The Red Cross and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

August 8, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Red Cross. While Clara Barton worked tirelessly on behalf of the Union injured on Civil War battlefields, it was a Swiss citizen whose observations of an Italian battlefield motivated him to lead the efforts to establish the Red Cross.

In 1859, Dr. Henry Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, where more than 45,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded on the battlefield. In 1862, he published Memory of Solferino, in which he proposed to set up volunteer groups in every country to take care of casualties in wartime and to persuade governments to agree to protect first aid volunteers and wounded on the battlefield. Thus, the Red Cross was initially founded to ameliorate conditions in times of war.

In 1864, the First Geneva Convention adopted an emblem that reversed the colors of the Swiss flag. During its war with Russia 22 years later, the Ottoman Empire substituted the crescent for the cross, which was offensive to Muslim religious beliefs.

Clara Barton led the effort to establish the American Red Cross in 1881. The charity was largely identified with her during her lifetime. The American Red Cross immediately went to work leading efforts to aid victims of natural catastrophes, beginning with a Michigan forest fire in 1881; helping Ohio River and Mississippi River flood victims in 1884; leading 50 volunteers to help the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889. The American Red Cross elected her “president for life” in 1901. She resigned three years later at the age of 82 in response to criticism about her management style, abilities, and age.

The American Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900, and its second in 1905, one year after Barton’s resignation.

On Thursday, April 19, 1906, disaster met opportunity. One day after the great earthquake, while fires raged across San Francisco, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a telegram to Dr. Edward Devine, the General Secretary of the Charity Organization of New York. Roosevelt requested that Devine represent the Red Cross in the San Francisco relief operation. After Devine accepted the appointment, Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring that “the out-pouring of the nation’s aid should as far as possible be entrusted to the American National Red Cross, the national organization best fitted to undertake such relief work.”

By that proclamation, Roosevelt established a practice that would be followed by his successors, recognizing the American Red Cross as the leader of emergency relief in times of disaster. If the Red Cross lost one identity with the departure of Clara Barton, it forged its own two years later and regained its moral force with the Chief Executive’s imprimatur.

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July 31, 2014 · 11:19 pm

The Little Bank that Could and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

It’s like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life. A small bank provides a place for small depositors and borrowers to do business in a city dominated by big banks that serve only the wealthy. Then, after an earthquake and a fire destroy a quarter of the city, the small bank immediately rises from the ashes to provide its customers loans to rebuild and a place to safely deposit their money while the big banks close their doors for six months.

But unlike the popular movie, this story is true. In 1901, Amadeo P. Giannini had retired at the age of 31 after selling his share of a produce business for $100,000 ($2.7 million in 2014 dollars). He came out of retirement three years later to establish the Bank of Italy as “the little people’s bank,” eighteen months before the April 18, 1906 earthquake.

To his surprise on the morning of the earthquake, his employees had removed the bank’s $80,000 dollars in gold and silver from the Crocker National Bank vaults, and were ready to operate business. By early afternoon, he realized he had to remove the bank’s assets out of the city. He and an employee acquired two wagons to haul the bank’s fixtures and, more importantly, the money.

They hid the bags of money under crates of oranges. They traveled only four miles, during daylight, to the home of Giannini’s brother. After nightfall, they resumed the journey to Giannini’s home in San Mateo, fourteen miles south of San Francisco, where they hid the money in the ash pit of the living room fireplace.

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

As important as it was to get the bank’s assets out of the city, it is what Giannini did the next two days that set his bank apart from the big banks. He encouraged his customers to borrow money to rebuild and to deposit their money in his bank, where it would be safer than in the refugee camps that sprang up to house San Francisco’s homeless 225,000 citizens. He set up the bank’s “main branch” at his brother’s house and a second branch on the waterfront once the fires were contained. While the big bankers wrung their hands, Giannini put his bank to work, affording average San Franciscans the means to begin rebuilding the city.

Giannini made loans based on his knowledge of the borrowers’ character, not their credit reports. Years later, after he expanded and merged his way to build the Bank of America, he said every one of those 1906 loans had been repaid. The early version of the “Bailey Savings and Loan,” i.e., the Bank of Italy, did not remain small for long. At his death in 1949, the Bank of America was the largest bank in the United States.

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Battle of the Crater: It’s Not As Though This Was the First Time

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

It boggles the imagination. Former Pennsylvania coal miners accomplished what the West Point engineers, both North and South, said could not be done. The officers said a mine shaft over 400 feet long could not be built without installing air vents at various points along the tunnel, which would be readily visible to the rebels. The miners were not deterred. They installed an airtight canvas door just inside the entrance, ran a wooden pipe along the floor of the shaft to where the miners were working, and built a fireplace near the airtight door to send heated air up a camouflaged chimney (which drew the stale air from the far end of the tunnel and pulled in fresh air through a pipe, whose mouth was beyond the door).

Within a month, the miners had built a tunnel over 500 feet long, putting them twenty feet below the enemy’s artillery battery. They then extended the tunnel to the right and left, creating a chamber in which they set four tons of explosives. On the morning of July 30, 1864, they lit the fuse. An unusually long delay required two volunteers to enter the shaft to investigate. They discovered the fuse had burned out at the splice. They cut and relit the fuse, then ran for their lives. At 4:44 a.m., the charge erupted below the rebels’ feet. A brigadier general described the explosion:

Without form or shape, full of red flames and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, it mounted toward heaven with a detonation of thunder [and] spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke. — [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, p. 535]

Did this foreshadow man’s twentieth-century discovery, capable of wiping our species from the planet?

The explosion killed or wounded 278 Confederates. The resulting crater stretched sixty feet by two hundred feet and ranged from ten to thirty feet deep.

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

What should have been a significant Union victory, breaking Lee’s lines, quickly turned into disaster for the men in blue. While the commanding officers (Generals James Ledlie and Edward Ferrero) hid safely behind the lines sharing a bottle of rum, 15,000 men poured into the crater and lingered long enough for the rebels to recover their bearings. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. By the battle’s end, the Union suffered over 3,800 casualties, three times the number suffered by the Confederates. The rebels took out much of their anger against Ferrero’s African-American troops, bayonetting and shooting many who tried to surrender.

But as I intimated in the title to this piece, the Petersburg siege was not the first time Union forces attempted to undermine a rebel position. They had done so previously in the siege of Vicksburg (1863), with mixed success. In Vicksburg, the Union command identified a Confederate redan sitting on top of a towering bluff as their most formidable obstacle. Led by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, Union soldiers took a less covert approach than the one taken later at Petersburg. They had to cover a distance of four hundred yards and no one thought they could build a tunnel to cover the distance. They initially dug a trench, employing various defensive measures to protect the workers.

On June 25, the miners reached the edge of the bluff, where they dug a tunnel and set off explosives, creating a crater forty feet wide and twelve feet deep. Union troops charged, only to find that the Confederates had pulled out of the redan and had set up new defenses in anticipation of an attack. The losses were lighter (34 dead and 209 wounded) than later on the Petersburg line, but the results were similar – the siege was not broken. Six days later, Union troops conducted another mining operation, which achieved more positive results when they set off 1,800 pounds of explosives. They did not follow up with an infantry charge, apparently learning from their prior experience. By this time, however, the Confederate forces were exhausted and starving, with no help on the way. Formal surrender came only three days later.

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Clearly, Grant recalled the miners’ mixed success at Vicksburg when he approved a similar scheme at Petersburg. But just as had happened on too many other occasions, Grant’s subordinates failed him. In this instance not only did they fail to execute the battle plan, they chose to share a bottle of rum far from the battle, missing the action altogether, while almost four thousand men either died, were wounded, or marched off to a Confederate prison.

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You Can’t Please Everybody: The 1824 Presidential Election & the Twelfth Amendment

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

Last week’s article explored how the 1800 Presidential election motivated the highly partisan Democratic-Republicans and Federalists to pursue Article V’s extremely challenging process of amending the Constitution in order to avoid a repeat of the Jefferson-Burr fiasco (caused largely by the Democratic-Republicans’ failure to order one of its electors to vote for a favorite son, thereby avoiding a tie vote for its two candidates).

The Twelfth Amendment cured what in 1800 proved to be the most significant defect of Article V by requiring each elector to cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. The Twelfth Amendment further provides that in the event no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives will select the President among the three candidates who receive the most electoral votes. This provision became important in the second, and last, election in which the House of Representatives selected the President.

John Quincy Adams (Source: Biography.com)

John Quincy Adams (Source: Biography.com)

By 1824, the Federalist Party had collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republicans to run a candidate or candidates for President. Four men ran to become the nation’s sixth President: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. It is the rare history buff who remembers Crawford, who served as Secretary of the Treasury, but he was the official candidate of the party caucus even though he was in poor health.

Jackson garnered the most popular and electoral votes, but not a majority. Clay came in fourth, so he was out of the running. Clay, however, wielded great influence as Speaker of the House. He detested Jackson and threw his support to Adams in exchange for Adams’ promise to make Clay Secretary of State. Adams won the Presidency on the first vote, as contrasted with 1800’s thirty-six.

Jackson had his revenge four years later when he swamped Adams by a 2-1 margin in the Electoral College. By that time, only two state legislatures selected their electors, meaning that most electors were determined by the popular vote.

The 1824 election fractured the Democratic-Republican Party. Those who followed Jackson ultimately became the Democratic Party. Those who followed Adams and Clay founded the Whig Party, the predecessor to yet another party, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party.

Andrew Jackson (Source: Biography.com)

Andrew Jackson (Source: Biography.com)

The take-away from the 1824 election is two-fold: the Twelfth Amendment worked, thus avoiding another Constitutional crisis; and the election generated a split in what had been the only viable political party, the Democratic-Republicans.

As I said earlier, the House of Representatives has not selected the President since the 1824 election. We have witnessed what can happen even when a candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (civil war). How will American voters react in a future election if a candidate does not receive a majority of the electoral votes (most likely due to a tie)?

Remember, the Twelfth Amendment did not change the voting methodology in the House of Representatives – each state has only one vote. This country has had some very close Presidential elections in the not-too-distant past (2004, 2000, 1968, 1960). Will Americans take a collective deep breath and accept as President a candidate who wins neither the popular vote nor the electoral vote, but wins a majority of states in the House of Representatives? We can only hope we do not have to answer that question in the not-too-distant future.

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Constitutional Crisis: The 1800 Presidential Election

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

It isn’t easy to amend the United States Constitution. Article V requires that an amendment be proposed by Congress with a 2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate (or by a Constitutional Convention called by 2/3 of the States). The proposed amendment does not become part of the Constitution unless it is ratified by ¾ of the States. It is difficult to imagine how the current political divide would allow any further amendment to the Constitution in the near future. But the 1800 Presidential election generated change to the Constitution even in the midst of rancor between the two parties of the day, John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.

The disdain shown by the Federalists and the Republicans might embarrass today’s Democrats and Republicans. Federalists called Jefferson an atheist. Republicans called Adams senile. Federalists feared Jefferson would bring America the worst of the French Revolution. Republicans were certain the Federalists would return America to its colonial status or impose a central government equally offensive as the British crown.

Aaron Burr (Source: Biography.com)

Aaron Burr (Source: Biography.com)

At that time, the parties did not nominate separate candidates for President and Vice President. Each party nominated two candidates, both for the Presidency. In 1800, the Federalists chose John Adams and Charles Pinckney as their two candidates. The Republicans chose Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The candidate who received a majority of the electoral votes became President. Under Article II of the Constitution, each of the state’s electors cast two ballots. The candidate who came in second became the Vice President.

The sixteen states had a mishmash of methods of selecting electors. In eleven, the state legislatures selected the electors, meaning that the state’s controlling party selected the electors. In the others, white male property owners or white male taxpayers voted for the electors. Some states used a winner-take-all system while others split the votes.

The Federalists exercised sufficient control over their electors to insure that Adams received at least one more ballot than Pinckney. The Republicans failed to exercise such party discipline; their electors cast 73 ballots for Jefferson and 73 ballots for Burr. Adams received 65 votes and Pinckney received 64.

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source: NationalArchives.gov)

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source: NationalArchives.gov)

With neither Jefferson nor Burr receiving a majority of the electoral votes cast, Article II gave the House of Representatives the duty to choose the next President. Because Jefferson was the clear leader of the Republican Party, one would expect Burr to step aside. Ambition trumped party loyalty. It was left to the lame duck Federalist House to select one of its two Republican enemies as the next President of the United States.

Ultimately, backroom deals would give Jefferson the White House, of course, but it was not easy. Each state delegation could cast only one vote. With 16 states, Jefferson had to win nine, right? The Federalists cast their lot with Burr, generating 19 ties during a February 11, 1801 snowstorm. The deadlock remained unbroken through another sixteen votes. Finally, on Monday, February 17, Jefferson won a majority on the 36th vote, not because he picked up an additional state, but because the Delaware delegation abstained in accordance with Jefferson’s agreement to make various accommodations to the Federalists.

The parties averted a near debacle and worked to prevent a repeat of the 1800 election. Within three years, Congress proposed and the States ratified the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides, among other things, that electors must cast separate ballots for President and Vice President.

Our white-wigged forefathers recognized that the original Constitution is an organic instrument that requires change from time to time. They made amendment a difficult process, but not an impossible one.

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Frontier Bias against the Chinese and the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

Chinese transcontinental railroad workers (Source: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

Chinese transcontinental railroad workers. Photo taken in 1869. (Source: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

As I mentioned in my last article, this past May, I visited the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. While there, our excellent tour guide credited Building Superintendent Charley Crocker (who, along with Edwin Crocker, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins, ran the Central Pacific) with the two most important executive decisions that made railroad construction possible in the Sierra Nevada: first, hiring thousands of Chinese to perform the labor that white laborers refused to do; second, building over thirty miles of “snow sheds,” which allowed the laborers to work and the trains to run in all but the very worst snow storms.

Last week, I discussed the snow sheds. This week, I will turn my attention to the thousands of Chinese who made such a significant contribution to the construction of the railroad. Most people even vaguely familiar with the building of the transcontinental railroad know that the Chinese made up a significant portion of the workforce. Few people understand why.

The answer has three components: bias against the Chinese; the shortage of white men willing to do the work; and the Chinese work ethic and history of similar construction.

A Chinese tea carrier outside the east portal of tunnel #8 through the Sierras. (Source: PBS.org)

A Chinese tea carrier outside the east portal of tunnel #8 through the Sierras. (Source: PBS.org)

The Chinese arrived in waves shortly after the beginning of the Gold Rush. They spoke a different language, practiced a different religion, dressed differently, and maintained a different diet. More importantly, they enjoyed success finding gold in California’s foothills. White miners often drove them off their claims – the same fate suffered by other foreign miners. Local jurisdictions restricted them from filing mining claims. White miners successfully lobbied for state laws that penalized the Chinese: the Foreign Miners’ License Tax; the Act to Provide for the Protection of Foreigners and to Define Their Liabilities and Privileges; the Act to Discourage the Immigration to This State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof (and a host of others cited in Professor David Bain’s Empire Express, p. 206).

The proximity of Nevada’s Comstock Lode on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada worked against the Central Pacific’s retention of white laborers, who often worked only long enough to earn money to pay the fare for the Dutch Flat Wagon Road to the east side of the Sierra. The prospect of striking it rich outweighed the certain monthly $30 plus board for back-breaking work. To the Chinese, the lower wage of $26 per month, with which they had to provide their own meals, looked brighter than the certain discrimination and harassment they could expect if they tried to compete with white miners in the silver mines.

Charley Crocker, whose line superintendent, one-eyed Jack Strobridge, resisted hiring the Chinese to do stonework, famously said, “Didn’t they build the Chinese Wall?” Strobridge, initially one of the Chinese workers’ greatest skeptics, soon became one of their greatest boosters. The Chinese showed up on time and did not lay out the first day of the week (like some white workers who drank their wages on their day off). Before beginning work, the Chinese boiled their tea to take with them to work, thus assuring themselves of a sanitary source of water.

PBS.org Video: Transcontinental Railroad Recruits Chinese Laborers: www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/akh10.socst.ush.now.trchinese/transcontinental-railroad-recruits-chinese-laborers/

And, as Charley Crocker said, they had built the Great Wall of China. The building methods differed little in the Sierra, where initially gunpowder was the predominant means of blasting through the rock. (The Central Pacific did learn to use the less stable nitro glycerin, which required substantially less drilling than did the gunpowder. John Gillis, American Society of Civil Engineers, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad,” 1870.) The Chinese were doing the kind of work they had done for centuries.

For those who worked on the railroad, the hours were grueling and extremely strenuous

For those who worked on the railroad, the hours were grueling and extremely strenuous.

Thus, limited economic opportunities (due to bias), a livelihood for which few white men wished to compete, and experience in the construction methods they had to employ, all conspired to make the Chinese available and capable to make their substantial contribution to the wonder of their age, the construction of the railroad through a mountain range many did not think possible to cross.

Rather than honoring the Chinese for their work, California and the United States would continue to discriminate against them, most significantly with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all immigration of Chinese laborers.

I wish to reiterate my thanks to the Railroad Museum’s curator, Kyle Wyatt, and librarian, Cara Randall, who so generously provided their time and a wealth of information about the Central Pacific.

Sources:

  • Bain, Empire Express, Penguin Group: New York, NY (1999)
  • Brands, The Age of Gold, Anchor Books: New York, NY (2003)
  • Gillis, American Society of Civil Engineers, “Tunnels of the Pacific Railroad (Jan. 5, 1870)
  • Lavender, The Great Persuader, Doubleday: Garden City, NY, (1970)

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June 21, 2014 · 1:47 pm

Snow Sheds of the Sierra Nevada

Mock up of snow sled construction on the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Mock up of snow shed construction on the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

I had read about them, of course, while researching the construction of the transcontinental railroad for my upcoming sequel to New Garden. I know the Sierra Nevada – well, at least the portion that makes up Yosemite National Park, which I have visited at least once each year for the past fifteen years. I already understood that the Sierra, whose peaks reach 7,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level and trap the Arctic storms from the Pacific, experience heavy snows, sometimes from October to June.

I knew that the builders of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, which ultimately would span 690 miles between Sacramento, California, and Promontory Point, Utah, faced a formidable task, having to drill the first of fifteen tunnels through granite just 92 miles east of Sacramento.

Snow shed in background. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Snow shed in background. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

This past May, my wife and I traveled to Sacramento, where we visited the California Railroad Museum. While there, our excellent tour guide credited Building Superintendent Charley Crocker (who, along with Edwin Crocker, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins, ran the Central Pacific) with the two most important executive decisions that made railroad construction possible in the Sierra Nevada: first, hiring thousands of Chinese to perform the labor that white laborers refused to do; second, building over thirty miles of “snow sheds,” which allowed the laborers to work and the trains to run in all but the very worst snow storms.

Samuel Montague, the Central’s chief engineer, identified the problem and proposed the solution in his December 1865 survey and construction report:

The heavy snowfall in the immediate vicinity of the Summit, amounting in the aggregate to ten, and sometimes even twelve feet in depth, and a much heavier accumulation at some points by drifting, will render it necessary to provide a substantial protection, either of timber or masonry, to ensure the successful and uninterrupted operation of the road during the winter months.

The principal points requiring such protection occur upon the eastern slope, and within two miles of the Summit . . .

Central Pacific Railroad Office and Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, Sacramento, Calif.

Central Pacific Railroad Office and Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, Sacramento, Calif.

The California State Railroad Museum includes among its exhibits a replica of a snow shed under construction. There’s nothing like seeing a full-size reproduction of the snow sheds. Imagine 37 miles of such structures plus 15 tunnels! (If you’ve ridden the Metro in Washington or the subway in New York, you have some idea of the claustrophobic sensation.)

Six years after engineer Montague’s report, the New York brokerage that marketed Central Pacific bonds could boast to its bondholders that Sierra Nevada winters posed no obstacle to coast-to-coast travel:

The experience of the past year has shown that [a] journey [from New York to San Francisco] can be made with almost as much accuracy and certainty, as to time and connections, as from New York to Boston, and that even in winter, in spite of the mountain snows, from which so much was dreaded, and so much of failure prophesied, the aggregate detention of passengers and mails, in proportion to the distance traveled, is less than that experienced between New York and New Haven.

Photo timeline depicts pictures taken along different segments of the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Photo timeline depicts pictures taken along different segments of the transcontinental railroad. Photo taken at the California State Railroad Museum.

Thus, thousands of Chinese workers and miles of snow sheds allowed the Central Pacific to conquer the Sierra Nevada granite and weather and to make coast-to-coast travel possible for those who could afford the fare. Travel from California to the east coast no longer required one to sail to Panama City, cross the isthmus, and then sail from there to New York. One could now forget the perils of ocean travel and cross the continent by rail in only two weeks.

I wish to thank the Railroad Museum’s curator, Kyle Wyatt, and librarian, Cara Randall. They generously provided their time and a wealth of information about the Central Pacific, including the materials cited below.

Sources:

  • Report of the Chief Engineer upon Recent Surveys and Progress of Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad of California (December, 1865)
  • Fisk & Hatch Report to the Bondholders of the Central and Western Pacific Railroad Companies (January 2, 1871).

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