Saturday morning, June 3, 1882
San Francisco, California
Megan Wilson shrugged her shoulders, trying to get the crick out of her neck. Except for when she’d stopped for her mid-shift meal at midnight, she had been on her feet for over seven hours, with another four to go. The constant clatter, clang, thump, and whir of the carding machines in the next room and the clunk, clunk, clunk of the spinning machines in this room added to her exhaustion, and she ached from the top of her head to the tip of her toes.
She sighed when she saw that one of the tall spools of carded wool on her machine had jammed, stopping the spinning frame from completing its slide towards her. She rapidly pulled the lever to ensure the machine wouldn’t start back up while she was fixing the problem. Straightening the tangled sliver of wool that looped between spool and spindle, she twisted it back into a single strand. Stepping back, she pulled the lever, and off the frame went, completing its journey towards her, drawing out the fibers, twisting them, and then making the circuit again to wind the resulting finished yarn around the spindles.
Some time later, she nodded to the young girl, Christy, to indicate it was time to replace the two empty spools on her machine. Poor child, pale and weedy, looked like a plant that had been denied sun or water for too long. The girl said she was fourteen, but Megan suspected she was no more than twelve. Wondered what family troubles sent a young child out to work at night.
For Megan, the decision to take this shift was her own. People on the night shift tended to keep their heads down, didn’t expect her to be sociable. In addition, if she succeeded in completely filling all hundred of the spindles on her spinning frame by five-thirty, she would be able to spend the last hour downstairs in the weaving room, helping set up the looms for the next day.
Since the weavers didn’t work at night, the weaving room would be quieter, the pounding of the carding and spinning machines muffled. The loom fixer, an old Scot called Mackie, never tried to talk to her, beyond giving a few terse instructions…very restful. She also loved seeing all the color and patterns on the looms, waiting for the day shift to come and start turning out yards and yards of cloth. She had been spinning a lovely turquoise yarn on her machine all week, and even under the harsh gas lights suspended from the ceiling in the spinning room, this shade of blue shimmered. She looked forward to seeing the completed cloth when it was woven into the Campbell clan plaid that had been ordered by the Silver Strike Bazaar.
Her cousin worked for the Silver Strike, and Megan wondered if Biddy could get a bit of the cloth made from this yarn for her at a discount price. She would love to own something made from this shade, bring a little beauty home with her to brighten her drab life.
She started her machine back up, soon lost in the monotonous routine of spinning. Around four-thirty in the morning, Lily, who worked at the machine next to her, shouted, “I’m off to use the privy, Megan. I’m fit to wet myself, if’n I don’t. Feel free to tell old Archie if he asks where I am.”
Megan first met Lily three years ago when they both worked at Larkson’s Woolen Mills. Six months ago, the girl showed up here, at the Potrero Woolen Mills, which rather surprised Megan. Didn’t know what Mr. Douglas, the McKenzie brother who did the hiring for Potrero, was thinking. Couldn’t believe the mill foreman over at Larkson’s would give Lily a good reference. Not that the girl wasn’t experienced at running the kind of self-activating spinning mules found in this factory, but Lily had always had the habit of slipping away when she was supposed to be working. Lily’d just laugh when a foreman complained, her cheeky attitude appeared to give her a pass––that, and a pretty face.
If only Megan could muster the same sort of courage to tell Archie Egerton, the night foreman, where he could go when he poked her shoulder and told her to “step lively, those spindles won’t jump into the box on their own.”
As she watched Lily disappear into the stairwell that led down to the large yard at the back of the mill, Megan mused that the girl was probably going to cadge a smoke from Smitty, the coal pusher, rather than go to the privy. Glancing around the room, she couldn’t see Archie, which is probably why Lily took this opportunity to slip away. He must have gone down to the knitting hosiery department, which only employed Chinese workers. This department had their own manager, but Archie loved to make trouble. Called the workers terrible names, then laughed and said they didn’t understand English, so no harm done.
Her machine shuddered to a stop, caused this time by a broken thread on a spindle. After she fixed it and got the machine going again, she forgot both the foreman and Lily. Wasn’t until her machine stopped one more time that she noticed Lily hadn’t returned. Looking at the big clock on the wall, she frowned. The girl kept hinting that sometimes when she slipped out it was to meet a lover. But even Lily wouldn’t be so crazy as to step away from her machine for nearly three-quarters of an hour and not expect she wouldn’t get in trouble.
As if this thought summoned him, Archie, the tall gangly foreman, appeared beside her and said, “Where’s Lily gone? Lois said she didn’t notice when she left.”
“Gone to the privy, sir.”
“She’d better be here and working by the time I finish my circuit of these rooms, or else.”
Megan, looking for an excuse to go look for Lily, said, “Sir, the right wheel on my frame is sticking. Can I go down to the engine room to get the oil can? It’ll throw off the tension on the threads if it doesn’t move at the same pace as the left wheel.”
Archie leaned over and peered at the frame as it made its next circuit, then grunted. “I don’t see it. But go if you must; you’re the one’s going to have to make up the time at shift’s end if you don’t fill up all those spindles.”
He walked away, towards the carding room.
Archie probably suspected she was covering for Lily, but Megan knew he had a soft spot for the girl, didn’t really want to sack her.
Guess I don’t want her sacked either. Why else am I wasting my time looking for her?
Assuring that the heavy coil of hair at her neck was still securely pinned and grabbing her long skirts to keep them away from the moving pulleys and gears that could catch and injure a worker in a moment’s inattention, Megan walked quickly down the row of spinning machines to push through the heavy stairwell door. The noise and heat began to lessen as she walked down the three flights of stairs and into the open air.
She took a deep breath, glad to have escaped, if only for a brief few moments, what she sometimes imagined the priests were describing when they talked about the “hell of the damned.”
At five-thirty in the morning, the sun would soon rise above the hills to the east, but in this inner courtyard it was still pitch black, except for the shafts of light from window in the main building behind her and the glow from the high windows of the engine room on her left. She might try that room first, Lily could still be with Smitty, the coal pusher. Then she noticed shadows caused by flickering light in the first-floor windows of the two-story building to her right.
The second floor housed the Chinese workers who ran the knitting machines. Too early for any of the day shift to be up yet, and there shouldn’t be anyone in the drying room at this time of night, certainly not anyone carrying a lantern. Surely Lily wouldn’t be so stupid as to choose this building to meet someone. The night watchman wasn’t much use, but even he would notice light in a room that was supposed to be empty.
Irritated, she went over to the building, and finding the door unlocked, she pulled it open. Startled by how bright the light was, it took a second for her to register what she was seeing—ribbons of fire running along the racks of drying yarn and licking at the floor in front of her.
Megan had started to retreat to safety, when she felt someone shove her, hard, and she fell, screaming, right into the greedy flames.