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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Finding History in a San Francisco Mailbox: The Clay Street Massacre of 1955

Posted By on Wed, Sep 10, 2014 at 12:45 PM

click to enlarge MOLLIE MCWILLIAMS
  • Mollie McWilliams
Earlier this week we found mail delivered to our address — 55 years ago. Now we're looking at the last piece we pulled from the mailbox, John Abraham's running-platform poster,  which served as an introduction to one of the worst car crashes the City has ever seen: the Clay Street Massacre. 

While the Death Rides S.F. Streets running-platform poster didn't make a strong argument for his election: "John [illegible middle name] Abraham demands halt to slaughter pledges strong vehicle safety inspection code for City," (sorry Abraham, we think we know why you lost), it did inspire us to dig into the history behind something the City would call a massacre, but was, yet, something we'd never heard of.

This of course isn't the first time we've learned about the dark side of San Francisco history lost to time; last year Joe Eskenazi wrote about the worst sporting disaster ever, which happened in San Francisco in 1900. In this sad story sport spectators clamored onto a factory roof to watch a football game at Recreation Park and subsequently fell to their death when the roof collapsed. The story is much more gruesome than just a simple roof collapse — the spectators fell onto a furnace and some became entrapped between rods and the furnace, while others who had broken bones from the fall were unable to move. And while it may seem unimaginable that a story like this and the Clay Street Massacre were able to be lost to time, all we have to do is remember the stories that have followed in their wake — the Zodiac killer, the Zebra murders, the Jonestown Massacre, and so on — and it's easy to see how time creates a barrier between the tragic stories of the City's past and one's personal knowledge of San Francisco history. 

And so, here's what happened that fateful day, May 27, 1955, when a furniture truck lost its brakes on top of Nob Hill and sparked the beginning of the Clay Street Massacre that would end with seven dead; according to the AP (spelling mistakes included):

"A rinaway moving van without brakes mowed down pedestrians and automobiles on the edge of Chinatown Friday at the end of a 5 1/2 block plunge down Nob Hill. Seven persons were killed.

The huge yellow trailer-truck exploded and burst into flames near the Hall of Justice. One victime in a pool of gasoline was set on fire.

The Mayflower van from Indianapolis reached an estimated speed of 80 to 100 miles an hour before it plunged over the sidewalk and scooped up parked cars and pedestrians for the last 100 yards of its death ride.

Nine automobiles were crumpled into junk around the jack-knifed moving van. Two damaged stores, three light standards and half a dozen parking meters snapped off at the base lay in its bloody wake.

Two explosions followed the wreck. Flames shot to the rooftops."

The driver, WILLILAM RUSSELL McCANDLESS, 50, of Davenport, Ia., miraculously piloted his runaway righ down one-way Clay Street through five busy intersections before the juggernaut began its deadly crunch through parked cars onto the sidewalk. He died in the cab of his truck.

Witnesses could see him hammering on the horn. But no sound came. It had failed with the brakes. Screams of warning and the "horrible onrushing sound" of the furniture-laden truck sent pedestrians running for safety.

Those trapped by the van and by the automobiles that it crumpled in its path, had no chance to get out of the way.

The story continues to unfold the tragedies surrounding that day, sharing stories of the injured, how McCandless' co-driver — who jumped from the cab — was unable to help and eye witness accounts noting, "Police said the driver was seen still wrestling in vain with the controls in the last instant of his life as the juggernaut plunged across the Grant Ave. intersection and into the parked cars along Clay."

By the time we had finished reading the 1955 news articles about the crash it felt fresh, as though these seven people had died yesterday and that a McCandless memorial Facebook page would pop up, full of photos of him and loved ones in Iowa. But alas, no, it was nearly six decades ago, and people pass that corner every day, unaware of  the tragedies that once unfolded there. And through fruitless-digging we weren't able to find McCandless' obituary, only a simple headstone where he was laid to rest.  

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About The Author

Mollie McWilliams

Mollie McWilliams

Mollie is the Web Editor and has been with SF Weekly since 2010.


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