© Jack Mason Museum
The Shafter ranch corral, where the cow-in-the-crack incident supposedly occurred.
On April 18, 1906 at the Payne Shafter ranch at Olema -where the dairy was rented to a tenant- Henry and Romano Muscio got ready for the morning milking in the corral (cows were milked outside in fair weather). The ranch sat on top of the San Andreas Fault, and so, come the famous earthquake, the ground shook especially hard and cracks opened up in the surface along the fault from Bolinas Lagoon to Tomales Bay. Here, according to legend, a crack opened, lifted, and “swallowed” a cow. Not everyone believes this story, and much ink has been used to pooh-pooh it. There are first-hand accounts of the cow seen in the ground, but how it got there is the point of contention. Think what you will, and consider the following accounts.
Eight-year-old Edward Gallagher saw the cow. He said that people came from all over to see it, whole families in wagons and buggies. He described the vertical offset of about two feet, because the corral was on a slope, and that the cow’s back was a couple of feet below the surface. Bill Scilacci was thirteen when he saw it and claimed that the cow was still alive after three days. Olema School students Albert Flaherty and his brothers went to school that morning despite the shake, finding it “leaning northward quite a few degrees” and closed. The schoolhouse sat next to the bridge over to the Shafter corral. Their friends told them about the cow that morning, but the Flaherty boys headed home because of an edict from their father to never delay returning for chores and to milk their cows. “With orders and that milking job we did not cross the bridge to see the cow, we went the other way and pronto,” he wrote. “We took the story home, however, and our parents got the same story from other adults.”
Henry Schluckebier, a prominent Petaluma merchant with a cabin in Bear Valley, investigated the cow tale and “vouches for the authenticity of the story,” according to a contemporary article in the Petaluma Argus. “The cow was in the Shafter corral at the time of the temblor and the earth, apparently, opened under her feet pitching her head first into the crevice. When the shock was over only a very small portion of the cow was visible, the earth having closed in about her.”
Walter Gamboni’s family had a butcher shop in Olema. He wrote this recollection in a letter to the Point Reyes Light in 1967:
Shortly after the quake I went over to the Shafter ranch and saw a cow in the milking corral all buried except the rump. There were probably about 50 cows in the corral at the time of the earthquake waiting to be milked. The milkers were the late Henry and Romano Muscio, brothers of the late Dante Muscio of Pt. Reyes Sta. If the cow had died and was buried in the fault it was sure a QUICK JOB.
There were no signs of the cow being dragged or carried to its grave. No signs of the earth being mechanically moved.
Dairymen do not bury their dead animals in their milking corral and do not leave them half covered. Those two milkers, born and raised on a dairy ranch, would never bury a cow in a milking corral.
Helen and Mary Shafter, daughters of the ranch owner, confirmed the story as well.
None other than prominent geologist G. K. Gilbert, of the U. S. Geological Survey, agreed, at least at first. “A cow here was swallowed by the crack,” he wrote in his field notebook, “disappearing all but the tail—the testimony on this point is beyond question.” Who provided him that information is not known and subject of much discussion among geologists. Gilbert also wrote, in a later report, “As the fault trace in that neighborhood showed no cracks large enough to receive a cow, it would appear that there was a temporary parting of the walls.”
Not everyone agreed. H. H. Howard, whose family owned the adjacent Bear Valley ranch, claimed to overhear, as a boy, the following conversation between his father and Payne Shafter, paraphrased by Howard: “Payne, why on earth did you tell those reporters that your cow was swallowed up by the crack in the earth?” To which Payne replied… “Look, Pax, the cow had died and we had to bury her. That night along came the earthquake which opened up a big crack in the ground; we simply dragged the carcass over to the crack and tipped it in with the feet sticking out. Then along come those newspaper reporters and when they got the idea that the cow had fallen in, we weren’t about to spoil a good story. Why spoil it now?” So goes the cow story.
There are a number of holes in Howard’s story, including the feet sticking out (all other accounts had the tail); the “reporters” showing up, when in fact it was dozens of local citizens, with reporters later; and the idea that a responsible dairy man would bury a dead cow in a corral (there are dumps on every ranch specifically for that purpose).
Grove Karl Gilbert was among the distinguished geologists and astronomers appointed to the State Earthquake Investigation Commission formed in the days after the quake by Governor Pardee to study the earthquake’s physical effects and consequences in a scientific manner. Gilbert and his camera made about sixteen investigatory trips to west Marin in the year and a half following the earthquake, on occasion accompanied by his friend, the noted botanist Alice Eastwood. His first visit to Point Reyes Station and Inverness took place ten days after the temblor.
Gilbert found that the Point Reyes Station schoolhouse had shifted 29 inches and the hotel barn 27 inches, but both were standing. The railroad’s long and high stack of cordwood was “thrown over SW,” but two water tanks on high towers did not fall. On the way to Inverness he noted the extensive 20-foot offset of the Levee Road, another of the famous photographic images made at the time. From this point he could see a trace of the fault heading northwest into Tomales Bay. Traveling towards Inverness, two water tanks had been thrown down from their frameworks along the road, and at Julia Shafter Hamilton’s ranch a house had moved nine feet; another on the bluff in Inverness moved eight and a half. He noted a strong “furrow” cutting across Second Valley that divided into a dozen in the bottom of the valley (where the Boy Scout Camp operated in the 1920s) “curling the turf in a way suggesting Basin Range structures.” A house was entirely on its side. Trees were down and landslides covered parts of the roadways; it took twenty days to repair the main road to Point Reyes (today’s Sir Francis Drake).
The Olema Valley held particular interest to the investigators, it being the physical line of the San Andreas Fault, which formed that geographical curiosity originally. The Bear Valley (“W”) Ranch at the north end of the valley suffered damage of great interest to the geologists. Gilbert followed the rift south from the bay, tracing it along the low hills north of the ranch. There he found that the prominent faulting had passed under the eastern edge of the great cow barn. The tenant at the time, W. D. Skinner, showed Gilbert how the path to the front step of the ranch house had shifted sixteen feet; the trees in front of the house were now in an entirely different position. (After hearing of this, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan commented in 1907, “If Mr. Skinner had chanced to look at the right instant, he would have seen the whole row of cypress trees file past his window to take their station in front of the dairy, taking the rose garden with them.” “Unfortunately for science,” wrote geologists N. Timothy Hall and David A. Hughes many years later, “Mr. Skinner was not looking.”
[Author’s note: those very trees were recently cut down, among the last living witnesses to the great 1906 earthquake.]
Article is an excerpt from Dewey Livingston’s upcoming book on the history of Point Reyes and Tomales Bay.