The Big Game Disaster of 1900

MOSTLY FORGOTTEN: A single grave site in the Holy Cross cemetery is a rare marker of those who died. Photo: Tamer Shabani

For the fans packing San Francisco's Recreation Park on Thanksgiving Day in 1897, any suspense in the "annual struggle" between Stanford and California had quickly evaporated. By halftime, the Cardinal led by 16, more points than its rivals had yet mustered in any of the teams' six previous encounters. A rout was on.

But for contractor J.C. Weir, the tension was only building. Hired to construct the stands for the game, Weir was alarmed by what he saw—some 15,000 fans jammed in an area he guessed was fit for no more than 10,000. Worse, throngs of freeloaders, mostly boys, had dodged overwhelmed police to clamber over the outside fence to the eaves above.

An early ticket for the ninth Big Game with the date set for Thursday, November 29th. There are prices listed for day and round trips to the game area. Photo: University ArchivesWeir knew their perches were precarious—the roofs were flimsy coverings built to keep out rain. But his warnings to students he assumed were in charge, then to the spectators themselves, went unheeded, he'd later claim.

The game's final whistle promised an end to the anxiety. Instead, with seconds left, the grounds exploded in chaos. A section of roofing over the grandstands collapsed under scores of gawkers.

Panicked spectators covered the field while others toppled fences and barricades in a rush to pull jagged beams off trapped fans, some of whom were unconscious and bleeding. Rumors of fatalities rippled through the crowd. Yet to general amazement only one victim, a 10-year-old boy flung from the roof, even went to the hospital. "That many people were not killed or maimed for life is simply miraculous," one witness, left stunned by a falling timber that bloodied his wife, told the Examiner.

Two images. The first shows the glassworks factory behind the stadium. The second zooms onto the glassworks factory where people are piled densely on top.DEATH WATCH: Hundreds crowded onto the glassworks factory after the stands filled. (Photos: The Quad (top); Jonn E. Hare/San Francisco Examiner)

But "providential chance," as the weekly Argonaut termed the good luck, soon proved fickle. In 1900, the same factors that conspired in the near-miss disaster three years earlier—an overflow crowd at Big Game, eager, unsupervised kids and unprepared authorities—again combined for a Thanksgiving Day debacle. And this time the carnage would stagger belief—more than 20 dead, most of them children, some perishing in grisly, horrible ways. "A veritable hell of anguish," one reporter wrote.

"It was perhaps the most horrifying accident that ever happened in San Francisco," the front page of the Call newspaper declared the next day as the city woke to the extent of the catastrophe.

With the dawn of the 20th century, the big game was just starting to become the "Big Game," but the contest had never been small. The first encounter in March 1892 was an amateurish affair delayed half an hour because team managers, including Herbert Hoover, forgot to bring a ball. But if the future U.S. president felt any embarrassment about the oversight, he soon had reasons to feel good: an unlikely Stanford victory and a mountain of cash.

So many people showed up, thousands more than expected, that coins spilled onto the floor behind the entrances. Hoover and the Cal manager sat up most of the night counting grain bags of gold and silver. "I had never seen $30,000 before," Hoover wrote in his memoirs.

The game only grew from that point. In 1898, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan upped the ante, offering a bronzed statue of two football players to the winning team in two of the next three showdowns. Embarrassingly winless to that point, Cal responded with a pair of crushing victories, claiming the trophy—the first permanent piece of outdoor art on its campus—and adding a much-needed element to the budding rivalry: real competition.

With stories of revenge and redemption in the background, the 1900 game—the 10th meeting between the sides, thanks to two games the first year—was being hyped as the largest yet. The estimated crowd of 19,000 was hailed as the largest attendance for a sporting event west of the Mississippi. "Hardly a city or hamlet for miles around . . . did not send a delegation to view the heroic combat," the Examiner wrote on game day. In the days before Thanksgiving, the playing field at 16th and Folsom streets rang out with hammers and saws as workers rushed to build bleachers.

The 1900 game also marked the end of an era. Since its beginning, the Stanford-Cal encounter had been played in San Francisco, and for most of that span, on Thanksgiving. In future years, it was slated to alternate at the campuses of the two schools and be played earlier in the fall to avoid the holiday.

The final Thanksgiving game in San Francisco was to be held in the heart of the Mission District, then a largely working-class neighborhood dense with Irish and German families, and home to a new industrial site, the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works, which loomed over the field's north side. It was soon to be the largest such plant west of Chicago, employing some 750 people.

The furnace at the factory—a massive, enclosed brick structure—had been stoked for more than a week to reach 3,000 degrees ahead of the formal beginning of operations the coming Monday. Inside its white-hot walls, 15 tons of molten glass seethed, tended by a skeleton crew.

A map showing where the victims of the accident lived. Most are in the age range 10-30 years and live a few streets down. A GRIM ROSTER: Most of the victims were children who lived a short walk from the playing field. (Map illustration: Jay Smith)

Next door, the stands started to fill around 10:30 a.m., four hours before kickoff.  Rain had given way to a glorious fall day, and fans streamed in via train, boat and carriage. In the standing room only section, fans crammed together, filling every nook and gap.

Many of the Cal fans bore hats inscribed with the score of the previous year's shellacking: 30 to 0. Stanford rooters wore Cardinal tam-o'-shanters: "the rich red color of life gleamed from top to bottom of the high bleachers," according to an account in the Call. The bands tried to drown each other out. "Leather-lunged" fans screamed chants.

But for those unwilling or unable to pay $1 for a ticket, the rush was on to find another way to see the spectacle. Herman Guehring, an 11-year-old student at Mission Grammar School, tried scrambling under a fence into the grounds but was chased away. Then he climbed a water tower at 14th and Folsom, but the view was obstructed. And so finally he joined the swarm pushing into the most obvious vantage point, the glassworks building.

The plant's superintendent, James Davis, had been warned of the risk. Henry Taylor, the treasurer of the Associated Students of Stanford University, told reporters that organizers had provided Davis six complimentary tickets to the game in exchange for keeping people off the roof.

But Davis was a star-crossed man. He'd been in the papers earlier in the year after getting thrashed by a glassblower whose work he had criticized.  And he either badly misjudged the size of the challenge or the probity of his employees. Some would later claim his specially hired watchmen had offered admission to the roof for a fee. Either way, the surge into the factory grounds was soon out of anyone's control.

"There was a watchman there," Guehring recalled seven decades later in an article written by William Briggs, '68, his great-nephew. "But it was like trying to turn back the waves at the beach. The kids kept pouring through the fence anxious to see the kickoff."

In no time, the roof was black with spectators, some 400 by one count, a good number of them on the glassworks' ventilator, a section of corrugated iron roofing about 72 feet long and 8 feet wide that let the furnace heat escape. The view went from one end of the field to the other.

The flimsy structure had been built to bear no weight but its own. A few were quick to recognize the danger and descend, while others tried to escape but were trapped by the crowd. "All of us were laughing and jesting and some of the fellows said if this thing breaks, we'll all go down together," one of the men on the roof recalled.

As the game began, frustrated factory officials struggled to get help. Davis and his employees claimed they called police headquarters but were transferred to the Mission substation, where an officer told them to speak to the lieutenant at the game. But when they tried to reach him, policemen at the gate denied them entrance. With only 60 officers assigned to the game—40 inside the stadium, 20 outside—it's not clear how much they could have done anyway.

Twenty minutes after kickoff, the crowd was tense as Cal made its first foray deep into Stanford territory. Then a crash from the field's north side brought play to a halt. The roof of the glassworks had collapsed like a gallows' trap. Necks craned. Players stood out. No one could see exactly what had happened. Then, by one account, a Berkeley fan, fearing a Stanford diversion, yelled, "It's a job," and all eyes returned to the ball. The game continued as if nothing had happened, the bands and cheers overwhelming the screams next door.

The first men to realize the full scope of the horror had nearly been victims themselves. Charles Yotz, an oven man at the factory, had been raking the fire when bodies began raining down, narrowly missing him. He tried to remove those who had fallen on top of the furnace with a giant poker while his partner, Clarence Jeter, ran to turn off the oil feeding the blaze inside. Officials later estimated the surface temperature of the furnace at 500 degrees.

"It was a horrible experience standing there beside a hellpot and seeing human beings roast to death," Jeter told the Examiner. "We did the best we could."

Some were lucky to grasp rafters, holding on for life as death massed below. "Bodies were falling like hail," one man said. "As I clung there I saw the poor fellow who had been chatting with me strike the furnace. He curled up like a worm in that heat."

A small blessing, the furnace was on the far side of the building away from the field, and most of the spectators had been crowded to the other side. But a 50-foot drop to the floor could kill just the same, especially for those pummeled by others falling on them.

Rescuers were staggered by what they found. Bodies scattered about, the desperate moans of the injured, an inescapable smell of burning clothing and roasted flesh. It first seemed as if hundreds must be dead. "The sight was awful," said a fireman who'd been on the roof but escaped the fall. "We knew not which way to turn or what to do."

Practically every phone in the neighborhood was calling for help, and anything with wheels, from wagons to butcher carts, was commandeered to rush the wounded and dying to city hospitals, which were frantically trying to summon doctors back from Thanksgiving dinner.

None of this made much of a difference to the game. Those in the high bleachers could see the flurry of ambulances outside and some could hear police and ushers appeal to the stands for doctors. But with no real way to communicate through the noise, hard information was apparently slow to spread through the crowd and never reached the field.

The game was settled in the final minutes by a single score—the first successful field goal in the history of the Big Game. At the final whistle, hundreds of Stanford fans surged onto the field, carrying the star players on their shoulders and beginning a parade down Market Street to the Palace Hotel.

Elsewhere, as if in another world, panicked crowds were besieging the city's hospitals. Police blockaded doors to the Southern Pacific Hospital at nearby 14th and Mission streets to keep out the crush. The scenes within looked like something from a battlefield. "Little boys in knee breeches were laid on the floor all along the length of the hall, some writhing with pains and calling for father and mother," reported the Call.

A similar frenzy took place outside the morgue as coroner's deputies began to deliver bodies, some on makeshift stretchers made from fragments of the destroyed roof. The influx forced officials to open the city's new morgue, still under construction.

One of the first victims named was 12-year-old William Eckfeldt, whose weeping father recognized his disfigured body by his socks. Then came 17-year-old William Valencia, whose grandfather was the namesake of nearby Valencia Street. Edgar Flahavan, a classmate of Guehring at Mission Grammar School, died in an ambulance.

While the tragedy claimed victims with a range of ages—the oldest, Mekke Van Dyk, was a 46-year-old miner—most were boys and young men. The youngest, Lawrence Miel, had turned 9 only a month earlier. Most of them lived within walking distance of the grounds. (See map.)

Thirteen were declared dead that day and scores were hospitalized, with further fatalities rolling in. The closest connection to Stanford was 17-year-old Peter Carroll, critically injured but clinging to life, whose younger brother Jimmie had been adopted as Stanford's mascot. A short story by a Stanford grad based on Jimmie describes his character as a "tiny, ragged boy" who meets the team selling carnations.

A grainy illustration showing men in suits looking over the bodies leftover from the crash. A security guard watches over them.Illustration: Christopher Thornock

The gap between the local and college crowds was evident in the celebrations. Throngs of college kids from Stanford and Berkeley promenaded up and down Market Street that night, though there was a hush to their normal revelry as newsboys cried out the latest figures of the dead and wounded. "Occasionally the buoyant youth . . . broke out into a yell or attempted some bit of hilarity through a megaphone," the Examiner wrote. "But the crowd never broke into demonstration."

The city plunged into mourning. Anyone returning from a trip instantly knew something bad had happened from the expression on people's faces, one paper wrote. The first to be buried was Hector McNeill, 14, the only son of his recently widowed mother, who'd given him money to see the game. He was a night school student who worked at a dry goods store. Then on Sunday came the public peak of sorrow—nine victims buried in a flurry of funerals that literally ran into one another.

"From 9 o'clock in the morning until four in the afternoon, there was no time at which the funeral procession of some one of the young victims of the catastrophe might not be seen making its way toward the cemetery," the Call wrote.

The disaster appeared on the front page of the New York Times and dominated local papers, though to modern eyes the coverage was bizarrely bifurcated. On page one, the papers covered the blood and horror; on the sports page were typical game stories. The Chronicle called it the "closest and most exciting game of football ever played by the elevens of the two California universities." Certainly no one asked the coaches or players for their thoughts on the tragedy.

The student newspapers took an even stranger tack. Writing about the game for the following Monday because of the holiday weekend, the Stanford Daily featured a 1,500-word front-page story about the victory without so much as a word about the disaster 200 feet away. (The Cal paper reacted in similar fashion.) Indeed, the only reference to the tragedy was a brief item a week later about rumors of a Christmas Day rematch to raise money for affected families, a game that never happened.

Likewise, months later, the Stanford yearbook exalted in the victory as "the most ecstatic moment of the year to the lover of athletics," as if there were no dark side looming over the joy.

The Sequoia, the literary journal, appears to be the only student publication at Stanford to address the tragedy, running a short story called "The Passing of Billy," a cartoonishly drawn "San Francisco gamin," who smoked, swore and occasionally conned people, and who had been swayed to support Stanford that morning after a Stanford man bought a newspaper from him.  His last words, in front of his sobbing mother: "Hurrah for Stanford."

But even San Francisco would soon move on. The city had quickly convened a grand jury to assign blame for the disaster. Davis insisted his men had done everything possible to keep out the crowd and denied testimony that his workers had offered entrance to the roof for a fee. The jury seemed ready to hang the disaster on police incompetence. "It is very strange that the police officials did not detail enough men to the football game to keep people from crowding dangerous places," one juror said.

But the Chronicle had called it days earlier—the court proceeding was mostly theater: "It is not believed that blame will be fastened upon anyone by the jury, which will be content with rendering a perfunctory verdict."

A block of text which reads: "More than a century after it happened, the catastrophe remains the deadliest sporting disaster in American history, yet one almost utterly forgotten.

Just seven days after the disaster, and four days after Fred Lilly, the 21-year-old son of a wealthy New York merchant, became the 22nd fatality, the jury placed the blame on the dead. "[T]he deceased had no business being there," it declared in a story the Chronicle relegated to page 14. "No one can be held responsible for their deaths other than themselves."

There was scarcely a whimper of protest. The story was all but over, even as the dying wasn't. More than three years later, 28-year-old Thomas Pedler, who'd endured spinal surgery, paralysis and the amputation of both legs and had been repeatedly written off as dead, finally succumbed. "Another was added to the long list of victims of the Thanksgiving day horror of three years ago," the Chronicle wrote in a short piece. His death brought the total dead to 23—the number of maimed is a harder figure to find.

More than a century after it happened, the catastrophe remains the deadliest sporting disaster in American history, yet one almost utterly forgotten in the histories of Cal, Stanford and San Francisco. Unlike the 1898 and 1899 Big Games, there's no statue to the 1900 contest. There is no plaque at the site, now a University of California San Francisco building. You can barely find mention of the event in local history books.

Jim Rutter, '86, Stanford's volunteer sports archivist, exemplifies how thoroughly its memory was forgotten. Not only did Rutter grow up obsessed with Stanford football, he has deep roots on both sides of the Big Game—one great-grandfather graduated from UC-Berkeley in 1900, another from Stanford's pioneer class in 1895.

And yet he heard of the 1900 disaster only a few years ago, doubting at first something so incredible could be true. "I originally thought it must be apocryphal," he says. "I was shocked I'd never heard it before. That story never made it to our family history whatsoever."

Steven Finacom, a Berkeley community historian, says he's wondered why such a horrific event figures so little in Cal history. Perhaps Cal, like Stanford, realized it wasn't to its glory to emphasize such a disaster for posterity. But it's also likely that amid the commonplace disasters in late-19th century life—from shipwrecks to mine accidents to powder mill explosions—even 23 dead at a sporting event might be a momentary shock but soon feel like just another in a long string of deadly mishaps.

It's even hard to find graves. Many of the 23 victims were placed in San Francisco cemeteries that were soon abandoned due to regulations to rid the city of graveyards. And even those like Pedler and Valencia, whose bodies were placed in Holy Cross Catholic cemetery south of the city, have no headstones; their families likely couldn't afford them.

But in section G, row 20 at Holy Cross, there is a rare connection to that awful day 115 years ago—a small stone cross intended only as a temporary marker. Time has worn away its writing, but in the right light you can make out a first initial and last name for Cornelius McMahon. The papers don't say much about him beyond the thing that perhaps most makes him an apt representative for the devastation. He was 12 years old.

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford.