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Sunday, December 13, 1981

Searching for Cast Iron Portals

Ernest D. Wichels

Somewhere in this city, it is hoped, are two or more - of the beautiful cast iron portals which once adorned the lower exterior of Vallejo’s one time “grand hotel” ? the Bernard House.

On Levee’s corner, Georgia and Sacramento, away back in 1869 112 years ago, the home of Capt. John B. Frisbie and his wife, Epifania “Fanny” Vallejo Frisbie, was moved to York Street and a huge hotel built on the site. This housed Franham’s, Dannenbaums and later Levee’s stores.  This reminds us of the Portals of the Past on Stow Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. That beautiful white arch is the surviving unit of one of the early Nob Hill palaces built by a nabob. of the early railway era,? which was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire.

When the 100-year-old Bernard Block was razed 12 years ago and Levee’s new store erected, several of the beautiful cast-iron. fluted portals were saved and, presumably, removed for safekeeping, some say to the city’s Corporation Yard on Capitol Street.  There were the huge triple portals With fluted Corinthian columns on the west side of the building next to the alley, which in earlier days was the entrance to the hotel upstairs for the carriage trade.  This leads us to the story of the Vallejo Foundry and Machine Works, where these castings were made.

In 1869 John L. Heald and Thomas McCormack established a large foundry and machine shop in South Vallejo.  They manufactured all kinds of machinery, steam engines, flour mills, saw mills, and ships’ windlasses, winches and pumps.  Most of the rolling stock (freight cards, express cars, etc.) of the California Pacific Railroad was manufactured by the Heald and McCormack plant.  Some of the machinery of the Sperry (Starr) Mills was made here. The castings from their foundry were used throughout California.

It was in this shop that our “Portals of the Past” on the Bernard Hotel were cast. What wonderful relics of early Vallejo these would be if they can be found!  John L. Heald became a state senator from this district.  When the railroad moved its repair shops to Sacramento, Heald moved the foundry to Crockett. In 1881 Heald and his brother laid out a townsite and named it Crockett in honor of Judge J.B. Crockett.

Later, Heald sold his foundry to Dunham, Carrigan and Co. of San Francisco. One of the original foundry buildings is still used by the C&H sugar refinery.  Heald’s home in Vallejo was on the southeast corner of Georgia and El Dorado streets; McCormack’s home was on the northwest corner of Maine and El Dorado.  Although in 1869 North and South Vallejo boasted 12 hotels, nevertheless the large Bernard Hotel was begun. Let us quote from Munro Frazier’s History (1879):

Chief among the present hotels is this elegant building occupying an area of 150 by 130 feet. It-was dedicated on Aug. 10, 1872, by John M. Staples, the proprietor of the Arcade House in San Francisco.  The Bernard House is a large square building containing 45 bedrooms, a large dining room upstairs, and a restaurant on the ground floor.  It is fitted with every modern convenience, and has two entrances, one on Georgia, the other on Sacramento Street. The street car passes if on the way to the railroad depot twice a day. (This was the horse-drawn car which met the trains at the North Vallejo depot on Maine Street).  The rate for board and lodging varies from $2 to $3 a day.

So far as is known, this was (or is) the only work of Vallejo’s first foundry which we can identify today. These portals were not flimsy items, each probably weighed several tons.  Your columnist has heard that perhaps some manhole covers remain in the downtown area that were the product of the Heald foundry prior to 1869. None, however, has been produced.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one or more of these Corinthian columns could be located, and with fitting ceremony placed in the Town Square in the Marina Vista Redevelopment Area?  Who can give us a clue?

They can be identified because each portal has cast into it “Vallejo Foundry 1870.”  Vallejoans are urged to bring to the attention of the Vallejo and Naval Historic Museum any item which traces its origin to our pioneer days.

Hidden away in some of the century-old basements or in some of our remaining alley barns may repose some wonderful antiques to bridge the gap between the city of. a hundred years ago and today.