Sept. 11, 1947: Driver of Beer Wagon Gets Revenge on Streetcars


Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.

“Big Bill,” driver for Maier & Zobelein, blockaded a procession of cars on Spring Street yesterday afternoon because he was insulted and angry. He had driven his big brewery wagon too close to the tracks and a passing car rolled one of the kegs of beer into the gutter and spilled the contents. For revenge, “Bill” drove his wagon into such a position that not a car could pass north on Spring Street and the trolley coaches began to pile up behind the foam cart.

The team was allowed to stand and “Bill” went into the saloon to refresh himself and cool off as much as possible.

July 14, 1905, L.A. Times

Fifteen cars rolled up behind each other and came to a full stop, the conductor of each going forward to find the cause of delay.

Crowds gathered on the street, but the driver of the wagon could not be found. A conductor mounted the box and essayed to drive the blacks off the track, but the lines were locked back and the man in blue could not unfasten the ribbons.

When every effort to resume traffic had failed, and after a large crowd had collected to watch the fun, “Bill” sauntered leisurely out from the saloon and with his hands in his pockets calmly surveyed the animated scene.

“Bill” is as large as a house. He is a half a head taller and several pounds heavier than Jim Jeffries, for whom he once acted as sparring partner.
A small conductor softly asked “Bill” to “please drive up.” The big fellow just grinned.

Then the policemen from the corner came and inquired into the trouble and “Bill” exhausted a precious three minutes telling his side of the story. The cars were lined up from the Lankershim Building (316½ S. Spring St.) south to the Angelus Hotel (4th Street and Spring).

The policeman with a pained expression said he would have to call the hurry-up wagon and “Bill,” deeming discretion the better part of valor, slowly climbed on the box and with much deliberation gathered up the reins and drove away.

“That’s the only way I can get even with those fellows,” he said to one of the men on the sidewalk as he drove down the long line of crawling cars moving out of the blockade.

How on earth did an exploration of Los Angeles in 1947 lead to an incident from 1905? It’s all about research. The editors preparing the Sept. 11, 1947, Los Angeles Times outdid themselves in creating a marvelous little collection of interesting stories.

On the front page is the saga of 67-year-old Joseph F. Johnston, a career safecracker who has spent more than half his life in prison and has been living at the VA facility in Sawtelle since he was paroled.

An Irish immigrant, Johnston enlisted in the Army upon arriving in the U.S. and served in the Spanish-American War. He embarked on his career as a safecracker after being discharged, serving prison terms in half a dozen states.

He retired temporarily and worked as a Western Union messenger because he thought safecracking was unpatriotic during World War II. But treated unkindly by lady luck at the poker table, he picked up the old trade and punched the dials out of 16 safes in Los Angeles in 1947 before being caught. He always targeted corporations instead of individuals and the mystery was how the little 5-foot-1 man got into the buildings without leaving a trace.
Next to it is another human interest story about Sydney Lyons, an artillery sergeant who was reported dead after being captured by the Japanese. His wife, assuming he was dead, remarried and moved away from Tacoma, Wash., so Lyons began looking for her once he got back to the States. He was strolling the streets of Sacramento when he saw their old dog, who recognized its master and led him to his newly divorced “widow,” Marye. They left for Reno to get remarried.

Then there’s the police raid on the Temple of Yahweh—kooky L.A. religions are always good reading. And a follow on artist Edward Withers, who complains that the best painting he’s done in years was slashed to bits by model Carol Janis because the nude picture was hampering her film career. Janis claimed that Withers painted her face on another model’s body and that the bad publicity made her fiancé jealous and prevented her from getting more movie roles. (Janis’ career consists of a role in the 1948 film “Devil Cargo” starring her fiance, John Calvert)

Even the food column is worth noting—how to make a peanut butter sandwich (tip: spread butter or margarine all the way up to the edges). I think I’ll write a cookbook someday named “Frightening Food From the 1940s” and include (in addition to coffee with salt), melon balls in ginger ale and today’s school lunch suggestions: a baked bean sandwich and a peanut butter and carrot sandwich.

For the noiristes, there is only one story today: The transfer of Police Capt. Jack Donahoe from homicide back to his old job as head of the robbery division. Donahoe was replaced at homicide by Francis J. Kearney, who was head of narcotics, a position taken by Eddie A. Chitwood, the former robbery captain. These moves came along with another three-way shift of men heading the auto theft, burglary and University detective divisions.

Donahoe was never really comfortable in homicide and his brief term as captain was marked by the Black Dahlia, Jeanne French and several other extremely difficult murders that were never solved. Robbery was his forte and he solved many cases. It’s certainly wrong to think of him as incompetent or corrupt, as implied in several Black Dahlia books. Donahoe was a sharp, popular investigator—and everybody I’ve ever met who knew him has nothing but good things to say about him.

So how about “Big Bill”?

The ad for Eastside Beer mentions that the company began as Zobelein and a quick search turned up a fascinating history of brewing in Los Angeles. Including our friend with the horses.

Interestingly enough, a similar incident occurred in 1947, when a car made a left turn onto Spring Street out of the Hall of Records parking lot and got caught between two streetcars near City Hall, tying up traffic for hours. The Red Cars enjoy sainthood in Los Angeles, but their most notable feature—that they traveled on tracks—was also their most significant weakness and ultimately their fatal flaw.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1905, 1947, Art & Artists, Comics, Streetcars, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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