It would have been easy for officials of the World War II Kaiser shipyards in Richmond to take a pass on observing Labor Day in 1942. The massive operation was already operating around the clock producing cargo ships for the war effort and the deadlines that had to be met couldn’t stop to give the tens thousands of employees a day off.
But Kaiser did find a way to honor labor while continuing production on Sept. 7, 1942, and like everything else about the shipyards, it was immense in scale, possibly the largest company picnic ever held in the Bay Area. Confined by travel and gasoline restrictions in choosing a location for the celebration, shipyard officials rented the largest nearby public area available — Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills. The park at that point was 1,700 acres, and less than a decade old and parts of it were being used by the military, including aircraft spotting stations.
Initial estimates were that as many as 25,000 people — shipyard workers and their families — might attend the epic gathering, held from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with certain portions repeated for the benefit of workers who arrived at different times during the day before or after their shipyard shift had ended.
Admission to the gathering, described by the Berkeley Daily Gazette as “One of the largest and gayest events Northern California has ever seen,” was free — provided employees had paid the $1 annual family dues to enroll in the Richmond Shipyards Athletic Association. The association — an early incarnation of what is known today as the Kaiser Permanente “thrive” philosophy — was a recreation program that hosted baseball and basketball leagues, golf tournaments, bowling leagues, dances (by far the most popular of the association’s offerings) and other events for shipyard families. As with the groundbreaking Kaiser medical plan, the philosophy was that recreational activities resulted in healthier, happier and more productive workers. The day was also justified as a morale-builder and a chance for families — a good many new to the Bay Area — to meet, socialize and feel less like strangers.
The director of the Richmond Shipyards Athletic Association, and chairman of the picnic, was no less a personality than Claude “Tiny” Thornhill, already well-known locally and nationally as the former head coach of the Stanford University football teams that went to the Rose Bowl from 1933-35.
The event was promoted to workers in issues of “Fore ‘n’ Aft,” the shipyard employee magazine, which headline one article “Everybody will be there” and opened another by claiming that
It will be colossal…
It will be stupendous …
It will be terrific …
It will be everything a dozen publicity men from a Hollywood motion picture studio could dream of in a moment of wild imagination.
What are we talking about? Why, the Richmond shipyards Labor Day picnic, of course.
Maps showing how to get to the park were also published and Kaiser put up signs along the various routes.
Activities included swimming and diving in Lake Anza; golf on the Tilden course; various relay races categorized for men, women and children; band concerts and a vaudeville show featuring shipyard workers that repeated during the day; pickup baseball and softball games; boxing and wrestling; tug-of-war contests; horseshoes “and many other sports.” Not to mention picnicking and barbecues fired up at various sites around the park. Employees also had access to the Brazilian Room, where a dance was scheduled (now-familiar attractions such as the merry-go-round and steam trains were not yet part of the park).
“Lake Anza to be invaded” was the headline in the Berkeley Gazette, while the Oakland Tribune assured readers that “Holiday won’t interrupt work” at Bay Area defense industries. (Interestingly, the machinists union held its own all-day picnic for members at Eastshore Park — now Booker T. Anderson Park — in Richmond that day.)
Actual attendance at the picnic was estimated at 10,000, less than the original projections, but still a large company picnic by any standard.
The event was recounted the next week in “Fore ‘n’ Aft”:
“Gone but not forgotten is the story of the Labor Day picnic held by the Richmond Shipyards Athletic Association at Tilden Park.
Early in the morning excited and anxious crowds began to arrive in cars loaded down with shipyard workmen and their families — and huge baskets piled high with good things to eat.
By mid=afternoon it was estimated that at least ten thousand were present. Some were playing golf, softball and swimming; others were dancing at the Brazilian Pavilion; still others were engaged in various friendly games and contests or listening to a band concer. The rest were milling around having the time of their lives meeting old friends and making new ones.
Everyone who was there can truthfully say, “We sure had a swell time.”
(Our gratitude to the Richmond Museum of History and the East Bay Regional Park District for their assistance with this entry.)