The Tardy Times


Comment and Stories
1. Streets as Monuments
2. Hiccup Attack
3. Fire Demon Attacks the Mint
4. Afghanistan Debacle – 166 Years Ago
5. Backwardness at the Palindrome

The Generals of Bernal Hill
By Lynn Ludlow
For the Bernal History Project

DESPITE a widespread perception that Bernal Heights is home for many a peacenik, no other San Francisco neighborhood outside the Presidio has so many permanent memorials to the military.

Not monuments. Not statues. Instead, street names.  
Gates, Moultrie, Appleton and Wool.
Anderson, Putnam, Banks and Prentiss.
Chapman, Winfield, Wright and Stoneman.
And more.

Bernal’s street signs honor more than a dozen general officers from the bloody wars of the nation’s first century. Most, in a popular term of years gone by, are disremembered. Only four set foot in San Francisco and none, we suppose, ever wandered over the pastured slopes of 19th century Bernal Hill.

It’s not just generals. Other streets and lanes on the hill bear the names of three unremembered Civil War heroes of lesser rank – a battle surgeon, a murdered colonel and a boatswain’s mate who won two Medals of Honor.

The only battles memorialized on Bernal Hill are from pre-Civil War conflicts. A badly needed triumph by American revolutionaries in 1777 is remembered with Bennington Street (changed in 1882 from Scott Street).  On the other hand, the defeat of U.S. invaders near Niagara Falls in Canada in 1814 gave us Lundy’s Lane. Technically, it should be Lundy's Lane Lane.

For street names of famous Civil War battles, we go over to Noe Valley to find Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Fair Oaks (a street without oaks).

The only famous general to be honored by a Bernal street sign is Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Grozon, but the Marquis de Montcalm was French.

Those who named Bernal’s streets before 1870 didn’t stop with generals and battles, although it looks as if they may have thumbed through 19th century schoolbooks for inspiration.

The mythic story of New England’s Thanksgiving may have morphed into the streets that criss-cross Bernal’s east slope in honor of Puritan leaders William Brewster and William Bradford; the trusting Indian chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoags; Samoset, the Pemaquid who helped the intruders, and, of course, the Mayflower itself.

The legend of Pocahontas inspired Powhattan Avenue, a rustic lane named for her fierce daddy.

Heavily hyped admiration for Gen. Andrew Jackson, as seen by the president’s uncritical tale-spinners, put Old Hickory Avenue on the 1870 map. It was soon renamed Ogden Avenue, probably for the Revolutionary War hero, senator and New Jersey governor in 1812, Col. Robert Ogden.

Spanish words gave us Bernal streets named Bocana (“entrance,” as in the Golden Gate’s original name, “La Bocana de la Ensenada de los Farallones”), Buena Vista (“good view”), Esmeralda (“emerald”) and Precita (which, we are told, could mean “little dam”). 

From literature: Coleridge Street (changed in 1909 from California Avenue) and Bronte Street (changed in 1882 from Harrison Street).

From England: York, Waltham, Hampshire, Manchester and Norwich streets.

From the wives and daughters of developers, city officials and family friends: Gladys, Elsie, Bessie and Virginia streets. Or so we assume. Who knows?

We know a little more about the street names of neighboring Noe Valley. The historians tell us that pioneer farmer John M. Horner bought a big piece of the San Miguel Rancho from Jose de Jesus Noe in 1852. It’s still called Horner’s Addition. He and his brother, William, laid out streets on paper and gave them names. One was to be called Horner Street; another, for John’s wife, Elizabeth Street.  Included were Army Street and Navy Street.

Two years later Horner lost the heavily mortgaged property to banker Cornelius K. Garrison, the mayor in 1853-54. And then, when the Board of Supervisors decided to rename every other street with a number, Horner Street was transformed into 23rd Street. Elizabeth Street is still with us, but Navy Street became 26th Street. That left Army Street, which was military in name only, as the northerly border of Bernal Heights. In 1995, amid an emotional  battle of words, the name was changed to Cesar Chavez (Army) Street.

Much less is known about the provenance of Bernal’s street names. The Bernal Heights Foundation says on its web site, “The Bernal Heights community was developed in 1839 as part of a large Mexican land grant belonging to Don Jose Cornelio Bernal, called Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo. Don Bernal used the area as grazing land for his cattle. . .  In the early 1860s most of what is now Bernal Heights was still largely undeveloped. Even after François Pioche, a French-born merchant, subdivided (the land), it remained a very rural area. How Monsieur Pioche came in possession of old Don Bernal's Rancho is a mystery to this date.”

Pioche? Now we can guess who might have put Montcalm Street on the street grid and omitted a similar honor for Montcalm’s English rival, James Wolfe, in the 1759 battle that killed both generals. 

The Official Map of the City and County of San Francisco in 1870 shows most of today’s streets. They would have been selected and named in 1868 or 1869, when the anonymous namers would have been familiar with Civil War generals. But the “streets” for the most part existed only on paper – and the mapmakers didn’t leave much of a paper trail.

For an explanation (and for informed speculation on where many street names came from) we’re indebted to Louis K. Loewenstein, author of “Streets of San Francisco” (Wilderness Press, Berkeley). In researching the origins of San Francisco’s 1,735 non-numbered and unalphabetized street names, he notes that the conflagration of 1906 incinerated thousands of city records. In any event, as he writes in his introduction, the rationales for name changes were generally omitted from Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors and other records.

What’s left is informed guesswork. The researcher won’t have any problem with the origin of, say, Nevada Street. He can suspect that Cortland Avenue was named for the city in upstate New York. But who was Eugenia? And when Frisco had one too many Lincoln Avenues, why was her name chosen as a replacement?
        Notes on Bernal Streets of General Interest

Anderson Street

In a nation with many an Anderson, the most likely nominee for Bernal honors is Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson (1805-1871), whose father, Col. Robert Anderson, had been a hero in the battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War. The son, a major of artillery, commanded at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor when it was shelled by the Confederates in the opening salvos of the Civil War. He was forced to surrender and lower the U.S. flag. Four years later, after more than half a million combat deaths on both sides, he returned to preside as the same flag was raised over the fort’s ruins.

Appleton Avenue
So short a street, it may have been given the middle name of Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles (1839-1925), the Civil War hero and Indian wars veteran who was commander at the Presidio in 1888-1890.

Banks Street

Not named for financial institutions. Nathaniel P. (for Prentiss) Banks (1816-1894), who as an impoverished lad was a bobbin boy in the cotton mills, had been elected as state legislator, member of Congress and, shortly before the Civil War, governor of Massachusetts. Despite his lack of military training, he won a political appointment as a major general of volunteers and, in pictures at least, resembled a fierce warrior. In later commands, he was defeated by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and again at Cedar Mountain. The rest of his military career was equally undistinguished. After the war, he served again in Congress and the State Senate.

Chapman Street
Attorney, assistant clerk in the Indiana legislature and publisher of the Indiana Republican (in Terre Haute and Indianapolis), George H. Chapman (1832-1882) had been a Navy midshipman during the Mexican-American War.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed a major in the 3rd Indiana Cavalry in October 1861. By the war’s end, when he was a brigadier general, he had served in the battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, and in the Mine Run, Overland and Shenandoah campaigns. He was wounded in the battle of Third Winchester. After the war, he was a judge and state senator in Indiana.

Ellsworth Street
Fascinated by military history and panoply, Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (1837-1861) was a friend of Lincoln’s. He raised a regiment of volunteers from New York firefighters, who invaded Virginia the day after it seceded. When he cut down a Confederate flag atop a hotel, the owner killed him with a shotgun blast – and was shot dead in return. “Remember Ellsworth” became a rallying cry of a regiment known as the Ellsworth Avengers.

Gates Street

Born in England, Horatio Gates (1727-1806) began his military career as an officer in the British Army in the French and Indian War. Severely wounded at Fort Duquesne and retiring with the rank of major, he was living in Virginia when he sided with the rebels and his friend George Washington in the American Revolution. He was a major general when his ragged force defeated his former comrades at Ticonderoga and Saratoga in 1777, prompting the redcoats and their commander, Gen. John Burgoyne, to surrender. It was a turning point in the war, but Gates gets little attention in schoolbook histories.

Montcalm Avenue
A professional soldier, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Grozon (1712-1759) was a major general commanding the forces of New France in North America at the outset of the Seven Years’ War. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general after his capture of Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry and his defense of Fort Ticonderoga. But in 1759, Montcalm was defending Quebec when the James Wolfe, the British commander with a much bigger army, scaled cliffs to the Plains of Abraham. He defeated the French in a decisive battle that took the lives of both commanders and left New France as Canada, a British colony.

Moultrie Street
Although William Moultrie (1730-1805) led troops against Native Americans in 1761 and won election to the colonial assembly, the general is remembered chiefly for his surprising defense of a South Carolina fort (now Fort Moultrie) on Sullivan’s Island. It blocked the British in 1776 from capturing Charleston, his birthplace. Captured in 1780 and released after the war, he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1785. (The 1870 map shows it as Moultry Street.)

Mullen Avenue

Originally Wolff Street, it was renamed (probably) for Patrick Mullin (1844-1897), a Navy boatswain’s mate and native of Ireland. He won the Medal of Honor twice in 1865 for heroism in battle on a Virginia stream and for rescuing a drowning officer off the Virginia coast. The Navy’s citations after the Civil War never did correct the spelling of his surname.

Prentiss Street

It’s possible that this steep, narrow street memorializes the middle name of Nathaniel Banks (see Banks Street, above, which parallels Prentiss Street one block to the west). But that would ignore the accomplishments of another general, Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss (1819-1901), a veteran of the Mexican-American War who was lionized in the Civil War as “Hero of the Hornet’s Nest” after the battle of Shiloh. He held off the rebel attackers until U.S. Grant’s forces could move safely to the south, but by then Prentiss and 2,200 bluecoats were encircled and captured.

Putnam Street
A veteran of Rogers Rangers in the French and Indian War, Major General Israel Putnam (1718-1790) was involved in numerous battles in the early years of the Revolutionary War. But the former tavern keeper and farmer from Connecticut is remembered mainly for telling his troops in 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”  

Ripley Street
The street was originally Prospect Place, a name changed in 1882 because of confusion with nearby Prospect Avenue. The honoree is probably Eleazar Wheelock Ripley (1782-1839), a U.S. brigadier general in the battle at Lundy’s Lane and the siege of Fort Erie in the War of 1812. Ripley was later a Louisiana legislator. In 1816 the Ohio river port village of Staunton was renamed Ripley in his honor, believe it or not.

Stoneman Street
A West Pointer who came to San Francisco in 1846 as a lieutenant in the Mormon Battalion, George Stoneman (1822-1894) was a career military commander with an uneven record in numerous Civil War campaigns. A major general, he freed the prisoners at Andersonville and led cavalry raids into the Confederacy. After leaving the Army, he settled in the San Gabriel Valley and was elected California governor, 1883-87. Camp Stoneman, a 2,500-acre Army base opened in 1942 near Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, was the jumping off place for more than a million troops headed for the Pacific Theater in World War II. It was later the separation center for soldiers returning from the Korean Conflict. The base was shut down in 1954. The cavalryman’s name was remembered in a different context when The Band, in a 1970 song by Robbie Robertson, included this couplet:
       Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
       Til Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again...

Tompkins Avenue
He wasn’t a general. The street (renamed in 1909 from Union Avenue) probably honors Dr. Hartwell Carver Tompkins (1828-1903).  Surgeon-in-Chief of the Army of the Potomac’s First Division, Second Army Corps, he stood “knee deep in amputated limbs” at Antietam. He had served also in the battles of Fair Oaks, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Appomattox before returning to civilian life in Knowlesville in upstate New York. Other candidate: Patrick W. Tompkins, former congressman from Mississippi who joined the gold rush to California in 1849 and died in San Francisco in 1853.
Winfield Street
Few given names are honored in the street nomenclature world, but Scott Street (across the northerly reaches of San Francisco) and Scott Street (in the Presidio) must not have seemed sufficient glory for admirers of Winfield Scott (1786-1866), pomp-loving hero of the War of 1812, the Blackhawk War and the Mexican-American War. At the beginning of the Civil War, “Old Fuss and Feathers” was the first lieutenant general since George Washington but, because he was overweight and gout-afflicted, he couldn’t ride a horse. Forced to resign in late 1861, the 75-year-old general lived long enough to see his long-term “Anaconda” plan – derided by his successor, George McClellan – would eventually become the Union’s ruthless, war-ending strategy.

Wool Street

A lawyer when the War of 1812 began, John Ellis Wool (1784-1869) organized a volunteer force, fought in several battles and wound up a colonel. He organized more volunteer regiments for the Mexican-American War, when he became a major general. In 1854 he commanded the Department of the Pacific where, because he was intolerant of territorial bureaucrats, he tried and generally failed to stop massacres of Indians and other depredations by civilian volunteers and settlers. Transferred to New York during the Civil War, he retired in 1863, age 75.

Wright Street
Despite a well documented reputation for fair dealing with Indians as they fought to retain their homelands, West Pointer George E. Wright (1803-1865) spent most of his career in conflict or in negotiations with Pawnees, Seminoles, Yakimas and the politicians who sided with land-hungry settlers in Washington and Oregon. Although a brigadier general with the outbreak of the Civil War, he was kept in California as commander of the Presidio in San Francisco and, later, of the District of California. When he was ordered back to the Pacific Northwest in 1865, his steamer hit a reef. Among the drowned were General Wright and his wife.


Bernal Heights historian Jerry Schimmel contributed to this piece. Retired newspaperman Lynn Ludlow, a resident of Bernal Heights, was a reluctant Army draftee who developed a critical perspective toward generals while somehow attaining the rank of Private E-2 during the Korean Conflict.


For street names that evoke the glories of more celebrated generals, look elsewhere in San Francisco. They include Halleck, Sherman, Kearny, Hoffman, Hardie, Sheridan, Meade, Ord, Lafayette, Taylor, Custer, Scott, Shafter, Kirkham, Ingalls, McDowell, Burnside, Lawton, Pope, MacArthur, Thomas and, of course, Washington and Jackson. Three are worth special mention:
•    A heavily traveled Richmond District boulevard would have been 13th Avenue (unlucky) but for the name of Gen. Frederick Funston, whose slaughter of thousands of noncombatants in the Philippine War of Independence was rewarded with the Medal of Honor.
•    The same arterial ducks under the Presidio Golf Course via a tunnel aptly named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was known to many an unworshipful GI in World War II as Dugout Doug.
•    Pueblo Yerba Buena’s first main street, the Calle de Fundacion, was renamed Dupont Street in 1847 for Navy Capt. Samuel F. Du Pont, later an admiral in the Civil War. The street from Market to Bush streets was renamed in 1886 to honor the ex-president, Gen. U.S. Grant. (The rest, from Bush to North Point streets, became Grant Avenue in 1908, but in Chinatown the old-timers still call it Dupont Gai.) The Union general’s Civil War triumph is reflected in a comparison of Grant Avenue, one of the city’s great thoroughfares, with Lee Avenue. It’s probably named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate defender of slavery and a onetime slaveholder himself (or maybe his son, Lt. Curtis Lee, who once served in San Francisco). Lee Avenue is a humble little street in the Oceanview District, a neighborhood favored by African American families.


Never been (hic!) so insulted

Notes from Lynn

     The medical handouts (hic!) said possible complications from hip replacement  could include osseous fracture, aggressive (HIC!!) granulomatosis, heterotopic ossification and other terms of (hic) post-surgical mystery. Nary a word was heard about hiccups, a complication that was about to become a term (HIC!) of, uh, post-surgical misery.
   Looking back on those four horrid (hic) days of full-body spasms every 5 seconds, I resist the temptation to (HIC!!!) regard the hiccups as an amusing metaphor for the unexpected.
   Infuriating, isn’t (hic!) it?

   Installing the new hip joint, my first step toward  full android status as Robogeezer, was bad enough. The recovery was worse. Not to worry, the medics explained on Day One of the Monster Hiccups. It’s just that the operation was an insult to your body. They like that word, insult. 
   An insult? How true. Those cutups touched off an insulting series of jolts in the life of a septuagenarian who, up until Oct. 15, had foolishly assumed that perhaps the aging process didn’t apply to him. That was the day I found that sawbones isn’t slang; it’s a job title, and I can prove it.
   The year until then had been full of action. I was playing hoops twice a week, the only 71-year-old in the gym. Okay, so the sky hook was now an earth hook, but at least I was on the court. And then the osteoarthritis eroded the last of the cartilage on my right hip joint. After the operation, I spent the rest of the year as a whining, self-pitying semi-cripple.
    It’s been more than four months, and I still can’t put on my socks without help.
    No basketball, I was told by the surgeon. No contact sports. Try swimming, long walks, bicycling (but don’t fall off). The biggest worry is a jolt that will dislocate the metal-and-ceramic-and-polyethylene gizmo where, as the song goes, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone.
     But don’t worry, we’re told. Of the 120,000 hip-joint replacements every year in the U.S., only about 10 percent require further surgery. Only one in ten?  That’s 12,000 men and women per year limping around with canes, crutches, walkers and a newly critical perspective toward the assurances of doctors.

    That was my view after the hiccup episode which, admittedly, doesn’t compare with, say, aggressive granulomatosis, whatever that is. The books say a hiccup is triggered by a convulsion of the diaphragm and neighboring muscles. Within milliseconds the glottis pops down on the windpipe like a trapdoor. The escaping air makes the hic sound.  It’s often regarded with amusement, perhaps because it’s associated either with burbling babes or bibulous bozos. 
     I spasmed every 5 seconds for two days at the hospital and two more days at the rehab facility. The hiccups seemed to quit when I fell asleep. If my mouth was open, the hiccups sounded something like little gunshots. It was driving my roommate crazy.
    I was supposed to be learning how to walk with a tin hip. Instead, I hiccupped. With the doctors otherwise occupied, I turned to folk remedies suggested by friends, my mother-in-law, the Filipina nurses and their helpers. Each quoted moms.
    Accordingly, willing to try anything, I found myself (1) slowly sucking a tablespoon of sugar; (2) drinking water while plugging my ears and nose; (3) holding my breath until my eyes bulged, then exhaling slowly; (4) holding my breath for as long as possible and swallowing at the approach of a hiccup, repeating three times; (5) drinking a glass of water in big gulps.

    In the Philippines, the dictionary word for failure is “Pagkabigo!”
   A Tagalog phrase book is as important as a CD player these days in Bay Area hospital rooms. However, it was the day-shift licensed vocational nurse from Ilocano Province, where the dialect is different, who offered hope. Her mother always told her to fill a glass with water, grip the glass with your teeth, raise the chin as high as possible and try to let the water flow straight down the gullet.
    It worked!  The hiccups stopped. I thanked her so many times that she probably regretted her kindness. I told her to thank her faraway mother.
    Alas, in the Ilokano dictionary the phrase for “sometimes” is “no dadduma.” Hours later, when the hiccups returned, I repeated the Ilocano Mom’s Sure-Fire Cure. It failed.
    Failed cures go back a long way. Here’s one:  “...hold your breath, and if after you have done so for some time the hiccup is no better, then gargle with a little water, and if it still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze, and if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccup is sure to go.”  That comes from Eriximachus, the physician to Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium.”

     I was bloated with water from the remedies of all those moms. In between hiccups, I groused about how HMO medical treatment is divided into so many fiefdoms that responsibility for a patient’s care can fall no dadduma between shortstop and second base.
    That’s what happened in my case, when the hiccups evidently didn’t seem all that serious in my days of surgical recovery. After I was shipped to the rehab facility, it took more than a day of complaints before word from the baffled attendants trickled upward to the supervising physician. She didn’t tell me to hold my breath or gargle.  By that afternoon, I was slugging down a dose of Thorazine. The jolts stopped sooner than I could say “glossopharyngeal nerve.” And they haven’t returned.
    No doubt the pharmacists can cite a wondrous chemical reason for Thorazine’s improbable success as a hiccup cure.  Yes, the anti-psychotic drug is often prescribed for the hallucinations of schizophrenia or the hyperenergetic phase of manic-depressive illness. In my case, it was just crazy enough to work. Hip. Hip. Hooray. (Hic!)

This appeared in print in The Tardy Times in March 2006.

The forgotten fight to save
the money factory: April 18, 1906

By Lynn Ludlow
    Hell came at 1 p.m.
   "The fire fiend," said Frank A. Leach. "An uncontrollable demon of blaze."
    But the words came much later. As superintendent of the U.S. Mint, he had no time for infernal metaphor on Earthquake Day, 1906.
    "The buildings across the alley from the Mint were on fire, and soon great masses of flames shot against the side of our building as if directed against us by a huge blowpipe,'' Leach wrote in his 1917 memoir, "Recollections of a Newspaperman."
    It's a story that needs to be retold. The deserted coinage factory, known for years as the Old Mint,  is under consideration as a badly needed new home for the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. On that April day, however, it was a fortress under siege
    "The glass in our windows, exposed to this great heat, did not crack and break, but melted down like butter," Leach wrote; "the sandstone and granite, of which the building was constructed, began to flake off with explosive noises like the firing of artillery."

    As the Mint's gasping defenders fought hot spots and burning cinders with a 1-inch hose and buckets of blue vitriol, they could see geysers of fire shooting from nearby Lincoln School  (today the site of the San Francisco Shopping Centre and its Nordstrom store.) Infernos marked the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the Emporium and every other building visible from the smoking roof at Fifth and Mission streets.
    Conflagrations ignited by the 8.25 quake and fanned by rare easterly winds would eventually destroy 28,188 buildings in nearly five square miles of San Francisco. According to recently revised estimates, the disaster claimed about 5,000 lives -- 10 times the official number concocted at the time by civic boosters and allowed to stand in most reference books. But nobody died at the Mint.
    "The heat was now intense," Leach said. "It did not seem possible for the structure to withstand this terrific onslaught.''
    It was the key moment in an extraordinary seven-hour fight with the fire fiend, a demonstration of gritty heroics unmatched (and unremembered) in the short history of a city never touched directly by the hell of war itself.

    Fort Point, where no cannon was ever fired at an enemy, is a National Historic Site proudly administered by the National Park Service. Despite far better credentials in the annals of desperate combat, the Old Mint was closed to the public in 1994 after half a century as a federal office building with a little museum of nuggets, ingots and dies for forgotten coins. Four years later, the last offices there closed.
    Estimated costs of renovation begin at $20 million. This is a lot of money if the Old Mint's claim to fame rests on little more than architectural interest in its stolid Classic Greek Revival design, its status as a historic monument, its  questionable label as downtown's "oldest stone building"  and its dubious nickname (why isn't the Granite Lady the Sandstone Lady?)
    Instead, museum proponents need to put much greater emphasis on how the long-neglected Old Mint is particularly appropriate as a temple of history in a city largely built on the banks of a river of silver and gold.
     More dramatically, it's also a fitting monument to the historic fortitude of 10 artillerymen of the 6th Infantry and the 50 assayers, pressmen, rollers, cutters and other Mint workers in what seemed like a hopeless battle 97 years ago with what Leach called the uncontrollable demon of blaze.

    Back then, of course, it wasn't the Old Mint. It was the New Mint. In 1874 it had replaced the Branch U.S. Mint, which had been authorized by Congress in 1852. It made little sense to ship ingots around the Horn to the official U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, which would ship them back  six months later as coins. The brick plant opened in 1854 on Commercial Street in what is now Chinatown, minting $4 million in gold coins by year's end. That marked the end for about 20 private mints, each with its own coinage, that sprang up after 49ers returned with pokes of gold dust to the boomtown they called Frisco.
    The post of chief assayer was granted in 1855 to a Hungarian adventurer, Agoston Haraszthy, who liked to be called Count Haraszthy. He didn't count well, according to a grand jury that accused him of embezzlement in the disappearance of about $130,000 in gold. Haraszthy blamed the mint's faulty blowers -- and was exonerated after workers prospected on nearby rooftops and found soot laden with thousands of dollars in gold dust. (The affluent Hungarian then bought land in the Napa Valley, introduced zinfandel grapes, became the father of California's wine industry, moved to Nicaragua and disappeared in 1869 in a river where, according to his biographers, he was dragged off by an alligator.)
    The colorful count was no longer at the Mint by 1866, when Jessie Benton Fremont helped Francis Brett Harte get a patronage position as secretary of the Mint. The day job gave him time to edit  Californian magazine and begin his literary career as the author Bret Harte.
    The little plant on Commercial Street was soon overwhelmed -- but not by gold.  In 1859, a couple of prospectors from Washoe country trekked over the Sierra to Ott's Assay Office in Nevada City with samples of what they called "that damned blue stuff."  It was interfering with their attempts to extract gold flakes from a nameless mountain in what is now Nevada. At a time when silver ore at $100 a ton was considered pretty good, the blue stuff assayed at $4,791 in silver and $1,595 in gold.
    No longer nameless, Mount Davidson stood above deep-rock mines that in 21 years would produce $1 billion in coinage. Two cents would then buy a good loaf of bread.

    Silver minted from the ledges and fissure veins of the Comstock Lode touched off a building boom in faraway San Francisco.     Silver poured into San Francisco with huge impact, not all of it a boon. Rumors of scandal and scams swirled around the Mint..
    "As production continued to soar in this dark, small mint, so did embezzlement," we are told by Richard G. Kelly and Nancy Oliver in "A Mighty Fortress: Stories Behind the Second San Francisco Mint."
     "One lesser-known case involved the janitor of the building. He had been praised many times for his ability to rid the mint of rats. But one day he was found to be sewing $20 gold pieces into each dead rat before throwing them into the trash. After hours, he collected the rats and retrieved the coins inside."
    Gambling with mine stocks enriched a few, impoverished many and, according to George Lyman in "Ralston's Ring," "The Insane Asylum at Stockton filled up with living witnesses to Washoe's wild excitement." 
    Silver helped finance the Union cause in the Civil War.     Silver created multimillionaires of Jim Flood, George Hearst, Jim Fair, William Sharon, Bill Ralston, Adolph Sutro, Lucky Baldwin and a dozen others who rarely set foot in the honeycombs of drifts and tunnels beneath the treeless flank of Mount Davidson.
     But silver didn't help the prospector who gave his name to the big bonanza, Henry Thomas Paige Comstock would sell out for a pittance, eventually go broke and finally commit suicide.
    Nevada was left with 575 abandoned mining camps and ghost towns. In "The Silver Kings," the late author Oscar Lewis wrote, "Washoe residents complained that for 20 years the Californians had skimmed the cream off the Comstock and, having made their pile, shook the dust of the silver towns from their boots and hurried westward with never a backward glance. Thus, while the new plutocrats indulged their taste for display by ornamenting San Francisco with a series of massive hotels and office buildings and residences, the bonanza towns received no part of the wealth they produced."
    Too many trainloads of silver and gold overpowered facilities at San Francisco's little mint. By 1870, a cornerstone was laid for a much bigger plant on one acre at Fifth and Mission streets. It was badly needed to handle the boom in precious metals from the Comstock, the deep quartz mines of the Sierra foothills and the hydraulickers who were washing down whole hillsides in California's all-time greatest environmental disaster.

    Designed by Treasury Department architect A.B. Mullett, the Old Mint is described by historian Marcus Whiffen as "one of the last major monuments of the Greek Revival." The bill was $2 million for the three-story building of unreinforced masonry, its 3-foot lower walls faced with Rocklin California granite and its upper walls cladded with heavy blue-gray sandstone. Steel shutters discouraged burglars and bandits.
    The Doric portico sits on six columns of the same special sandstone, which was shipped on schooners from the Nanaimo Collieries on Newcastle Island in British Columbia.  Fourteen marble fireplaces warmed workrooms and offices lined by golden mahogany from Honduras.
    The Chronicle remarked acidly that the Mint had been "finished and furnished, apparently regardless of cost."
     The Coinage Act of 1873 removed "branch" from the official title of a mint that for many years, with an "S" stamped on every coin, was the most productive in the nation. It also became the Fort Knox of the West, storing a third of the nation's gold in its vaults.
    As of 1875, the mint employed 63 women "adjusters" and 104 men, a work force that included a bitter Civil War veteran who would win fame as the 19th century's most acidulous cynic.

  In his "Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce defined "hope" as "desire and expectation rolled into one." He added a bit of verse:

   Delicious Hope! when naught to man it left --
  Of fortune destitute, of friends bereft;
  When even his dog deserts him, and his goat
  With tranquil disaffection chews his coat
  While yet it hangs upon his back; then thou,
  The star far-flaming on thine angel brow,
  Descendest, radiant, from the skies to hint
  The promise of a clerkship in the Mint.

    At the Mint, gold came from the smelter in ingots. Heavy rollers flattened them into oblong strips.  Then came the cutting presses which, like cookie cutters, would chop blanks from the strips. When stamped by dies, blanks were transformed into double eagles and a dozen other coins.
    In 1878, for example, the Mint issued 9.7 million Morgan silver dollars, 4.2  million "trade" dollars, 5.3 million quarters, etc. etc.  (The 1887 $5 gold piece, a "liberty coronet head design" stamped with "S," sells today to collectors for about $150.)
    The Mint was only six years old when the Comstock Lode's big bonanza faded into borrasco, but it continued until 1937 to strike millions of coins. The only interruption came, of course, on an April day in 1906.
     Not until much later did anyone recall the words of the Call when the Mint was dedicated in 1874:  "The Fire Department will have little difficulty quenching any conflagration that may arise within its walls, and unless an earthquake gives it a subterranean quietus, it bids fair to stand for centuries."
    Such words offered little assurance hours after the subterranean quietus of April 18, 1906, when Leach hopped off the Oakland ferry on his way to inspect earthquake damage at the Mint. Superintendent since 1897, the former legislator hurried anxiously  up the superheated gantlet of Market Street, stepping over piles of masonry and shuddering at a body wrapped in a quilt. He didn't mention the irony of the Call's prediction.  The newspaper building was already a tower of flames.
    But the Mint was intact. So far.

    Driven from their shattered homes in what was then a residential district, south of Market refugees had gathered outside the Mint. Daniel Bacon, in "Walking San Francisco," reports what happened next: "As the fire advanced, prostitutes and pimps took refuge on the building's steps, drinking, dancing and fighting in a doomsday bacchanalia."
    The apocalyptic voluptuaries and dancing tosspots were sent to safety by police, who fled the sidewalk themselves as the fire fiend turned the corner onto Fifth Street. The defenders were alone.
    "It did not seem probable," Leach wrote, "that the structure could withstand that terrific mass of flames that was sweeping down upon us from Market Street."
     In a letter to his brother, Mint worker Joe Hammill said, "Fanned by a whirlwind of their own making, the flames leaped 200 feet against the north wall of the mint. The roaring was awful as the great buildings (Hale's, Breuner's, Emma Spreckles, Windsor Hotel) crashed and fell, while the bursting of large pieces from our own walls sounded like shells exploding against our mint."
    The earthquake had damaged 300 water mains, leaving firefighters helplessly watching the town turn into a pyre. The Mint would have been gutted by fire, its great vaults of gold and silver transformed into giant ovens, but for an artesian well in the courtyard and hydrants installed just 10 days before on the roof on the roof.
    To supplement water from the mint's 1-inch hose, workers and artillerymen doused flames on the roof with blue vitriol -- a copper sulphate needed in the minting process. It burned their hands and feet, but they didn't quit slopping the stuff on blazing cinders.
    From an account by ex-reporter Sydney Tyler: "With a roar the tongues of flame licked greedily at the inner walls. Blinding and suffocating smoke necessitated the abandonment of the hose -- and the fighters retreated to the floor below. The roar of the falling walls, the thunder of bursting blocks of stone, the din of crashing glass, swelled to an unearthly diapason."
    The heat was unbearable. Smoke choked the defenders. Red hot cinders touched off fires on the tarred roof and in the courtyard.
    Hammill: "Employees and soldiers stood around the door, nearly strangling, and wondering what chance we would have for our lives if we were driven into the street, where masses of flames bordered either side."
    Leach: "I thought the building was now doomed, beyond question, but to our surprise the smoke soon cleared up and the men, with a cheer, went dashing into the fight again."
    By 5 p.m., it was over. The men walked across the hot cobblestones of Fifth Street into a scene Leach described as "utter ruin, desolation and loneliness." The city's banks were rubble, their  vaults too hot to be opened for several days. But the brave men of the Mint had saved $200 million in silver and gold from the same fate. Within two weeks, the Mint dispensed $40 million in desperately needed money.
    Leach said that when he returned the next day, he was thrilled to see Old Glory floating from an improvised pole at the gable. The original staff had vanished in flame.
    "The waving flag," he said, "confirmed our victory over the fire demon in the contest the day before, and proclaimed a haven of some comfort for all who could gather under its folds . . . "

  Frank Leach's searing account is online at; Joe Hammill's at This story is a longer version of a piece that appeared Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003, in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Retreat from Kabul: It's a  lesson unremembered

By Lynn Ludlow

All in the Valley of Death rode the 16,000. Marched. Crawled. Froze. And died.

When British history's worst military catastrophe ended in January 1842 in Afghanistan's Khoord-Kabul Pass, only one man -- a wounded surgeon on a lame pony -- managed to reach the Kabuli Gate in Jalalabad.

The Army of the Indus became a hill of bones.

And then the cover-up began.

This is probably a good time for Americans to read up on the many reasons why Afghanistan, so famous in the past for hospitality toward travelers and "honored guests," is so hard on its conquerors. Alexander the Great spent two years (326-325 B.C.) trying to quell revolts in his newest acquisition, but left little more than a city with his Afghan name, Kandahar.

Wave after wave of foreign armies found it's a lot easier to invade Afghanistan than to govern its warrior tribes in a jagged landscape ideally suited for guerrilla war.

If it hadn't been kept quiet, the instructive story of the First Anglo- Afghan War (1838-42) might have spared another generation of redcoat colonizers the further humiliation of the Battle of Maiwand. In 1880 in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, an Anglo-Indian force of 2,500 lost 1,000 dead and fled from a rebel army of about 25,000 fearless, howling irregulars.

As a result, Afghanistan remained more or less independent until invaded in 1979 by Soviet forces. That takeover gave rise to the Taliban and a decade of guerrilla war that took the lives of more than a million Afghans until the Soviets, with 14,500 dead and half a million casualties, pulled out of a devastated nation in 1989.

The Soviet experience just goes to show that the lessons of history don't do much good if suppressed and forgotten. The retreat from Kabul in 1842 was shushed for 12 years by the British government. Not until 1854 did an official inquiry provide the public with the full story of imperial arrogance, rebel ferocity, treacherous ambushes and the role of Maj. Gen. William G.K. Elphinstone, a commander armed with what one writer calls "the leadership qualities of a sheep."

Even then the ghastly revelations were muted amid patriotic uproar that year over a comparatively minor rout in yet another British adventure, the Crimean War. Although a superb demonstration of military idiocy, the event was glorified in heroic verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

". . . Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. All in the valley of Death, rode the six hundred."

Compare that with how Rudyard Kipling, in "Barracks Room Ballads" (1892), recalls the Battle of Maiwand:

When you're wounded and left
   on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut
   up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow
  out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a

Tennyson's more famous poem brought lasting fame to the blundering charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, which cost more than 100 lives. Strangely, the 16,000 dead rate no more than a paragraph in the encyclopedia and not a single stanza of poetry. Except, of course, in Afghanistan.

The episode began in 1838 when British India's governor general worried that Russia's growing influence in Afghanistan might someday threaten Britain's extraction of treasure from India. He dispatched to Kabul the Army of the Indus which, after a long march and several battles, installed a puppet on the throne. The redcoats and the Indian soldiers known as sepoys settled down to a languid garrison life of cricket, polo and the cuckolding of Afghan husbands. Each officer was entitled to 10 servants; each soldier, two. But in late 1841, fury with the puppet shah inspired murderous riots and an uncontrollable uprising. In January, Elphinstone ordered a 90-mile retreat through the snowy passes to Jalalabad.

With promises of safe conduct, the march began with about 3,800 Indian soldiers, 700 Britishers (400 soldiers of the 44th Foot, about 100 cavalrymen, various officers and a few families), 3,800 Indian soldiers and 11,000 to 12, 000 servants, cooks, water carriers, grooms, blacksmiths, families of the fighting men and prostitutes.

The promises weren't kept. The columns were ambushed with deadly fire from the cliffs above. Baggage trains were looted. Stragglers were killed, stripped and mutilated. Thousands of soldiers and civilians perished in the cold. The rest were shot or stabbed to death.

Nine children, eight women, three officers and the general were taken as hostages. When he died in captivity, Elphinstone was spared a court martial. The rest were rescued months later.

Thirty-six years after the slaughter, when the Rev. Arthur Male visited the passes in 1878, a guide showed him where the redcoats and sepoys made a last stand.

"The summit of the hill was of fairly large extent," he wrote, "but as I came nearer the middle, I saw that there the surface seemed strangely white. What could it be? I hurried forward, and to my horror there I saw gathered together in a great heap the skeleton bones of that heroic band."

Sixty-five soldiers on foot and 14 men on horseback had somehow managed to escape the passes. All but one were tracked down, surrounded and killed.

On Jan. 13, seven days after the columns left Kabul, a sentry on the walls of Jalalabad looked out on the barren plain and spotted a badly wounded man on a pony. He was Dr. William Brydon, an assistant regimental surgeon and, except for the hostages, sole survivor of the 16,000 men, women and children who left Kabul.

An imaginative version of Brydon's escape was later painted by Lady Elizabeth Butler, entitled "The Remnants of an Army" and presented to the Tate Gallery in London. It's a forgotten reminder of an unlearned lesson.


This story appeared Oct. 28, 2001, in the Insight section of the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Live not on evil

Mary Belle Byram interviews Gov. Palin at the Wasilla airport. 


BYRAM: Thank you, Governor Palin, for taking a few moments of your time here in the Wasilla airport now renamed, of course, the Palindrome.  What was your reaction to the election?

PALIN: Did I do, O God, did I as I said I'd do? Good, I did.

Q: Could you summarize in three words the attitude of Senator Biden?

A: “Harrass selfless Sarah!”

Q: What did you whisper to him?

A: Go home, Demo hog.

Q. Where is home?

A: Apollo, Pa.?

Q. If you left Wasilla, where would you go in Alaska?

A. Kanakanak.

Q. Do you agree with his plan for bipartisan policies?

A: No, it is opposition.

Q. Do you support the surge in Iraq?

A. No, I save on final perusal, a sure plan if no evasion.

Q.  And if the plan succeeds?

A. Now, sir, a war is won.

Q. What then?

A. Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?

Q. What should Barack do?

A. Do go to God.

Q. What would you say to Michelle Obama?

A. “Madame, not one man is selfless. I name not one, Madam.”

Q. I’d offer you a ride into Wasilla, Governor, but I don't have a limo.

A. A Toyota’s a Toyota.

Q. Dan Rather says hello.

A. Poor Dan is in a droop.

Q. You seem upset with the media.

A. Dammit, I’m mad.

Q. How mad?

A. Too hot to hoot.

                    Lynn Ludlow

All palindromes have been cribbed. No verbs were hurt in producing this article for The Tardy Times.

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