Eaton & Smith: 20th-Century Progress as Seen From a Glen Park Street Corner
This article was originally published in the Glen Park News, Winter 2020 (page 8), a publication of the Glen Park Association.
On your next amble through any neighborhood, be sure to look down before looking both ways to cross. On some street corners, such as the southwest corner of Mizpah and Sussex Streets in Glen Park, you may be lucky to find the embossed signature of street artists – specifically, the contractors who laid that sidewalk decades earlier. One pair of contractors made their mark not only in Glen Park, Fairmount, and Sunnyside but also contributed significantly to what was embraced as 20th Century Progress throughout San Francisco and beyond. Their name was Eaton & Smith.
The name of Eaton & Smith was stamped into the wet concrete on the southwest corner of Mizpah and Sussex Streets in Glen Park in 1931. Most of the concrete on this one-block stretch of sidewalk reaching up from Chenery Street remains in place, faithfully serving residents for over 90 years. Image by Evelyn Rose.
Clarence Burwell Eaton was the son of Amasa Eaton of Gardner, Worcester, Massachusetts. The United States Census of 1850 and 1860 lists Amasa as being employed as a chairmaker in Gardner, widely recognized as “the chair capital of the world” [read more at the Gardner Museum]. On his way to California, Amasa married Emeline A. "Emma" Burwell in Cuyahoga, Ohio in 1866. The Eatons settled in San Jose where in the 1880 census Amasa’s stated occupation was “capitalist.” By 1899, he was sitting on the board of directors of the Light & Power Company of San Jose. Because of its years’-long utility monopoly in the region, the company was described in one newspaper account as “sort of a gold mine.” Clarence Burwell, the youngest of the Eaton’s three children, was born in San Jose in 1882. After obtaining a degree in civil engineering from Stanford, he married Murl Patton of San Jose in 1910. They would have two sons and a daughter.
James Michael Smith was born in San Francisco in 1890. His father, James H. Smith, a teamster, and mother, Catherine Casey, were both natives of Ireland. The younger James graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga in 1910 with a degree in civil engineering. He would remain affiliated with St. Mary’s throughout his life, first as chair of the college athletic board, then later as a regent and trustee. While living on Cortland Street in San Francisco, it seems he fell in love with a neighbor, Minnie Imelda Sheehy. They married in 1912 and would soon have two sons.
If one word could describe the corporation of Eaton & Smith when it was organized in San Francisco in 1914, “youthful” would fit the bill: Eaton was 32 years old and Smith just 25. Recognized in announcements as a “new firm of contractors” and “former employees of the public works department,” they were awarded their first contract in May of that year. In that agreement, Eaton & Smith were to extend the Municipal Railway line southward from the new Van Ness line being constructed by the Mahoney Bros. Scheduled to begin service in August 1914, it was to run from Market Street along 11th Street, then Portrero Avenue to 25th Street. Their first-ever bid of $134,767.80 against four well-established contractors won by just less than $2,600. They were given 120 days to complete the laying of track and conduits and, if completed early, would receive a $400 bonus for each day saved.
Yet the second-place finishers, the Mahoney Bros., were not happy with the decision and protested the award. They complained that Eaton & Smith were only a “couple of beginners,” and made a point that Eaton had recently resigned from his role as an inspector at the Board of Public Works. The Mahoneys surmised that only a few weeks earlier while they were working on the Geary Street road and Eaton was performing the duties of inspector, Eaton must have reviewed their construction records to familiarize himself with how they planned and expensed their work.
In response to the Mahoney Bros.’ complaint, the city responded that “nothing was thought of it” when Eaton left Public Works to start his own business and subsequently delivered the lowest bid for the project. The complaint eventually reached the office of Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph. While there is no reported response from Rolph, the city never missed a payment to Eaton & Smith for their work. They would eventually complete the job but received no bonus. Because of delays encountered while trying to cross the Ocean Shore and Western Pacific railroad tracks, the city had given them an extension. Eaton & Smith ended up completing their work one month late in September 1914.
This delay, however, would not impair their ability to win future contracts. With construction of the Stockton Street Tunnel nearing completion in August 1914, the city accepted the Eaton & Smith bid of just under $10,000 to lay track and conduit of the municipal railway line through the tunnel between Sutter and Sacramento Streets. Other contractors were hired to lay the railway along Stockton to Columbus then to North Beach, terminating at Van Ness Avenue. When the tunnel was completed in December 1914 at a total cost of $350,000, it was billed as the “widest tunnel in the world.”
In business less than 5 years, Eaton & Smith were successful in laying rail and conduit for a major tunnel project, the new Stockton Street Tunnel. Top: Under construction, from the San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 1914; Bottom: The finished tunnel, from the San Francisco Chronicle, January 5, 1915.
In the ensuing decades, Eaton & Smith would secure multiple municipal projects throughout the city’s 47-square miles. They also bid on, and won, multiple projects beyond San Francisco, from Stockton to Fresno to Niles, Monterey to Petaluma, and several points in between. All the while they were expanding their portfolio of expertise: in addition to laying municipal railway lines, they added curbs and sidewalks, grading and paving of thoroughfares, installation of water and sewer lines, and construction of highways and bridges.
In June 1914, the City and County of San Francisco approved the construction of a new tunnel “under the elevation known as Twin Peaks Ridge.” It had been noted five years earlier that “40,000 San Franciscans lived across the bay or in San Mateo county because of the lack of proper transportation,” and that such a tunnel would enable “rapid transit to the outlying districts.” First proposed by the Merchants’ Association in 1909, the idea was opposed by the Glen Park Improvement Association. President Theodore A. Pinther, husband of Johanna Pinther, co-leader of America’s first suffrage march, represented the association in front of a meeting of the Streets Committee of the Board of Supervisors. Pinther was acutely aware of the city’s ongoing laggard response to requests for improvement of his own district’s local infrastructure. He suggested that before the city granted a franchise for the tunnel, it should first mandate the improvement of all city street railways already in use, as well as build a new City Hall to replace the structure destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
However, Glen Park’s voice was lost among the chorus of 55 improvement clubs who enthusiastically supported the tunnel project that would bring new residents to the still “uninhabited stretch of land” west of Twin Peaks. A recognized “pioneer of the movement” for the tunnel was A. S. Baldwin of the real estate agency Baldwin & Howell. In 1898, he had opened Glen Park and the Mission Zoo in today’s Glen Canyon Park to attract prospective buyers to his new home lots in Glen Park Terrace [see The First Use of Glen Park in the Old Rancho San Miguel, and Wilder Days in Glen Park, Parts I-VI, at Tramps of San Francisco]. Baldwin now had a vested interest in the tunnel: he had plans to construct several new residential districts around its west end, including St. Francis Wood, Ingleside Terraces, and Westwood Park. His business partner, Josiah R. Howell, was elected first vice-president of the combined clubs known as the Twin Peaks Tunnel Association. Once approved, construction began in the summer of 1914 under the oversight of City Engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy, for whom O’Shaughnessy Boulevard is named.
When digging of the Twin Peaks bore was complete in June 1915, Eaton & Smith were awarded two projects by the San Francisco Board of Works. One was the construction of a portion of the new scenic boulevard on Twin Peaks. Beginning near today’s intersection of Clarendon and Twin Peaks Boulevard, the route up the northern summit was 1/2-mile in length, included the famous horseshoe curve immediately below Christmas Tree Point, and required the laying of 70,000 square feet of pavement. To meet these requirements, Eaton & Smith soon built an asphalt plant at Ocean Avenue and Tara Street, today located immediately west of Interstate 280 between the Ocean Avenue off-ramp and the Geneva Avenue on-ramp on the site of Lick-Wilmerding High School. The remainder of the scenic boulevard extending south to Portola that would encircle Twin Peaks in a figure 8 was awarded to another contractor.
Construction of the famous horseshoe curve by Easton & Smith on the north slope of Twin Peaks, 1917. Image from OpenSFHistory.org.
No worries for Eaton & Smith, however, as they had also won the award for laying 12,000-feet of double track rail through the length of Twin Peaks Tunnel. In addition, they would also lay rail for a 1/2-mile distance from the Market Street entrance along the surface to Church Street, and from the West Portal entrance to Juniper Serra Boulevard. The total contract was just over $140,000 (about $2.8 million today).
Eastern bore entrance of the Twin Peaks Tunnel near Market and Castro Streets (later, the single bore would be switched to a double bore on either side of Market Street), 1917. Image from OpenSFHistory.org.
In other local work, in February 1918 Eaton & Smith improved Detroit Street between Hearst and Flood Avenues in Sunnyside with brick catch basins and a “12-inch vitrified, salt-glazed ironstone pipe sewer,” in addition to street grading and paving, and installation of concrete curbs and “artificial stone” sidewalks. Then in 1922, Eaton & Smith won the bid to improve Diamond Street between Chenery and Bosworth in Glen Park, about the time Islais Creek [see Glen Park News, Spring 2020, page 8 and Rising Water In and Around Glen Park is Nothing New] was rerouted to the underground combined water/sewer system. Work included installation of ironstone pipe culverts and three underground brick catch basins with cast iron frames, gratings, and traps, one each at the southeast and northeast corners of Diamond and Wilder, and one on the westerly side of Diamond, all still in place today. They also graded the street, added concrete curbs, and finished with the laying of asphalt.
Eaton & Smith doing some local street improvements on Arlington Street at Mateo Street in Fairmount in 1943. Image from OpenSFHistory.org.
By 1930, Eaton & Smith had moved their offices from 11th and Harrison Streets to their asphalt plant on Ocean Avenue where they were now producing concrete as well. Yet, the pinnacle for Eaton & Smith may have been their work in bridge construction during the 1930s. In August 1937, they won the bid to construct the electric train viaducts that would exit off the lower deck of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco at Rincon Street then Beale Street into the new Transbay Terminal. Their winning bid was $605,350 (about $11 million today).
The first electric train arrives at the San Francisco terminal in January 1939 along the viaduct extending from the Bay Bridge, constructed by Eaton & Smith. Image courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
Four years earlier, however, Eaton & Smith had won the contract to construct the San Francisco approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, a viaduct that later became known as Doyle Drive (named for Frank P. Doyle, a Sonoma businessman who helped establish the Redwood Highway and whose idea it was to span the strait). Their winning bid was $1.05 million (equivalent to about $21 million today). Doyle Drive was completed in 1936. Likely because of heavy weight loads due to increasing traffic volumes and a brutal climate at Golden Gate Strait, Doyle Drive deteriorated over time. It was demolished in 2012 to make way for the new Presidio Parkway.
The Doyle Drive superstructure, constructed by Eaton & Smith in 1936. These images show the deterioration of the structure that would lead to its demolition in 2012, making room for the new Presidio Parkway. Top: Looking south at the east end of the structure; Bottom: Looking southwest at MacDowell Avenue towards the horse stables of the National Park Service's Park Police. Images by Craig Philpott, Bridgehunter.com.
The sleek new Presidio Parkway and pile of concrete rubble portend the future of Eaton and Smith's Doyle Drive to the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012. Image by Michael Macore, SFGate.com.
In preparation for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, Eaton & Smith won contracts for grading the fairgrounds and building “sanitary sewer laterals” on Treasure Island. Eaton would also serve on the Executive Board of the fair. When he died in 1947 in Santa Clara, Smith continued to serve as president of the company. Smith passed away in Terra Linda, Marin County, in 1966. Afterwards both of his sons took over the business but the tragic death in 1970 of his eldest son, James, in a construction accident appears to have signaled the company’s closure and the end of its illustrious career.
So, that barely noticeable imprint in the sidewalk at Mizpah and Sussex Streets in Glen Park packs some significant histories and represents the era of 20th Century Progress both in San Francisco and beyond.