January 31, 2015

Island Home Companion: A History of Incompetence

But the history of islanders doing crazy things well pre-dates Ralph Mastick turning the entire northern half of the island into a miniature Venice. We have to go well before the days of the settlement of Alameda in 1854 when the Ohlone Indians utilized the entirety of Fernside Island for a multitude of purposes. It was sometime in the mid eighteenth century when the first Spanish Franciscan missionaries arrived from the southern half of California and finally started to settle what is now called the Bay Area. They first had established a mission near San Jose, eventually one in San Francisco which we know was Mission Dolores and another in Sonoma somewhere, I can’t remember quite exactly where it was, but it’s of no concern to this part of Fernside history. What is generally forgotten in the early history of California is the story of Mission de la Fuertes. This was the planned fourth mission that was to be settled into what little bedrock made up Fernside. Alameda would have been a more ideal location since at least only half of it was made up of swamp (as opposed to eighty percent) but Father Jorge Ignacio Vicente Maria Luis de Santiago insisted on what he thought was going to be a firm footing for his mission on a patch of dry earth on Fernside.
Construction began according to the records held by Hank Leupp in the Fernside Island historical society, on March l6th, 1799. It apparently was slow going for them. The land (or back then whatever you could call land) was hardly arable and while fine in supporting the weight of Father Vicente, he had not experimented with having any livestock walk about to see if the terra firma was firm enough. But, he was a man on a mission to build a mission.
Well, the stone for the foundation had to come from somewhere, and much of that came Alameda. Within a week, Father Vicente with his assistants as well as the help of several dozen tribesmen had managed to lay out a very attractive footprint for their church. They had decided to celebrate on the Saturday before the Sabbath and there was much chanting, and moving about in circles. It seems that olden time celebrations usually involved moving about in circles of increasing diameter, but that’s how they chose to celebrate. That same evening, the tribesmen went back to their village and the Franciscans settled their evening in their makeshift camp.
Remember how it was mentioned a little earlier that the weight of a cow could barely be held up? Well, imagine a gigantic platform of various stones rotated about to provide the flattest surface to start the foundation. Now, the part of the stone that rotated into the earth usually is a wedge shape of sorts so overnight, when the Franciscans woke the next morning to say the morning hominy, they had what was more along the lines of sunken patio. But they persisted, being the missionaries that they were and that no act of god was going to keep them from getting the natives closer to god. Besides, barbecue hadn’t quite been invented yet in the recreational sense so there was no point in keeping a patio. So they filled it in with a crude adobe floor and started to build the walls up and pretty soon, they had a very nice half wall by early June.
Again, the venture would prove to be on shaky ground when the added weight of the walls caused the building to sag in various ways. It almost resembled an ancient rollercoaster manufactured entirely of Adobe. They kept going, levelling the walls each time but it really was not much use because the next morning, they’d find that they’d have to keep continually doing the same sort of compensating. The real problem occurred at windows. If they started the previous day with a nice square hole, the day of would be a rather handsome rhombus or in some cases, chevron shaped. Well, they kept on going. Finally, enough had sunk that they could finally put a roof on the mission. This they did rapidly to have the weight evenly distributed. Even a few brothers from Mission Dolores had come out to assist. By eventide, the roof was up and the younger friars were passing up tiles to cover up the roof with. It was finally a handsome place of prayer and service for the East Bay. Father Vicente sent out the order forms for statuary and as a congratulations, Fr. Angelo from the Santa Clara mission sent over a pair of gilt candle holders, Fr. Heitor from Dolores sent a beautiful red silk altar cover and Fr. Alberto from Sonoma provided four handmade pews from their personal workshops. Mission Fuertes was certainly well on its way to becoming a full time mission.
Tragedy struck (as it usually does in our case, otherwise it wouldn’t be humor) when the entire congregation had gone out to Mission Dolores to listen to a sermon there as well as an important message from the alcade who was beginning to grow concerned by the amount of lack improvement of roads in the area. When their boat nudged into the soft sand, the shirted Indians pulled the boat well into the shore before the Franciscans alighted. What they saw when they got back could have only been willed by a merciful god. The entire building had sunk again but this time, the rafter tails were resting on the ground. The building was gone in its entirety. The contents were still in the building albeit pressed up against the ceiling inside. How Father Vicente reacted could only really be described as melancholy mixed with a tinge of glee. Somehow, he found humor in the situation and reacted as any man should and went to the Father President of the missions, turned in is sashes and according to the last records anyone could find his name mentioned, he was listed as a vaquero for the Peralta land grant dying in 1828.
With the mission gone as well as a few of the cattle that somehow made their way into unfirm ground, the tribesmen left the ruins which eventually disappeared. The footprint of the mission props up Charlie Ancona’s Café, the Mission Statement. But it isn’t to say that work of the missionaries didn’t leave a lasting impression. Before the entire project could take seed, Fr. Angelo Carlos Rael de Balboa had managed to cover the entire island in almond tree seeds which he planted at six foot intervals. By the time Alameda became incorporated in 1854, Fernside had become somewhat stabilized with these ancient almonds making a neat grid that would later help make up the structure of our streets. So we still have god to thank for those in any case. Well, at least his shepherds.
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The story of incompetence on a grand scale doesn’t just stop at Father Vicente’s abandoned dreams. It seems to shake its way into the core of all Fernsider’s ancestry. The first surveyor who came to the island shortly after the forming of the city of Alameda had good intentions of helping to lay out the first city streets. Bear in mind, the island is long and narrow, but somehow his cross street measurements came out wrong and instead of being a quarter of a mile wide, an error on his paper would say that Fernside was a mile and a half wide. Not even Alameda has a luxury like that! Thinking about all potential land sales he could make as he sat in the surveyor’s office in San Francisco, he put an advertisement in the San Francisco Call. It read something along the lines of:
For Sale!
Land Plots on Island off
ALAMEDA
Parcels begin at $4/quarter acre
Now, when land is abundant, it can come cheap. That surveyor literally oversold Fernside. When the first investors arrived on the island, each one clenching in one fist a piece of paper with the exact coordinates and sizes of their land and in the other fist, rods and chains. The surveyor’s assistant stood on the makeshift dock that was hastily put up to welcome the first ferry barge of investors. This young man whose name was Theobald Higgins merely stood there and before he could say “Welcome” he was knocked over by a wave of men, rods and chains. Theobald managed to stand up just barely after the last person cleared the ferry. At the end of the dock was a stone marker that had a surveyor’s way marker hammered into it and everyone stood squabbling around it.
Finally, a tall bearded man in a tall top hat which added far too much to his already enormous stature managed to control the crowd and organize them in a way to see who would own land within the length of the first chain, then they would break into groups in the different directions they would be going. Now, a little math. A mile is 5280 feet. A mile is made up of 80 chains of 66 feet each. An acre is equal to ten square chains or, a rectangle that is one chain in length by one furlong. Now, that would mean according to the surveyor’s excellent map, he could easily sell everything from the ferry dock 120 chains out. Now, remember his error? You sell for 120 chains when in reality you have 20 chains worth of land, something might have to give.
Well very quickly, people within those first 20 chains staked and marked their land from the ferry dock the people moving north and south were claiming their land as well. But there are those extra people which we might have to term an accounting error. One Frenchman by the name of Rampeau who had bought three acres at the supposed eastern end of the island very quickly found that he still had to continue measuring until he reached the sandy beach looking at the western shore of Alameda island. He somehow managed to hire a rowboat and he continued to measure chains out into the channel until he found his apparent allotment. In the middle of a tidal canal between Fernside and Alameda Islands. Now a few things go through a fellow’s mind when he makes the connection that he might have bought up a dud, he begins to seek vengeance. Especially during this early period in the State’s history where there were bloody conflicts over laundry.
When Rampeau reached the shore again, he was met with several other people who had all apparently bought land that was supposedly in the channel. They met and conversed for a bit. Had they bought land that was only visible at low tide? A Mr. Fennell had in his pocket a tide book and where they stood was low tide. They puzzled for a bit longer before realizing they might have been had. Rampeau cried out “Le bâtard!” meaning the bastard of course before he led the now angry and blood thirsty mob which was slowly growing. They were picking up people who had purchased full acres only to find that they had claim on a tenth of one where it abuts the shore. The lucky ones who managed to buy nearest the survey marker weren’t being satisfied either. The tall bearded had brought a soils engineer with him to see the viability of building a huge estate here to retire and that very little of it was usable. It got to the point eventually where everyone was marching to the ferry dock and the poor Higgins was mobbed. Every single investor was tearing at his clothing demanding the meaning of “this cruel, tasteless joke” as one called it. Higgins only having been hired the day before to help the surveyor take care of helping the new settlers suddenly had the new job of being led by the mob, back to the surveyor’s office and gaining an explanation.
The ferry ride back into San Francisco was an uncomfortable one for Theobald as every possible pair of hands clutched onto him to prevent him from escaping. When they landed, he was marched in vigilante style down Market Street. San Francisco, only being six years out of statehood still had a taste for vigilante justice. The moment a crowd forms, it kinda snowballs. It kept growing until it clogged up the entirety of Market Street before it reached the surveyor’s office at Stockton. For the surveyor, he was enjoying a nice bit of lunch, some cold pheasant (it was really just chicken according to the Chinese cook) and a small glass of Madera which he bought with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Fernside Island. On the couch opposite him laid the most fantastic beauty you could imagine. Her name was Lilly Montrose, the surveyor’s mistress. She wore hints of clothing if you could even call it that, but the material was so see through, it was hard to discern whether or not she had a fine layer of body hair or that it was exotic French underwear. He was throwing hunks of chicken at her, deliberately missing and forcing her to squeam around so he could see more of her.
He threw a piece of breast at her when all at once, there came a resounding crash as a thousand pebbles peppered the front of the building. They broke through the window and the two of them ran for cover. From outside came an incoherent chant. Since only a small portion of the people in the mob below were the actual investors and the rest were part of the snowball, they couldn’t come up with a single coherent chant. Just a resounding noise that rattled the windows everywhere. When the hail of rocks stopped, he could hear a banging below. The surveyor pushed his head through the ruined window to see below that the mob had managed to upset several vendor carts and were now hammering on the front door of his office with a bench. Very quickly, the hail of rocks began again and he only managed to duck inside before the volley began. He quickly draped Lilly in a steamer rug and pushed her out of the window on the other side of the room onto the roof of Lehman’s Mercantile not far below. She managed to escape that day. The surveyor not so much. When the door burst open, they caught him trying to slip out the window to follow Lilly but they grabbed ahold of him and crowd surfed him down. Ruffians with no connection to the mob ran into the office grabbing anything that looked valuable. The chicken was gone in a flash.
Downstairs, the surveyor was tied to a rail and he and Theobald were marched down Stockton towards the Hall of Justice at Portsmouth square. While they were beside one another, they managed to exchange a few words. “What’s happened?” “I don’t know” and “What did we do?” were the only things they could hear each other say. Finally, the march led them to the front of the Hall of Justice where a line of Billy Clubbed policemen stood in a line in front of the entrance so as to not let the mob in. The rails were passed forward over the crowd with the bewildered surveyor and Theobald Higgins and very quickly untied and jostled into the front.
Their faces were bloodied, bleeding and puffy. Theobald sported a blackened eye and the red tell tale burn of someone gripping him by the throat. The surveyor had his lip split, hair askew and his shirt torn from him. He spat a little bit of blood onto the sidewalk and just as he had done that, the chief of police had materialized through the line of blue trench coats. His red bulbous nose sniffed at the air, catching the metallic smell of blood before looking at the two bedraggled men standing before him. He merely gestured at the line of policemen to take them into the prison and in a loud, clear voice he told everyone to disperse which they did.

Well eventually, the state had to send down an ombudsman to figure out all the details of what had happened and the surveyor (who had been found to not have a current license let alone a state license) lost his practice and it was reported he was between begging and laboring in the San Francisco sewers as a cleaner. Theobald was a little bit more fortunate. As he had nothing to do with the survey error, but since he technically did have surveyor’s license, the state hired him to do a proper measurement of the island and this time he made sure to do it right. As compensation, he was given one and a half acres at the southern end of Fernside Island where his ancestors are still today.

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