Fire of '33, Part 1

At first, it looked like a small brush fire. And there seemed to be almost unlimited manpower available to put it out. Both workers and foremen figured it would be batted out quickly.

Photo: USC Regional History Center

The Fire of '33

Note: This is the first of three articles that appeared in the Glendale News-Press, Oct. 1, 2 and 4, 1993.

PART ONE 40 Cents an Hour--and Plenty of Takers

The summer of 1933 was abnormally cool. But by early fall, hot dry winds began to blow into Los Angeles from the desert. Already parched from months without rain, the chaparral in Griffith Park became dry as tinder.

The park was alive with activity. Although the Great Depression was at its depth--because the Great Depression was at its depth--literally thousands of men were maintaining bridle trails and roads, cleaning up scrub brush and weeds and building a new road through the undeveloped upper park.

These men were in Griffith Park because of a governmental partnership designed to help the nation muddle through its economic collapse. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation loaned the county money to pay the out-of-work men 40 cents an hour, six hours a day.

Forty cents an hour sounds a little less ridiculous when one considers that in 1933 a complete dinner at the Boos Brothers Cafeteria cost 25 cents, a brand-new Studebaker Dictator cost $645 and a comfortable home in Glendale could be purchased for under $5,000.

The workers registered with the county Department of Charities, which hired foremen (who were variously called straw bosses, shift bosses and trail bosses), paymasters and others, and managed the funds. The city provided the tools (in this case shovels, mostly) and proposed projects that would keep the workers busy and benefit the public.

Each man--women were eligible for welfare jobs, but male heads of households were given priority--received work days according to his number of dependents. More mouths to feed, more work days. The average worker labored about 10 days a month.

Not everyone got work. Foremen and other bosses had broad authority to reduce or revoke work permits. A bad attitude could leave a man without work. So could the wrong politics. According to the Los Angeles Examiner, a number of workers believed to have communist leanings had been "ejected from the park and their names removed from the county charity lists" that summer.

Big as it was, the welfare work system was decentralized and fairly impersonal. The 3,784 workers in Griffith Park on Oct. 3, 1933 were split into 108 squads, most having 50 to 80 men. Each squad had its own foreman and time keeper. The time keepers kept track of the workers through cardboard tickets that were issued for each day's work. At the beginning of the shift, the ticket was torn in half. Half went to the time keeper and half went to the worker, who turned it in at the end of the day. But the system was impersonal enough that men could gave away their work permits to friends or relatives with little fear of detection.

Tuesday, Oct. 3 looked like a good day to go to the beach, not labor in the hot sun in Griffith Park. The day began without a fog and the early sun combined with a dry wind from the desert. By noon, L.A. Civic Center reported a temperature of 100 degrees.

Other than being hot, the day proceeded pleasantly enough in Griffith Park. During the noon hour, some of the workers listened to a radio set up in one of the picnic areas. They heard Carl Hubbell and the New York Giants defeat the Washington Senators 4-2 in the first game of the 1933 World Series, played at the Polo Grounds in New York.

But a little after 2 p.m. workers began to think about more than Hubbell's screwball. At 2:10, Griffith Park Golf Professional Bobby Ross said he and several companions spotted smoke arising from a nearby hill as they stood at the first tee. Frank Shearer, a parks commissioner, and city landscape engineer Fred Roewekamp were about to hike up a sloping canyon from the golf clubhouse to inspect a campsite. At 2:15 they saw smoke spurt halfway up the slope of Mineral Wells Canyon. The smoke was about 150 yards from the golf clubhouse and only 80 feet or so from a crew working just above what was then the main highway through the park.

Shearer said the smoke was billowing at least 100 feet in the air. It looked dense and oily to him, more like a car fire than a brush fire. Brush fires, which were common in the park, tended to produce lighter smoke.

Shearer ran about 300 yards toward the fire. Roewekamp dashed along the road to the clubhouse to phone in the alarm. A man in a dark business suit crossed Roewekamp's path, running away from the vicinity of the fire. The man was not part of the nearby work group. George Snow, a road construction foreman, was running to report the fire to his bosses when he also saw the unusually well-dressed man running from the vicinity.

When Shearer arrived at the source of the fire, he found a pile of debris burning under an oak tree. He believed the debris was a pack rat's nest, although he found an empty coffee can and a paper sack nearby.

Shearer called to some men working by the road. Three responded. The four men went to the oak tree and tried to put out the fire by beating at the dry, burning grass with their shovels. Despite their efforts, the fire soon spread 50 feet up the canyon and into the tops of trees, showering the men with glowing embers. Shearer left to get more help.

Although the large number of welfare workers presented a fire hazard--one carelessly tossed match or cigarette butt could cause catastrophe--they were also a potentially-huge fire fighting force. Although the men were not trained to fight fires, they had shovels. And shovels were key fire-fighting tools in areas not piped for water.

Most of the workers were building a new road on a hillside above the fire. Clyde White, a carpenter employed by the Park Department, was driving along this road inspecting curbs when he spotted the fire below. White, who had the city seal on the door of his tan Ford sedan, drove along the road, yelling out the window to the workers, "Fire in the park! Get your shovels!"

Foremen reacted quickly. The big question later would be, did the foremen urge the workers to volunteer to fight the fire or did they order them to fight it. Afterward, everyone in a position of authority denied ordering any of the welfare workers to fight the fire. Shearer said that he merely asked for volunteers to help him put out the fire under the oak tree. White testified that he drove along spreading the alarm more for the workers' safety than anything else.

Four welfare workers told the Coroner's Inquest that they heard orders to fight the fire. They reported that foremen threatened workers who balked at fighting the fire, telling them they would lose their work permits if they refused. The foremen's power over work permits could account for the four workers' inability (or unwillingness) to identify who had issued orders to fight the fire. It would also explain why no more than four came forward.

Nevertheless, a sizable number of workers chose not to fight the fire. But most of them--whether it be through coercion, civic responsibility, peer pressure, sense of adventure or a desire to pick up a couple of hours of extra pay--responded. Many of them hiked down a twisting, narrow trail from the new road into burning Mineral Wells Canyon below. In some places they had to walk single-file.

Confidence was high and concern was low. It seemed a small fire and the welfare workers presented virtually unlimited manpower to put it out. "It was just a lark to us," said a survivor. "It didn't look dangerous then. We laughed about it and started down, to bat the fire out in a hurry."

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

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Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

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