Was The Shingle King Murdered? Part V

[This is part Five of a story about Purdy Pharis, who became famous as the Coastside’s “Shingle King”–and whose cause of death is debated to this day. In Part IV, we ended with the successful Purdy Pharis surviving hard luck including an economic depression. For more details, read Parts I – IV)

…Then, natural disaster struck in 1890.

Farmers paid little heed to warnings and continued to burn straw piles and brush. Then one day, carelessness ignited a blaze. Whipping winds spread the fire–and soon it was out of control, heading in the direction of the Purisima. To fight the conflagration, the saw mill owners banded together, summoning all available woodchoppers and other crew members.

But the rush of hot flames moved too quickly, threatening both Purdy Pharis’ shingle mill and Borden & Hatch’s lumber mill.

When the fire was finally out, the mill owners stood among the embers of financial ruin. All that remained were charred redwood logs. Purdy Pharis’ mill sustained serious damage and the fire gutted the Borden & Hatch Mill–but both mills would be restored.

Four years later in 1884, friends of Purdy Pharis reported that the “Shingle King” was acting out of character. He began to believe that people talked about him behind his back and were against him. Some blamed his solitary existence, pointing out that Purdy spent too much time alone on his 6,500 acre ranch.

Neighbor Hiram Haskins became so concerned, according to “Sawmills in the Redwoods,” that he summoned Dr. Tripp, the dentist who could be found at the historic Woodside Store, Tripp talked to Purdy and urged him to see a physician in Redwood City–but the independently-minded Purdy Pharis would have none of it.

…To Be Continued…

Old Moss Beach Schoolhouse

Old Moss Beach School House.jpgPhoto: Don Torre

(please click on photo to enlarge)

From the archives of the San Mateo County History Museum [filed under Margaret Kyne] located in the Redwood City Courthouse.

“… In 1890 a new one-room school was built in Sunshine Valley, which is now the home of Anthony Torre, and continued to be until 1910 when the present school was built. In those days attendeance was just as great as it is now with 45 to 50 in attendance.

Was The Shingle King Murdered? Part IV

The Shingle King lived off Starr Hill Road on the rim of the Corte Madera Canyon. To the west the rustic house featured spectacular far-off views of the Pacific Ocean–and to the northeast, glimpses of San Francisco.

Purdy Pharis’ friends, Hiram Haskins and Emanuel Stevens, lived nearby. Little is known about Stevens but HIram Haskins had been a stage driver in Arizona. He was not particularly well liked by his neighbors on the mountain. They regarded him a gruff and unrily “hermit” but Purdy Pharis liked him.

Purdy’s shingle business grew and he prospered, according to retired County Sheriff John G. Edmonds, author of “Union Cemetery, Redwood City,” the site where the “Shingle King” lies buried. He eventually produced 3 million shingles, writes Edmonds and was a respected employer with a national reputation.

Purdy Pharis was highly regarded–but the Borden & Hatch lumber mill gained even greater fame, becoming a household name–especially after the Spring Valley Water Company awarded the mill a lucrative contract in the 1870s.

Spring Valley’s contract required Borden & Hatch to deliver a 9-mile flume created from the strongest and most durable wood. The device had to be of first quality, as it carried the water from the upper levels of Montara Mountain. The mill owners did their job well. They cut the very best trees in the Purisima, and the flume endured for two decades.

But after the contract–when the prosperity and the heady feeling it produced had passed–things got very quiet in the Purisima. The lumber was depleted and the hard times hit, fueled by a general economic depression.

Then, natural disaster struck in 1880.

…To Be Continued…

Bits of News From The Coastside Comet, February 4, 1916

comet.jpgPhoto: Coastside Comet office

Captain Hank Westfeldt–former deep sea fisherman, contracted with A. Cabari of the Princeton Inn to establish a steam launch at Princeton for tourists and fishing parties. Charges will be $1 with free bait.

[Note: Pete Douglas used to talk about the Westfeldt family and their antics–I almost didn’t believe they existed, but here is proof in the form of Captain Westfeldt).

D. Dianda of Granada – leased foothill property north of Granada

Ocean Shore Auto Stage Co.

J.M. Phillip of Granada is to build bathhouse near the Patroni House. Besides renting bathing suits, will stock notions, etc.

D. Pozzie, “artichoke king” of Montara.

Antone Gillis, 65, died in Miramar last Friday morning. Ran a grocery store last several years.

I Drive To Bonny Doon


Did I tell you Burt and I drove through Bonny Doon a couple of weeks ago, you know, where they make the delicious wine?

I hadn’t been there in many years and what stuck in my mind was apple trees, lots of apple trees but I didn’t find them. What I did find was a magical ride through light and dark (lots of dark because the redwoods are thick and mood-provoking here–which made me think of living in a small cabin and having to keep the lights on all day and the fire going which made me feel very cozy–and I wanted to stay but I was driving the car and there was no time to gather wood).

These days there aren’t many places where you can experience light and dark, dark and light, over and over, because so many of the trees that create the dark effect have been removed from the landscape. That means a lot of folks will never know that special feeling–and driving on a two-lane road with twists and turns and a heavy growth of redwoods, does awaken sleeping emotions and feelings.

When I think of Bonny Doon, I feel like it belongs to San Mateo County–but, you know, it doesn’t–it’s part of Santa Cruz County. It’s a secret kind of place…should I feel guilty talking about it? Secret because I didn’t see the turn off sign until I was upon it.

Here’s what I wanted to tell you before I forget: Did you know that the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and his wife Virginia lived in Bonny Doon? Maybe you know that Heinlein was the author of “Stranger in a Strange Land”. 1962 Hugo award winner.It was about a Martian who founded a religious movement on earth.


In the 1990s I was sitting in a dentist’s chair in San Mateo. Anaesthetic was being administered and as I was drifting away my dentist came to talk with me. He brought up Robert Heinlein, commenting that he had been a dear friend. (Heinlein died in Carmel in 1988 at age 80) My dentist then revealed that he often visited the Heinleins at Bonny Doon–my dentist knew a lot about the latest equipment, techniques and materials used in denistry, a field that has been changing rapidly, maybe more than any other medical field.

Anyway Heinlein was fascinated with the new materials being invented. Small, light, incredible things……

That was fascinating, I thought but then he added something more provactive, he said that the Heinleins were always naked when at home. They were probably living their writing, I thought as the anaesthetic put me into a gentle sleep.

You can’t I say I don’t tell you everything….

Favorite Commercials

I love these tv commercials, maybe you do, too. One of the reasons is the very cool music that accompanies

1. The Caveman Geico ad, the one where he’s on the moving “sidewalk” at the airport. Song is “Remind Me”, Royksopp

2. Horizon, “Watch me work, work, work…” There aren’t many words in this song but the words that give context have been edited out and those words are something like “Come to my bedroom. Watch me work, work….” “Sexy Results” Death From Above 1979 (MSTRKRFT Edition)

3. Sizzling Hot Cadillac commercial, “Punkrocker” featuring Iggy Pop, Teddybears, Soft Machine.

All at iTunes.

Let’s face it: Today’s American art can’t be appreciated in museums. It’s on tv, it’s the commercials, that’s where the state of American art is. And the music revolution has added a new dimension to them.

Was The Shingle King Murdered? Part III

Hatchmen.jpgHatch’s Mill, circa 1910. Photo: Ken Fisher

“The Purisima” (pardon me for spelling two different ways: Purissima, now Purisima) is located south of Half Moon Bay and west of present day tree-lined Skyline Blvd near somewhat remote Kings Mountain.

Purdy Pharis’s mill stood in the middle of nowhere and the frustration of moving large bundles of shingles to market quickly led to experimentation. After a while Purdy sought the services of an outside engineer who built a mile-long tramway and cable, with a lift of 1,000 feet, which transported hundreds of shingles from the depths of the beautiful canyon to the breathtaking mountaintop. But serious accidents put an abrupt end to the experiment.

Purdy wasn’t working alone in the Purisima. Besides his tough crew, in the immediate vicinity stood the famous George Borden and Rufus Hatch lumber mill. South of the top of Kings Mountain stood “Grabtown”–a temporary “village” and resting place for tired loggers moving wood from the dark green canyons to the busy port of Redwood City. To the west in the direction of the Pacific Ocean, where the forest abruptly ended, farmer Henry Dobbel was busy planting rows of potatoes that would be shipped to San Francisco.

After handling hundreds of thousands of shingles, Purdy Pharis was crowned the “Shingle King.”

But apparently the notoriety didn’t spoil him. When Purdy’s employees tried to demonstrate their esteem for him by shining his dirty boots, according to “Sawmills in the Redwoods,” Pharis seemed embarassed and looked for the nearest dust piles to dirty them once again.

…To Be Continued….

Was The Shingle King Murdered? Part II

It was the fall of 1853, and the stunning madrone trees’ berries were turning red when Purdy Pharis first set foot on Kings Mountain.

According to legend, he lost his way hiking in the trail-less forest. After wandering about all night, Purdy stumbled into a camp at sunrise and met a friendly fellow who was busily making shingles with a saw and axe. He was producing them from the redwood scraps left behind by the loggers–leftovers the lumbermen considered worthless.

The encounter led Purdy to conclude that a single person could handle the shingle business–in stark contrast to the lumber mill owners who had to hire different crews for each step, from the loggint to the finished lumber. Most enticing about shingle-making ws that not only could one person produce them, one person could carry them out of the isolated canyon riding a pack horse. By contrast, lumber mill owners had their hands full maneuvering the huge logs from the forest to market.

The book, “Sawmills in the Redwoods”, published by the San Mateo County History Museum in 1967, tells the story of the men who occupied the Peninsula’s redwood forest in those early years. Author Dr. Frank M. Stanger demonstrated how one man easily could manage the shingle business. In the book, he described how Purdy Pharis could have helped himself to a tree, chopped it down, sawed it into a shingle or shake-length blocks, and finally split the blocks into finished shingles or shakes.

After meeting that man in the logging camp, according to local lore, Purdy Pharis went into the shingle business for himself. He started on a small scale but when outside demand increased, Purdy expanded by establishing a shingle mill, with bunk and cookhouse in the beautiful and isolated, deep and narrow Purissima Canyon.

…To be continued…

Was The Shingle King Murdered? Part I

In 1884 a coroner’s jury determined that Sheldon Purdy Pharis had taen his own life at his Kings Mountain home–but some friends and neighbors remained skeptical, suspecting that the 55-year-old “Shingle King” actually might have been murdered.

At the time of his death, Purdy Pharis was a well-respected mill owner who had resided in the San Mateo County redwoods for more than three decades. He was a lifelong bachelor,a solitary fellow who loved the outdoors.

Purdy Pharis was 25 when he made the trek from his native New York to California in 1853, via the Isthmus of Panama. There was the mandatory short stint in the gold fields but Purdy never mined a nugget–the majestic redwoods south of San Francisco would shape his future.

A different kind of “gold rush” was taking place in the “City by the Bay”. There was an insatiable appetite for lumber to build houses, stores, hospitals and more.

The lumber was in a beautiful but remote forest of redwood trees on the Peninsula, next door to San Francisco. (Redwood, a treasured wood, is soft, resistant to rot and insects, and easy to work with).

A few lumber mills already had appeared, but getting the lumber out of the deep, narrow canyons was a monumental challenge–and the man who solved that problem could make a fortune.

…To be continued…