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The Gold-Hungry Forty-Niners Also Plundered Something Else: Eggs

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The Gold-Hungry Forty-Niners Also Plundered Something Else: Eggs

The Gold-Hungry Forty-Niners Also Plundered Something Else: Eggs

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(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "CAN'T RUN BUT")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The theme for Hidden Kitchens. We're hearing from little-known places where people come together around food or don't come together, in this case. The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, are taking us to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco Bay. A hundred and fifty years ago, at the height of the gold rush, this was the site of the Egg Wars.

GARY KAMIYA: The Farallon Islands are the most forbidding piece of real estate to be found within the city limits of San Francisco. My name is Gary Kamiya, journalist and author. The Farallon Islands are 28 miles outside the Golden Gate. In extremely turbulent, dangerous seas, they rise right up out of the ocean where there's no reason for them to be, the skeletal quality like San Francisco without its skin.

KEITH HANSEN: Originally, they used to be down in the Tehachapis in Southern California near Bakersfield and have been grinding their way north on the Pacific Plate about a quarter of an inch a year, about as fast as your fingernail grows.

KAMIYA: Completely isolated, haunted by great white sharks and an enormous bird population.

MARY JANE SCHRAMM: The largest seabird rockery in the contiguous United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER PYLE: Suddenly, between 1849 and 1854, hundreds and hundreds of people came West seeking gold. My name's Peter Pyle, Farallon biologist.

KAMIYA: This incredible migration flooded into San Francisco - people from all over the world. It was a combination of casino, campground, brothel. Early on, some shrewd forty-niners began to realize that there was more money to be made mining the miners (laughter) than there was in mining the gold fields. Dozens of crude eating joints - hundreds of voracious miners would eat in shifts. Eggs was one of the foodstuffs that was in such short supply.

EVA CHRYSANTHE: It's a protein-hungry town. The few existing chickens in San Francisco had been utterly devoured, so people were foraging. I'm Eva Chrysanthe, illustrator and writer. After you wipe out all the bird nests on shore, then you go out to the Farallones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMIYA: Doc Robinson was the first entrepreneur to begin the egg business. Robinson was a pharmacist. He sailed out to the Farallones and hauled back these murre eggs, selling them to restaurants and grocery stores. Gathering the murre eggs was tough, dirty, dangerous work. The murres laid their eggs up on these towering, steep cliffs higher than Nob Hill.

CHRYSANTHE: Doc Robinson takes his brother-in-law, Orin. They're able to poach $3,000 worth of eggs. He had no interest in going back. It was a hellish experience.

KAMIYA: Robinson's egg business helped kick off the egg rush.

SCHRAMM: The common murre was the most sought-after, most delectable of the eggs out there. My name is Mary Jane Schramm, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

KAMIYA: Murre eggs are about twice as big as a chicken egg.

HANSEN: My name is Keith Hansen. I illustrate birds. The white of the egg, when you fry it, it stays clear and gelatinous, and the yolk is deep reddish, very unappetizing to look at.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER WHITE: My name is Peter White, author of "The Farallon Islands: Sentinels Of The Golden Gate." In 1851, six men formed the Pacific Egg Company and claimed exclusive rights to the islands. In May, when the birds first begin to lay, the company would land 10 to 30 men on the island.

PYLE: They'd row in on these little rowboats, which itself was a test of stamina.

WHITE: The newspaper people described the egg-pickers, mostly Italians and Greeks, as lowlifes.

KAMIYA: There they were, sending their men up to these sheer guano-stinking cliffs, being attacked by swirling gulls. And these were rough-neck guys, waterfront types, climbing up, pushing eggs into their special egg pockets.

WHITE: When the egg-pickers went in for the first time, they would smash every egg. That way, they could be assured that the next day when they return, every egg gathered would be fresh. In the early 1850s, 500,000 eggs were gathered a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PYLE: The eggers started coming out at about the same time the lighthouse was built at the Farallones.

KAMIYA: The lighthouse keepers had to contend with these raucous, aggressive eggers. Rival eggers would sail out and challenge them. One man in particular, David Batchelder, just kept showing up with his own bands of roughnecks. The Great Egg War of the Farallones took place just a few weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg.

KAMIYA: On June 3, 1863, three boatloads of heavily armed men came to the island. They even had a cannon with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMIYA: Batchelder and 27 other armed men appear. The guys in the egg company yelled out to them, land at your peril. Batchelder - he and his men spent the rest of the night drinking. They got themselves into an aggressive, alcohol-fueled state. The egg company warned them. Then they opened fire.

WHITE: The first casualty was one of the egg company's employees, Edward Perkins, who was shot through the stomach and died.

KAMIYA: The guys on the boats - five of them got shot, and they were driven off. Finally, the federal government ruled all commercial eggers off of the islands. After that, any egging was done by the lighthouse keepers - black-market trading, trying to line their pockets with eggs.

WHITE: The murre population declined year after year.

PYLE: It went from three to four hundred thousand common murres, down to 6,000.

KAMIYA: For decades, it was said that if you ate any baked goods in San Francisco, you were probably eating murre eggs.

PYLE: When chickens finally got established in Petaluma, that's what ended up doing in the whole murre egg industry.

KAMIYA: The Farallones are now used by scientists. They are tracking the recovery of these species. It's a robust population now, despite the best efforts of the Farallon eggers.

GREENE: Well, who knew? That story about the Egg Wars was produced by The Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. And you should check out The Kitchen Sisters' podcast, Fugitive Waves.

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