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Eco-watchdog ship will remain at the Redwood City Port

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By Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 28, 2006

As the U.S. Geological Survey prepares to raise anchor and move research equipment from its longtime home at the Port of Redwood City to a new facility in Santa Cruz, one historic vessel will remain.

The Polaris, the USGS’s 92-foot-long wooden workhorse, has scouted Bay waters since 1971. Its primary duty is studying the Bay’s long-term ecosystems and contaminants, making it the hub of one of the longest running such research projects in the country, according to USGS Project Director Jim Cloern.

“The Polaris has … affected how we look at the health of our bay,” said USGS researcher Tara Schraga.

The Polaris has contributed to several important research missions, such as studying changes in the Bay’s phytoplankton population — the bottom of the food chain in the waterway — and levels of pollution and contaminants, according to Cloern.

After the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, oxygen returned to shallower regions of the South Bay, ending yearly fish kills, but problems remain with urban runoff and contaminants such as PCBs and mercury, Cloern said. The Polaris helps the USGS track how those contaminants, and the “regime change” that happens in the Pacific Ocean every 20 years, influence plant and animal life in the Bay.

“Our theme is, the Bay is always changing,” Cloern said.

The USGS moved the Polaris and other equipment to a 3-acre area at the Redwood City Port in 1983. However most of the agency’s operations are now relocating, following an announcement by Port officials in 2005 that they were interested in leasing out the berth — worth roughly $15,000 a month to a maritime-related shipper, according to Port Director Mike Giari.

The move to Santa Cruz should be complete by December, but the Polaris will stay on. “It didn’t make sense to relocate it,” Giari said.

Lee Phillips, the vice president of an insurance company, commissioned the Polaris as a private yacht, the Pasado Mañana, in 1926. One of the secrets of its longevity is its construction, which includes an 8-inch-thick keel and a 2.5-inch-thick body, according to Captain Byron Richards.

The Pasado Mañana was used to help construct the San Joaquin levees, and then changed hands among oilmen and the United States Army, which used it in the Puget Sound area during World War II. It was crashed and repaired, used as a charter vessel between Mexico and Alaska, and returned to the Bay in the 1960s, when it was donated to the University of California at Berkeley.

Despite three engine replacements, the Polaris shows no signs of nearing retirement, according to Richards.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

November 28, 2006 at 2:26 AM

City to commemorate bridges

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 8, 2006

San Mateo — Four 103-year-old train bridges that fostered some of the city’s busiest neighborhoods and withstood two major earthquakes will soon be replaced, prompting questions about how the hard-working structures should be commemorated.

These bridges elevate the Caltrain corridor above East Poplar Avenue, Santa Inez Avenue, Monte Diablo Avenue and Tilton Avenue in San Mateo’s North Central neighborhood. All four have deteriorated with time and regular use — and many are too low to accommodate tall commercial trucks — prompting a $40 million Caltrain plan to replace them between July 2007 and July 2008.

The city’s Public Works Commission will examine three ways to memorialize the bridges in a workshop Wednesday. The options include submitting photos, architectural drawings and a narrative to the National Register of Historic Places and similar organizations; offering artifacts to the California State and Golden Gate Railroad museums; and installing informational plaques or displays at the sites or on structures nearby.

“There’s no architectural beauty to them, but they’re interesting,” said Mitch Postel, head of the San Mateo County Museum, which surveyed the bridges in 1989.

The American Bridge Company of New York built the bridges in 1903, 40 years after the tracks were laid, to keep cars safe from passing trains and connect new residents living on either side of the tracks. Within five years, new neighborhoods near those bridges were bursting with homes, according to Postel.

Although such bridges were common at the time, very few were built in San Francisco or on the Peninsula, Postel said.

Caltrain’s bridge-replacement plan includes raising the tracks and bridges so that trucks could pass underneath them, modifying the roads and constructing retaining walls to protect the embankments. Designs for the project are 20 percent complete, so it’s unclear what the new structures will look like, according to acting Deputy Public Works Director Susanna Chan.

“These bridges are part of the historic fabric,” said Bertha Sanchez, a city planning commissioner who lives in the North Central neighborhood. “Whatever they could do to make them safe while at the same time keeping them historic would be best.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 8, 2006 at 2:21 AM

Posted in History, San Mateo

Quake leveled downtown areas

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
April 18, 2006

Although it’s known as the Great San Francisco Quake, the April 18, 1906, temblor shook foundations from San Juan Bautista to Point Arena, destroying much in its path — including many of San Mateo County’s nascent cities.

The newly constructed San Mateo County Courthouse, completed in 1905 at a cost of $200,000, was nearly leveled in the quake; only its central rotunda and dome remained standing. The walls of the Capitol Hotel on Broadway came down, along with the cupola and walls of the Bank of San Mateo.

“There was damage to everything along Broadway and Main Street,” according to historian John Edmonds, including some homes and the Carnegie Library on the corner of Broadway and Jefferson — which, like the courthouse, was newly built.

Likewise, much of downtown San Mateo was reduced to rubble, including the railway depot, where a tower collapsed, injuring a guard inside. In Palo Alto, some of Stanford University’s buildings were damaged, and its chapel was nearly destroyed.

Loss of life, however, was minimal. Just three people died — all in Half Moon Bay, in a mud-brick adobe that didn’t withstand the shaking.

“The hour of the quake (5:12 a.m.) meant not a lot of people were downtown where the damage occurred,” Edmonds said. “Where people were sleeping, in houses, there weren’t a lot of problems.”

In San Mateo County, the quake also starkly revealed which structures were built to last.

Both the Charles Brown Adobe and the Crystal Springs Dam, situated directly on the San Andreas Fault, emerged unscathed.

Hermann Schussler’s dam design, featuring interlocking concrete blocks, prevented some 20 billion gallons of water from washing down the valley and into downtown San Mateo. “It’s a heck of a construction,” county historian Mitch Postel said. “There wasn’t a crack.”

The quake’s aftermath changed the face of San Mateo County, as refugees from San Francisco poured into outlying counties of the Bay Area. Many settled on the hilly tract just south of the city, which owner John Daly was using to graze cattle.

Their presence sparked the need for shelter and deliveries of food. By 1911, it was clear those refugees were there to stay — and Daly City was born. All told, about 10,000 quake refugees took up permanent residence on the Peninsula, nearly doubling the population and sparking the incorporation of five new towns, including Burlingame in 1908 and San Bruno in 1914.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 18, 2006 at 10:19 PM

Dalessandro sets the quake record straight with “1906”

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
August 24, 2004

When James Dalessandro sat down to write “1906,” his novel about the events surrounding San Francisco’s most devastating earthquake, he set out to change history.

It is clear from talking to the author that Dalessandro is on a mission: his book, and his conversation, highlight the political scandals of the time, the efforts to hide just how many died as a result of the temblor and his drive to set the record straight.

“This is the biggest disaster in American history,” Dalessandro said. “A city of 450,000 was wiped off the face of the earth. Twenty-nine thousand buildings burned to the ground — that was 87 percent of all the city’s standing structures.”

To write the book, Dalessandro studied thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and more than 200 texts, including Gladys Hansen’s “Denial of Disaster.” “It’s the definitive text. It says everything [we know] about the 1906 earthquake is a lie,” he said.

Among those falsehoods, Dalessandro said, is that the death toll was grossly underrepresented. In 1907, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave the death toll as 478. “Easily 6,000 people died, or more. Nobody counted them. They made a conscious effort to cover up the magnitude of the disaster for fear nobody would rebuild the city, or they would be hanged when people found out what they did.”

“1906” is told from the perspective of a woman reporter, Annalisa Passarelli, as she uncovers the real story behind the political players in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake.

It includes a few historical figures, including San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz, Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan and Frederick Funston, the general who took control of the city after the quake.

Dalessandro said he struggled to portray them accurately. “I think that’s what you owe it. If you are going to use history, I think it should be used properly, accurately. In this particular instance, I think these characters have been misportrayed for a century now. Schmitz is portrayed as a decisive hero who rallied the city in its darkest hour. I don’t know how decisive a man could be if all his decisions are wrong.”

The author cites such problems as what firefighters discovered when they opened the city’s underground water cisterns to fight the fires that followed the earthquake. “Schmitz took bribes from local corporations to use them as garbage dumps. When the Fire Department lifted the lids, they found rubble — no water. He should have spent the rest of his life in jail for what he did,” Dalessandro said.

In addition, the book describes how dynamite was used to try to halt the fires — but instead sent flaming pieces of wood showering over whole neighborhoods, starting yet more fires. Citizens were deputized as policemen and handed guns, charged with keeping the peace; more than 500 civilians were shot and killed for looting.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dalessandro studied at Ohio University and the film school at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1973, he founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival with Ken Kesey and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featuring other writers like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.

He has worked as a writer since then, contributing to the House of Blues radio hour and selling about 20 independent feature-film scripts. Writing “1906” took much of the past seven years, although Dalessandro also wrote another book, “Citizen Jane,” about San Anselmo resident Jane Alexander, who has solved 14 murders including the death of her aunt.

Both “Citizen Jane” and “1906” are currently in the process of becoming films; the former with Court TV, the latter with Warner Bros. In addition, Dalessandro is working on scripts for a series based in the Tenderloin, which may be run on HBO. His first novel, “Bohemian Heart,” was just optioned by producer Lloyd Silverman, a Tiburon resident who produced “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Dalessandro thinks like a filmmaker. One of his motivations for writing “1906” was, “I wanted to know what the original San Francisco was like: we live in ‘San Francisco: the sequel,'” he said. “I got to visit the most wonderful and frightening part of our history. I got to walk down these streets and through the mansions and look at the clothes. I could tell you who served the best food and how many prostitutes there were on the Barbary Coast.”

His passion for San Francisco — and uncovering the real history of the city — has driven Dalessandro to co-produce a documentary on the 1906 earthquake and fire with Ben Burtt, a LucasFilm sound editor who has won four Academy Awards, and with Craig Barron, owner of Novato’s Matte World, a visual-effects company.

Already, the team has completed 19 minutes of footage in which still photographs have been animated to show the devastation of the earthquake. The clip will be shown Sept. 15 at the Depot in Mill Valley.

Dalessandro said if the truth about the 1906 quake isn’t revealed, San Francisco will be doomed to endure another disaster. “The city of San Francisco is in greater danger today than in 1906. It has a greater population, higher building height and more gasoline. The Fire Department is terrific, the Police Department is good, but they cannot solve the problem. There’s no master plan for what to do. The hospitals only have eight hours’ worth of supplies. This is not going to be like Sept. 11 — this is going to be worse.”

He recently wrote a city resolution encouraging San Francisco to report the accurate death count in honor of the centennial in 2006.

Dalessandro moved to Marin 10 years ago, living first in Fairfax before settling in San Rafael. He also worked as a wrestling coach at Sir Francis Drake High School for two years. His wife, Katie, works for BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, and the couple has adopted several children. For the past 11 years, he has taught a screenwriting class at Fort Mason.

“I love San Francisco and I love Marin,” he said. When pressed to choose a favorite part of the city, Dalessandro cites North Beach. “In my books, all the characters live on Telegraph Hill, in the same house. Some authors use the same characters; I use the same family and jump around in time from contemporary San Francisco to 1906.” He is already planning more books based in the city, including one set in 1864 and another set in 1934.

“1906” has already struck gold, selling out of its first printing and earning high marks with local bestseller lists and on Amazon.com. “Book Passage can’t keep the book in the store,” he said. “It’s very gratifying. It’s been tremendous.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 24, 2004 at 6:34 PM

Posted in History, San Francisco

How Marin fell in love with hot tubs

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
December 30, 2003

It may have begun in the 1960s, when Al and Barbara Garvey built a small wooden soaking tub into a tree in their Fairfax home. But somewhere along the way, Marin County became synonymous with hot tubs.

Of course, it didn’t help that when John Walker Lindh, who was raised in Marin, was found among Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002, former President George Bush accused Lindh of being “some misguided Marin county hot-tubber.”

Whether by good press or bad, Marin is one of the places in California where hot tubs gained popularity. That may have to do with its proximity to Japan more than anything else, however.

The oldest known spa, or mineral bath, has been traced back to Merano, Italy, where residents organized regular use of a hot spring that’s still in use 5,000 years later. Egyptians are thought to have used therapeutic hot baths as early as 2,000 B.C., and the Greeks were using mineral and thermal baths by 500 B.C. Hippocrates recommended hydrotherapy for the treatment of rheumatism and jaundice.

The Romans, being the social engineers they were, were among the first to create bathhouses where hundreds of citizens could enjoy a hot soak at the same time. Large stone bathtubs were fed by aqueduct systems that carried hot, mineral-infused waters to private rooms, steam rooms (early saunas) or public bathhouses.

Romans brought their bathhouse technology to England when they conquered the country, and English royalty continued to use the waters well into the 20th century. The waters at Bath, England, are 120 degrees Fahrenheit and contain minerals including calcium, sulfur, potassium and magnesium.

Although Native Americans enjoyed hot springs centuries ago, and many in the United States made use of natural hot springs for therapeutic purposes, it was World War II veterans who introduced the idea of a self-contained hot tub to the Americas.

Those veterans learned the habit while stationed in Japan, where the ofuro — a freestanding tub filled with hot water — has been a family custom for centuries. Tad Irvine, a soldier in the Second World War, had enjoyed the comforts of the ofuro and built one of his own in Stinson Beach in the 1960s to enjoy with his wife, Charlotte. But they had strict rules about who was allowed to use it.

“In 1966, we were invited through a mutual friend for dinner at their house,” Garvey recalls. “They told us about their Japanese bath, and so that was our first experience. In Japan they have communal bathing, but [the Irvines] didn’t believe in it. Only married couples could go in together. You couldn’t go in it with your girlfriend. And when you were finished, somebody else would go.”

Garvey liked the experience, but not the restrictions. “I thought it was a terrific idea, and fell in love with it immediately. So I decided to build myself one.”

He and his wife had recently returned from two years living in Majorca, Spain, although they had lived on a Sausalito houseboat in the early 1960s. After some house hunting, they found a place in Fairfax. Having the space to build his own hot tub was high on Garvey’s list of requirements.

And building it was one of the first things he did — even before moving into the house. Garvey found a company that made water tanks out of redwood, and consulted with the owner. “He thought I was completely crazy,” Garvey recalls.

But the tub was built to Garvey’s specifications — 4 feet in diameter, but deep. Garvey jury-rigged the plumbing and used an old water heater to provide hot water. “I figured out how I was going to fill it up and empty it out and heat the water. There was no idea of a filter system or recirculation system. It was as simple as possible,” he says.

As soon as the Garveys moved into their new house, they began inviting friends over for hot-tub parties. He estimates that, during the summer of 1966, hundreds of people used the tub. “It was incredible. Everyone flipped out over it,” he says.

“If I had any commercial sense at all I would have gone into the business, but I didn’t,” Garvey laughs. He built a dozen or so tubs for friends, all of whom had hot-tub parties of their own. And he taught another friend how to build them — and that friend went into business.

Soon, there were a few hot-tub builders in Marin, including Redwood Hot Tubs, which opened on Shoreline Highway in Mill Valley in 1973. Long-time hot-tub salesman Jim Henderson, owner of Marquis Spas in Novato, took a job at Redwood in 1976. “Work was hard to find; there was a recession,” he says. He took the hot-tub job because they needed someone who had a background in plumbing — Henderson’s family business.

“In those days, they were redwood barrels, and much more of a construction project. We had to build them by hand,” Henderson says. There were so few vendors, Redwood was getting contracts to build tubs as far away as San Jose and even Reno, NV.

At the time, the clientele was varied. Although some people bought the tubs for therapeutic purposes, most buyers were young homeowners who were seeking a means of entertainment and relaxation with friends, Henderson says. By then, tubs could hold 10 to 12 people and constituted a huge outlay of money — up to 10 or 15 percent of the value of the home.

Today, hot tubs cost about the same amount of money — anywhere from $2,000 to more than $4,000 — but are more like 1 percent of the value of a home. Although they’re still purchased primarily by young homeowners, it’s for a different purpose.

“Hot tubs have become a way for families to be together and for kids to learn about water safety,” Henderson says. “The people who are looking will often say they’ve been thinking about buying for a long time, and sometimes there is a specific medical reason, like spine or neck pain, or rehabilitation from an injury.”

Hot tubs now come in a variety of models and sizes, from simple, round tubs with a few jets to large, rectangular facilities with built-in reclining areas, dozens of jets and light shows. Some look more like sport utility vehicles than relaxation chambers. They’re named things like “Utopia” and “Paradise.”

Mostly, people come to the showroom to find something that will help them cope with day-to-day tension. “There’s a lot of stress in this area,” Henderson says. Buying a hot tub can be a bit like creating a home spa, “turning the home into a kind of vacation destination.”

Henderson’s showroom, one of the biggest in the Bay Area, includes a backroom with trial tubs “so folks can give them a test drive,” he says.

When asked about the stereotypes associating Marin with these tubs, Henderson recounts the story of the Irvines’ historic Stinson Beach soaker, as well as Cyra McFadden’s 1970s book “The Serial,” a satirical look at Marinites’ extravagant lifestyles. “She talked about hot tubs and peacock feathers. There was a little of that going on, especially in southern Marin and West Marin,” he says.

These days, there are more than a dozen hot-tub vendors in Marin County, from Henderson’s showroom in Novato to Stellar Spa in Corte Madera. For those who can’t afford to install their own — or whose homes don’t provide space for one — there are local spas like Joseph F. Smith’s Massage Therapy Center in Fairfax and Shibui Gardens in San Anselmo.

Despite one former president’s snide remarks, the pastime continues to be a favorite among Marinites. The association between the two is so strong, in fact, that when Lindh was captured, newspapers as far away as England focused articles on Marin’s liberal, party-going reputation.

Bush’s remarks “fed into the popular notion of Marin as a home for superannuated hippies, lying around in hot tubs listening to Grateful Dead tapes with a joint in one hand and a glass of chardonnay in the other,” according to the UK Guardian. Bush was so chastened that he wrote an apology promising to “never use ‘hot tub’ and ‘Marin County’ in the same sentence again.”

Some, however, are content to let the hot tub fade into history. The Garveys’ bath, which inspired so many, has since rotted away, and Al hasn’t been interested in buying a newer model. “I don’t care for the ones they started building some years ago, the commercial ones made out of plastic,” he says. “That took the life out of it for me. They’re just awful-looking things. I don’t recommend that for anybody.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 30, 2003 at 9:15 PM

Posted in History, Marin County