goldengateFB

IF YOU BRIDGE IT THEY WILL COME

Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built – engineering issues couldn’t be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?

The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it’s a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. “Sonoma County? Sure, it’s a nice place to visit, but no, I…”

Building the bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn’t because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn’t ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None of those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.

Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically – all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.

All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.

The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931
The original 1922 design for the Golden Gate Bridge by architect Joseph B. Strauss, who said it could be built for $17,250,000 and opened by 1927. The final cost was almost exactly twice as much and took until 1937 to complete. Most of the credit for the appearance we know today goes to Charles Ellis, who was the prime designer of the bridge 1929-1931

Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was “just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over,” he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.

After Finley’s death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here’s the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: “…In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone…he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, ‘Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!’” That’s now his legacy quote although it’s probably apocryphal.1

The problem with that narrative is it’s not really true.

The only special interest actually fighting bridge construction was (surprise!) the ferry companies, which were controlled by Southern Pacific – their astroturf citizen’s groups and 11th-hour courtroom posturings were widely viewed as transparent attempts to delay the inevitable clobbering of their businesses once cars and trucks could drive the bridge. More about that in a minute.

What irked Finley and the other boosters far more was the 1927-1928 pushback from a scattered group of Sonoma County property owners whose anger was whipped up by an anti-tax rabble-rouser.

Ladies and gents, meet Cap Ornbaun, fulltime crank.

Casper A. Ornbaun was always identified in the newspapers as a San Francisco lawyer and he indeed had an office in the landmark Spreckels Building on Market Street, although it seemed he didn’t use it much – on the rare occasions when his name appeared in the papers for doing something attorney-ish it was almost always about handling a routine probate estate, usually in the North Bay. While he lived in Oakland he told audiences he was fighting the bridge as a Sonoma County taxpayer; he owned the 18,000 acre Rockpile Ranch above Dry Creek valley which was used as a sheep ranch. (In a rare non-bridge court filing, he sued a neighboring rancher in 1937 for briefly dognapping four of his sheepdogs, demanding $6,000 for “tiring them and causing them to become footsore and unable to go through the regular shearing season.”)

Why Ornbaun so loathed the idea of a bridge across the Golden Gate is a mystery, but he turned the fight against it into a fulltime cause – maybe it was his midlife crisis, or something. Starting in 1926 it seems he was in the North Bay almost constantly, arranging small group meetings where he could bray and bark against the bridge project.

At least once Mark Lee of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was invited to formally debate with Ornbaun, but otherwise his speaking engagements were rant-fests attacking anyone or anything connected to the project, including the Press Democrat. At one appearance in Sebastopol he came with dozens of copies of the PD which he handed out to prove the paper was “the bunk.”

The Santa Rosa papers mentioned him as little as possible (no need to give him free publicity) but his appearances in small communities like Cloverdale were newsworthy and the local weeklies often quoted or paraphrased what he had to say. Here are a few samples:

*
Only San Francisco weekenders would ever use the bridge
*
Strauss is a nobody; Strauss only knows how to build drawbridges; Strauss realizes it will be impossible to actually build it and is just looking to make a name for himself
*
It will cost over $125 million, or about 5x over estimates
*
Safeguarding against earthquakes will cost an additional $80-100 million
*
Maintenance costs would be $5,707,000 a year; it will cost $300,000/year to paint it
*
It will be impossible to get enough cars across the bridge to have it pay for itself
*
It would run a deficit of $4,416,230/year
*
It will take too long to cross it
*
Nobody knows if people would prefer driving across a bridge rather than crossing the bay by ferry
*
If it collapsed during construction we would be out our money with nothing to show for it
*
It would be a high profile target during a war and if it were bombed the Navy fleet would be bottled up in the Bay (that was actually a 1926 Navy objection)
*
The Board of Directors are not “angels”

His main accomplice in bridge bashing was James B. Pope, a civil engineer who once worked for the Southern Pacific railroad. Ornbaun praised him as “a consulting engineer of prominence” and “the boy who knows the bridge business” (Pope was 61 years old at the time) because he had once built a 310-foot wagon bridge in San Bernadino county. The wacky cost estimates above likely all came from Pope, who finally decided the bridge would cost exactly $154,697,372 based on his analysis of geodetic survey maps. Strauss had, by the way, offered to share with him the studies prepared by his engineers, but Pope declined to look at them because he “did not need it.”

Ornbaun, Pope and a couple of others had been busy fellows in 1926-1927 and collected about 2,300 signatures of property owners who wanted to opt-out from the proposed Bridge District.2 This meant court hearings in each of the counties with sizable opposition – a process which delayed the bridge project by a full year. But hey, the hearings gave Ornbaun a chance to strut his stuff in courtrooms and cross-examine Strauss, Doyle, Finley, and other project leaders, seemingly fishing for someone to admit the whole plan was a scam or at least that true cost would be closer to Pope’s absurd estimates.

What did come out in testimony was that the booster’s motives were far less altruistic than expressed at the 1923 conference, where it was said the high-minded mission was uniting the Bay Area into “one great thriving populous community,” and bridging the Golden Gate “cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” They were very much using dollars and cents as their measuring stick; Doyle and others who testified were clear their primary objective was jacking up Sonoma and Marin real estate, and they originally wanted Strauss to build something fast and cheap.

Although the 1927 PD headline below says property values might double, some of the actual testimony on that day predicted it would shoot up to 400 percent. And even if the bridge couldn’t built for some reason, they were already ahead – speculators had been buying and selling Marin and Sonoma land on the promise of the bridge almost immediately after the 1923 conference.

1927realestateSorry, Casper – despite all your efforts, the court threw out your case at the end of 1928. That meant the Bridge District could be formed and impose a small property tax to pay for tests and studies to see if the bridge could be built at all. Ornbaun continued to rattle around for a couple of more years making threats to sue, but no one paid much attention.

Flip the calendar ahead and it’s 1930, time for the District’s six member counties (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Del Norte, parts of Napa and Mendocino) to vote on a $35 million bond measure to pay for construction. And suddenly there are new bridge opponents: The Pacific American Steamship Association and the Shipowners’ Association of the Pacific Coast. They’re saying the bridge might be too low for safe passage, and there should be first an independent investigation by the state – never mind that the War Department had already approved it as having enough clearance for any ship in existence or under construction.

The Press Democrat and ads by the Bridge District fired back that the “Ferry Trust” was using the associations as front groups to confuse voters, but never explained the connection. Perhaps they didn’t know at the time that the two associations were essentially the same company, in the same offices and the president of both was the same man: Captain Walter J. Petersen – a man who apparently had no familiarity with steamships except as a passenger. The “Captain” in his title referred to his Army service in WWI, or maybe because he was also a captain in the Oakland Police Department in the 1920s (he was Police Chief for awhile, and always referred to as “former Chief” in print except when the reference was to the associations).

Sorry, Captain/Chief – the bond passed with overwhelming support, and nothing more would be said about those serious threats to navigation which were keeping you awake nights. To celebrate, Santa Rosa threw a “Victory Jubilee” parade which included a huge bonfire in the middle of Fourth street, with an effigy labeled “Apathy” thrown into the flames.

The last challenge to the bridge happened in 1931-1932, just months before construction was to begin. This time it was a suit in federal court charging the Bridge District was a “pretended corporation” so the bond was null and void. This time the ferry companies convinced two businesses to act as fronts for them.3 This time the ferry companies used their customary law firm to represent their proxies in court. This time it was so transparent that the ferry companies were behind this crap the American Legion and other groups demanded a boycott of the ferries as well as the Southern Pacific railroad. This time the ferry companies gave up in August, 1932, rather than pursuing their nuisance suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What’s truly amazing about all this was the contemptuousness of the ferry companies, no matter what. Sure, our lawyers are representing those companies in the anti-bond lawsuit, but so what? We’re not actually a party to the suit! No, the bridge is not necessary – our ferries are more than capable of handling the traffic demands across the Golden Gate! Never mind that there were routinely hours-long backups on the auto ferries during peak times. At the end of the 1926 Memorial Day weekend there were eight thousand cars in Sausalito queued up for a spot on a ferry. Many gave up and parked their autos as far away as San Rafael so they could get a seat on a ferryboat and make it in to work the next day. It took three days working around the clock just to clear the line of people who were still patiently waiting with their cars.

It was because of these crazy bottlenecks that everyone, everyone, hated the ferries so much that the North Bay was ready to consider a ferry boycott, even though it would have cut us off from nearly all connection to San Francisco – we might have been forced back to the pre-1870 heyday of Petaluma riverboats.

Without its monopoly, the ferry was doomed. Where they had earned a 25 percent profit a year (!!) in the mid-1920s, they lost $1,000,000 in 1937 after the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The company slashed fares. They tried to sell the franchise to the Toll Bridge Authority for $3.75M. Finally in July 1938 – 14 months after the first car drove across the bridge – Southern Pacific closed the ferries to the public.

But during the days of opening celebration, the ferries were never mentioned. On that 1937 Memorial Day weekend the public could not wait to be on their new bridge. During the preview “Pedestrian Day,” 202,000 came to walk the bridge, so many that the turnstiles couldn’t keep up; they opened the barriers and put out tin buckets for people to throw in the nickels. The Press Democrat reported bands played from the San Francisco shore as bombs burst in the clear, deep blue sky.

In Santa Rosa there was a breakfast held in honor of Frank Doyle – who insisted he was the “stepfather” of the bridge, not its father. Mark Lee – the former Chamber of Commerce guy who debated Ornbaun a decade earlier – reminded the audience that the prize was still boosting the town: “…you face great opportunity. The tourists’ dollars, as well as those of business investors and home seekers will find a place in your community, now made so accessible to the thousands who will come into northern California.” Ernest Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” brought by the bridge.

On the editorial page Finley also reminded that thousands of people would be driving through Santa Rosa enroute to the ceremonies, and the governor of Oregon and other officials were being given a reception in Juilliard Park that afternoon. “Never before has Santa Rosa, destined to be the focal point for population and industry after the mammoth span is opened,” he wrote, encouraging residents to greet the cavalcade by lining Mendocino and Santa Rosa Avenues, showing “a proper display of enthusiasm.” There was much to cheer with enthusiasm that day, particularly if you were a Sonoma County realtor.


1 The “Damn the circulation” story first appeared as an afterword to “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a collection of Finley’s thumbnail descriptions published in 1942 after his death. There Press Democrat Publisher Carl R. Lehman wrote that Circulation Manager McBride Smith approached Finley at his desk and told him the paper was sometimes losing 50-100 subscribers per day. “We can’t keep going at this rate. Our circulation will be ruined if this keeps up.” Lehman continued, “without looking up from his desk, Finley replied in his quiet but determined voice: ‘Damn the circulation. The bridge must be built.'” Smith recounted the story himself in a 1949 PD tribute to Finley but added, “he pounded the desk with his fist” as he said it. While the quote certainly matches Finley’s sentiments, it seems like an odd thing to blurt out to an office employee.

2 The anti-Bridge District count was 823 property owners in Napa and 902 in Mendocino. There were originally 574 signatures from Sonoma County, knocked down to 555 by the time the hearings began in November, 1927. That’s likely close to the number of Press Democrat subscribers who cancelled.

3 The two companies in the 1932 federal suit were the Del Norte Company, Ltd. (identified in the press only as “a large Del Norte property owner” and a “lumber firm”) and the Garland Company, Ltd. real estate firm of San Francisco led by Robert E. Strahorn, one of 92 property owners who had joined a taxpayer’s anti-bridge group as part of the 1930 opposition to the bond. The president of Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries, Ltd. S.P. Eastman admitted in court he had sent a letter to Del Norte Company asking them to file the suit and promising to pay all legal fees (wire service story in Press Democrat and elsewhere, Feb. 20, 1932). Their involvement, combined with a September 3, 1925 editorial in the San Francisco Examiner, “Bridge No Foe to Lumbermen”, has led modern writers to claim there was substantial bridge opposition from logging interests, but I don’t find that mentioned in any of the voluminous coverage of all things related to the bridge in the Press Democrat, Ukiah papers, or elsewhere.

1928ferry
 

sources
 

‘It’s the Bunk,’ Ornbaun Says In Discussing S.F. Bay Span

…Ornbaun was armed with many generalities, few if any figures, and an armful of Press Democrats. He spent most of his time asserting that the Press Democrat was the bunk and seeking to explain how the newspaper had sold itself to the bridge project. Incidentally, he asserted also that the bridge project was “the bunk.”

“The bridge can’t be built. I know it can’t be built. It is impossible to build it. And after it is built it will cost $300,000 a year to paint it. Such, in effect, was his reference to the proposed span from San Francisco to Marin county.

“I am interested in this fight only because I am a Sonoma county taxpayer,” he asserted. He referred to the fact that he represents 20,000 acres of Mendocino and Sonoma county land, but did not mention that it was sheep land.

“I have not been promised money by the railroads or timber interests, he continued. “When the bridge is built it will take too long to cross it.”

The speaker took occasion to flay Joseph B. Strauss of Chicago, one of the country’s foremost bridge engineers, by saying Strauss is “guessing” in his Golden Gate bridge design. He praised one Pope, who in a Humboldt county meeting admitted he was not a bridge engineer, as “the boy who knows the bridge business.”

“I hope to address more people next time I speak,” concluded Ornbaun, speaking to a crowd which had dwindled to about 50, about half of whom were from Healdsburg and points other than Sebastopol…

– Press Democrat, March 17, 1926

 

BRIDGING THE GOLDEN GATE

THERE IS AN OLD SAYING to the effect that the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow. We also have the necessities of today that must be met without wailing for the tomorrows. With these must now be classed the bridge across the Golden Gate, once regarded merely as an idle dream.

San Francisco, cooped up as she is with a land outlet in only one direction, has come to realize that a bridge across the Golden Gate is necessary to her further growth and development. We of the North Bay counties know only too, well that this section of California can’ never come fully into its own until we have been brought into direct connection with the metropolis.

Engineers agree that the bridge can be built. Financiers assure us that the necessary funds will be forthcoming. Under the circumstances, no time should be lost in putting the project under way. With such a spirit back of the movement as was manifested here Saturday, there seems to be no good reason why actual construction should not begin at a very early date.

Then watch us grow!

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1923

 

You Can’t Convince Him

Arguments heard from time to time against the feasibility of the Golden Gate bridge project represent for che most part a set mental attitude of those who do not want to be convinced. You cannot discuss projects of this character with men who begin by sweeping aside with one breath all the arguments in its support, and attempt to start from there-There is the man, for instance, who sets his judgment against that of the worlds foremost engineers and says the bridge cannot be built at all. We also have the man who has heard somebody opine that the cost will not be twenty-five millions as has already been carefully computed by experts, but sixty or eighty millions, and who knows it will really cost a lot more. We have also the individual so constituted that upon his mind facts already established and details actually accomplished make no impression. He does not want to take them into consideration and so ignores them or else calmly denies their existence There is also the man who is devoid of imagination. He cannot possibly see how connecting this part of the state with the rest of California and cutting out the troublesome ferries, could improve conditions, add anything to our population or increase property values The bridge cannot be built, because nobody has ever built one like it up to the present time; if possible to construct such a bridge, its cost would be many times that estimated by people engaged in the business, and therefore prohibitive; the cost would not be met by the collection of tolls, as planned by its projectors, but from the pockets of the taxpayers; it is a county matter rather than a district undertaking, as set forth in the law, and consequently if the bridge should be constructed and finally prove unsuccessful final responsibility would rest with the counties making up the district and perhaps with some one county alone, with the result that that county would be wiped off the map; there is no way one can prove that people would cross on a bridge in preference to crossing the bay by ferry, or that more people would travel up this way if they could do so more conveniently than they can at present, because that fact has not yet been demonstrated; if the bridge should be built and something should happen to it later on, or if it should collapse during time of construction, the bonding companies might net pay and we would be out our money and have nothing to show for it these are some of the arguments of the man who is against the project for reasons of his own, but does not care to come out and say so. Talking with him is a waste of time.

– Press Democrat, August 1, 1925

 

Great Engineering Feat Proposed to Connect Marin-San Francisco Counties by Bridging the Golden Gate

Mr. James H. Wilkins, one of the eldest residents of San Rafael and a man who has the best interests of the county at heart has interested himself in the great scheme of connecting Marin County with San Francisco county by the construction of a massive bridge across the Golden Gate.

Would Extend From Lime Point to Fort Point Bluffs

A lengthy article accompanied by a map was presented in last Saturday’s Bulletin. It is not a new scheme but has been talked of for a great many years. Nothing, however, as definite as the plan therein presented by Mr. Wilkins has been advocated. This great project should appeal not only to the residents of Marin County but the residents of the entire northern part of the State.

Quoting from Mr. Wilkins communication the following plan is outlined:
From Lime Point To Fort Point Bluffs

“To give a general descriptive outline, the abutments and backstays would be located, respectively, on the rocky blue of Lime Point and on the high ground above Fort Point. The breadth of the “Gate” here is 3800 feet. The towers over which the cable pass, would be so located as to give a central span of 3000 feet, and side spans of approximately 1000 feet. The catenary, or curved line formed by the suspended cable, would have a central dip of approximately 65 feet. Therefore, the elevation of the towers must be 215 feet to secure the clearance required.

“From the southern abutment the railroad line would descend by a threequarters of 1 per cent grade, bringing it precisely to the elevation of the intersection of Chestnut and Divisadero streets, a block away from the site of the Tower of Jewels, that marked the main entrance to the never-to-be-forgotten Exposition. Just a few blocks farther is the belt railroad that traverses the entire waterfront, the business heart of the city, ready to be a link of the great commercial carrier of the western world.

Pedestrian Promenade Across Strait
Novel Idea

From this plan might be omitted the upper or promenade deck, with material reduction of cost, leaving only rail and automobile roadways. The promenade is, indeed, more or less of a matter of sentiment. Crossing the Golden Gate in midair would present, perhaps, the most impressive, emotional prospect in the world. Why should not those enjoy it who are, by unkindly circumstance, still constrain travel on their own legs? Moreover, it would be best observed leisurely, not from a flying train or automobile.

“After the shock of the bare statement, the first and preliminary inquiry arises, Is the project practicable—and practical?

“Beyond cavil or question, yes—far more so than the proposed five and a half mile bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. This is not a guess. I do most things in life indifferently, I am a graduate civil engineer, know a thing or two about applied mathematics and am familiar with construction work from building pigsties to building railroads—I have built both. The proposed suspension bridge—the central span—would be longer than any other structure of its kind in the world. But that only means stronger material, extra factors of safety. And nowhere in the world has nature presented such an admirable site. Bluff shore lines and easy gradients on either side —no costly approaches and still more costly right of way.

Idea Was Old As as State’s Railroading

The idea is almost as old as railroading in our State. When the Central Pacific made its entry into California, the original route via Stockton, Livermore Pass, Niles canyon, with its long detour and heavy grades was found to be impracticable. The company, therefore surveyed a more direct low-level line, departing from the present route east of the Suisan marshes, passing through the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma and Marin. In 1862 I was present at a session of the Marin Supervisors when Charles Crocker explained his plans, among which was a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate. Detail plans and estimates for such a bridge were actually made by Central Pacific engineers. But, along came a man with a newer idea—the transfer of trains across Carquinez straits by steamer and the extension of the Oakland mole to tide water. And so the suspension bridge project died.

“The length of the proposed bridge from Oakland to San Francisco is approximately 27,000 feet, as against approximately 5000 feet from abutment to abutment of the suspension bridge. The former, if constructed on arches, could not fail to interfere seriously with navigation of the upper bay. One serious objection seems to be that the projectors do not know where to land it on our side of the bay. One engineer gives it a terminal on the summit of Telegraph Hill!

Cost Ranging From 25 to 75 Millions

“The estimates of the cost of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge range from 25 to 75 million dollars.

From such data as I have, and by comparison with the cost of similar structures, a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate could be built for less than ten million dollars. This is an extreme estimate, accepted by several engineers to whom this article was referred.

“But as a final and fatal stumbling block, the foolish jealousy between the rival towns will never permit them to join in a great constructive enterprise till human nature has materially changed. That will not be in my time or yours.

“Of course, it will be objected to at once that both terminals of the suspension bridge would necessarily be located on military reserves of the government. But such an objection could hardly stand. Indeed, it ought to be an immense strategic advantage to have the two great defensive points of the harbor connected up. Doubtless the government would gladly grant the easement. It is in inconceivable that any government would arbitrarily block one of the greatest and most significant undertakings ever attempted by civilized men. Certainly no hostile attitude was assumed at Washington when the plan was materially considered over forty years ago.

Financing of Project a Community Investment

“Still as the intimate concern of San Francisco and the North Coast counties, the undertaking should be properly financed by these communities, as a public utility concern. Having only a sincere desire to be closely united, this ought to be simplicity itself, for the extremely simple reason that a bond issue of $10,000,000 would take care of itself and speedily retire itself. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad alone spends half a million dollars a year to maintain a line of steamboats between San Francisco and Marin county points, which is extremely wicked interest on the total cost. Very small charges for its use would soon pay interest, principal and all.

And if, from a financial standpoint, it were a total loss, still San Francisco would be far ahead. The city could well afford to pay $10,000,000 or more for the greatest advertisement in the world—for a work never before surpassed by the imagination and handiwork of man. Whether viewed from its lofty deck, commanding the contrasting prospect—to the west, the grand old tumultuous ocean; to the east, the placid bay; or from incoming ships; or from the landward hills: it would bid fair to remain forever the most stupendous, awe-inspiring monument of our modern civilization. And it could have no rival, for there is only one Golden Gate in the world.

Greatest Of World’s Harbor Improvements

“Even in remote times, long preceding the Christian era, the ancients understood the value of dignifying their harbors with impressive works. The Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria were counted among the seven wonders of the world. The same tendency appears in our own times, witness the cyclopean Statue of Liberty at the entrance of New York harbor. But the bridge across the Golden Gate would dwarf and overshadow all.”

This proposition has created more enthusiasm in San Rafael than any other for some time. Mayor Herzog and the City Council have all endorsed it enthusiastically. The Central Marin Chamber of Commerce is expected to act at their next meeting and the County Supervisors will also probably act at their meeting next week. While the cost of such a bridge would be enormous it is not insurmountable as pointed out in Mr. Wilkins’ article. Such a proposition if constructed would undoubtedly double the value of real estate in Marin county in a short time and no doubt in a few years the population of Marin county would increase five-fold. This proposition is not a wild-cat dream and deserves a lot of consideration.

– Marin County Tocsin, September 2 1916

Read More

clementgraves

YOU DON’T KNOW ME

“Fake news” is bad stuff, but at least it’s usually exposed as phony and no longer taken seriously. Fake history, however, can stagger on for decades – and often does.

Researcher and fellow history spelunker Ray Owen has a saying: “Once a mistake gets into print, it takes on a life of its own.” He’s absolutely right; a favorite example of his concerns a fellow who was supposedly an Indian fighter and so adept at dodging arrows that a tribe agreed to sign a treaty with him. True? Not a word; the story apparently first popped up in a 1920s magazine and since then it has been repeated as gospel in books, articles and on Wikipedia.

In this item I’m not writing much about Santa Rosa or Sonoma county, so if that’s your only interest take a look at some of the other 600+ items in the archives. You’ll find many examples of local fake history debunked or the record clarified, including an unwrapping of the layers of myth surrounding the deaths of Bear Flaggers Cowie and Fowler, how the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county, Mammy Pleasant, had her legacy smeared by a madwoman and a racist author, and especially how popular beliefs about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake greatly exaggerate the damage and loss of life.

But if you like a good mystery, I think you’ll find this story jaw-dropping, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end. I have never encountered anything quite like it; just as a cheap sweater can unravel with a tiny tug on a thread, this tale fell to pieces once I went back and read the original sources. Yet bits of the flubbed version firmly have taken hold and can be found in books written in several languages, magazine articles going back 90 years and items scattered all over the internet.

I caught wind of this story a few weeks ago, while researching the previous item on the dismal vaudeville acts which appeared in Santa Rosa during the years around 1914. One performer, “Musette the Dancing Violinist,” particularly drew my attention because the local newspapers had a news item about her. It seemed a stage door-Johnny tried to hook up with her after the show, only to find himself arrested by two cops she had summoned (he claimed to have mistaken her for someone else, apologized, and charges were dropped). “Musette” – real name, Theresa Flower – was also of interest because she had a professional career, unlike the other wanna-be and has-been entertainers who drifted through Santa Rosa on their road to nowhere. She had studied with one of the most renowned teachers of her era and did several European tours in a career that continued at least until 1923. Then five years later, this item appeared on the Hearst newswire:

SEEK INVENTOR SUSPECTED AS ‘TORCH SLAYER’

New York, March 3-The ‘torch murder’ Saturday became a scientific crime puzzle of the sort usually assumed to be born only in the mind of a master of fiction.

The long arm of circumstance Saturday had drawn into the range of police curiosity a man of three names.

With smashing suddenness, then, one of these mystery personalities was revealed as the inventor of a “self-igniting fluid.”

The plot, so delineated, takes on the consistency of something fresh from the pen of Sax Rohmer.

“Dr. Louis Clements” is the inventor the police seek for questioning.

Miss Margaret Brown, 40 year-old spinster and Park avenue governess, was found along a lonely stretch of New Jersey road, a human torch, and died without speaking.

Clements’ solution, if poured over a substance, will ignite it by contact with the air…

…Theresa Flower Van Norden, known on the vaudeville stage as “Musette,” admitted Saturday that she married Doctor Clements a year ago. They separated after a brief interlude of wedded life.

“When I married him,” said Mrs. Van Norden, “he represented himself as Louis Clement Van Norden. If he really did commit such a horrible crime, I want to see him get his just deserts…”

That was the first time Theresa’s name appeared in the story, although Hearst’s news service had been churning out articles about the “torch murder” for a couple of days prior. To the sensationalist press of 1928, it was the crime of their dreams: A mysterious mad scientist was suspected of burning to death a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his own devious “liquid fire” invention. And that was before it was revealed the man was actually a notorious international spy.

“…[He] is in reality Armgaard Karl Graves, former self-styled German spy, whose checkered career has taken him thru varied adventures in many lands,” revealed another Hearst story. “…just before this country went to war, he was arrested in Washington charged with blackmailing the wife of Count Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States…According to the man’s own story he acted for a time as an informer for Kaiser Wilhelm. In this connection, Levine said Clement told him that he had once piloted a Zeppelin on a cruise which the former kaiser made incognito.”

(RIGHT: The undated photo distributed by the Hearst syndicate in 1928 of the man wanted for questioning. Although it was supposed to be a portrait of Louis Clement, it is possibly Armgaard Karl Graves, who was at least ten years older)

The “Levine” in that item was Charles A. Levine, who at that time was the most famous aviator in the world after Charles Lindbergh. Levine said a man he identified as Clement/Clements had approached him about creating a $4 million airline between the U.S. and South America, signing a contract with the name Armgaard Karl Graves. “The last that Levine heard from the man was on Sunday, February 19, the day before the flaming, gasoline-soaked body of Miss Brown was found,” Hearst reported ominously.

The story probably made the front page of a daily newspaper in every town across America during the first week of March, 1928 because the Hearst syndicate kept dishing up new details: Ten years prior, Clement had been indicted for grand larceny over his claim of having invented a water-based substitute for gasoline. Police received an anonymous letter where someone confessed to killing the woman after robbing her of $2,500 in securities –  which were enclosed in the letter.

After days of whipping up a national frenzy with a “where is the madman Clement/Graves” manhunt, Clement quietly appeared at the police HQ for questioning. He provided a solid alibi for that night and the friend of Margaret Brown who said she once saw Brown’s fiancée named “Dr. Clement” or “Clemens” couldn’t identify him. After a few hours of questioning he was dropped as a suspect. (The case was never solved, but there were two similar “torch murders” on New Jersey highways over the following year.)

The Hearst story absolving him of suspicion ran six paragraphs and did not receive anywhere near the heavy coverage of the sensationalist earlier items. Hearst never cleared up there was no connection between Clement and Graves – or that several days earlier, the rival Associated Press had revealed police no longer assumed they were the same guy, or that Levine admitted he contacted police because he thought a newspaper photo of Clement sorta resembled the stranger with the big talk about starting an airline. All portly, balding, middle-aged men look alike, apparently.

But like a bug caught in ambergris, the stories of Clement and Graves are still suspended together in those moments of Hearst hysteria. Easily found today are confused claims that Graves was “often seen with vaudeville starlets” such as Musette and “Dr. Clement” was his Jekyll and Hyde alter ego who liked to screw around with chemistry when he wasn’t being Mr. Secret Agent Man. Once you separate them, however, their individual stories emerge – and as Ray Owen also says, “the truth is always more interesting.”

Doctor Armgaard Karl Graves was a major celebrity a century ago – a real-life James Bond super spy who was supposedly a high-ranking officer in the pre-WWI German secret service spying on the British, then switched sides to be a double agent for England.

Graves’ best-selling (ghostwritten) memoir about espionage was released just as the war began, followed in 1915 with another book supposedly revealing secrets of the German government. His memoir was serialized by newspapers (“Revelations of the Kaiser’s Personal Spy”) and there was a book series of adventurous yarns aimed at kids (“Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, Secret Service Agent”). He wrote many articles predicting what was about to happen in the war based on his supposed insider knowledge: Germany and Czarist Russia were going to jointly invade England, London was about to be destroyed in three weeks after it was attacked by an armada of hi-tech zeppelins and a fleet of thousands of submarines, plus Germany had a “vapor ray” which instantly blinded anyone who saw it. A modern book, “Spies of the Kaiser,” seems to do a good job of sorting his biographical fact from (mostly) fantasy, so read that section on Graves if you really are curious about that part of his life (the last paragraph, however, describes him being “accused of burning a woman alive”).

His stardom began to fizzle after he was arrested for the blackmail attempt in 1916 (see the book cited above). Later that year the New York Times published details from an exposé by the Frankfort Gazette, where it was revealed he was actually a dental school dropout name Max Meincke. When confronted about his claims to having been adopted in Australia by a “Major Graves” and earning an M.D. at the University of Adelaide, he “admitted that he had been exaggerating.”

Having escaped prosecution for blackmail, “Graves” was arrested in 1917 for being in an area off-limits to alien nationals (he tried to talk his way out by telling police he was secretly working for the State Department). He was shipped off to Leavenworth prison, then later Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for the duration of the war.

Most of the rest of Graves’ sordid story did not make national news, but was great fun to dig up via regional newspapers. In 1921 he was arrested for scamming another former Fort Oglethorpe detainee out of $430, but that was amateur league stuff – afterwards it would be the Great Buried Treasure con game.

Using the alias Dr. Paul W. Graumann, he was busted in Panama in 1924 for telling suckers he had smuggled a million dollars worth of gold, $700,000 and the Saxony crown jewels out of Germany after the armistice, hiding the loot in a Haitian swamp then later reburying it on a Panamanian beach. In 1929 he was arrested in Los Angeles under the alias Paul Gunther using the same basic story to con a man out of $3,500 to fund an expedition to dig it up. In between those years he supposedly received a large sum of money from German royalist sympathizers seeking to restore the monarchy.

His undoing came in 1934 when he tried the treasure scam on Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. Now Graves was saying he needed $1,500 backing to recover $3 million buried in Haiti – that he had been in the German Secret Service during WWI and ordered to hide the trove in advance of American troops arriving. When Graves disappeared with his money, Saunders hired an investigator and discovered still more victims of the Haiti con game; Graves was tracked down and brought back to face prosecution. (For more, read, “Clarence Saunders and the German Spy,” although the first part of the article badly scrambles the Graves and Clement stories together.)

Graves was sentenced to 2-5 years. When he came up for parole in 1937 the government wanted to deport him back to Germany immediately upon his release from prison. The federal agents booked him under the name Paul Peter Gunther Von Kanitz, but Graves said that was not his real name. “Only three people know it,” he said.

Although he insisted he would be shot by a firing squad within 24 hours of arriving in Germany. He was briefly detained on Ellis Island and finally deported on May 5, 1937.

He was not heard from again.

As it turns out the real mystery man of our story is not Armgaard Karl Graves – it’s Louis Clement.

Clement shows up in the press for the first time in the summer of 1917 shortly before Graves went to Leavenworth, which proves conclusively they weren’t the same guy. These early articles mention he was a Danish chemist and a graduate of the Copenhagen Institute. The same year he filled out his WWI draft registration card which declared he was a Danish subject born in Copenhagen. A later census states he came to the U.S. in 1915, so we have a pretty clear picture of his bonafides.

He was in the news for claiming to have invented a gasoline substitute he called “Nuoline.” There were different descriptions of what was in it (mostly the result of bad reporting) but it was variously said to be somewhere between 10-50 percent plain water, with other ingredients being kerosene, wood alcohol, naphta, benzine plus a bunch of secret juju. Whatever the formula, the promise was that it would cost a small fraction of the price of gasoline.

Money began rolling in at an average of about $10,000 per month (almost $200k today) – not bad for a maverick inventor working out of his bedroom. But after a few months went by with nothing to show except for a few demos where observers were kept at least twenty feet away from the Nuoline-powered auto, some investors began suspecting the secret sauce in the formula was really flim-flam. One of them had a chat with the New York City District Attorney’s office and police were dispatched to pick up Clement.

They returned with Louis and a package. According to the New York Herald, it was “securely wrapped and sealed; twelve large blotches of red wax decorated it.” On it was written, “This book contains a secret formula for turning water into gasoline. Whoever tampers with this book will meet with instant DEATH.”

“When the wrapping was removed, carefully removed, there was on the prosecutor’s desk a book. Its title was: “Elements of Urinalysis.”

The assistant D.A. examined this standard college textbook with care to see if it contained a hidden slip of paper with the formula. One can only imagine the extraordinary care he must have given the search, given the warning the book did contain, you know, death.

Finding nothing more than that package with the sort of stupid threat a 10 year-old might post on his bedroom door, Clement was indicted for grand larceny. The following month, March 1918, the grand jury and six chemists selected by the District Attorney assembled to see a Nuoline demonstration. Over three hours Clement mixed a batch from scratch (the secret ingredients included talcum powder, cedar oil and saccharine!) which was pumped into the tank of a two-ton truck. The engine would not start. Next was tried a Ford, which puttered around the block without problem, as did another auto. Louis Clement said he was vindicated, but the prosecutor was not so sure; instead of costing a tenth as much as gasoline, the chemists determined his concoction would cost about ten times more.

Since the formula worked – albeit at a much higher than advertised price – it was unclear whether Clement could be prosecuted for fraud. He continued to promote Nuoline for at least another year and was sued by other investors. Towards the end of WWI he gave a demo to the Army’s Quartermasters Department which came to the same conclusion: It did work, but was too expensive.

About ten years passed and nothing was heard from Louis D. Clement. Then Margaret Brown was murdered and we suddenly heard a very great deal.

Besides the mistaken ID by aviator Levine and Margaret’s friend saying she was dating someone with a similar name, the third clue used to stir up suspicions about Clement was that he had a company called, “Good Oxide Laboratories.” Nothing can be currently found about what he was doing, but the papers at the time reported he had invented an insecticide specifically for Japanese beetles which could be self-igniting. (Many chemicals can spontaneously burst into flame, as might oily rags, piles of hay, etc.) The Hearst papers, of course, sensationalized the angle: “This substance, poured over a person’s clothing, would ignite by contact with the air after several minutes of evaporation. Any one using it for incendiary purposes could begin his escape long before the blaze was discovered, according to chemists.”

When Clement surrendered, his perfect alibi revealed a perfectly dismal life. The night of murder he was the dishwasher at a cafeteria, living in a 35¢ night flophouse in Brooklyn. A man who knew Clement from the Nuoline days told the Philadelphia Inquirer he had bumped into the chemist recently and he was living on the edge, sleeping in a railroad station and parks.

But Clement’s problems were far from over; when police were finished questioning him, he was held on grand larceny for the theft of Musette’s $600 diamond pendant, confessing he had pawned it for a hundred bucks. Theresa met him at the police station with her attorney, where he was served with papers for annulment of their marriage. She dropped the theft charge after a few days (continuing with the annulment) and visited him in jail, dropping off a check for $15, a heavy overcoat, a hat and dozen neckties. He was immediately rearrested on forgery charges from his former Good Oxide partners for cashing $2,230 in company checks.

And then there was the business of the aliases. Besides marrying “Musette” as Louis Clement Van Norden, he was booked as Louis Clement Schwartz, followed by the arraignment under the name Louis Clement Schmidt. During the search of his room ten years earlier when police turned up the “death” package they found a passport with the name Clemente. There is no reason to believe any of these were his true name. On the business card he used at the time he called himself, “Dr. L. Clements, M.C., D. Sc. Ph. D., F. R. D. G. S.” On the back of the card was, oddly, a purple illustration of a snapping turtle. No reporter who saw it knew what the hell it meant, but were compelled to mention it and its odd purpleness.

At this point, Gentle Reader probably thinks our story of Mr. Louis Clement Van Norden Schwartz Schmidt is over. He was caught committing grand theft and fraud – and did I forget to mention Theresa had already repaid Good Oxide $1,000 because he was cooking the books?  He was living in the gutter during one of the great economic booms in our history with little hope his miserable life could even marginally improve, given that the Great Depression was right around the corner.

Yet a handful of years later, as everyone else’s fan had been thoroughly hit by crap, he was the cornerstone of building an enormously successful business. There were probably other companies born during the darkest days of the Depression that went on to greater heights, but I don’t know about them. (See, I promised you this was a Believe-it-or-not! story.)

The business was Sanitized, Inc. which still exists as a Swiss-based company – their Sanitized® trademark dates back to 1934, the year after the corporation was formed. In earlier decades the company promoted Clement’s role in its origins, telling the story of how he created the first products while working with the Army Quartermaster Corps during WWI, where he noticed an experimental gas not only sterilized soil but kept it resistant to bacteria for a long time.

(RIGHT: A portion of a 1936 ad which appeared in newspapers nationwide)

The Quartermaster connection aligns with his 1918 Nuoline demo – note it wasn’t claimed he was necessarily working for the Army at the time; he could have picked up the tip during his visit. And anything powerful enough to sterilize soil would probably wipe out Japanese beetles in their grub stage when they are just beneath the surface eating the roots of your lovely lawn.

If Louis Clement made Sanitized, Inc., then Sanitized, Inc. surely remade Louis Clement. Never again would his fake gasoline be mentioned; the 1928 murder suspect debacle, thievery, and days on Skid Row were forgotten. Although he was never a naturalized citizen he was mentioned in the papers for his good works around the start of WWII as chairman of the “Chinese Women’s Relief Association” and a sponsor of the “Free Denmark Committee.” He married a much younger woman from Tennessee and they lived in cozy little house in New Jersey (currently for sale!) which happened to be just about five minutes from the Margret Brown murder site, but let’s not muse about that.

And here’s the final twist: There’s no proof “Louis D. Clement” really existed. Not a single related patent between 1917 and 1936 can be found granted under Clement, any of the variant spellings, or any of his known aliases. There is no matching Clement-like person found on ship passenger lists arriving in the U.S. around 1915. There is no newspaper obituary or the tiniest social item that can be found for him or his wife under Clement, all during an era when newspapers believed the way to sell newspapers was to mention every local person’s name as often as possible.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that everything he had to do lawfully which involved presenting an ID – enter the country, apply for a patent, die – were done under his true and legal name. Which was not Clement.

We can probably assume the twenty-something immigrant had a secret he wanted to hide when he came to this country (that is, if he even was an immigrant) but that’s about all. He was a man of science with a streak of dishonesty; witness the Good Oxide fraud and that he kept pushing Nuoline on investors even after it was proven to be impractical, which makes him appear to be a con man just like Armgaard Karl Graves – except Clement was more successful at getting money out of suckers.

The fascinating aspect of the Louis Clement story is that it can be told two different ways. There’s the inspirational version where the plucky scientist who makes some mistakes, then turns his life around and becomes a founder of a great company. A motivational speaker such as Norman Vincent Peale would have loved telling that.

Then there’s Clement’s cascading nightmare which was March 1928. Penniless and wanted by the police for jewelry theft and forgery, he wakes up one morning to find an old photo of himself on the front page along with news he is a suspect in a shocking murder. And if that isn’t bad enough, the man with many secrets is next confused with a notorious former spy who’s simultaneously trying to pull a scam on a celebrity aviator. Know who would have loved that version? Alfred Hitchcock.

LEFT: Louis Clement, 1928           RIGHT: Armgaard Karl Graves, 1929

 

Read More