Whales and quails and bears – oh my!
Would you believe that a century ago all of the above exotic beasties wandered the streets (or waterfronts) of Berkeley? Well, it’s true. And we’ve got the news articles to prove it.
Turn-of-the-century Berkeley was a city on the move, a “thriving metropolis” of 15,000 souls (up from a mere 12 – not 12,000 but 12 -- in the mid 1850s). Yet despite all the trappings of modern life – automobiles, streetcars, indoor plumbing – the city was still often visited by vestiges of its past.
“Sometimes I think all this development is like erasing somebody’s face, like smoothing over and erasing all the features from the city’s face,” says Richard Schwartz, whose new book “Berkeley 1900” is a compilation of over 650 turn-of-the-century Berkeley Gazette articles reporting on day-to-day life during the city’s adolescence. “(Turn-of-the-century Berkeleyeans) stood on one of the cusps of history. They stood on a ridge looking back at the past and seeing agrarianism, farms with animals and wild animal life. Looking on the other side of the ridge they saw the town’s future with houses taking over for farms, no more wild animals, industry and technology.”
Schwartz, a Philadelphia native who moved west to Berkeley in 1973 and hasn’t looked back, never intended to pen “Berkeley 1900.” All the building contractor and local historian intended to do when he walked through the doors of the Berkeley Historical Society in 1997 was watch a grainy old film of a trolley car rolling down city streets. What he found instead, however, was a stack of century-old, mildewed newspapers waiting to be thrown out.
Schwartz volunteered to take custody of the papers, began perusing his catch and found he couldn’t put them down.
“I don’t need to know any more about Shattuck, Hillegas, Blake and Durant. Here are stories about people just like me, working people whose lives are illuminated for just one moment,” says Schwartz. “It was my job to save these stories from turning into dust. I started copying at the copy store every night after work. I ended up with 30 piles on my living room floor.”
Those 30 piles became the 30 chapters of “Berkeley 1900,” separated by subject matter such as “Animals,” “Saloons and the Temperance Movement,” and, a particularly explosive section, “Powder Mills,” The lush foliage thriving atop Albany Hill was originally planted as an explosion break between the city and the mills, which used to be located near the present site of the Albany Race Track.
Schwartz’s painstaking compilation and its delightful photographs of semi-developed Berkeley reveals volumes about a town with a foot planted firmly in both the past and present.
A 1905 article informs of the aforementioned bear, “about the size of a full-grown Newfoundland dog” scaring the fertilizer out of local residents, along with four-and-a-half foot long snakes emerging from the barns on Durant and Shattuck avenues, or pods of lively whales lifting trading ships out of the Bay waters.
When monster snakes weren’t emerging from Berkeley’s notoriously muddy streets, antediluvian motor cars, animal carts, key route trains and overly aggressive pedestrians crowded them to the breaking point. Schwartz’s book is overflowing with articles recounting train accidents, primordial road rage, pedestrian mishaps and, most notably, runaway horses terrorizing the city streets. The powerful animals usually ran rampant until a brave individual chased them down.
“One lady was holding the reins in one hand just flying down Shattuck trying to pass a bundle off to anyone who could grab it. Someone got it and it turned out it was her baby,” recounts Schwartz. “The shoeshine guy stopped the horses. That was the day his life was in the paper.”
Turn-of-the-century Berkeleyites undertook a number of heroic deeds. They extinguished burning buildings, saved strangers from train wrecks and pulled oblivious toddlers out of the paths of oncoming trolleys. The well-armed locals also, however, filled themselves and each other full of lead by accident and on purpose. And, most bitterly, the disdain the town’s Anglo population felt for racial minorities is lucidly caught in the overtly racist tone of the century-old articles.
“A Chinaman would just as soon kill a man as be friendly with him and his religion bears him out in this,” reads a sobering editorial that ran on March 3, 1900. “The Chinaman should be kept under strict and rigid laws and not allowed the freedom he at present enjoys.”
The way in which the articles Schwartz has compiled are written often tells more about society than what they were actually written about. In addition to Asians, African-Americans, Gypsies, Italians (“dark-skinned foreigners”) and Greeks (“objectionable peanut vendors”) also felt the scorn of the local press.
“One of the main things these articles presented to me was how fear of losing your livelihood leads to hate,” says Schwartz. “What Asians went through 100 years ago is a much-neglected chapter of Berkeley history. Maybe we would do well to know why.”
Not every aspect of the city’s past generates pride, much as the book’s many photographs of unspoiled wavy fields and grassy mountains may induce a touch of sorrow as well. We have progressed – but at what cost?
“When you drive through Sonoma and Vacaville and see all the open land, it forces you to be reminded that Berkeley was once a frontier as well,” says Schwartz. “It’s amazing how different and the same things were at the same time. And that’s not something you can resolve. You hold them both. Both are true.
“That’s what this book is here to do,” continues the author. “To bring the little people’s story to light as best as I could.”