G’day there!

Just to switch things up (you have to keep’em guessing), I thought I’d wander off my currently beaten path of work updates and get back to a bit of history with this post. Figured y’all would be roight fine wi’ that.

If you’ve ever driven on Rte. 19 along the Island’s south shore, chances are you’ve passed a road sign directing you to a national historic site. Chances are even greater that you’ve driven past it without so much as a second glance.

This was precisely the case with me until just last year. On my way home following an afternoon at the beach at Argyle Shore Provincial Park, a sign I’d cruised by numerous times finally caught my attention. In white lettering on a metallic blue background:

Hon. F.K. Lane National Historic Site

Sign directing the curious and historically-minded to the Hon. F.K. Lane National Historic Site.
Sign directing the curious and historically-minded to the Hon. F.K. Lane National Historic Site.

Running out of daylight, I made a mental note to return to the site, and to learn more about this F.K. Lane chap. And then I went and forgot all about it; however, this summer, I drove by the sign again, only this time I didn’t keep going. Instead, I hit the breaks, made a U-turn (legally), and turned down Monument Road.

I’m glad I did.

A narrow dirt lane, Monument Road can be easy to miss. Quickest access is a simple left turn at the intersection of Rtes. 1 (TransCanada Highway) and 19 (ie. from 1 onto 19) in DeSable, where you’ll then find it on your left. It meanders a short distance before emptying into a small clearing hemmed in by trees. There’s a sort of parking area, and a stone cairn erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Oh, and no shortage of flying Hell demons (mosquitoes and black flies) – forewarned is forearmed.

Sign for Monument Road. Green on green can make it difficult to see.
Sign for Monument Road. Green on green can make it difficult to see.
Monument Road looking back.
Monument Road looking back.
Clearing at the end of Monument Road, with the monument dedicated to Franklin Knight Lane in the background.
Clearing at the end of Monument Road, with the monument dedicated to Franklin Knight Lane in the background.
Monument to Franklin Knight Lane in DeSable.

Our story begins in the hamlet of DeSable where, in July 1864, a son was born to farmer-preacher (later dentist) Christopher Lane, and Caroline Burns. He was christened Franklin Knight Lane.

Lane was not long for the Island. In 1871, the family patriarch, not a fan of the Island’s cold climate (imagine that!), whisked them away to distant California, and Lane would spend the rest of his life as a US citizen. It sounds somewhat tragic, uprooting a young child from pastoral PEI and removing him to the hustle and bustle of the Golden State; however, the move proved a boon to Lane. It also wasn’t a bad deal for the US either, as time would reveal.

The Lanes began their new life in Napa, followed by another move to Oakland in 1876. There, Lane finished his schooling and found employment with the Oakland Times, first in the printing office, and then as a reporter.

Lane would ultimately leave his mark (a big one) in the political arena, a journey he began in 1884 with an unsuccessful campaign for the Prohibition Party (he was early by about forty years on that score). He took the loss in stride, however, and turned instead to law and journalism.

Between 1884 and 1898, Lane directed his energy into establishing a reputation as both a lawyer and newspaper correspondent (and proprietor). After a two-year stint at the University of California at Berkley, Lane left his studies to report for the San Francisco Chronicle. By 1889, he had obtained admission to the California Bar following completion of Hastings Law School, yet continued to work in journalism. Still with the Chronicle, he relocated to New York City in the role of correspondent, before returning to the West Coast two years later as editor of the Tacoma News.

Not long after, Lane’s paper went belly up amidst a turbulent economy and unfortunate political affiliations. A setback to be sure, but it wasn’t all bad. In 1893, he married Annie Wintermute, with whom he would father two children: a son, Franklin Knight, Jr., and a daughter, Nancy.

Setting journalism aside, Lane decided to put his legal schooling to use. He made his way back to California and opened a practise with his brother, George. It was the beginning of what soon became a meteoric rise.

Over 1897 and 1898, Lane served on the Committee of One Hundred, a body of men tasked with drafting a new city charter for San Francisco. He followed this up with three successive elections (as a Democrat) to the position of 1st (combined) City and County Attorney of San Francisco between 1898 and 1904. During this time, he nearly became Governor of California, losing in an incredibly tight race in 1902; and in 1903, he came very close to election to the US Senate.

It was exposure enough for Lane to begin to attract the attention of those in the highest echelons. In 1906, he was appointed a Commissioner of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) by President Theodore Roosevelt, an appointment he received again from President William Taft in 1909. The following year, he was nominated as a delegate to the International Railways Congress in Bern, Switzerland, where he was named to its Permanent International Commission.

It was heady stuff, and Lane was gaining clout. When, in 1911, he recommended the creation of a parcel post service within the United States Post Office Department, people listened, and it was implemented two years later. He’d certainly come a long way from his early childhood in DeSable! But he wasn’t finished yet. In January 1913, he was made Chairman of the ICC, which he resigned that March when a little place called the White House came calling.

In 1912, Americans had gone to the polls, the result of which was Woodrow Wilson, on the democratic ticket, elected the 28th President of the United States. And when it came time to form his Cabinet, he selected Lane as his Secretary of the Interior, after considering him for both Attorney General, and Secretary of War.

It was certainly an interesting time to be in politics, and at that level in particular. The world stood at the precipice of war, which erupted in the summer of 1914 and raged for four long, brutal years. While the dominoes toppled and the blood began to flow in torrents, Wilson adopted a neutral position, and refused to cast the US with the alliance of Great Britain, France, and Russia. It was a stance that did not sit well with Lane in the least.

From the beginning, Lane was an advocate for US intervention in the war, but for him and others of like mind, it took a goodly amount of urging before they won over Wilson. In that regard they were helped enormously by the explosive discovery of a possible German-Mexican alliance in early 1917, which proved to be the tipping point needed. The year before, Wilson had appointed Lane to the Council of National Defense, and from America’s entry into the war until the end, Lane worked tirelessly to drum up support in the form of patriotic speeches and writings.

His life had merged into the fast lane (pun intended), and it must have been a difficult pace to maintain. To his credit, Lane kept up appearances, and so it came as a shock to the country when, in March 1920, he resigned his Cabinet post and quit politics. No reason in particular was given, but there was much speculation. It certainly wasn’t retirement, as his next incarnation was as Vice President of the Mexican Petroleum Company, in addition to assuming a directorship position with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

Perhaps it was the stress of being at the forefront of American politics for seven years that caused Lane’s heart trouble as 1920 became 1921. He stopped working in order to attend to his health, but to no avail, and died a premature death in May, aged only 56. After Lane’s passing, a number of newspapers agreed that, had he been born on American soil, he could eventually have been elected President. Of course, we’ll never know if that would have ever come to pass, but it remains a tantalizing ‘what if’.

Lane’s achievements and accolades were numerous, and his life is no easy feat to summarize (hence the length of this post – sorry). Often overlooked, however, is a lesser known – yet truly remarkable – story about his heroics during the infamously catastrophic earthquake (and fire) that devastated San Francisco in 1906.

In the early hours of April 18, 1906, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake shook San Francisco to its core. And then, as if the quake wasn’t enough, massive fires broke out, turning the city into a living hell. With water mains all but destroyed, an entire city was left at the mercy of the flames for three days.

From the beginning it was an uphill battle – and that hill might as well have been Mount Everest. With little other recourse at hand, it was decided that the only way to keep the fire in check and prevent at least some of the city from burning was to dynamite the buildings lining the east side of the ritzier Van Ness Avenue (25 blocks) in a bid to create a gap too large for the flames to jump. The mayor sent for explosives; however, given the chaos and mayhem, when the dynamite was procured, it was simply left sitting at the docks – no one thought to send word; if they did, it didn’t get through.

Enter Lane. He was living in north Berkley and anxiously awaiting word as to his appointment to the Interstate Commerce Commission when the quake hit. Not willing to sit idly by, he rushed to the city to help in whatever capacity he could and ended up being appointed by Mayor Eugene Schmitz to the Committee of Fifty (a body of prominent individuals responsible for civil administration and crisis management in light of the disaster).

On April 19, Lane could see the sluggish evacuation of Van Ness Avenue from his vantage point nearby. He supposedly remarked to a friend that: “It could be stopped right here [Van Ness Avenue]…I’d take the chance myself if we could get any explosives”. And that’s when his friend, unaware that authorities were in desperate need of dynamite, dropped a bombshell (so to speak): the launch that had earlier been sent to pick up dynamite was laying at anchor down at nearby wharf.

Serendipitously, a colleague of Lane’s, and his wife, happened to be driving by. Lane tasked them with making their way to the wharf to pick up the dynamite and to then transport it as quickly as possible to Van Ness Avenue. This they did; however, those in charge of fighting the flames had in the meantime decided that to wait any longer for explosives would see the loss of the western portion of the city. Turning to Plan B, they began to set fire to buildings along the avenue using guncotton. It may sound nonsensical, but in essence it was simply a primitive version of what they intended to do with dynamite. A wide enough gap, and the fire wouldn’t be able to jump the avenue and continue wreaking havoc.

That was the idea, anyway. But it didn’t exactly work.

Although Lane’s friends had managed to get their hands on the much-needed dynamite, they weren’t able to get it to Van Ness in time for it to have been as effective as it could have been; however, it still proved to be a key moment in turning the tide. Although Van Ness had largely been written off, firefighters and soldiers took the dynamite one block west to Franklin Street. And that’s where the progression of the flames was ultimately halted early the following morning (although sites east were still very much burning). In no small measure this was due to the quick-thinking Lane.

As I said, a remarkable story.

I thought I’d wrap up this post about Lane with his own words, which give insight into his character. They form a portion of a letter he wrote in 1920, and which was included in a book of his correspondence, co-edited by his wife the year after his death. It was his dream of what the US could – and should – become:

We want our unused lands put to use. We want the farm made more attractive through better rural schools, more roads everywhere … [W]e want more men with garden homes instead of tenement homes. We want our waters, that flow idly to the sea, put to use … [W]e want fewer boys and girls, men and women, who cannot read or write the language of our laws, newspapers, and literature … [T]he framing of our policies should not be left to emotional caprice, or the opportunism of any group of men, but should be result of sympathetic and deep studies by the wisest men we have, regardless of their politics … [W]e want our soldiers and sailors to be more certain of our gratitude … [W]e are to extend our activities into all parts of the world. Our trade is to grow as never before. Our people are to resume their old place as traders on the seven seas. We are to know other people better and make them all more and more our friends, working with them as mutually dependent factors in the growth of the world’s life.

Not too shabby for an Island son, eh?

Franklin Knight Lane in 1913 after his appointment as Secretary of the Interior. (Library of Congress photograph)
Franklin Knight Lane in 1913 after his appointment as Secretary of the Interior. (Library of Congress photograph)

Cheers,

PEI History Guy

P.S. – Information pertaining to Lane’s actions during the San Francisco earthquake and fire comes courtesy of Dan Kurzman’s well written and highly insightful Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 (HarperCollins, 2001).

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