105 YEARS AGO in LONG BEACH, CA.
News stories from the local press
THE EMPIRE DAY DISASTER
The Irish had their holiday, Saint Patrick’s Day, the Italians Columbus Day, why not a holiday for British Americans? In 1913, 20,000 former British subjects living in Southern California chose May 24th, Empire Day, as their day to celebrate. The British holiday began in 1838 to commemorate young queen Victoria’s birthday. When she died in 1901 her subjects still wanted to honor her accomplishments so Parliament issued a proclamation establishing May 24th as Empire Day. Now the first Empire Day celebration on the west coast was to be held in Long Beach, California.
The Daily Telegram of May 23, 1913 described what was supposed to have happened:
“The greatest British celebration ever held on foreign soil. That is what the committee in charge of the arrangements for the big Empire Day celebration to be held in this city tomorrow expects the fete to be. From all over the southland will come those who formerly lived under the British flag. Drawing card features of the day will be the presence of the British man-of-war, Shearwater, 60 of whose sailors will act as an escort for the veterans in the parade; there will be a big program of athletic stunts, national games, the parade, music and the natural attractions of Long Beach. The parade will be elaborate, with several floats each representing dominions or possessions of the English nation, the participants of each float being natives of the that particular country represented. The parade will reach the auditorium where speeches will be made. Five hundred dollars worth of prizes will be given to the winners of the various contests.”
What was to have been a day of joy turned into one of tragedy when a rotten girder outside the entrance of the municipal auditorium gave way.
It was just at the close of the parade when disaster struck. The marchers, and those in vehicles, turned from Ocean Avenue to the top level of the two-tiered pier, on their way to the auditorium for a celebration program. The main entrance to the auditorium became blocked by the crowd, and those in the rear pressed forward in such large numbers that they caused a rotten 4 X 14 girder to break. Masses of people fell through or on top of another crowd which packed the lower deck; then the floor of the lower deck also gave way, tumbling people to the sand and water below. 38 people died and approximately 200 were injured.
The Long Beach Press reported:
“What must go down in history as the most terrible disaster in the annals of Southern California, made gruesome history at 11:33 o’clock this morning when a four foot square section of the Municipal auditorium fell to the sand below. Heart rending scenes, never before equaled in the history of Long Beach were enacted on the beach as the dead and living were carried out and tenderly laid on the beach. ”
It took a full ten minutes for the crowds on the pier, only a few hundred feet away from the disaster, to realize what had happened. When the fire chief’s auto came dashing up to assist in the relief work, many thought the fire department was giving an exhibition as part of the festivities.
Long Beach felt responsible for the tragedy. Doctors donated their services free of charge. $10,000 was quickly raised to aid the victims. The following statement was issued in the Daily Telegram on May 26, 1913:
“The citizens of Long Beach will courageously and promptly meet every responsibility and humane demand growing out of Saturday’s awful tragedy. The dead will be given proper burial and the wounds of the injured will be cared for by the best obtainable medical and nursing skill. The needs of every surviving victim will be promptly and heartily supplied. There will be no red tape to handicap our people in demonstrating to the world, that we entertain a full understanding of our obligations to suffering humanity and propose to meet them with decision and sympathetic candor.”
The Citizens’ Relief Committee was true to their word. Arthur Lett, a former conductor on the Pacific Electric who lost his wife and two of his three children, was one example. His slender savings could not cover funeral expenses nor buy lots in the cemetery. The Committee provided money to cover the burials and purchase cemetery plots.
Twelve-year-old Margaret Reed was the 37th victim of the pier disaster. On June 6, 1913, Margaret was buried at Long Beach’s Sunnyside Cemetery. Among the mourners was a slight, simply dressed man who mingled with the group. No one suspected he was a postal inspector from Los Angeles there to arrest Isaac Reed, Margaret’s father, should Isaac come out of hiding to attend the funeral. Isaac Reed was accused of taking $1072 in money order funds when he was postmaster at Dale, in San Bernardino County. Gambling was the cause of the crime. Just before he sent his wife and daughter to Long Beach and then disappeared Isaac told them he would be gone for a long time. He confessed that he was harassed by debt and did not intend to come back until he made enough money to repay what he had stolen. But Isaac did not appear at his daughter’s funeral. Neither did Margaret’s mother who herself was hospitalized with a dislocated shoulder suffered in the Empire Day tragedy.
What Caused It
A three man board of inquiry was immediately set up with local architect W. Horace Austin selected to represent Long Beach. Their findings were presented to a grand jury. On June 2nd the grand jury announced the following decision:
“Every one knows the accident was caused by a rotten girder and every one knows the girder was not properly inspected. I will let this matter simmer a while. If Long Beach had taken 100 years to grow as much as it has in ten weeks, the accident probably would not have happened, but when cities grow fast people have a tendency to keep on doing things in a village way.”
Attorneys advised the City that they were not financially responsible for the disaster, but Long Beach citizens believed they had a moral responsibility for the tragedy. On June 18th, Long Beach residents overwhelmingly voted to add a special tax levy of 20 cents to each $100 of their assessed property valuation. This was to take care of the sick, helpless and dependent victims of the disaster. In July, with the money raised by this special tax, the city paid out $24,181.68 on claims presented from the Auditorium disaster. But more claims were to come, and even this special tax would not cover them all.
Many did not agree with the grand jury decision absolving Long Beach of the financial obligation towards the victims. A Superior Court decision ruled that victims, or their survivors, had a one year statute of limitations in which to file claims against the City. By May 23, 1914, nearly 200 suits totaling more than $3,000,000 were brought to Superior Court. The Chafor case, filed by George E. Chafor over the death of his wife, Edith, was the first claim brought to the court. It was to set a precedent for all the rest.
On July 9, 1914, after 18 days of testimony and five hours of deliberation the jury awarded $7,500 in damages for the death of Mrs. Chafor. The City immediately appealed the case to the California Supreme Court listing five reasons the verdict should be overturned: that the City was engaged in a governmental enterprise; that the auditorium was constructed in a public street and by express act of the charter Long Beach was exempted from liability; that the structure was partly constructed on the tidelands of the state, which the state held in trust for the public, and therefore it could not be the property of the City; that the use of the auditorium was gratuitously loaned to the committee holding the entertainment and that the City was not responsible for the condition of the building; that the evidence conclusively showed that the City never consented to the holding of the large assemblage but that consent was given by the City Council, the Board of Public Works only having the authority, and that the board never gave its consent. All other claims from the disaster were put on hold until the Supreme Court verdict.
In May 1916, the Supreme Court ruled Long Beach was not liable in the Empire Day Auditorium disaster. The issue surrounded the question as to whether the City, in constructing and building the pier and auditorium, exercised a governmental or political power, or a proprietary or corporate one. They decreed Long Beach exercised a governmental power and therefore was not liable. In February 1917 they reversed their decision.
By mid April 1918, the City had settled all 174 damage suits of the disaster. The total amount of money sought in these claims totaled $3,447,005.08. The City Attorney managed to settle all cases for $372,162.70. The problem was that the City did not have any money. On February 26, 1919, the State Supreme Court affirmed the right of the City of Long Beach to issue bonds to pay the Auditorium damage judgments. Now the claims could be settled.
Some good did come out of the disaster — romance. On January 1, 1915, Clement C. Bush, 76 yrs. old, who lost his wife in the disaster, married Mrs. Kate Ustes, aged 48 who was his nurse.
Long Beach in her role of fastest growing city in the nation became very adept at house moving. Bungalows, apartments and residences of all sorts were being built on skids to allow them to be moved on short notice. Hardly a day went buy without people seeing some neighbor’s house, an old grocery store or other building edging its way, inch by inch, toward the outskirts of the city to become the happy palace of some suburban family or merchant. In the past a team of horses was hitched to the structure, usually a one story frame house, and pulled to a new location. Later, when larger buildings, cottages and two story dwellings were moved it was necessary to use a windless. The windless and old horse methods, which moved at a snail’s pace, keeping street crossings blocked for hours and snarling traffic, was being replaced by a new type of house moving apparatus – the traction engine. Now the house was jacked up and placed on a set of house moving trucks, the engine hitched on and the house hauled along over streets, with the greatest of ease. Corners were no problem at all, workmen could easily raise telephone and electric wires. The traction engine had greatly decreased the cost of moving houses and was one of the most profitable businesses in Long Beach in 1913. However, there was now another hitch to house moving. A new city ordinance required that those wishing to move a building had to apply for permission (and pay a fee) and that all neighbors at both old and new locations had to approve the move. (LBPress 5/28/1913 10:3)