4


“God, that meeting took forever,” Tika sighed.

Ed moved some books to the floor, allowing her to spread the Palace piece on his worktable.

“I know a Sunday redesign is a big deal. But Ray treats it like the invasion of Normandy.”

Ray DiLorenzo was one of the new top guys, and in a way they
were planning an invasion—of San Jose. The Mercury-News was hurting the Horn on the Peninsula, and Ray, fresh from the Washington Post, had been assigned to redesign the Sunday edition to win back readers—and snatch fifty thousand new ones from the competition. If his plan worked, he was golden. If not, he was toast. Hence, all the meetings.

“Now,” Tika said, “about your piece. We need to expand it and take another look at how it flows.”

Twenty-plus years in journalism, and Ed still held his breath when an editor said “about your piece.” But “take another look” meant nothing was really wrong, just that minor tweaking might polish it to a brighter luster.

“Okay,” Tika said, pointing to some copy circled in blue marker, “usually I’m not a big fan of statistics, but it
was the largest hotel in the world at the time. How much bigger than number two? Do you know?”

Of course Ed knew. He had been fascinated by the Palace for a decade. “Two hundred rooms more than the biggest hotels in London, New York, or Paris.”

“You say it took—what—?” She flipped to another page. “Thirty-one million bricks to build it. But that number just kind of hangs there like one sock. Do you have any more numbers to round it out?”

Do I have numbers. Ed flipped through his file and produced photocopied pages from a book published in 1883. “Ten million board feet of lumber. Thirty-two thousand barrels of cement. More than two miles of corridors. Thirty-three hundred tons of iron for the seismic reinforcement bands. And twenty-eight miles of water pipe, including five miles just for the fire system.”

“Great. Add that. Now about the seismic and fire systems. You say they were revolutionary. But how did these revolutionary advances happen way out here? The Palace was built—when?”

“Construction began in 1874.”

“Okay. In 1874, San Francisco wasn’t much more than a glorified frontier town.”

Spoken like a gal from Los Angeles.

“True, but Ralston—”

“The guy who built it, right?”

“Yes, William C. Ralston. He was a nutty visionary who was enthusiastic about anything he considered innovative.”

“All right.” Tika said, touching his arm. “Give us more on Ralston’s grand vision so that when we get to 1906, readers understand the enormity of what happened. Now what about the seismic?”

Ed explained that Ralston had arrived in the early 1850s, and had gotten the stuffing scared out of him when the Hayward quake of 1868 shook the town like a tambourine. It did little damage to San Francisco’s many small shacks, but destroyed the handful of more massive structures. Ralston wanted his huge hotel protected. He enlisted mining engineers from the Comstock Lode, who were shoring up tunnels by surrounding brick pillars with iron plates. Ralston and his engineers sat the Palace atop three hundred immense brick pilings encased in iron. In addition, the building’s exterior brick walls were reinforced with long iron bands laid into the mortar. The design worked. In 1906, the quake whipsawed the Palace, shattering most of its windows—but the structure survived intact, and established iron reinforcement bars, rebar, as the basis of seismic engineering.

“Good. Add that,” Tika said. “Now what about the fire business?”

Ed explained that Ralston was also paranoid about fire. He’d been on hand for several of the conflagrations that devastated early San Francisco, most of them set by Barbary Coast gangs intent on looting. Ralston incorporated an idea born a few years earlier out of the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire—fire hoses
inside buildings. He even installed his own water system, a huge tank in the basement with pumps that could move water around the hotel through five miles of pipe to hundreds of bibs attached to twenty thousand feet of hose. In the event that the basement tank went dry or the pumps failed, Ralston also had tanks installed on the hotel’s roof that could supply the hoses by gravity. Finally, he ringed the Palace with a dozen private fire hydrants integrated into the hotel’s water system.

“Okay, now about the building itself,” Tika continued. “Art wants to know if you have photos they can scan.”

“Dozens.”

Ed pulled a sheaf of pictures out of his file. During its construction, the Palace was the most photographed site in the country. Its facade was inspired by Hapsburg palaces, and each room was a palace in miniature, with fifteen-foot ceilings, original art, and elaborate woodwork and plaster flourishes that required an army of craftsmen. The seven-story building was constructed around a magnificent atrium accented by Greek columns on every floor. And the atrium connected to the street through a vaulted tunnel, which allowed prominent guests to have their carriages driven into the hotel—perfect for grand entrances and exits.

Tika leaned closer to Ed than was professionally necessary. She flipped a page and came to another circled graf. “Then you talk about the opera star—”

“Enrico Caruso.”

“Right. Can you flesh out his story a little more?”

No problem. The bare bones of the Caruso story were well known. He was the biggest singing sensation to hit San Francisco until the Beatles played their final concert at Candlestick. He sang Don Jose in Carmen on the night before the Big One. Shortly after the quake, he fled the city, leaving behind forty wardrobe trunks and taking only the clothes on his back and an autographed portrait of Teddy Roosevelt.

But few people knew that just after the shaking stopped, Caruso’s manager, Alfred Hertz, found the singer cowering in a corner of his enormous suite whimpering like a baby. Hertz picked him up and pushed him out to the atrium, thinking that if the great tenor sang, it might buoy the spirits of the hotel’s guests, who were stumbling out of their rooms in a daze. Wearing just a nightshirt, Caruso sang a cappella. Hertz later called it the most impassioned performance of the singer’s life. Then an aftershock hit and Caruso panicked. He threw on some clothes, grabbed the portrait, and ran to the waterfront, where he caught a boat to Oakland.

“Add all that,” Tika nodded. “Now, about how the building burned. That’s where I think you can tinker a little to heighten the drama. I want to feel like I’m
right there as the fire department steals the water and the flag goes up in flame.”

“Fine,” Ed replied. “But with all these adds, it might run longer than twenty-five hundred words.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll trim it to fit. But I might not have to. The ad guys are pumped about this supplement. They think they can sell the hell out of it. And if they can, we’ll need copy to run around the ads.”

Copy to run around the ads. Ed sighed. Ask any editor about the mission of newspapers and you got pious chestnuts about truth, citizenship, and the First Amendment. Actually, the mission of newspapers was to coin money by printing advertising. The articles were there simply to hold readers’ eyes on the pages long enough to notice the ads. But the loss of the Palace was one of Ed’s favorite yarns and here was his chance to tell it, even if, in the end, it was just gift wrapping around a sheaf of ads aimed at picking the pockets of NCA conventioneers.

Ed took Tika through the little-known tale of how the Palace burned. The Big One struck shortly before dawn. By midday, huge fires raged north of Market Street. The Palace sat on the south side of the wide boulevard. Fire officials thought the blaze wouldn’t jump across, and that the small fires south of Market could be contained. They were wrong on both counts.

The earthquake shattered the city’s water mains. Millions of gallons drained into the ground. Over the screaming objections of the Palace management, fire officials commandeered the hotel’s hydrants and water, running hoses north across Market. But it was too late. The fires there were uncontrollable. Meanwhile, in the futile effort to fight them, the fire department sucked the hotel’s tanks dry.

By midafternoon, the blaze jumped Market Street and other fires approached the Palace from the south. Fire officials ordered the building evacuated. As the final guests departed into the smoke, the last bartender handed them bottles from the hotel’s enormous wine cellar.

At the time, the Palace’s rooftop flagpole was the highest point downtown. From it flew a huge American flag visible from the mansions atop Russian Hill to the stockyards of Butchertown. The flag was a symbol of civic pride and the hotel’s technological sophistication. For a while, the flag held on, but eventually it was consumed. With the Palace flag gone, San Franciscans knew their city was doomed.

Tika looked at her watch. No doubt, she had another meeting. “There’s also something I think you can cut. The business about Ralston’s death.”

Ed groaned. “But that’s a
great story.”

“I know.” Her expression combined the smile of a woman on the make with the furrowed brow of an editor lowering the boom. “It’s almost
too good. I’m concerned that it distracts from the one we’re trying to tell.”

“Aw, come on. How about a sidebar?”

Tika considered Ed’s proposition. “A sidebar has possibilities—maybe. So what do you think? Was it an accident, suicide, or murder?”

“I honestly don’t know, which is why it’s so intriguing.”

Shortly after Ralston had arrived from Ohio in 1853, he made a quick fortune in West Coast shipping. He used his profits to found the Bank of California, which became the largest financial institution west of Chicago. By the late 1850s, Sierra gold was largely mined out. Ralston’s bank took a chance on some silver mines in Nevada. They became the Comstock Lode, and Ralston became one of America’s richest men.

But Ralston’s Midas touch went to his head. When he made his first fortune in shipping, he became arrogant. After his second from the bank, he became insufferable. And by the time of the Comstock Lode, which had him hobnobbing with Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, he became convinced he couldn’t fail. That was when he decided to build the Palace.

Then his luck ran out. Huge loans defaulted. A few months before his hotel opened, the bank’s board fired him.

The afternoon he was fired, Ralston took his usual constitutional—he swam in the bay. But he didn’t return. Around sunset, his body washed up just west of where Fisherman’s Wharf stands today. His death was ruled an accident, but for years rumors of suicide and murder were whispered about town. The mystery was never solved.

Ed’s cell phone beeped. The screen said: Julie.

“I have to take this.”

“All right.” Tika leaned on the glass door and it swung open. “Play Ralston in a sidebar. But if something has to go, that’s my first cut. Day after tomorrow?”

Ed nodded and fumbled with his phone.

“Hi,” he said, delighted that he’d concluded negotiations for Sonya’s party before she called. “We’re all set at the rink. Just one loose end: You want to skate? It’s included.”

“That can wait.”

Julie’s voice sounded strained. Ed flashed on Sonya.