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Golden Nuggets: Pacific Glass Works and The Disastrous Big Game of 1900

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The SF Weekly recently ran a story on a forgotten bit of San Francisco history, the "Thanksgiving Day Disaster" of 1900. Over a century later, this is still the deadliest accident to claim the lives of spectators at a U.S. sporting event. When Cal and Stanford met at Recreation Park, many climbed the roof of the adjacent Pacific Glass Works for a free (and pleasantly unobstructed) view of the game. The rest is history.

Well before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff, the factory's shiny, corrugated iron rooftop was packed with 500 to 1,000 spectators. It "was black with people," reported the Chronicle. "So densely were all the roofs packed, it was a matter of comment among the multitude which thronged the stands on the Folsom Street side."

Every factor that would lead to "San Francisco's direst calamity" was now in place. Factory employees wandered the streets in a futile attempt to locate a cop willing to evict the freeloading invaders. Those freeloaders, meanwhile, were massed atop a rooftop only required to withstand 40 pounds per square inch — hardly adequate for a football crowd, even in a hungrier era when the average Cal or Stanford player weighed 170 pounds. Worse yet, fans clambered to the highest accessible point, the 100-foot-long rectangular ventilator rising 4 feet from the apex of the roof. This open-sided structure was supported only by wooden braces — and, ominously, the fans' perch was directly above the hottest portion of the factory.

Forty-five feet below the thousands of stamping feet loomed the squat, 30-by-60-foot east furnace. Fifteen tons of molten glass bubbled within at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit — a temperature on par with a red dwarf star. This was the only furnace in action that day. More observant fans would have noticed the capping atop the chimney behind them glowing red as it emitted a persistent plume of smoke.

But the action was in front, not behind. And even onlookers who grew uneasy couldn't negotiate the crowd to descend. "I don't know how many hundred people were up there, but there wasn't an inch of standing room to spare," Arthur Schwarz told the Examiner. So they made the most of it: "All of us were laughing and jesting," Charles Taylor told the Chronicle. "Some of the fellows said: 'If this thing breaks, we'll all go down together.'"

Twenty minutes into the game, they did.

The lengthy article gives a much fuller account of the accident. It is a fascinating (though unpleasant) bit of Big Game history. More links of the more traditional variety after the jump.

SBNation's Spencer Hall reports from the launch of the Pac-12 Networks.

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