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Reviving a footnote in history

Interest in an 1853 boat disaster prompts a tribute to victims and calls for a return to area's glory days.

April 14, 2013|Lee Romney
  • Some of those attending the Jenny Lind monument ceremony showed up in period garb.
Some of those attending the Jenny Lind monument ceremony showed up in period… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

ALVISO, CALIF. — The year was 1853, and the steamboat Jenny Lind departed Alviso at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay for its standard voyage to the city.

Then disaster struck.

A boiler pipe failed, and pressurized steam blew out the furnace doors as passengers awaited their lunch. At least 32 died slow and gruesome deaths from burns, among them some of the Santa Clara Valley's most prominent residents. Others are believed to have jumped overboard and perished.

For Bay Area residents, the disaster has been little more than a historical footnote, a nod to the era of steamboat travel.

That changed Saturday, when more than 300 people gathered at a county park of wetlands for the unveiling of a monument that commemorates the dead and raises new questions about how their untimely passing might have altered the course of California history.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 19, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Jenny Lind explosion: An article in Sunday's LATExtra about the commemoration of the 1853 explosion aboard the steamboat Jenny Lind said amateur historians who researched the event planned to place a copy of their white paper in San Jose State University's California Room. The California Room belongs to the San Jose City Library, which is housed in the same building as the university library.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 21, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Jenny Lind explosion: An article in the April 14 California section about the commemoration of the 1853 explosion aboard the steamboat Jenny Lind said that amateur historians who researched the event planned to place a copy of their white paper in San Jose State University's California Room. The California Room belongs to the San Jose City Library, which is housed in the same building as the university library.

"One hundred and sixty years and two days after the fact, you came to see the drape being lifted and something wonderful come out of a tragedy," Claire Britton-Warren, the impetus behind the endeavor, told those gathered.

Crops, goods and travelers all passed in and out of San Jose through the thriving port of Alviso. But it, too, died a slow death not long after the accident when the railway came along. Annexed by San Jose in 1968, it remains largely untouched by Silicon Valley's economic prowess. Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who has pressed for development here, said the nod to its history could contribute to a comeback.

"I'm not going to stop until we get Alviso back to the glory days of the Jenny Lind," he said from a lectern with the bay as his backdrop.

So why now? That is the story of the self-named Jenny Lind Gang.

Leading the crew is Britton-Warren, a technical writer and genealogy buff who reenacts train robberies and has been known to dress like a pirate. Now 50, she had worked hard to fill out her family tree. But there was a bare branch. She knew her great-great-great-grandfather, John S. Bradbury, had died at age 29, but how and where the man from Guilford, N.Y., had perished was a mystery.

Then, three years ago, a message for Britton-Warren popped up on Ancestry.com from a historian in Guilford who had the answers. The family hadn't even known Bradbury had come to California -- he was here three weeks. But when the dates checked out, Britton-Warren began her obsessive research, soon compiling a stack of documents as thick as a phone book.

She then turned to the local historical societies for help: "I just kind of showed up on their doorstep with my arms loaded ... and said, 'look what I found.' "

They connected her with Russ Robinson, the 77-year-old staff commodore and historian for Alviso's South Bay Yacht Club -- founded just 35 years after the steamboat accident -- and Chris McKay, 60, historian for the local chapter of E. Clampus Vitus, a fraternal organization that rose to prominence in the Gold Rush days caring for widows and children of miners.

Revived in the 1930s, the fun-loving group that mocks self-serious Masons and Oddfellows has carved its niche as a historical (and drinking) society, helping to place 78 plaques in Santa Clara County alone. Clampers were out in force Saturday as volunteers in trademark red shirts and flamboyant trappings (top hats and skunk pelts). McKay's hat sprouted peacock feathers.

The society is among eight historical organizations that donated to the monument, which boasts a local artist's rendering of the Jenny Lind, a side-wheel steamboat about 65 feet in length named after an opera singer revered as "The Swedish Nightingale."

As their research of the disaster advanced, the trio found many inaccuracies in local press accounts. But they came across one helpful piece in a Midwestern newspaper. Since it probably took eight weeks for the reporter's work to arrive back home via steamboats and mule, he took his time and got it right, Robinson said.

The article revealed that another vessel, the Union, was at the mouth of Alameda Creek when it spotted the Jenny Lind in distress and went to its aid. That helped place the accident between today's Dumbarton Bridge and San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

Robinson also caught a break at San Francisco's Mission Dolores when an archivist shared records of a French family, the Baudichons, who all died in the accident.

In addition to families with small children, also lost were local power brokers. Among them were Jacob D. Hoppe, developer of Alviso and delegate to the California Constitutional Convention, who was lobbying to return the state capital to San Jose, and Charles White, the first alcalde -- or mayor -- of Pueblo de San Jose, who was also a wealthy landowner pressing the same case.

"What we can say for sure is that the Jenny Lind wiped out some of the major supporters of this effort," said Britton-Warren. "It's hard to say what might have happened if they hadn't all been killed."

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