Don't Forget to Check the Top Shelf!: The Story Behind the SFPD's Tug of War Team

Aug 03, 2018

SFPD Tug of War Team

Guest blog post contributed by Joseph Reilly (SFPD, ret.), SFPCU Corporate Secretary.

The last place I expected to find a piece of real San Francisco history was in a cabinet high on a shelf above a coffee maker at SFPCU. The shelf was too high for a clear view but I could tell there was something up there when I tried to push in a box.

I was just able to grab the object with my fingertips and was surprised to be holding a small, silver trophy-like cup. It was engraved but the cup was heavily tarnished, making it difficult to read. The stem was crushed and bent and the bowl of the cup dented and no longer round. It appeared to be good quality sterling silver so I thought it could be repaired and cleaned.

The front inscription was curious:

Tug of War
Beach Day
July 25th, 1914
Police vs. Firemen

The names of the 6 team members and the team captain were engraved on the opposite side. Most amazing though, the trophy was over 100 years old!

Front and Back of Trophy before being restored

So, way back then, at the beach, there was a Tug of War between the Police and Fire Departments. I assumed that the police won the contest since the trophy now resided here at the SF Police Credit Union. How did the trophy end up here? Where has it been all these years? What was "Beach Day" all about?

SFPCU does have a display of SFPD historic objects and memorabilia, perhaps the trophy was meant to be included. I thought of some former SFPCU employees who may have known the story but sadly they have passed on. The curiosity intensified.

I had access to historical files of San Francisco newspapers through the San Francisco Public Library so I began looking for stories about "Beach Day" in the July, 1914 editions. There were a few short references but I did not locate a feature report. I then began to do general internet searches for "Beach Day" using other key words. That yielded a link to an archive of monthly newsletters published by the “Indoor Yacht Club” (IYC), a San Francisco civic organization founded after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire which was, beyond the social aspects, a promoter of all things San Francisco.

As I read through the archive, it made sense that the IYC would be trying to boost civic pride and enthusiasm as the City rebuilt itself after 1906. The IYC and the Chamber of Commerce had sponsored a "Beach Day" over several years, including 1914. The effort was designed to gather community and political support for construction of a seawall and promenade at Ocean Beach and create a recreational destination to rival other well-known seaside attractions in California and on the east coast.

Known as the “Mainsheet”, the IYC publication had a full page article about the July, 25, 1914 "Beach Day" that included a cartoon of the Police-Fire Tug of War, just one of the day’s events. Mystery solved! Or so I thought.

Random internet searches eventually led to a photo of the 1913 SFPD Tug of War Team held in the collection of the San Francisco Public Library. Five of the names on the trophy and the team captain were listed among the men appearing in the 1913 photo. Who was the 6th team member in 1914?

The one name on the trophy but not listed in the photo was M.M. Jackson who I later learned was S.F.P.D. Sgt. Miles M. Jackson. A local newspaper at the time, The San Francisco Call, reported on May 10, 1907, that 12 new police officers had been appointed by the Police Commission. One of the new officers was Miles M. Jackson.

Another story in the San Francisco Call appearing on June 21, 1912 announced "Cops and Fire Laddies to meet in a Tug of War at Eagles’ Picnic" on Sunday, June 23rd. The police team roster included four of the names engraved on the trophy: Miles Jackson, Michael Desmond, D.R. Campbell and J.J. Cameron.        

With a little more digging, I learned that Sgt. Jackson had been killed in the line of duty in 1920 so of course, his name was also engraved on the SFPD Wall of Honor at the Hall of Justice.

Sgt. Jackson and SFPD Det. Lester Dorman had tracked three criminals to Santa Rosa. Charles Valento, Terrence Fitts and George Boyd were known as Howard Street gang members and suspected of committing a brutal assault on two San Francisco women. On December 5, 1920, Sgt. Jackson, Det. Dorman along with the Sheriff of Sonoma County, James Petray, were killed in a shootout with the three fugitives as they attempted to make the arrests. Boyd was wounded in the exchange of gunfire but survived.

The three were quickly captured at the scene and imprisoned in the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa. However, rather than nearing the end of this story, the most shocking part of the tale soon emerged.

Within a few days of the murders, Valento, Fitts, and Boyd were forcibly taken from the jail by a lynch mob and hung from a tree in a local Santa Rosa cemetery.  Gaye LeBaron and Joann Mitchell tell the story in detail in their 1993 book, “Santa Rosa, A Twentieth Century Town”, published by Historia, Ltd. A graphic photo had been taken that was published by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper.

Stories had circulated at the time that the lynch mob was a group of SFPD officers avenging the deaths of their colleagues. The truth would come out years later as the youngest member of the lynch mob in 1920 told the real story to a reporter. Clarence H. “Barney” Barnard’s eyewitness account remained sealed until his death in 2008. One revelation was that the mob responsible for the hangings had been organized in Healdsburg, Sheriff Petray’s hometown.

Sgt. Jackson and Terrence Fitts had crossed paths before. I located a transcript of the Sonoma County Coroner’s Investigation into the deaths of Miles Jackson, Lester Dorman, James Petray, as well as the three fugitives, Valento, Fitts and Boyd. Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Marvin Robinson testified that Sgt. Jackson had told the story of being shot through the shoulder by Fitts during an arrest six years earlier in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 15, 1914 that Terrence Fitts was being sentenced to a 5 Year prison term at San Quentin for burglary. During Fitts’ capture in a raid on a Seventh Street lodging house, Sgt. Jackson was shot in the right arm by one of the gang, James Smith, alias “Forty Year Smithy” who was convicted of assault to commit murder.

Having discovered its secrets, the trophy was eventually repaired and cleaned by Biro and Sons, Silversmiths, located on Harrison Street, near the Hall of Justice. The 1914 inscription contrasted sharply with its restored beauty.  
Beach Day trophy after being restored

I knew that Jackson and Dorman's names were engraved on the Wall of Honor but I paid a visit to see for myself. I had passed the Wall every day over the years that I was assigned to the Hall of Justice. The tarnished trophy in need of repair, found by chance, had compelled me to return there one more time.

Now sparkling silver again, the Tug of War trophy hints of happier times. However it is linked to not only a San Francisco tragedy but also a macabre episode of Santa Rosa history, like a frontier tale out of the Wild West.   

Look for the Tug of War Trophy on display at the SF Police Credit Union.

The Beach Day trophy on display at SFPCU's Irving Branch


Photo of the 1913 SFPD Tug of War Team (top) was included in this article with the permission of:
SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.