07 February 2013

Crocker's Spite Fence on Nob Hill

The Big Four by Oscar Lewis, 1938, Excerpts
Nob Hill was then a treeless waste, bleak and windswept, but its high eastern shoulder dominated the growing town. In the early '70s, it required vision and faith to foresee the future of the hill. Only a few small houses had yet been built on its crest, and for an excellent reason. San Francisco's uncompromising streets veered up its steepest sides at grades so abrupt that two horses had difficulty pulling a carriage up the sandy inclines. That streetcars would ever scale the height had until very recently been regarded as fantastic, and rumors that Stanford and Hopkins planned to build mansions there aroused reasonable doubts of their sanity. But a local manufacturer of wire rope named Hillidie had for several years been tinkering with a device intended to grip and release a moving cable buried in a trench beneath one of the slanting streets. By 1874 the invention had been proved practical to a degree and the partners' sixty thousand dollars worth of "vertical real estate" promptly became a conservative investment. Comstock millionaires joined those of the railroad, and the late '70s saw a dozen mansions taking shape on the hill.

Not to be outdone, Crocker also acquired a site on the hill, a block west of his partners and on ground a shade more elevated. His property was gradually extended until he possessed, except for one small lot, the entire block surrounded by California, Taylor, Sacramento, and Jones streets. The exception noted was owned by one Yung a local undertaker, who persistently refused to sell, the undertaker continued to refuse successively higher offers for his land. In exasperation Crocker took a drastic step. Dray-loads of lumber one day appeared on the hill and a gang of carpenters set to work surrounding the Yung dwelling with a wall forty feet high. The matter, of course, attracted city-wide attention and throngs daily climber Nob Hill to stare at the "spite fence."

Lost Histories of San Francisco by Hilton Obenzinger, 1993, Fictional History

Gertrude Yung:
That's when the fence went up. One day wagons and carpenters and other workingmen showed up, and they began hammering away until an immense plain wooden fence towered over us from all three sides of Crocker's property. We could only see the sky when we craned our necks out the window and twisted our faces up. We could not believe it, nor could we believe the audacity of the man, the arrogance and lack of sentiment. A man so fabulously rich could not strike a fair bargain, so he resorted to such an incredible, unthinkable act against an entire family. How gloomy our house became, how sad. All we could see out our windows was the blank wood of the rich man's fury. The flowers in our garden all died, and our lawn turned brown, while inside the house everything felt perpetually damp.

They called it the Crocker's "spite fence" or "Crocker's crime," and my father was painted in the press as the common man violated by a bloated bear. The fence became notorious, a Barnum attraction, and people came because they loved to be shocked into loathing the railroad magnate.

Then came the trouble of 1877. There was a depression. Workingmen all over the country were hungry, unemployed, living in the streets. Then came what they call the July days. Soon mobs were burning down every single city in the country. San Francisco didn't escape the turmoil. There were about four days and nights of riots and fires here.

John McCabe:
The depression was something terrible, and it was only made worse by the drought. Thousands and thousands of men were out of work, they were literally starving, even the Comstock Mine was shutting down and the rich was getting ruined. All of these poor souls from the mines and the farms and the small towns kept pouring into San Francisco hoping for some kind of job or at least a handout.

Then comes all that trouble, with crowds of people climbing the hill in order to see Crocker's spite fence, but I just go ahead with life just as I intend to live it, like throwing that big party for our Silver Wedding Anniversary.

Gertrude Yungr:
It was October 29th. Thousands and thousands of this rabble of disgruntled, angry workingmen congregated on the hill, marching past our house. Stanford had employed a hundred men with batons under their coats to mingle with the crowds. Crocker's house had five hundred rifles stacked and soldiers hidden in his hallway, just in case. We were terribly frightened. Kearney demanded that Crocker tear down the fence by Thanksgiving Day or he and the workingmen would tear it down for him. After a while, the demonstration broke up, the thousands of men began stampeding down California Street and at the bottom of the hill the agitators dissolved into the night.

Dennis Kearney never did follow through with his threat to tear down the fence. The Kearney excitement passed, and he and his hoodlums went on to bigger and better things.

But fate has a way of turning everything upside down. When the 1906 earthquake destroyed the city, Crocker's mansion went up in flames. Now I understand that the Crocker family has donated all their property to the Episcopal Church in order for them to build their cathedral. The Episcopalians intend to call it Grace Cathedral.

The Octopus by Frank Norris, 1901, Excerpts

"They own us, these task-masters of ours; they own our homes, they own our legislatures. We cannot escape from them. There is no redress. We are told we can defeat them by the ballot-box. They own the ballot-box. We are told that we must look to the courts for redress; they own the courts. They swindle a nation of a hundred million and call it Financiering; they levy blackmail and call it Commerce; they corrupt a legislature and call it Politics; they bribe a judge and call it Law; they hire blacklegs to carry out their plans and call it Organization; they prostitute the honor of a State and call it Competition."

"Freedom is not given to any who ask; Liberty is not born of the gods. She is a child of the People, born in the very height and heat of battle, born from death, stained with blood, grimed with powder. And she grows to be not a goddess, but a Fury, a fearful figure, slaying friend and foe alike, raging, insatiable, merciless, the Red Terror."

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