista has direct brown eyes and confident bearing and I think Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, my favorite Irish revolutionary feminist, would be really impressed with her. I was. The reaction, she said, had been very positive. “A lot of young men, who are flying home to vote, stopped and shook my hand and thanked me. Lots of young women, certainly, but a lot of young men. Old and young alike.” Her favorite, Krista said, was an older man, using a walker. “He gave me a wink. He stopped pushing his walker, gave me a wink, and carried on.”

Two men walked past us twenty minutes later, both in their sixties. One of them snapped a picture of us on his cell phone, and told us we were doing a good job. After that, two women stopped to talk to us. Their names were Mary and Maura. They, too, were older. “We’re for repeal,” Maura said simply.

The Amendment they wish to rid themselves of was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, and is, as activist Janet Ní Shuilleabháin has been explaining all around the county for the last few years, a carryover of the days when Ireland was a British Colony and had the “Offenses Against the Person Act” in their criminal code, which prohibited both queerness and abortion. (Janet pointed out in a Facebook post that this was the act that was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde. )

This act was taken up within the Bunreacht na hÉireann immediately after the 1922 Civil war. Contraception was banned in 1935, and both these expressions of fearful contempt were followed by articles 41.2.1 and 41.2.2, authored by the Taoiseach of the time, Eamon De Valera, which legally confined women to the home in pursuit of preserving the family as the “natural and fundamental primary unit group of society.”

This was called “fascist” by Sheehy-Skeffington in a letter she wrote to Prison Bars, a news sheet started by Maude Gonne: “Never before have women been so united as now when they are faced with Fascist proposals endangering the livelihood cutting away their rights as human beings…” She and other Irish revolutionary feminists launched a campaign to have the articles deleted from the draft constitution, and replaced  by language from the 1922 constitution, which affirmed the equality of all citizens “without distinction of sex”. They lost. The Constitution and the articles within—which lurk inside the Constitution to this day—came into force in December of 1937, setting Ireland down a dark path of a punishing and insular conservatism that was followed closely until pretty fucking recently. Read this letter from Academics For Repeal, an Irish organization of in 103 academics, in support of repealing the 8th. It lays this history all out. I was remembering all of the above history today, as I greeted the Irish who were in full #hometovote mode. Aoife Caulfield, who was wearing a Repeal sweater, stopped to take our picture and talk with us. She had radiant blue eyes, which welled up with tears as she explained what this moment meant. “It’s great that I’m going to be home tomorrow to cast my vote,” she said. “It’s so emotional.” Her voice caught and she cried openly for a second. “It has to pass.” She allowed that she was worried.

“I’m from Clare, and my mom said no one is talking about it. It’s like people are afraid to bring up the topic in conversation. It’s the rural areas that are the worry. But then I think maybe people are secret “yes” voters! And that they’re just afraid to come out and voice their opinion.”

Aoife Caulfield, an Irish citizen, who flew home to vote in the May 25th referendum on the Eighth Amendment and Krista.

That wouldn’t be surprising. Secrets, lies and silence: the tight gag of place. I heard all about this coping strategy, this tradition of non-disclosure and the famed Hibernian chattiness that disguises it, from Dr. Ruth O’Hara, another Irish feminist, who taught classes in the Irish Studies Program at the New College of California, in the nineties, when I was a student. Ruth, who was a Stanford professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in her spare time, delivered lectures on the arc of Irish history, and gave particular emphasis on the development of women’s roles, or lack thereof, after the Irish Civil war and the disastrous 1937 Constitution. It was not a hopeful history at all. Frankly, it was very bad.

Ruth told us about the offending Constitutional articles, the introduction of the Eighth Amendment and what it all meant and the horror that these ideas caused: the banishment of women from the economic and political sphere, the introduction of unforgiving and brutal social mores that penalized women with institutionalization, and confinement in the Magdalene Laundries. I heard about the laundries and the situation at Tuam in Ruth O’Hara’s classroom on Valencia street in 1999, years before the graves were “discovered”. I heard about and read accounts of the suicides of women and girls who got pregnant and saw no way out.

I was told about the “X” case. I knew about the girl in the graveyard, bleeding out next to her dead infant son. Whatever you say, say nothing,” said Ruth, quoting Seamus Heany. This is how it is, she told us, this is how women’s lives are handled.

 

The passing of the Eighth Amendment, a desperate and nasty attempt to prevent Ireland and Irish woman from benefiting from legal abortion, cannot pass out of the Constitution quickly enough. History will (I think) show that ultimately all the strictures placed on women got dismantled, but this is cold comfort. The history that led to the repeal of the Eighth will still have to document and contend with hundreds of years of a grossly unjust, terrible past; one that involves millions of women traveling to Britain to obtain a legal abortion, and darker stories too, social ostracization, terrible shame, terrible fear, just animal terror.

There isn’t enough space in this blog post to talk about the terror of living in a society where you have no control over your body, the same body that comes with a full suite of sexual and reproductive capacities. These histories, colonial and post-colonial, form a dreadful geas, a series of conditions and taboos that doomed Irish women, who fell afoul of them.

Taboos are meant to be broken, they say. I think this particular taboo will be thoroughly broken tomorrow. Today in the airport, women wearing “Repeal” sweaters rushed past, pulling their luggage behind them. They looked over at us, and smiled at our signs, giving us a thumbs up. They were individual parts of a mighty diasporic stream, going back to Ireland to vote and change the future of their country, something that was impossible to do, 160 years ago, when my family like so many others, had to leave knowing that they’d never see the place again. A woman named Grainne walked straight over to us. “I have to take your pictures,” she said and did. She started crying and held up her arms for an embrace. We crowded into it and held on tight.

Grainne Wafer who flew home to vote yes.

 

Orla, who is for Repeal, at SFO on May 24th, shortly before flying home to vótáil tá

 

Finished and posted at 7:41 a.m., Irish time.
With forever love to my darling Lizann, my beautiful friend, whose light will never dim.
#RepealedtheEighth
#Repealedthe8th

The missing switch of 22nd street

I can explain about the railroad switch. My husband was the one who noticed that it was missing. We were walking down 22nd street, past the old Southern Pacific right-of way. I saw what I always see, dried stalks of Foeniculum vulgare, and the Western Plywood warehouse (which is also gone now). Jay immediately zeroed in on what wasn’t there: the old railroad switch.

Hey,” Jay said, pointing at a clump of fennnel. “Where’s the switch?”

It was gone. I was flabbergasted. I’ve been looking at the damn thing off and on for almost 25 years. There’s that thing, I’d think, what is that thing? It was always there, the mysterious old metal thing stuck in the ground next to the Atlas Stair Company. It only became knowable—it’s a rail switch!— after I started investigating the history of the Southern Pacific right-of-way, now a vacant strip of land cutting diagonally behind Treat avenue. I wrote an article about the right-of-way for Mission Local in December 2017 that described the rails embedded in the ground and the rail switch.

The switch itself is kind of boring. There’s a flat metal plate with rusted spikes sticking through holes. Then there’s a really thick vertical part which supports a circular plate with a cool handle that juts out awkwardly from the side of the apparatus. A length of iron, which still has some yellow paint on it, extends about two feet up from that. It seems like one should be able to lift the jutting handle  and move it counter-clockwise around the circular plate, and fix it into another position, but you can’t. I tried. A bit of iron wire is wrapped haphazardly around it: some long-ago engineer’s quick fix? Maybe. When was it was bolted to the ground? I don’t know. Maybe sometime in the 1860’s, when trains from the San Francisco San Jose line ran along the rail, but it’s more likely a later improvement by the Southern Pacific, which bought the failing SF-SJ line and enfolded it into its tentacular monopoly.

There are endless categories of trains and railways, and rail lines and to go along with this, exhaustively well-researched and documented histories of the terrible fraud and larceny of the rail magnates. Rail history is more than just people traveling and golden spikes driven into rail ties: it’s the game of Monopoly in real time, the history of unregulated capital, labor exploitation, land seizures and riots. It is the story of ex-grocers with fat stomachs, who got rich seizing control of California’s government, land, and labor.

All the magnates—Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker, Newhall, all those guys—knew how to exert control. The old switch is a small expression of that.

Here, let me do a cut and paste from Wikipedia in order to explain what a rail switch is. (I had no idea.) A railroad switch is “a mechanical installation enabling railway trains to be guided from one track to another, such as at a railway junction or where a spur or siding branches off.” Basic, right? The switch was probably made in the Southern Pacific’s foundry in Sacramento and might have even been designed by a man named Andrew Jackson Stevens, SP’s General Master Mechanic from 1870 until 1888, a man noted for his ingenuity in designing railroad parts.

I’m telling you this to show that even for something as mundane as a rail switch, it’s possible to know a lot about its origins. And because of the slow unfolding of certain events, it’s also possible for me to tell you why it’s missing from the right-of-way.

An Irishman named John O’Connor saved it. That’s the short story. O’Connor, a tall man with large eyes, is a builder—or developer, if you want to use the faintly pejorative term—and a Kerryman. “That’s cool,” I said when he told me this. “San Francisco is a Cork and Kerry town.” He smiled patiently. John O’Connor bought the Western Plywood warehouse on Harrison street in 2013, and straightway started making plans to tear it down and construct a residential building. He’s kind of shaping presence around here. A couple years ago, he built another residential building right next door to his newest development. His latest project was planned under fire from neighborhood criticism, which ranged from laments over the lack of affordability to concerns that his tall building (it’s going to be 40 feet high) would cast an actual pall over the neighborhood with its high, high walls.

I’m bringing him into this because not only did he save the switch, but also because his property borders the right-of-way.

Now, maybe you’ve been following the news of this neighborhood. Maybe you know that know some of my neighbors here in the East Mission want to turn the right-of-way into something nice, like a long narrow greenway, or maybe a dog run, or maybe both. No one knows yet. Hell, the city doesn’t even know who owns it! The future of the right-of-way is unfolding from emptiness into form, and the actual dimensions of the right-of-way are coming into focus in part because of O’Connor’s 40-foot building rising up on its eastern edge. In a weird way, this is going to help: people will know exactly how much land there is to work with. I find this interesting, in a plot-driven kind of way: O’Connor has acted as a local deus ex machina, providing answers and clarity in a way he probably never intended to.

He certainly did one day, a month after the switch went missing.

On that day, I was walking along the right-of-way with the people who want to see it turned into a greenway. I was interviewing them for another Mission Local story. Ever since Jay noticed that the switch was gone, the pre-verbal, pre-cognitive part of my mind had gone on full alert, like a searchlight. A questing beacon.  Where is it where is it, my seeking mind muttered.

You see: I felt guilt. It was my fault that it was gone. Let me back up, and explain.


The switch is gone! Skulduggery! I wrote in an email to my friend Dennis, hours after Jay pointed out its absence. I thought maybe it had been removed by certain property owners I had mentioned in my December story. They didn’t like being written about, I reasoned, and they didn’t want people to start loving the weedy old parcel: that’s an old railroad right of way, they’d maybe say, looking at the rusty switch with new respect. So they must have pulled the switch out.

Dennis, who is a railroad historian and a journalist, and also very sensible, explained what had really happened. It’s more likely that it was taken, he wrote back, pointing out that because I had helpfully included a picture of the switch in my Mission Local article, that rail fans/artifact plunderers noted the fact that there was a “vintage” rail switch standing in an empty lot and planned accordingly. They probably took it, he concluded, and then told me a story of an awesome object he had written about, which basically doomed it to theft, too.

I thought of Yeats’s famous line about writing plays that got men shot. The article I wrote that got the switch, I thought and stopped right there because my mind was hissing things at me like that’s weird, Elizabeth. Stop being weird. Also, I could not think of a word for “steal” that rhymed with “wrote.”

Dennis sent me a link to Ebay to prove his point. It took me to a world I never knew existed: the world of collectible “Railroadiana & Trains” where, sure enough, two or three rail switches were for sale. My jaw dropped. Some guy in Kentucky had one listed for 399.00 . You understand that railroad switches are very heavy, right? And not pretty. I saw a 16th-century water pump in the Victoria and Albert Museum in England last November that was very pretty. Every square inch of it was adorned with flowers, and other stuff. The switch is not pretty. And yet, they sell for hundreds of dollars (apparently. Maybe the guy in Kentucky is delusional.)

Back to my questing mind: so, I was walking around in the right-of-way with people who want it to be a greenway. Ostensibly, I was there to interview people, and I was doing that: the gentle teacher who thinks about open spaces and the humanity that takes root there, the suspicious and weary artists who live in a warehouse along the southern edge of the right-of-way, who feel like foxes run to the ground. They have had the vacant lot to “work large in” and fear that they’ll lose their creative space if the greenway is developed.

I was definitely working. But I was also thinking about the switch. Where is it where is it where is it, beep, beep, beep…I showed one of the artists where the switch had been. He hadn’t noticed it was gone. Someone else came over and we discussed the situation. It’s a bummer, I told the artist. It made this a place.

What else?

It was a piece of the past. It was a part of the old world where things were manufactured, not just funded. It was Made in America, possibly the handiwork of unionized labor. It hearkened to a time when the physical world held sway and nothing was seamless. We all agreed these things were true.

We walked back to the Western Plywood warehouse, which was three weeks away from demolition. The siding  was open, so I walked inside and took a picture. There was a shout.

“Hey! No! No pictures! No pictures!” John O’Connor—that’s who it was, although I didn’t know that at the time—rounded the corner, looking tall and annoyed.

“Sorry,” I responded. “Can I look around if I take no pictures?”

“Sure,” he said. I noticed the brogue. The others drifted over: the neighbors who wanted the parcel to become a greenway, the artists who weren’t so sure. They had met each other that morning and there was a cautious air of well-shit-I-guess-we-should-talk sense of rapprochement. Someone said something about all the changes, and then someone else mentioned the switch.

“Did you notice the switch is gone?” I asked O’Connor.

“Oh, I have that, sure,” he said.

“WHAT?” I screamed. He pointed inside the warehouse. And there was the switch, laying on the ground with clods of mud and weeds festooning the base.

He’d been inside the warehouse on New Years night, he said. As he was leaving, he noticed that a white truck was inside the lot, down near 22nd street. It was a “bart truck”, he told us.

“A bart truck,” I repeated.

“Yeh, yeh, you know, BARRRRT. Bart. The train. The truck had the BART logo on it,” he said and showed me a picture he’d taken of the truck and the license plate.  He watched as two men wrestled the switch into the truck and then decided to act.

“So, I went over to them,” O’Connor said “and said what’re you doing here? What’re you doing? Yiv got no business here. And I told ‘em to leave and brought that inside. I knew they shouldn’t have it.”

“Did you tell BART?” I asked.

“Ah, no. I didn’t want to get the lads in trouble,” he said. “I chased ‘em off. That was enough.”

It was sort of a moment when he told us that he’d saved the switch, taken it from the plunderers and stored it inside the warehouse. People were happy to see it, the switch that had been stuck in the ground, for maybe a century, year in and year out. We’d all been mostly unaware of it until we started thinking about the future of the place.

It felt like a good omen to see it laying there.

After O’Connor knocked down the Western Plywood warehouse, the switch was moved to a safe (and undisclosed) location, until it goes somewhere else. The Western Railway Museum said they’d take it. But I’m not sure I want it to leave the Mission. One thing is certain: it will probably won’t go back to the right-of-way. Rusted iron spikes and jutting handles are incompatible with concerned parents and their small children, which will play in the greenway, if that’s what ends up happening.

And there’s no security for it now, which is partly my fault—I asked for attention to be paid, and it was.

So now you know why the switch is gone. What I can’t tell you about is its future.

The history it belonged to is totally gone and now the switch is sort of like a marooned time-traveler. What happens to them? Sometimes they get back home. Sometimes they’re destroyed. Sometimes, they remake the future and shape it in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t know what will happen to the railroad switch. It’s in exile right now, but we’ll see. The Mission is changing. But there’s always room for the past.

Here is a cut-n-paste of the SP spur, taken from the  San Francisco block book, circa 1900, possibly even earlier (it’s undated and in the collection of block books at the North Baker research library at the California Historical Society).

 

If you look closely, you can see the names of the property owners scattered throughout. Prominent among these is Samuel Crim, John Center and JH Kruse.

 
Written during a Pineapple Express storm on March 21st, 2018. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I organized a history festival, and that took all my time. And then I got sick. But I’m better now. It’s good to be back.

 

Riding with Mary.

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Mary above the Puerto Alegre restaurant at 25th and Bryant

I went riding with Mary today, on my bike, through the neighborhood and hailed her every time I saw her. She’s a constant in the neighborhood, a genius loci, who’s been up in everyone’s business in the Mission —the Ancient Hibernians, the Latinx, —for a long time. (sometimes I think people think the Mission has only ever been either Irish or Mexican.) During my marathon Irish Walking Tour someone asked me what had changed in the mission …really? They posed this question to me sotto voce. I don’t know why: were they hoping for secret knowledge? I said It’s not that the Mission used be Irish…it’s that this place used to be about family. Multi-generations in one house. That’s what the Mission used to be.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe above El Farolitos on 24th Street

(The Mission was always a place to party. During prohibition, the Mission had speakeasies called “blind pigs”. The Quinn family who hailed from Cork, lived above a blind pig on the corner of 24th and Alabama. A shot of moonshine went for about 25 cents, according to Frank Quinn. Wonder what the operators of the gambling den/brothel in Lilac Alley charge? )

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Mary at the south end of Balmy Alley

I had this slightly surreptitious conversation while standing in front of an image of the Mary of La Reyna Panaderia on 24th street. Mary is one thing that hasn’t changed. She’s always been here and people have always worshipped her and loved her I told this person, who really needed to know that things are not so simple. People have been talking to Mary in Irish, in Italian, maybe in German, obviously in Spanish, obviously in English, for a long-ass time. Right? There’s a good reason that sightings of her are so common. All the prayers, all the fervent petitions to her, all of the apologies that stern Irish priests in the olden days of the Mission made you go down on your knees to say (I’m not catholic, so I don’t know how this goes, exactly.): all of this has left an imprint on the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s was founded in 1867, which means people in this “Peterite village” (so-called by Rev. Nicholas Farana, assistant pastor at St. Peters) have been talking with Mary for nearly a century and a half.

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Lourdes Mary and Mary with a fabulous Crown, also in Balmy Alley.

Sé do bheath’ a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mná

(Oh, speaking of sightings. We had an actual, un-official Marian visitation in July, 1996. I was living on Precita Avenue, which is down the street and around the corner from the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. This chapel—which is gorgeously adorned with mounds of glazed terra cotta fruits, flowers and cherubs with round cheeks, blank eyes, and mouths frozen in a perfect “o”— has had a couple of mystical things happen: the current priest is an exorcist, an altar boy began excreting oil of rose through his pores and may have been in the early stages of developing stigmata. Also: Jesus was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Mary made an appearance on the brass roof of the chapel and the devout answered this unexpected visit by appearing in the hundreds each night for a week, holding candles, clicking beads, murmuring prayers and staring at the intersected scratches on the brass panel that became a hooded figure with a drooping head the longer you looked. The panel glowed softly but distinctly. I saw this with my own eyes.)

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Our Lady of La Reyna Bakery and coffee shop on 24th street, between Folsom and Shotwell.

Hail, Mary. If there wasn’t so much talk between her and the people who lived here, she wouldn’t hang out. There are at least 13 different images of her in the neighborhood, with different expressions: patient, bland, stern, muy doloroso, kind of annoyed, kind of bitchy with raised eyebrows. I know better than you she seems to say, like an uptight church lady, and I’m like well, yeah, you’re the mother of Jesus, so you better! She bridges cultures, she leap-frogs over history. She’s everywhere: in back alleys, in store windows, on bright yellow awnings. All the Marys: the Lourdes Mary, the Medjugorje Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mary.

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This is a Mary who got invited to Chata Gutierrez’s going-away-party mural on 24th street. She’s so serene.

 

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This is a stealth Mary, who is hard to see. She is painted on the side of 899 Capp street, which is diagonal to accommodate the Southern Pacific’s San Jose Railroad, which used to run through the Mission.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

Prompted by my friend, I muttered these words to her in Balmy Alley on the night of Dia de los Muertos. My sister was having a health care crisis, and I was like a child in the face of my fear. Mary was all over the place that night, not just in paintings, but in the faces of people and their shining eyes. The procession was quiet this year: everyone was holding their breath a bit because of the election, and there was something else going on, too, some other event that had drawn people away. The mood of the crowd felt more settled, more calm, as if the celestial blue of Mary’s mantle had settled on us all.

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I think this Mary of Lilac Alley. She’s pretty close to the blind pig.

(one note, written 2 days later: six of these Marys are versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or “Reina de Ambas Americas”, or, Queen of both Americas. The popularity of this version of Mary speaks to that time when the Mission transitioned: older immigrant groups, the Irish, mostly, headed into the hills of Noe Valley, Glen Park and the western parts of the city, as “large scale immigration” from Central and South American increased. There was conflict in the parish. The old Irish Peterites were unhappy with the changes sweeping through their little sráidbhaile and the immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Nicaragua contended with each other. Father Leopold Uglesic, pastor at St. Peters in the fifties, and survivor of fascist violence in Eastern Europe, worked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an effort to unify the parish.*

 

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Mary, holding her own in a shop window on Mission Street.

Ave María, llena de gracia, el Señor es contigo, bendita tú entre las mujeres

I took these pictures today because I think when you start noticing things—like the prevalence of Marian iconography in your neighborhood, or horrible things, like white nationalists holding meetings in Washington D.C., throwing the fascist salute—ya oughta notice that you’re noticing, and talk about it a little, in the middle of your fascination. Or your panic.

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This is a fierce pagan Mary in Balmy Alley.

I’m not Catholic. I don’t intend to be Catholic, either. But I’m noticing Mary because I’m noticing my neighborhood, toda la gente, the laborers, los trabajadores, the Fenians, the Sandinistas, both of whom ran military drills in the Mission, both of whom perfected the art of resistance in the Mission, before returning to Ireland or Nicaragua to kick out oligarchs and pinche shitheads.

I rode with Mary today, in my neighborhood, because I love my neighborhood and people love her and because she knows all these the families, the Quinns, the Gutierrezes. She’s something that hasn’t changed.

I addressed her the way she’s used to, with desperation which can be equally composed of hope and fear and probably said over and over again something like Hail Mary, full of grace. Lady, hear us in the hour of our need. Her face looked at me from the center of her labial corona, her hands folded together patiently or spread apart in entreaty.

Come to me, talk to me. I’ve heard it all. I want to know what’s happening. Lay it at my feet. I’ve seen you before.

Talk to me.

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I am including this, because it feels like a Mary. All that beautiful blue, plus the cherubs. This is at 24th and Mission, right next to the intersection of 24th and Lilac Alley.

*When I write about the Irish, or St. Peters, I depend upon Jeffrey M. Burns’s excellent essay entitled “St. Peter’s Parish in San Francisco: The rise and eclipse of an Irish Parish, 1913-1965” which is included in the anthology “The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays On Good Fortune”, published by the Irish Literary and Historical Society.

 

Written from the 22nd street Crossroads on a dim November day, the 22nd to be exact, in the year 2016, during the last quarter of the old moon. Everything is cuspy: planets, people’s understanding of the political system and their place in it, my heart.
In eight days, a new moon comes. Prepare your work.