Visalia’s Tragic Building Boom
By the latter part of the 19th Century, Visalia had many substantial buildings, like the ornate Tulare County Courthouse, the stately Palace Hotel, and the towering Harrell building. But in 1898, despite this impressive inventory, the Visalia Daily Times was quick to remind everyone that there were still “a number of old fire-trap frame buildings” around town. So when Emil Seligman and Elwood “E. O.” Larkins announced in early December of that year that they were both going to construct fancy new brick buildings, the community was pleased Visalia was going to get another architectural upgrade.
Seligman, a successful Dinuba businessman, and Larkins, a well-respected Visalia attorney, hired Visalia architect L. E. McCabe to draw up their plans, and they selected T. B. Craycroft to be the builder. The plan for their respective commercial projects was to build them side-by-side on the west side of Church Street between Main and Center. The lots were ideal as they were in the middle of the busy commercial trade area. But despite the perfect spot, construction was going to be tricky, as Mill Creek ran through the site.
By December 15, 1898, bricklayers were working on the foundations and the support arch spanning the creek. As workers were building the walls, concerns surfaced about the quality of the construction and the materials used. The walls seemed weak, in fact, so weak that McCabe ordered several walls from the two buildings plus the arch to be taken down. On January 5, workers were preparing to dismantle the defective construction. At the same time, more bricks were delivered and stacked on the newly laid floor of the Seligman building, directly over the doomed arch.
At 8 a.m. the next day as the work crew began taking down the brick walls, catastrophe struck. The wall, floor and arch of the Seligman building collapsed and crashed into Mill Creek. The noise sounded like an explosion. Bricks and timbers tumbled into the creek bed, burying workers in the debris. The sound of the collapse and the cries and moans from the injured workmen attracted attention, and impromptu rescue efforts began.
Two workmen, Harry Hughes and George Harris, suffered the most serious injuries. When Hughes was dug out of the rubble, he was found doubled up with his head between his legs and covered with blood. Harris’ head was in the water and he was barely conscious. Russell Keeler and George Fry only had minor injuries as they jumped clear of most of the falling debris, but Elmer Waits fractured both legs. John Bernhard, a carpenter, heard the ominous cracking sound that came before the collapse, and he jumped to safety.
The injured men were taken to various places for treatment. Hughes, clearly the most serious, was taken to the Visalia House, a short distance away from the scene. He languished in pain with compound bone fractures, a broken collarbone, a crushed chest, and bruised face and head. He lingered for six hours, but his mangled body could not respond. At about 2:30 p.m. he was pronounced dead. Fortunately, all the other workers survived the ordeal.
Hughes was a popular young man in Visalia. He was born in England, then became a US citizen and lived in Visalia with his wife and small child. His funeral service was held at the Visalia Cemetery, officiated by his lodge, the Visalia Camp, Woodmen of the World.
The building collapse and the death and injuries created an uneasy stir in town. The day after the accident the Visalia Daily Morning Delta raised the question of responsibility for the incident. Alonzo Melville Doty, the newspaper business manager, joined in and poetically wrote:
Shall builders now resume their work
Disgracing this fair town?
Can no one be called to account
For walls that crumble down?
Almost immediately, Tulare County Coroner T. C. Corruthers impaneled a jury to look into the cause of the 35-year-old man’s death. For the next several days, the 12-person panel looked at evidence and heard testimony. They called in expert bricklayers, architects, and builders, and heard testimony from Craycroft, McCabe, and others. At noon on January 11, the coroner’s jury had finished their work and issued their verdict. In part it read:
“We find that in the construction and demolition of the wall which fell, Contractor Craycroft was guilty of negligence, carelessness and recklessness to such an extent as to amount to manslaughter, causing the death of Henry Hughes without an intent to do so. We also find from the evidence adduced, that the plans of the architect, L. E. McCabe, seem to have been sufficient, but acting as superintendent of construction was negligent in not exercising a more vigilant supervision over the construction and demolition of the wall in question. We recommend that the Common Council [City Council] of the City of Visalia pass such ordinances and regulations as will provide for a strict inspection of all buildings hereafter constructed…”
The Visalia city fathers took the recommendation of the jury seriously. On June 11 at regular session, they ordered, “The fire marshal be authorized to employ a competent architect or mechanic at such times as he may deem proper to inspect all buildings that may now or may hereafter be constructed within the city of Visalia, for the purpose of determining whether such building or buildings are safely constructed or being constructed…”
The Delta clearly was satisfied and reported on June 13, “One gratifying result of the said accident which recently occurred in Visalia will be the building of stable brick structures in this city hereafter. People who contemplate building will insist on a good building and no builder would dare now to do a flimsy job of work.” A few days later, the newspaper reported that T. B. Craycroft filed for insolvency [bankruptcy]. L. E. McCabe would later move his company to Los Angeles.
Despite the accident, Seligman and Larkins continued with their plans, and in 1899 a single building with both of their names on it was completed on the same two lots. The building stood for 68 years and was torn down in 1967 to make way for a parking lot.