1918 Flu On the Coastside: Part II

At the end of World War I– between the fall of 1918 and the early 1920s– an influenza pandemic was stealing millions and millions of lives all over the world. It was a contagious, ruthless flu that preferred to take the breath away from adults in the prime of life–but in the end everybody was at risk.

The Coastside was isolated and that’s why folks from the surrounding areas thought they could escaqpe falling ill here. Entire families rented cute Ocean Shore Railroad era cottages that San Franciscans had built as second homes or to commute to the City from.

The pandemic hit the Coastside in mid-September 1918. The killer virus struck locals who, through their work and social status, had contact with many more people. Harry Nelson, the postman fell ill so did Father J. Sorasio.

Here were the reported symptoms,typical of the average flu: First fever, headaches and backaches. Bed rest and plenty of liquids was recommended but this time the prescription failed.

If you read Alfred Crosby’s book, “The Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918”, he writes that death came quickly for many victims, with autopsies showing blue, swollen lungs filled with a thin, bloody fluid.

One of my favorites:

People were terrified. They suspected coughs and sneezes were passing the virus. San Francisco enacted legislation requiring everybody to wear a mask when in public.

I’m sure there was great sadness down at Pigeon Point, south of Pescadero, when the two young sisters Emma and Clara Steele fell ill and never recovered to live out the rest of their lives. As the flu spread its blanket of doom and gloom, Half Moon Bay closed schools and set up “hospitals” inside private homes. But nurses and doctors were scarce as they had too many patients to care for and caught the flu themselves.

Clara (second from left} and Emma Steele, reclining, young Coastsiders who fell victim to the flu in 1918. Photo courtesy Mrs. Stanley Steele

Musical Interlude

I love all kinds of music, opera, classical, pop, folk, jazz, electronic, etc. but if you love rock and want to go back to your 60s roots, I highly recommend the Swedish group’s latest release, “dungen ta det lugnt”. I dont’ care that it’s sung in Swedish, I get it, and the Jimi Hendrixish electric and accoustic guitars make me want to be a rock ‘n roll star all over again.

This is music that changes from an almost symphonic construction to raging, terrific rock. Sometimes they have a wonderful Beatle-ish sound, very sweet, and then they can get very tough. Very classy.

Swedish rockers Dugen’s “ta det lugnt”

The end of the 4th track is just amazing. The whole work, which I see as a kind of “rock” opera because of the theme repetition brings back shades of many of the greats from the 60s, but, oh, so much better.

1918 Flu On the Coastside: Part I

There’s lots of talk these days about two “hot” and scary topics: an earthquake that turns San Francisco into the “temporary city” and a super-flu that makes the 1918 pandemic look like the common cold. And there are many books to choose from about these horrific possibilities, among the latest “A Crack in the Edge of the Earth:America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906” by Simon Winchester (about the freakishness of geology that I’m currently devouring) and “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” by John M. Barry which I will read next.

In these strange times echoing with uncertainty on all sides, these non-fiction books seem like good old Stephen Kingish horror stories.

Many years ago I had already read “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918” by Alfred Crosby which I highly recommend. In addition I read author Katherine Anne Porter’s personal account of how she survived the 1918 pandemic in her short story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. Ms. Porter was in such fear that she wouldn’t allow herself to drift off into sleep–she had convinced herself she wouldn’t wake up if she closed her eyes.

Figures on deaths worldwide from this fast-moving flu have increased from what I initially read was about 22 million to 50 to 100 million. And now there are reports that the flu was a bird flu.

The San Mateo County Coastside, reeling from the failure of the Ocean Shore Railroad to open up this isolated, gorgeous stretch of artichokes and lonely beaches, became a health- haven for San Franciscans fleeing the deadly influenza in 1918. But the Coastside didn’t escape the flu–the community, widely spread between farms, bungalos serving as vacation homes for railroad commuters, and a couple of tiny agricultural towns, didn’t escape the deaths and because of the close-knitness of the people, these losses were keenly felt.

In 1918 ( just as in 1906 when some earthquake- fearing city folks, fled to the Coastside where they hoped the ground wouldn’t shake beneath their feet) entire families sought safety on the Coastside. Hard-to-rent Ocean Shore RR-era cottages became homes again in a previously lackluster real estate market.

The Coastside was sparsely populated, thought to be a perfect place to flee from the killer 1918 flu.

Just as people rushed into the Coastside, some rushed out. Miss Irmagarde Hazard, a teacher at the Montara School, packed her bags and left for San Luis Obispo, hoping she would outrun the worldwide epidemic.

The killer flu struck the Coastside in mid-September. Two important members of the community fell ill, the rural postal delivery man and a Catholic priest.

Remembering Bill

For years I’ve been carrying around a letter, still in its original envelope, stamped 1962. It’s a letter from a 16-year-old who thought he liked me a lot and wanted me to know that. Bill actually sent the letter via the post office–we lived about 20 blocks apart. What a romantic. I was barely 14 and flattered at the attention, I’m sure.

Bill Wheatley didn’t live to see the world I’m seeing now. And when you get to be my age you really know you really feel how young 15-16 is.

A couple of posts ago I talked about the barts and gangs, one of them called the Athenians, the guys who wore the purple jackets and spent a lot of time on their greasy hair.

Bill Wheatley was an Athenian. I didn’t know him or his friends that long. They were all very nice guys, actually. Not tough at all, like you were supposed to think they were. I saw him save a puppy’s life once.

But Bill did scare my parents. He was very tall and wore that purple jacket and came to my house. My parents wouldn’t let him in.

I can’t recall the details–but here’s the letter from Bill, a teenager who thinks he’s maybe in love. He was a kid.

(reminder: click any of the photos to enlarge) My maiden name was Martin.


Maybe I knew him for six months, I don’t know. I never saw him again. But then several years later I heard bad news. He was 18,still very much a kid, when he joined the Marines and shipped out to Vietnam. He was shot to death soon after he got to the province of Quang Nam; he died on Wednesday, October 13, 1965.
All that his known about Bill’s death is that he died as a result of small arms fire.

I found William George Wheatley’s name on “The Wall”, Panel 02E, Row 122.

I’m glad I saved Bill’s letter all these years. It reminds me that life is fragile and war is vicious.

Now Andrew is Moving

Andrew with Stella

Everywhere I look these days someone is moving somewhere else.

Now I just learned that Andrew, his wife, Jan, and dog Stella, have purchased a bar/restaurant in Fall River Mills. He said it’s a tiny town of 600 near the double volcano Mt. Shasta. They’re going to call the bar the Mayfly.

On my walks I frequently run into Andrew and Stella–they are both so friendly and Andrew’s a character, originally from New Jersey, I believe.

They are looking for someone to help them move.

Back…Back….Back In Time….

In the early 1960s in San Francisco when I was in junior high school, today called “middle school” some of the more adventurous boys got together and formed “gangs”. In the Sunset District it was pretty harmless stuff. By that I mean, all they did was give themselves a scary name and buy the same jackets.

Names I recall were the orange-jacketed “Street Saints”, the “Intrepids” (not sure about that one but it sounds good), the “Courts” from the Mission, and the purple-jacketed “Athenians”. The Street Saint boys were from the east side of the Sunset and the Athenians from the west, much closer to the beach.

Basically the Street Saints went to Hoover Junior High where I went. The Athenians went to Giannini and they looked tougher but they really weren’t at all.

I knew them both. The Athenians hung out at Playland By The Beach, and for awhile I liked to take the streetcar down there with a girlfriend and walk around.

At the time some girls and boys were called “barts”. Being a bart, like it’s opposite, going “league” (ivy league) was a fashion statement having to do with the color black, and wearing these boot like black shoes and make-up, lots of make-up. I really wanted to wear those boots but my mom wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t wear the make-up because I didn’t how to put it on.

Going bart or league was kind of like being a Rolling Stones or Beatles fan. The barts thought they were on the outside, rogues, wild westers, while the people who wore the ivy league clothing walked down the halls of school singing “I’m In With The In Crowd”.

Portrait of (Skip) an “Athenian” wearing the gang’s purple jacket. Photo surely taken in a booth at Playland.

I am bringing this up because in my next post I want to talk about what happened to Bill Wheatley, a former Athenian who went to Vietnam.

Doug St Denis’s House Is For Sale

Hey–don’t get the idea that I am a realtor.
Nope, I’m not.

But I can’t help but observe that lots of folks are putting their homes up for sale. All of a sudden. And some of them know it’s kind of late in the game; others believe they can still nab the big price tickets.

Yesterday at the El Granada Post Office–a great place to run into Coastsiders you haven’t seen for years–I met up with Doug, an old friend. He told me ,somewhat solemnly, that he had put his El Granada home up for sale–but he wasn’t going the traditonal route with a local realtor, he was partly doing it himself, using HelpUSell.

I wondered what Doug selling his home for. I remembered when he built it (he’s a contractor) some years ago.

Doug built his house some years ago:

$900,000, he said he wanted.

Aren’t the prices shocking? Apparently they’ve been dropping in the past few weeks–but a local realtor assured me, “It’ll come back.” Heard that one before? Then he added, “It’s a buyer’s market now and I’m glad”.

Dear El Granada

Dear El Granada,

I live in El Granada on a block that is almost like an island–an island because I don’t feel any connection to any of the other blocks to the east, to the north or even to the south. To the big wide open west I see the pulsing Pacific. Sometimes the sea ripples, sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes I see brave kyakers battling the northern winds and occasionally a black blot or a herd of black blots, and they are not blots but wetsuit wearing surfers a little further south than usual.

I’m serious. This block is an island. It’s a world of its own with very few houses, and although it’s not a very social block we all know what’s going on from one end to other other.

Kit, across the street owns, I believe, an incredible rock encrusted sculptural slice of Devil’s Slide, not for sale, of course, it’s one of the Coastside’s natural wonders.

Hardly anyone has moved away from this block in the 30 plus years I’ve been here. I think that’s truly amazing given the American’s innate addiction to moving about.

But we have the first signs of movers now. Across the street, a three bedroom house, 1.2 million. The owners built it as their “dream house” but they are now moving to Hawaii. The house just was listed and I saw car after car of realtors come to take a peek this morning. Very scary when a house goes for sale–I mean the one across the street from mine–I hope whoever buys it is quiet and plans to stay awhile.

House for sale ($1.2 mill) near my house:

Then not far from this house another neighbor is selling a lot he bought. It’s been on the market for awhile and he’s asking $500,000. Of course if someone could build a house tall enough there would be plenty of sunsets to enjoy and a view all the way down the coast which is pretty marvelous–but it’s also on the main drag.

Lot for sale near my house ($550,000):

This morning I took a glorious walk through El Granada, through the avenues lined with old eucalyptus trees and in the fall the weather is so beautiful here. Blue-blue, not too hot, maybe a little caress of a breeze–I can’t think of any place I’d rather be–

Today I took a walk
I just love the way the famous historic landscaper D.H. Burnham designed the streets of El Granada.

Love Always, June

P.S. Please don’t change your name to “La Granada”– I like you flawed (like me)

What Happened to Vallejo Beach?

When I was interviewing former Half Moon Bay residents Mary and Fred Vallejo years ago–both very historically involved in the community–I was stunned to learn from Fred that he had owned a few lots along the ocean at Miramar Beach–he owned enough lots for the locals to rename the beach “Vallejo Beach”. What stunned me was that he added unhappily that the building lots no longer existed because Vallejo Beach wasn’t there anymore–it had eroded away. I think Fred said he lost the land in the 1940s.

Where’s their beach? Fred and Mary Vallejo at their Half Moon Bay home in the 1970s. (photo by me. dumb, wasn’t it, to take the shot with all that light in the background. interesting, though)

Somewhere along here along the Miramar Beach coastline, were the lots that once belonged to Fred and Mary Vallejo, beach lots that were carved out and swept to sea.

I once met a United States Geological Survey expert, whose bailwick was the Coastside. He explained that the soil along the coastline in Miramar and El Granada was ultra soft and subject to constant erosion. Wave action causes it to fall apart. There’s nothing hard holding it together.

A more recent view, oh maybe 30 years old, of the same place but this shot was taken from the north looking south. The damage is very visible.

When I first came to the Coastside I saw the remains of a highway along the cliffs–big broken, cracked slabs of concrete–and from season to season I watched it vanish. Witnessing this erosion firsthand made me wonder not only what the waves can do but what the effect of manmade stress could do to these soft cliffs.

And here are the remains of the highway I saw, now gone

Today nobody knows there was a place called Vallejo Beach–