By Amy O’Hair
The death of a dairy woman near Sunnyside, run down by a speeding Southern Pacific train as she took her cows across the tracks to better pasture, captured the attention and the hearts of San Franciscans in 1896. A reporter showed that to keep to their schedule, SP drivers were required to break the law daily by exceeding the City speed limit—often speeding to four times the limit on the downhill patch of pastoral land where Ellen Furey grazed her cows. One young girl witnessed the collision, and spoke bravely before the press and the coroner, revealing the hegemonic company’s lies.
The Old Dairy Woman of Sunnyside
There’s no doubt Ellen Furey lived a difficult life, though like many women in the nineteenth century, she left little in the public record. In 1880 the US census shows her living with her husband William Furey on the Old San Jose Road; he had been unemployed for the last 12 months and she kept house.
They had immigrated to the US from Kings County, Ireland (now County Offaly), probably in the late 1860s, when they were both in their twenties. Ellen never had any children. Bill worked as a hostler and ranch hand, at George Smart’s dairy farm (more on Smart here) on the San Jose Road during the 1880s, according to voting records.
By 1890 Ellen had divorced Bill, on grounds of extreme cruelty (though this was the ostensible reason given for almost all California divorces then and did not always tell the true story). Perhaps he drank. Perhaps having no children pushed them apart. Bill then worked South of Market as a stableman. Apparently he was partial to horses, she to cows. (More on cows in Sunnyside here.)
In any case, she looked after herself; at the time she died of her injuries from that train in 1896, she had five cows of her own, a little house, and an estate worth $2000 ($57,000 now) to leave to the least well-off of her beloved five nephews, Henry Boland, in her will. (SF Call, 7 Feb 1896.) She sold her milk to locally her neighbors and probably also to milk dealers in the City.
Although the newspapers described her as “old,” she was about 52, and did walk her cows all over the hills every day–hardly a woman hobbling along with a cane. Ellen wasn’t afraid of hard work.
A Good Friend, across the Generations
Ellen was known and apparently loved by people who lived around her in the Sunnyside district. Essie Ewell, the young girl of twelve who testified at the coroner’s hearing about Ellen’s death, seems to have been a special friend to her, joining her regularly as she grazed her cows daily on the hills up from the San Jose Road in what is now Balboa Park. Essie witnessed the incident from close enough to see what happened, but could not save her friend.
Essie, an only child, had since 1894 lived with her parents at the southern end of Sunnyside, at 1 Congo Street (house gone as of the 1913 widening of Circular Ave). Her father Augustus Ewell was a stationary engineer—perhaps at the nearby Sunnyside Powerhouse for San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway. (More about Augustus Ewell.) Essie’s mother Annie was Irish, and stood beside her during the whole ordeal with the police and the coroner.
One Monday in January 1896
On the day she died, Ellen took her cows out for grazing as she always did on the hills near her shanty. Ellen surely knew the regular schedule of the SP train to San Luis Obispo. Perhaps she was a bit late to get going that day. The train came barreling down the track at 8:40am, having left Third and Townsend at 8:15, bound for San Jose and San Luis Obispo. Essie’s testimony described what happened in detail—though the accounts in the Call and Chronicle differ somewhat, as was common in the days before reporters carried little tape recorders. She said:
“It was Mrs Fury’s [sic] custom to drive her cows across the track to the adjoining hill to graze because the grass there is good. The train was coming along at full speed. I don’t think any whistle blew or any bell was rung. At any rate, I don’t remember hearing any. The train always goes through this cut fast, and Mrs Fury was too old to move rapidly.” (SF Call, 28 Jan 1896, p.16.)
In the Chronicle, the railway company comes out looking better, as they quote the girl as saying she heard the whistle—though this is clearly contradicted by her own testimony a few days later before the coroner: “The bell was not ringing,” she would say in court.
Both accounts tell of one cow who seemed to have dallied or darted back onto the track as the train approached. Ellen naturally acted to save her, getting the cow to safety, but then she herself was hit by the speeding train. As we know now about automobiles crashes, the difference between a body being hit by a vehicle moving 10 MPH versus 35 MPH is the difference between survivable injuries and likely death.
The Engineer’s Claims
The Southern Pacific train driver’s own account on the day of is telling: “The track is straight and the rate of speed necessary is so great … that it is simply impossible to stop the train unless an object on the track is seen at a great distance” (ibid). But the law required that trains within the City limits travel at no more than eight miles an hour, which even at this time was not very fast; this fact would come out later, when an enterprising reporter at the Call looked further into the matter (more below).
At the hearing, the engine driver was even more insistent he could have done nothing to prevent Mrs Furey’s death: he told Coroner Hawkins that the bell was ringing continuously, that the train was running the required six to eight miles an hour, and that he did not see her until fifty feet away—making his testimony sound rather thoroughly coached by his company’s lawyers. (SF Chronicle, 2 Feb 1896, p.29.)
The policeman to take the case in hand was Officer Herve, who’d made the newspapers the year before as an important witness in the notorious Blanche Lamont murder case (more here). He told the Call that if he found that the circumstances warranted it, he would hold the engineer criminally responsibility and have him arrested, pending the Coroner’s inquest. The Call ended its article: “A damage suit against the company may follow.” (SF Call, 28 Jan 1896, p.16.)
Train Drivers Forced to Break the Law
Three days after the incident, coming as it did only a day after another SP train killed someone else, an enterprising reporter at the Call got a timetable and went to work with pencil and paper. The numbers didn’t add up. The company was requiring its drivers to run trains at dangerous and illegal speeds, surely at the risk of losing their job. He carefully broke down every portion of the schedule and methodically calculated the speeds needed to keep to it, as though his readers might not believe such mandated law-breaking was asked of the train drivers.
“From Valencia Street to Ocean View [the section where Mrs Furey was killed], the train reaches the thirty-miles-an-hour speed….But this is not an isolated instance for the same speed is shown by the time-table for the daily San Jose express…on which engineer Jack Keyer lost his life last Sunday….The killing of Mrs Ellen Fury on Monday last would have been avoided…had the trains been operated according to law.” (SF Call, 30 Jan 1896, p.14.)
His calculations may have even fallen short of the actual speed of the train at the point it hit Mrs Furey, as it was likely to have travelled at less than this top speed where it is more densely populated—maybe 20 MPH—from Valencia to the Sunnyside crossing (at about Monterey Blvd), and then increased above this speed—perhaps to as much as 40 MPH—as it plunged down into the green valley of open land to the south, and then the two figures averaged out to 30 MPH. That must remain my speculation.
Before the Coroner
But the Southern Pacific Railway—dubbed the Octopus by many—was a massively rich and well connected company; its money lined the pockets of many a public official of the day. Coroner Hawkins heard the testimony of young Essie and the well-coached engineer, as well as others, including Policeman Herve, Charles Geiger of 136 Flood Ave, and Essie’s mother Annie. His jury agreed on a verdict of “accidental death…due to the negligence of both parties.” (SF Chronicle, 2 Feb 1896, p.29.)
How will the Octopus be Tamed?
There would of course be more train deaths and injuries in the years to follow; another notable one in Sunnyside occurred just four years later when a toddler of two crawled through the poorly kept fence at Circular and Baden Street, and was struck and killed by another SP train—the child of James and Teresa Reilly, 212 Circular Ave (now 272). (SF Call, 6 Feb 1900.) Only two weeks before this Sunnyside activist Gustav Schnee had been down to the Board of Supervisors to remind them of their promise to remove all SP train tracks in residential neighborhoods in SF. (SF Call, 19 Jan 1900.)
Despite all this, trains ran on the tracks next to Sunnyside until the 1920s, albeit increasingly infrequently. The rise of the automobile and the imposition of better safety standards changed the balance of traffic deaths; by the early 1920s it was the injuries and deaths by car drivers that made the newspapers and provoked outrage.
Ellen Furey’s death sparked pity in those it touched. It was the occasion of a needed reality check as to the corporate practices of a huge company who routinely showed disregard for human life. And for one Sunnyside girl of twelve, it was the loss of a cherished friend, and an injustice to which she responded with courage and boldness, supported it would seem by her parents.
Dairy woman and cow, about 1900. Photo credit below.
First dairy woman: https://pauldorpat.com/2010/10/page/5/
Second dairy woman: State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library.
Third dairy woman: http://blog.storey.com/2009/10/sue-weaver-having-cow.html