In 1913 someone who was far from home, new to the City, and despairing of his future came to a lonely hilltop at the northern edge of Sunnyside to do away with himself. But he didn’t count on the appearance of a local man, Hugo Ekenberg of 400 Joost Ave, who would save his life. The “knoll” where it probably happened is one of our hidden treasures, the rocky outcropping now called Dorothy Erskine Park, at the top of Baden Street.
Here is the news report in the San Francisco Call (19 April 1913):
Hugo Sigfrid Ekenberg (1883 – 1981) was a Swedish immigrant then about thirty years old who had just recently moved to Sunnyside with his wife Anna. He was a carpenter. They did not stay in Sunnyside for very long, about three years. Perhaps it was too sparsely populated for their tastes; later they kept hotels and rooming houses, and always lived with many other people.
At the time of this surely singular experience in Hugo’s life, he and Anna had been married for three years, and had just moved to the newly built house at 400 Joost Ave (Detroit), one of only a few houses on the block.
On the 1915 Sanborn map there is a little shed next to their house, marked “auto”–they apparently had a car, something not very common at this time. So they were pretty well off.
Baby Makes Three
At about the time of this event his wife Anna would have just become sure that she was pregnant with their first child. Perhaps this was the day she told Hugo the news, and he went wandering off, up the hill from their home, across the open land between Sunnyside and Glen Park, dreaming of his child to be. After three years of marriage perhaps they had been waiting for this event. Arvid Ekenberg was born six months later.
Here are the Ekenbergs in their passport photos from several years after this.
The Rocky Hillside
There was a lot of undeveloped land near their house, on the crest of the hill that divides Glen Park and Sunnyside. Below is a portion of the aerial photographs taken in 1938; in 1913 the number of houses on these blocks was only slightly more sparse—the big change came after WWII. Below it is clear the first block of Mangels Avenue is not even a straight footpath; the hillside that would later in the 1950s be filled with boxy houses was in the first half of the 20th century just rough ground crisscrossed with paths.
The land that would later be Dorothy Erskine Park is marked in green above (more on this park below). I imagine that if you lived in this part of Sunnyside and wanted to, say, get your hair cut at Glen Park, you might go over the hill, catching a glorious view of the south City on the way.
Father to Be, on a Walk
In any case wherever Hugo was headed, he did stumble upon on the hapless and unconscious Anton Odwarka. It was a Thursday, and perhaps he, like the man he found, had no work. This was three months into an economic downturn in the US, which continued until the end of 1914, and wouldn’t be offset until the beginning of WWI. Odwarka had come from St Paul, Minnsota, to San Francisco to find a job, and was unsuccessful. Business was slow everywhere. The day he tried to kill himself, Anton would have found in the newspapers no “Help Wanted” ads for cooks; indeed the vast majority of the ads were for people looking for work, not employers offering jobs.
Anton the Unemployed Cook
While Hugo had a wife and a child on the way, and a house, Anton was living in a hotel and at his wit’s end—at the end of the road, in all ways. Could it be a mere coincidence that this downtrodden man had picked a place to stay called the Terminal Hotel? It was located at the very end of Haight Street, where it meets Golden Gate Park. He had been threatening suicide, I infer from the article, in front of any and all who would listen. Where he got the funds to buy a gun, we will never know, but they were not hard to come by in the City at this time.
What possessed this man to come all the way out to Glen Park to commit his final act? And how did he arrive here? Gun in his pocket, Anton probably boarded a streetcar. On Frederick Street he may have caught the car that came over the Eureka Valley hill, down 18th Street via a clever switchback (the route of the current 33 bus). This was a street railway innovation that Behrend Joost put in place in 1894 (but of course lost control of soon after). That car would come down to Guerrero, where you transferred to the Sunnyside-bound car. Getting off in Glen Park, Anton could have walked out Bosworth Street, or taken the little car that served that street.
Let’s say he got off along the way, and hiked up the hill to what is now Dorothy Erskine Park. (Or, I concede, he may have gone it all the way to Glen Canyon, and walked up to Coyote Crags or the like to make away with himself, and all my suppositions about where this incident took place are null and void….)
Suicide with a View
Reaching the top of the hill, he would have had a great view of the south City. But instead of inspiring awe and pleasure as it might in most of us, Anton sat down on the rocky ground, and tried to put a bullet in his brain. He missed the vital parts, but fell unconscious. This means he could not have called out for help and attracted the attention of anyone nearby. The article says his rescuer happened upon him. For whatever reason, Hugo Ekenberg was walking nearby.
Anton Odwarka apparently recovered fully from his bullet wound, because at least by the following year he was back home in St Paul, with either a great story to tell about his adventure in Sin City California that drove him to insanity, or maybe a shameful secret he kept to himself. He evidently became a baker.
But he couldn’t keep himself away from San Francisco! By 1919 Anton is back in the City, living at the SRO that is still at 640 Eddy Street in the Tenderloin, working as a boxmaker. I wasn’t able to track him after this.
The Park on a Knoll
Dorothy Erskine Park was dedicated in February 1979, and named for the then 82-year-old conservationist. The park was a joint effort, according to the Chronicle, of “[f]riends and admirers of Mrs. Erskine from a lifetime of conservation service, neighbors, and members of the Sunnyside, Glen Park, and Miraloma associations who fought to preserve the hill from road cuts and further development.” (SF Chronicle, 25 Feb 1979, p116). Mayor Dianne Feinstein came for the dedication, and said of the esteemed environmentalist: “I’ve never known anyone to participate in so many conservation battles and emerge without a single enemy or detractor” (ibid).
The Chronicle article extolled the great views and featured instructions about how to get up to the rocky hill—before either the Conservatory had been reconstructed or the greenways opened between it and Mangels Ave. These were all part of a greening plan for Sunnyside that many people worked to put in place in those years. Read more about the park here; there is also an interview on SPUR’s website with Dorothy Erskine (1896-1982).