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Saturday, December 18, 2004

December, 1900: Tule fog, Christmas

Nancy Dingler


It is fun to look back at copies of the old newspapers and magazines to find out how society and culture has changed since the beginning of the last century.

How traditional are our traditions and was life less stressful? What’s surprising is how little things have really changed, in spite of prognostications to the contrary.  In December 1900, parties and fancy balls were being planned. The local mercantile and hardware store began enticing shoppers with ads extolling the wonderful assortment of merchandise for sale.

Then on Dec. 7, a major train disaster occurred. The weather hasn’t changed - when winter rolls around, so does the tule fog from the marshes of Suisun City and pastures of Fairfield.  There are roadways that are mired in time, as though nothing has changed. Vanden Road is one of these time-warped outposts. This particular early December morning, the fog was thick at the old Vanden railroad station. It just so happened in that early morning fog, a work train was evidently parked on the tracks, expecting the other set of tracks to be carrying passenger and freight trains.

Not realizing his train was on the same track and because of the fog, the engineer of the southbound freight train didn’t see the work train and plowed into the cars full of sleeping work crew.  Ten men died and 15 were badly injured. The station telegrapher immediately sent a message about the accident. Doctors from Vacaville and Fairfield responded, along with many other volunteers, arriving at the devastating scene in short order. The injured were put on a special train to San Francisco, with the attending physicians and their assistants.

The dead were recovered from the wreckage and sent to the coroner in Suisun City. A special wrecking train was brought in and the tracks were cleared by 4:30 p.m.

By the following week, the 14th, when the Solano Republican was delivered, it was determined that the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. was guilty of carelessness. But this was the new century and with it was new industry and new prosperity with a glowing upbeat future.

In the same issue, on the front page, was the exciting story that a gasoline-powered schooner would soon be plying the waterways between Suisun City and San Francisco. It was heralded as a first-class venture suitable for passengers and freight. Also, there was a grand proposal to dredge and channel the Suisun Slough so that a good five miles could be cut off the journey to San Francisco.

It would be a major undertaking, but would create an economic boom in the area with towns as far away as Elmira and Vacaville prospering.

Then there was the matter of the electric road north from Suisun as far as Winters. It had been proposed before and died from business failures. An editorial urged; “This can only result in a rapid increase in the population and the amount of business transacted in this part of the State. That will mean business and a great deal of it for an electric road, should one be built along the route formerly suggested in the REPUBLICAN”.

On the national scene, a bill to adopt the metric system was introduced before the United States Congress and it was predicted to pass.

The following week, Friday Dec. 21, the Solano Republican announced that a San Francisco jury found the railroad company responsible for the Vanden wreck. Also on the front page was a story about the Fairfield Improvement Club meeting in Druids Hall to promote the idea that the town should sell its old street lamps and have them replaced by electric lights, provided by the Suisun Electric Light Works.

The committee on entertainment stated “it had met and partly arranged for the printing and music for the ball to be given by the club on New Years’ eve.”

As Solano County residents went about their tasks to bring Christmas in on time, while bringing home the fresh cut tree to adorn its boughs in the German tradition, there was some bah humbugging.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune of Dec. 23 made a prediction what Christmas would be like in 100 years in the future. With all the newfangled mechanical devices springing up to make life easier (so everyone hoped), the editorial in the Chicago Tribune saw a dismal and dark future for Christmas: “Christmas day in the year 2000 dawned bright and clear over Chicago, only that comparatively few persons were interested in it at that early stage. Santa Claus and St. Nicholas had been myths for 75 years, and the ravages of the 25 years before had stripped the north woods of their evergreens. The reindeer was extinct and the furry robes once accredited to those guardian genii of Christmas were to be found only in museums of natural history. . .

“Grandfathers and grandmothers could recall the time when Christmas was something else than it was at this end of the 20th century. Some of them, indeed, were old enough to remember how they had searched the downtown shops of the city and crowded and fought and jammed through heavy storm doors to the counters, where hundreds of other scrambled for goods hauled down by weary clerks.”

In 1900 Solano County, Christmas was of homemade pies, cookies and cakes. Prosperous citizens clamored for the best seafood, wild game and exotic delicacies that were offered by the finest restaurants in San Francisco.

Wonderful porcelain dolls from Germany, France or New York found their way to little girls on Christmas day. The schools and churches put on their Christmas plays and sing-a-longs. Groups of carolers formed to serenade their neighbors during the festive days. The newest mechanical gadgets such as roller skates, motorcycles, automatic pocket lighters and the latest fad in bicycles all found ready buyers.

Basically December was just as stressful and busy as it is today. Bad things happened then, as bad things happen now. Yet planning for the holidays goes on, as life goes on. Unlike the doomsayer from Chicago, in spite of the electronic revolution, that followed the mechanical revolution, Christmas is still alive and well in the 21st century. Happy holidays everyone!