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A crowd gathered to watch the Wagon Wheel burning. Photo courtesy of Carol de Young.

By George R. Vincent, Pinole Historical Society

In late October of 1945, Pinole was pounded by a fierce wind and rainstorm that generated a destructive tornado. The local newspaper reported, “terrific destruction was left in its wake.”

Pinole residents who had once lived in the tornado belt of the Midwest said the freak windstorm had “all the earmarks of a tornado with a warning sound before its arrival.” The outskirts of Pinole at the western city limits on both sides of San Pablo Avenue were most affected. The tornado, or “twister” as some Pinoleans called it, made its erratic way up to Tank Farm Hill outside of San Pablo. It was here where Chevron had its huge oil storage tanks.

The tornado barnstormed through Pinole, doing thousands of dollars in damage, injuring several residents and scaring the life out of others. It was a miracle there were no fatalities. My grandmother Scanlan’s ranch was on the north side of San Pablo Avenue extending down to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The area at that time was quite rural and I was quite young. My family was visiting her and I was tired of hearing grown-ups talking, and like a little kid I was bored and wanted to go home. We were in the kitchen and it was raining hard. I had nothing to do, so I looked out the big kitchen window toward the bay and watched it rain. It was then I saw a sight that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

A lightning flash lit up the outside, and in that moment I heard a roar and saw the large oak tree twist right out of the ground and the barn disappear into the air! Everything went dark in the house and we could hear power poles falling and sparking electrical wires were everywhere. We couldn’t get to our old green Plymouth because of the darkness and the danger from fallen poles and wires. At that time, we didn’t know what had happened or the extent of the damage around us. We were so lucky the twister had narrowly missed my grandmother’s home. Others, however, were not so fortunate. At the Westman Ranch, a chicken house disappeared but the garage beside it remained intact. Sheets of corrugated iron from the roof of the chicken house were wrapped around trees and poles. The most damage in Pinole was at the popular nearby Hunters Inn along San Pablo Avenue. Hunters Inn was located near where The Embers restaurant is today.

The proprietor of the Inn managed to save himself and his wife by throwing her to the floor and covering her with his body. The bar and its stools stood intact while the roof and walls were toppled. Farther up the avenue toward San Pablo and Tank Farm Hill, the huge steel high-tension towers were twisted like pretzels and “flapped like tilted hollylocks.”

Hunters Inn was a dancing and entertainment club near the town city limits. It had an orchestra playing three nights a week and was a hugely popular gathering place for locals and nearby townsfolk, as well. During the dark days of World War II, it was a place to boost morale for the war effort. Its matchbook cover motto was, “Let Us Meet at Hunters Inn.” Many tavern-goers did just that. And if you wanted to phone the Inn to see what entertainment was there, you cranked the phone handle and asked for Pinole 85. Unfortunately, two years after the tornado flattened a rebuilt Hunters Inn, another tragedy struck the place. In July 1947, a robbery occurred there at 3 A.M., after closing hours. The Inn’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Rufus Morgan, were attacked and the Inn robbed by an unknown person. Morgan was killed and his wife, Joyce, was seriously wounded. The invader also cut the telephone lines. When Joyce Morgan regained consciousness two hours later, she made her way across the street to the home of Tony Francis, who called then-Pinole Constable Eugene Shea. The intruder was never caught and the case remains one of Pinole’s most unsolved notorious criminal cases.

Many years later, Hunters Inn was remodeled into the Wagon Wheel, a popular dancing and drinking establishment, complete with nights of unique and colorful entertainment, with bouncers for the unruly.

The Wagon Wheel continued its contribution to Pinole’s history into the 1980s.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 7, 1984, the Wagon Wheel was burned to the ground during a training exercise that involved 40 firefighters from the Pinole, Richmond, Rodeo, El Cerrito, and Kensington fire departments, to make way for what is now the Del Monte Shopping Center, which houses The Embers and The New Deli, among other businesses.

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