The front page of the San Francisco Call on Nov. 30, 1900, depicted the gruesome accident at the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works building.

‘A gallows trap’: the Thanksgiving Day football massacre

In 1900, San Francisco witnessed the deadliest spectator disaster in the history of American sports.

The Cal and Stanford football clubs had the 10th meeting of their storied rivalry on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 29, at San Francisco’s old Recreation Park, drawing roughly 19,000 fans.

Unable to get inside, hundreds of boys and men clambered atop a glass factory whose roof offered a perch just beyond the edge of the stands. Some, it was later reported, joked about the flimsy roof straining to support their weight. Then, roughly 20 minutes after kickoff, the inevitable: The roof, one survivor recounted, “sprung open like a gallows trap,” sending a mass of bodies tumbling 45 feet onto the blistering hot furnace machinery below.

Fans piled atop the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works building before the roof collapsed on Nov. 29, 1900.
Jonn E. Hare/San Francisco Examiner

News accounts described bodies writhing in agony. “I saw the poor fellow who had been chatting with me strike the furnace,” one survivor told the Chronicle. “He curled up like a worm in the heat.”

As the dead were identified, 23 in total, the scale of the loss came into tragic focus. Most were just children. The Chronicle ran the names in alphabetical order:

Barnwell, Talleyrand, 15
Eckfeldt, William, 12
Flahavan, Edgar, 13
Girard, Leon, 17
Monahan, Charles, 32 …

Pictures of victims, from left, William Eckfeldt, 12; Edgar Flahavan, 13; and Dante Monaco, 16.
The San Francisco Examiner

The roof collapse at the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works building ranked as the worst loss of life ever at an American sporting event, a distinction unsurpassed to this day. Yet even as the city’s newspapers splashed the story across their front pages, the sports sections included this item: Stanford 5, Cal 0.

While children lay dying at the edge of the stadium, the football teams played on. Later, as panicked mothers and fathers bellowed the names of their missing sons at the city’s hospitals and morgues, Stanford fans, jubilant in victory, paraded down Market Street.

An official inquest was concluded within a week and placed all blame on the victims themselves. The story then dropped out of the news pages, never to return. In time, the 1900 Big Game catastrophe was all but forgotten. Today, a UC San Francisco building stands at the site of the old glass factory. No marker recalls the history.

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