By Edward Mackie, Daily Nexus, November 17, 1975
This article is the third in a series of six chapters reviewing the life and times of Thomas Storke.
The San Francisco earthquake was an unexpected bomb. When it exploded, it destroyed more than a city — it was the beginning of the end for the exploitative political machinery of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Amid the tragic tremor and subsequent fire of April, 1906, the derelict gangs of “Boss” Abraham Ruef, S.P.’s local chief, ran wild upon the city. An outraged public quickly extracted an unprecedented series of Grand Jury indictments leveled at the diabolical extortionist, Ruef, and his puppet mayor, Eugene Schmitz.
Gathered together, ankle-deep in ashes and rubble the day after the fire had subsided, three men began plotting the prosecution of Ruef and his gang; they were Fremont Older, Francis Heney and Thomas Storke of Santa Barbara.
Though geographically removed from the graft fights, Storke was itching to engage in the trials. Arriving in Oakland on April 22, 1906, Storke hastened to the side of Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, who was sheltered in a tent erected off Market Street. Immediately, Storke was introduced to Heney, the Government’s ace prosecutor, whom Theodore Roosevelt had dispatched for the forthcoming trials.
“San Francisco is my town,” said Heney, assuming the case without pay, “and I will do anything to save it from these hoodlums.” But the cost of mounting an investigation — estimated at $100,000 — was no small sum in those days. Two benefactors, however, emerged — James Phelan, a former city mayor, and Rudolph Spreckles, son of the wealthy sugar magnate.
As the trials inched their way to a climax in September 1907, Fremont of the Bulletin was hammering away with all his might. At that point Ruef concluded Freemont must be put away.
Upon receipt of an anonymous tip promising information vital to the prosecution, Fremont agreed to a daylight rendezvous. En route to his destination, though, he was waylayed by armed guards, deputies of a crooked court in Los Angeles, who claimed the editor was under arrest.
Escorted under tight security to a southbound passenger train (Southern Pacific, needless to say), Fremont was imprisoned in a private drawing room — the victim of a kidnap. Luckily, however, a young attorney on the train had spotted Fremont. He suspected foul play and detrained at Salinas where he telephoned the news to Spreckles.
Storke was asleep at home when he received a bedside call. The train pulled in on time and a seat-by-seat search revealed Fremont crouched between two of his guards. “Hello, Fremont,” shouted Storke, “What’s going on?” Whisked from the Pullman car to the courthouse, the editor was instantly release.
Ruef and his henchmen were soon after put away and Hiram Johnson, in 1910, was elected to the governorship of California under the banner: Kick the Southern Pacific out of politics. “After 40 years,” wrote Storke, “the Octopus was finally dead!”