East Bay Then and Now: Railroad ‘Lobster’ Controlled State Politics for a Decade

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 09:08:00 AM
The Jeremiah T. Burke estate, 2911 Russell St.
Daniella Thompson
The Jeremiah T. Burke estate, 2911 Russell St.
The Burke in-laws’ home at 2908 Piedmont Ave.
Daniella Thompson
The Burke in-laws’ home at 2908 Piedmont Ave.
The Burke house in the 1970s.
BAHA archives
The Burke house in the 1970s.
Jeremiah. T. Burke.
San Francisco Call, March 20, 1900
Jeremiah. T. Burke.

The Judah L. Magnes Museum announced last week that it will be relocating to 2121 Allston Way, a former printing plant it has owned since 1997. The building had been leased to the Berkeley Public Library and the Bancroft Library during their respective renovations. 

Last November, reported that the Magnes was negotiating with UC to move its Western Jewish History Center archives and rare books collection to the Bancroft Library. In 2006, the Magnes acquired the Armstrong College building at 2222 Harold Way and announced plans to adapt it for its collections. Three years later, it found the costs of renovation daunting and sold the building. 

At a meeting with museum neighbors last week, Magnes director Alla Efimova revealed that the museum’s longtime home, located at 2911 Russell St., will soon be offered for sale. 

This building, an imposing and unadorned clinker-brick edifice, has served the Magnes since 1966. It is a City of Berkeley landmark known as the Jeremiah T. Burke House. A 1908 contract notice published in the Daily Pacific Builder attributes the design to Daniel J. Patterson, chief architect of the Southern Pacific Railroad. 

In 1916, the Alameda County Society of Architects’ Yearbook featured a photograph of the Burke house, crediting Chester H. Miller with its design. Miller (1890-1953) worked for Southern Pacific in 1910 and may have been employed as a draftsman as early as 1908. Could Patterson, overseeing numerous major railroad projects throughout the West and as far away as Texas, have assigned the relatively simple Burke house project to young Miller? Would Burke, a shrewd attorney, also in the employ of the railroad and in a position to know who was drawing the house plans, have agreed to leave the design of his family residence in the hands of an 18-year old with no formal architectural training? These are questions still awaiting an answer. 

Burke acquired his parcel from the People’s Water Company. The land was an unused portion at the southeastern corner of the company’s holding, which extended north from Russell Street, past Avalon Avenue (not yet open west of Oak Knoll Terrace), to the Garber Reservoir. 

The Burke parcel was large: 275 feet by 150 feet. The four-level house was built at the northeastern corner. On the ground floor, it was paneled in natural wood and contained a hallway, living room and dining room. These were separated by sliding doors that, when opened, converted the space into a ballroom. In the basement were a billiard room, a wine cellar, a laundry room, and a servant’s bedroom. 

The two upper floors were given over to bedrooms, the adults sleeping on the second and the eight children with their nurse in the attic. 

A smaller reinforced-concrete structure, labeled “wood house” in a 1911 fire insurance map but later described as a carriage house, stood close to the northwestern corner of the property. It has since been altered and connected to the main building. 

The rest of the parcel was landscaped, reportedly by John McLaren, superintendent of the Golden Gate Park. A long clinker-brick wall continues to mark the property line along Russell Street. 

The Burkes were a fascinating family with its share of contradictions, although the latter had been forgotten by 1979, when Brian Horrigan described Jeremiah and Elizabeth Burke in the Berkeley Gazette as “the classic Progressive Era couple.” 

Who, in fact, were the Burkes? The story begins in Joliet, IL, in 1858 or ’59, when a boy christened Jeremiah Thaddeus was born to Patrick and Bessie Burke, Irish immigrants. Patrick was a shoemaker who soon improved his situation by taking on a clerk’s position in the freight office of the Midwest Central Railroad. Two of Jeremiah’s sisters, Mary and Katherine, became lifelong school teachers. 

The twin interests of railroads and education were to follow Jeremiah throughout his life. 

A relative of Patrick’s, William Francis Burke, had come to San Francisco from Ireland as a young man and set up as a shoe merchant. In 1866 he married Lizzie Kennedy, whose family had immigrated from Ireland in 1951. Lizzie had been a teacher in the San Francisco public schools since 1857 and would crown her career as principal of the Columbia Grammar School. Her sister, Kate Kennedy, was another famous teacher and a feminist. 

By 1880, William F. Burke had secured a clerical position at the San Francisco Bankers’ Clearing House. About that time, Jeremiah T. Burke arrived in San Francisco and began working as bookkeeper for William T. Coleman & Co., commission merchants. It was probably through his relative that Jeremiah, known to all as Jere (pronounced “Jerry”), developed his connection with the Clearing House, which would employ him until nearly the end of his life. 

Jere began as a clerk and progressed to assistant manager by 1890. His obituary in the Marin Journal, published on Nov. 16, 1911, described his progress: 

“As the legislative agent for the banks he was sent to the California Legislature. For more than 25 years since, he has been a figure in every legislative session. 

“In 1892 he was sent to Los Angeles again as the representative of the San Francisco banks. The electric roads there were at that time in a precarious condition and the securities held by local institutions needed looking after. At that time he paved the way for the taking over of the roads by H.E. Huntington. 

“After his return from his errand to Los Angeles, he entered the employ of the Southern Pacific in the legal department, having studied law while engaged in his other work during the previous few years." 

Also in 1892, Jere married his cousin Elizabeth King Burke, daughter of William F. and Lizzie Burke. Their eldest son, Sherman, was born in 1894, the year in which Jere served on the San Francisco Board of Education. Sherman was followed by seven siblings over the next 15 years. 

In his obituaries and in later newspaper articles, Jere Burke has been described as a tax attorney for Southern Pacific. In fact, he assumed this position only toward the end of his life. Jere’s earlier activities on behalf of the railroad, documented frequently in newspapers of the period, were quite different. 

Before Hiram Johnson won California’s gubernatorial race in 1910, SP’s corrupt political machine held the state legislature in a viselike grip. The head of this machine, chief counsel William F. Herrin, nominated gubernatorial candidates, supreme court justices, and appellate court judges. Legislators were routinely bribed to vote the SP way. The De Youngs’ San Francisco Chronicle, Hearst’s Examiner, and Dargie’s Oakland Tribune regularly promoted the railroad’s viewpoint. The real story comes down to us in the pages of the San Francisco Call. 

Jere Burke was the railroad’s top legislative lobbyist and Herrin’s first lieutenant. In 1900, the Call described him as a “lobster of the Herrin species” (an early moniker for a lobbyist or a contraction of “lobbyist” and “mobster”?), observing, “In the line of mysterious manipulations in the lobby of the Legislature [Burke] had acquired a reputation for subtlety and smoothness.” 

In 1908, the Call interviewed James Rea, a former Herrin lieutenant who was now accusing Herrin and Burke of conspiracy and fraud over bonds of the San Jose and Los Gatos Interurban Railroad Company. Rea had this to say about Burke: 

“Jere Burke is what you call the financial-political manager of the Southern Pacific […]. He also goes to Sacramento and looks over every bill that is passed. As I understand the bills are taken out from the files to his room—something unprecedented—and he goes over them up there and O.K.’s the bills or condemns them, as the case may be; that is, he puts his mark upon them, and the legislators up there accept or reject as their names are called, aye or nay, as Mr. Burke directs.” 

Southern Pacific’s rout in the 1910 elections put an end to Jere Burke’s lobbying career. A year earlier, the San Francisco Clearing House Association suddenly took note that its Assistant Manager set foot in the office only once a year. Burke had been paying half his salary to another man to do the work for him, and many of the bankers “expressed surprise when they learned that Jere Burke of Southern Pacific fame and Jere Burke of the Clearing House were one and the same person.” 

The great 1906 earthquake brought the Burkes to Berkeley. Initially they rented a Clinton Day-designed Victorian at 2730 Dwight Way from the Bunnell family, which had just moved down the street to the Paget house. Living with the Burkes were Elizabeth’s widowed mother, Lizzie; her sister, Katherine Delmar Burke (soon to found the famous girls’ school); and her brothers, William Francis Burke, Jr., secretary of the San Francisco Post Office, and John Kennedy Burke, manager of Baker & Hamilton, a hardware company. 

The in-laws soon turned to contractor Frederick E. Allen, who built them a house at 2908 Cambridge (now Piedmont) Ave. Two years later, Allen constructed Jere Burke’s house on Russell Street. The two Burke branches lived less than two blocks apart. 

Jere Burke died of pneumonia on Nov. 12, 1911. Elizabeth followed in 1913, and her mother assumed guardianship of their brood. For several more years, Lizzie and her grandchildren continued living at 2911 Russell St., but by 1920 they had returned to San Francisco. 

None of Jere Burke’s children cultivated a career in railroading or politics, but at least one of them embraced an educational vocation. Barbara Burke joined her aunt Katherine as a teacher at Miss Burke’s School for Girls. Upon Katherine’s death in 1929, Barbara became the school’s principal and manager. The school celebrated its centennial in 2008. 


Daniella Thompson publishes for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).