‘Coon Show’ Raises Funds for Lark Ellen Orphanage

Singer Ellen Beach Yaw and the Background of the Home

Engineer, workers die in collapse of tunnel beneath Bunker Hill

Los Angeles in the 1900s

January 1900

George Garrigues
From the Los Angeles Daily Times, January 22,1900



Maj. Lambie of the City Engineer’s Office Rescued by Hours of Strenuous Work, but Dies of the Shock and Injuries in Half an Hour
The Accident Due to Failure of Contractors to Brace and Timber the Tunnel Properly — Men Inside, Protected by Brick Arch, Seem to Be Safe — Chief of Police Hard at Work Digging Them Out

Twelve men were imprisoned alive by the caving-in of a large section of the west end of the Third-street tunnel shortly after 11 o’clock yesterday morning [Sunday]. One of them was fatally injured, and the others, . . . were simply entombed behind the portion of the tunnel which caved in.

That some of them are alive is known from the fact that they could be heard all yesterday afternoon working on the inside of the tunnel endeavoring to release themselves.

Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1900.


Showing the earth that fell from the top. Maj. Lambie was buried at the bottom of the right-hand side of the rock, at spot indicated by (X).

The list of those caught in the cave-in, as furnished by the contractors on the work, follows:

  • W.T. Lambie, inspector for the City Engineer, caught at the mouth of the tunnel and buried under tons of earth and broken timbers; released at 8 o’clock last night and, taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital, died at 8:35 o’clock.
  • Jerry Mohn, bricklayer.
  • John Eckhart, bricklayer.
  • Frank Pellassier.
  • John Mitchell.
  • William Paulley.
  • --- Kimberley.
  • Max Costello.
  • --- Badden.
  • John Bejoe [corrected the next day to John Vesentini].
  • J.W. Washburn.
  • Bert Garrett.

The accident was caused, according to the opinion of City Engineer Olmsted, by insufficient timbering and bracing of that portion of the tunnel which runs through loose earth. For several months, Swensen & Hill, the contractors . . ., have been working night and day to get the hole through the hill. They had three shifts of men, each divided into two crews. One crew was worked from the east end of the tunnel and the other from the west end. . . . every day in the week these men worked, no attention being paid to Sundays or holidays. . . .

The accident happened without warning of any kind. A portion of the drift was lined with brick and only that portion which was not so lined, but which was partially propped up with timbers, caved in. . . . the men who were working at the far end of the tunnel were caught in a trap. . . .

Anthony Lopez [was] a laborer whose escape from instant death was due only to his swiftness of foot and his ability to reach safety while the top of the tunnel was falling upon him. . . . He had about as narrow an escape as it is possible for a man to have.

“I had delivered a load in the barrow to one of the workmen inside and started out. Just ahead of me was Maj. Lambie, and we walked out together, he a little in front of me. I stopped for something, and . . . I saw a clod of earth fall from the roof. Looking up, I saw the whole mass shifting. It was like the first slow moving of a train, and it was not fast. Here and there small pieces of earth were dropping from the top, and I saw the timbers giving.

“I knew what was coming, and I shouted to Maj. Lambie to run. He seemed to know what was happening, and he started. I was the quicker, however, and I passed him. . . . a large lump of earth fell and struck him on the head or shoulder, knocking him to the ground. . . .

George Hare, another of the force of laborers . . ., saved Maj. Lambie from suffocation. . . . He said . . .:

“I heard him groaning and took a shovel and dug down to near where he was. I succeeded in uncovering his face, and he could then breathe. . . .

Contractor Hill . . . helped Hare uncover Lambie’s face. He then found a narrow passage between the timbers and started to crawl in, but in doing so he discovered there was danger of again covering Lambie, and he stopped. He called to the men inside and received a response. . . . He could hear them yelling but the tone of their voices was muffled. . . .

For fully fifteen minutes after the accident, not more than a dozen people were on the scene. From a nearby residence a telephone message was sent to the Police Station that eleven men had been killed . . .. The response was prompt. Chief Elton was in his office at the time . . .. He immediately ordered all the policemen who could be reached by telephone to be sent to the tunnel and went there himself in the first patrol wagon.

With the arrival of the police came hundreds of men, women and children. The news of the accident spread rapidly through the city, and nearly every person who heard of it went to the scene. . . ..

Chief [Charles] Elton . . . took off his coat, seized a shovel and . . . did his full share of the first work. Then he directed others what to do. So great was the crush of people that the police were compelled to drive every person except the workmen from the place. . . .

There was no dearth of men, and had a thousand men be needed, they could have been secured. . . .

Maj. Lambie . . . was pinned down by a mass of earth and a number of broken timbers. Drs. Ralph Hagen, J.K. Carson and Johnson were summoned, and from time to time they examined the imprisoned man. His face, breast and left arm were free, but below the waist he could not move and had no sense of feeling. He was given stimulants frequently, for the ground was wet and he became very cold.

To remove the timbers which were holding him down was found to be . . . too dangerous . . . and the tedious work of digging under him was begun. . . . As soon as one man became fatigued, another was ready to take his place, and for hour after hour the work went on.

   The work was not done by laborers alone. Several men attired in fine suits, who had merely come there through curiosity, forgot their attire and went into the trench to do what they could . . ..

For the first two hours, he [Maj. Lambie] appeared to be in excellent spirits and directed the men how to work. . . . [but] a new danger was confronted, that of his being drowned. The cave had caused a break in the sewer . . . and had also broken the water pipes . . .. The water from both sources poured into the trench in such volume that the workmen had to stop every few minutes and bail it out with buckets. . . .

Lambie . . . began to lose vitality. . . . shortly after 6 o’clock the physicians found that his heart beats were only forty to the minute. They, therefore, decided to give him a hypodermic injection of strychnine and morphine, for he was suffering greatly then. The injection did not seem to relieve him, and it was seen that if he was to be rescued alive the work must be done in haste. A new force was put on, and them men worked harder than ever.

At 8 o’clock the rescuers succeeded in releasing Lambie, and the limp and bruised form of the old inspector was carried on a stretcher to the waiting patrol wagon, which was driven at once to the Good Samaritan Hospital.

Because of the weakened condition of the injured man, no examination was made, and the physicians simply administered anaesthetics to relieve his pain. At 8:35 o’clock he died.

[Meanwhile, another crew was digging into the fallen earth and broken timbers from the other side of the hill.]

Large 6x6 timbers had to be cut in several places with a hatchet because there was not space enough to use a saw. The work was very dangerous, and frequently the earth caved in around the men, burying some of them to their knees. . . . Soon . . . the men heard from the inside the rap, rap, rap of picks handled by the imprisoned men. When this news was announced , there was a cheer . . .. After a time, however, the sounds ceased, and no more was heard of them.


The history of the Third-street tunnel has been a story of almost continual wrangling from one source or another ever since the bonds to build it were issued by the city. . . . Yesterday’s accident was not the first . . .. Two other men have been killed there by the caving in of the banks, and more than one workman has been injured. . . .

Maj. W.T. Lambie was 62 years of age . . . His home was at No. 614 Pasadena Ave. His family consists of a wife and two daughters. He had had much experience in tunnel work, having been chief engineer on the San Fernando tunnel, and on other such work. . . .

At 12:30 a great shout went up. . . . [John] Mitchell and [John] Eckert had at last been released. The wives of these two men had been waiting for hours, alternating between hope and despair, and the meeting was most affecting. The men were given stimulants and refreshments and were then taken to their homes. They showed the effects of their long and lonely imprisonment. Their faces were ashen in hue, and the cold, clammy earth pressing on them from all sides had chilled them to the marrow.

At 7 o’clock it was decided to sink a shaft from the top of the hill over that part of the tunnel which was supposed to be intact . . . . E.A. Hutchinson . . . called for six volunteers from the crowd of spectators. Twenty men responded, ’mid the cheers of the throng, and the required number were soon at work. . . .

From the Los Angeles Daily Times, January 23,1900



Ten Men Released Unhurt from Their Imprisonment Underground — Mr. Pauley’s Body Not Yet Recovered.

Jawsmiths Try to Make Socialistic Capital of the Accident and Harangue Crowds at the Scene.
Council Asked to Complete the Tunnel by Day Labor — Inquests and Maj. Lambie’s Funeral to Be Held Today.

Three of the thirteen men caught by the collapse of the roof of the west end of the Third-street tunnel Sunday morning are dead. . . .

  • Maj. W.T. Lambie, the city inspector on the work, died half an hour after being taken out of the tunnel.
  • William Pauley, night foreman of the timber work for the contractors, is certainly dead, and his body lies buried under the mass of earth and broken timbers which blocks the mouth of the tunnel.
  • The third death occurred last night at 6:40 o’clock, the victim being John Vesentini. . . .

Vesentini was caught . . . . Heavy timbers lodged across his legs and the lower part of his body, but his hands were free. He . . . complained of pain at times. . . . The imprisoned man could be seen . . . between the timbers, and he kept up a continual conversation with the workmen. . . . Just before daylight Vesentini complained of hunger, and a quantity of food and coffee was passed in to him. He was given stimulants from time to time, and the men working to save him endeavored to keep up his spirits by joking with him.

Early yesterday morning Vesentini’s fourteen-year-old son appeared at the tunnel and inquired about his father. He was at once taken into the hole and talked with his father, the latter telling the boy not to be afraid, that he was not hurt and would be out in a short time.

    . . . Heavy timbers had to be cut, and at intervals loose earth showered down . . . All day long thousands of people thronged the embankments . . . until Vesentini was taken out. . . . The services of half a dozen policemen were required to keep back the crowd. . . . At 5:30 p.m. Vesentini was freed. . . . one of the workmen seized him by the shoulders and slowly dragged him toward the tunnel entrance. This dragging had to be done inch by inch because there was great danger of dislodging a timber and . . . instant death to the whole party would have resulted. . . .

He greeted contractor Hill with the remark, “Hello, Jim, I’m all right,” [but] on the way to the hospital he seemed to become somewhat dazed. . . . On arriving there Vesentini recognized his son, and the little fellow, between his sobs, tried to cheer up his father. . . . An hour after he had been taken from the tunnel, [however,] he died.

Vesentini was a widower and resided at No. 714 Castelar street. He leaves four children, the eldest of whom is the fourteen-year-old son who remained at the tunnel all day yesterday waiting for his father to be released. . . .


. . . several Social Labor agitators seized the opportunity [yesterday] to exercise their jaws in the attempt to make capital out of the disaster for the stimulation of socialism.

In the absence of a band wagon to climb into, the jawsmiths took possession of a dirt wagon, from which they harangued the crowd, or such part of the gathering as would listen to their windy palaver. . . .

All the speakers ascribed the tunnel disaster to lack of proper inspection, and the cheap way the work was being done by the contractor. . . . Invitations were extended to workingmen to get into the wagon and tell their experience, but none responded. The chairman attributed this lack of enthusiasm to the abject state of servitude to which the laborers were reduced. When the gab fest came to an end, [a] . . . protest and petition was . . . submitted to a vote. . . . The petition was circulated among the crowd and received some signatures, but a good many of those who were solicited refused to sign it. . . .

In the afternoon an effort was made to repeat the morning performance, but the crowd was so intent on watching the work of rescue that very little attention was paid to the windjammers or their utterances.


A protest against the methods employed at the Third-street tunnel, about eight feet in length and bearing several hundred names, was presented to the City Council yesterday.

The protest was written on rough wrapping paper and had evidently been circulated among the people who came to view the serious cave[-in] that occurred at the west portal on Sunday. The protest was worded as follows:

“We the undersigned, citizens of Los Angeles, do protest against the gross negligence of the city authorities in providing proper inspection and care in the work on the Third-street tunnel, and we demand that from now on the work be done directly by the city at the legal rate of wages.”

A serious air pervaded the council chamber.. . . the protest was referred to the City Engineer without further debate. . . .


The difference in tone among the stories is striking. It is evident that the second story was either written by Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis himself, widely known for his antipathy toward anything to the left of William McKinley, or by somebody who could mimic perfectly the old grouch’s cadence, rhythm and language.


According to a Civil War source quoted on the Web, a W.T. Lambie had fought as a lieutenant with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.


Editor’s Note: The following two stories illustrate publicity and follow-up on a “coon show,” which was usually a review featuring Negro entertainers, who, according to the American Memory Section of the National Digital Library, were:

. . .stereotypes of the high-stepping, high-living black dandy and images associated with African-American urban life. . . . The coon show . . . became a theatrical event in which one could hear rag-time, “coon-shouts” (which attempted to replicate certain black vocal traditions), and, eventually, jazz.

Nowadays, the term is often applied derogatorily to television sitcoms of black urban life, as witness these citations.


It appears that the entertainment in this Los Angeles show featured the serious, boring, classical stuff at the beginning, done by whites, and the really fun, preposterous (“Leave ‘em laughing’) stuff at the end, some of it, at least, done by blacks but some also possibly done by whites in blackface.

Los Angeles Daily Times, January 15, 1900


Benefit Tonight at the Los Angeles Theater

A special entertainment of more than ordinary excellence will be given at the Los Angeles Theater this evening for the benefit of the Lark Ellen Home for Newsboys.

Those who will participate have volunteered their services . . .. The programme follows:

  • Orchestral ballet from “Naila” (Delibes)
  • Aria, “Pace Mio Dio” (Verdi)
  • Solo, “My Native Land” (Mattel)
  • Double sextette
  • Bass solo, selected
  • Reverie, “Sognal” (Schira)
  • Orchestral, “Potpourri” from “Wizard of the Nile” (Herbert)
  • No encores
  • Scene — (a) “When a Coon Sits in the Presidential Chair,” (b) “This Will Bring You Back,” (c) “Give Me My Money” (Mr. Pendelton, Mr. Cornish)
  • Plantation scene — The Blackstone Quartette
  • “Newsboys’ Song,” especially written for this occasion — Hazel Bennett
  • Song and dance — “All I Want Is My Black Baby Back” — Frances Shanahan.
  • The black “Twins” in double dance.
Los Angeles Daily Times, January 16, 1900


Entertainment at the Los Angeles Theater

The Newsboys’ Home benefit given at the Los Angeles Theater last evening was a decided financial and social success and will turn many welcome dollars into the coffers of the home.

The programme given included a range of numbers and “turns” extending from arias and excerpts from Italian grand operas to rag-time nonsense and buck dancing.

The curtain was raised upon a pretty picture of twenty or so white-gowned . . . members of the Woman’s Orchestra. The two orchestral numbers . . . were excellent. The orchestra has greatly improved . . . over what it was a season or so ago.

[The other acts were also reviewed more or less favorably.]

The programme concluded with some coon songs and specialties by Charles Pendleton, Herbert Cornish, Francis Shanahan and the Blackton (colored) Quartette, which latter furnished more amusement than they were down for, by continually losing their cues.

A young colored lad gave some clever buck dancing, and a host or more of newsboys “whooped ’er up” in realistic style as a wind-up.

According to www.dancehistory archives, Buck dancing was “the first known American tap form performed to syncopated rhythms. These rhythms were performed on the ‘offbeat or downbeat,’ which came from tribal rhythms in Africa. Buck dance was a type of clog or tap dance.”

Why newsboys?

I am not sure. This was a term often used for orphanages. Later the facility was known as the Lark Ellen Home for Boys.

David Searcy wrote me that:

I was reading the article about a concert for the Lark Ellen Home for Newsboys at your Web site and noticed at the end there was a question as to why it was called a home for newsboys.

I lived at the Lark Ellen Home for Boys for ten years (from age 8 to 18) at 11351 W, Olympic Blvd. (now office buildings), corner of Purdue and Olympic). While living at the home I met Ellen Beach Yawhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Beach_Yaw (Lark Ellen) who was an opera star at the turn of the century. She founded the home and told us the story of how it came about.

She finished a concert one cold and rainy winter night . . . and as she was leaving noticed a newspaper boy in the rain. She bought all his newspapers and told to get home and out of the rain. He told her he had no home and that many newspaper boys were in the same situation. Because of that incident she formed the Lark Ellen Home for Newsboys, later changed to Lark Ellen Home for Boys.

A contemporary account, however, states that the club was founded about 1890 and that it had been foundering for three years before Miss Yaw came to its rescue with the first of her annual concerts about 1893.

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