Saturday, June 17, 2006

Another Layer of the Onion

Yesterday I wrote about the little Eastlake Cottage that was the Petch Family home just prior to them moving in to The Petch House and it got me to thinking about how their lives evolved. According to the business directory in 1893 Thomas Petch was the superintendent of the Eureka Gas Works, a coal gas plant at 117 H street down on the water front. It lists the Electric Power Plant at “The Foot of H Street”. They must have been next door to each other. Also in the 1893 Directory it lists The Eureka Electric Light Works with a man named Fred Bell as the superintendent. This facility is also on the water front but about 5 blocks away on C Street. This appears to be a retail outlet selling lighting and installing wiring.

Also in the 1893 Directory there is an ad for the Humboldt Electric Light Co. at Third & Sixth streets. The ad states “Lights by Meter equivalent to Gas at $1.50 per 1000 feet”. I guess they were trying to show that to get wire run to your house for electric lights was no more expensive than if you had gas pipe run to your house for gas lighting. Both the Eureka Electric Light Works and The Humboldt Electric Light Co. were operating at the same time and neither of them advertised gas lighting. They were strictly electric.

However, in the 1898 Directory (‘94, ’95, ’96, & ’97 don’t exist) it lists an ad for The Eureka Lighting Co which now operates in the same location as the 1893 Eureka Electric Light Works on C Street, and Humboldt Electric Light Co. is no longer listed. Thomas Petch is the superintendent and for the first time it lists a President, Secretary, and Treasurer all with San Francisco addresses. The 1898 business directory lists the Electric Light Co. and the Gas Light Co. both operating out of the C St. location.

It would seem that at some point between 1893 and 1898 big money came down from San Francisco and consolidated all the different gas and electric lighting retail stores, and possibly purchased the power plants on H Street as well. There was the retail businesses on C Street and the one at Third & Sixth Streets. They both now operated in the C Street location and now offered gas and electric lights instead of just electric. This new facility also sold coke, coal, and coal tar.

Coke is a form of coal that is created by cooking off the organic properties in coal. You are left with a product that burns at much higher temperatures than the original coal. Coal tar is a byproduct of the process of making coal gas. For a while it was seen as a waste product until the discovery of Aniline dyes. Aniline dyes are a derivative of coal tar and were discovered accidentally by an Englishmen named Perkins. He was looking for a synthetic form of Quinine to fight malaria. Aniline dyes where the first synthetic dyes created in the middle of the 19th Century and revolutionized the making of textiles, paints, and wallpapers. Perkins became filthy rich. The first dye created was mauvine, now called mauve, and was a favorite of Queen Victoria.

But back to business of lighting….

It would seem that Thomas Petch was in the right place at the right time. The SF people came down, bought everything up, and hired Thomas to run the consolidated operation for them. No doubt this would have meant a big fat raise, which enabled him to move his family from the very charming, but very small and rented 1887 Eastlake cottage, in to the brand new and palatial Petch Manor House.

The house would be a showcase for the business because it had extensive wiring in it with wall switches in ever room, including some 3-way switches, and no doubt was filled with stunning combination gas/electric fixtures. Who knows where the fixtures ended up but I would give my eye teeth to have them today.

Unfortunately, in another 10 or 15 years it would all go to hell when Thomas and Phyllis Petch got divorced. I know that by the ‘20s PG&E was running the show here in town. Maybe they were here in the teens. Perhaps they came in and forced out Thomas Petch. Maybe hired goons were involved to emphasize the point that someone else was running things. We’ll never know. Without a decent job maybe Thomas began to drink too much. That is all speculation. I do know that after the divorce Thomas eventually moves in with his sister in Santa Clara and operates the Gas Plant there during the 1920s. Phyllis turns the once stunning Queen Anne in to a boarding house. It was probably still a very nice house but that was the beginning of a very long and very slow decline.


StuccoHouse said...

Or....Mr. Petch took up with one of the wives of the SF Big Money. Once discovered, he was booted out of the company in shame (and beaten by SF thugs). A shocked Mrs. Petch divorced him with the support of the community. Public disdain was so strong Mr. Petch was forced to leave the house to ex-Mrs. in the settlement and sought refuge at the house of his forgiving sister.

Greg said...

Oh my! It’s so scandalous....but genuinely enjoyable.