A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

November 7, 1595:
The accidental naming of San Francisco Bay

Spanish galleon - Cermeno

All right. Let’s get serious about going back in time, way, way, WAY back, 413 years into the past.

How can this even be related to San Francisco, you ask? Well, it isn’t, but then again, yes it is — the first of a long chain of events leading up to the naming of our fair city.

Here’s how it began: Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño was dispatched by the Spanish to sail up the coast of Alta California and find a safe harbour for the pirate-harassed galleons sailing between New Spain and the Philippines.

A violent storm off of what would one day be named Point Reyes forced him to head for shore — yup, “any port in a storm” — and his ship fetched up in Drake’s Bay. He’d missed discovering the Golden Gate by just a few miles.

Cermeño’s ship, the “San Agustin”, ran aground, destroying it — and the loyal captain claimed that ground for Spain. Not knowing that Sir Francis Drake had shown up in the same spot 16 years earlier — or so we think — Cermeño named the bay “Puerto de San Francisco”.

The industrious Cermeño and his crew salvaged a small launch from the wreckage and sailed it all the way back down to Baja California, incidentally discovering San Diego’s bay along the way.

But how does this relate to our bay?

Well, almost 200 years later, scouts from the Spanish mission-building expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junipero Serra discovered the Golden Gate from the land side. Mistaking it for the body of water named by Cermeño, they called it San Francisco Bay — and this time, the name stuck.

November 3, 1910:
“Kolb and Dill” — vaudeville comedians

kolb and dill san francisco

A short notice appears in the local papers, announcing that the entire theatrical wardrobe of Kolb and Dill — the most popular comedy team in San Francisco — is to be sold at auction.

Clarence Kolb and Max Dill were just a couple of boyhood pals from Cleveland who’d decided to go into show biz. They honed their skills working every vaudeville and burlesque house in the midwest, until — in the gay 1890s — they headed west, discovering San Francisco and an adoring public.

Ethnic stereotypes were the stock in trade of the vaudeville stage. So-called “dialect comedians” played Irish, Jews, Chinese and African-Americans in what are (to most of us) absolutely shudder-inducing ways. Kolb and Dill were of the vaudeville flavour known as a “Double Dutch” act, performing a caricature of Germans as coarse, blustering knockabout oafs in loud checkered suits.

Clarence was tall and skinny, Max short and stout — if you’re thinking Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, you’re on the right track. Wearing their trademark stovepipe hats and puffing cigars, the two mixed dopey faux-Teutonic accents with rowdy, physical, prat-falling slapstick. San Francisco was crazy for vaudeville, had been more or less since birth — remember the Bella Union? — and these two clowns hit the local variety circuit right in the funny-bone.

As attendance boomed, the stage show grew to include musical comedy and (of course) a cast of showgirls, but the “Teutonic Twins” probably reached the pinnacle of their Bay Area popularity in the weeks following the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. In a tent erected in the midst of still smoking Market Street wreckage, Kolb and Dill did their damndest to cheer up the whole town.

But backstage, things were far from cheerful — the two old friends had had a falling out. For some years the two hadn’t exchanged a single word with each other — except onstage.

Finally, even the money wasn’t enough to keep them together. Kolb took Dill to court, and in November of 1910, the judge ordered the partnership dissolved, and the team’s mutual effects put up for auction.

Trunks of costumes, false beards, padding, even a chorus girl’s outfit or two went to the highest bidder, and a bit of doggerel commemorating their divorce appeared in the Oakland Tribune:

“Kolb and Dill went up the hill
To corner all the laughter
But Kolb fell down and broke his crown
And was peevish ever after.”

November 9, 1969:
Alcatraz (pre) Occupation

alcatraz occupation

A chartered boat quietly docks at Alcatraz, the legendary prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The Federal prison had closed down six years before, but the small group of Native Americans on the boat have arrived with something else in mind — they symbolically claim the island for the Indian peoples of North America.

The plan was to draw attention to the plight of the more than 500 American Indian nations in the United States — the poverty, discrimination, the theft of their lands, and — perhaps worst of all — a Federal plan to disband and assimilate the Indian nations through something called the policy of Termination.

The symbolic occupation was planned by a charismatic activist student named Richard Oakes. Oakes was a Mohawk, but since the handful of Native Americans on that boat came from many different nations, they named their group “Indians of All Tribes”, and claimed the island in this name.

The visit was brief, but the mission had been so uneventful, so easy, that the group realized that something a little longer was possible. Two weeks later, a full scale occupation was launched which would last almost two years, in which around 100 people would occupy The Rock, and the famous sign at Ghirardelli Square would flash “Go Indians” . The group on Alcatraz would capture the attention — and the sympathies — of just about the entire country.

The occupation eventually disintegrated under internal and external pressures. But though the immediate demands of the group were never met — the deed to the island, the establishment of an Indian university, cultural center, and museum — as I understand it, the event is seen today as a story of success.

During the occupation President Nixon signed papers rescinding the policy of Termination. Thousands of acres of tribal lands were returned, a wide-ranging package of long-hoped-for Federal reforms were passed, and Indian self-determination became official US government policy.

Millions of Americans faced the plight of Native Americans squarely, most for the first time — and a movement of political consciousness was launched which is still active today.