1854: A future poet’s boyhood outing

charles_warren_stoddardSpring 1854
Charles Warren Stoddard

In 1854, the down-on-their-luck Stoddard family set off from New York City to try their luck in that brand new metropolis of the West: San Francisco.

Charles Warren Stoddard was just 11 years old, and San Francisco — still in the throes of the Gold Rush, a vital, chaotic, cosmopolitan stew pot — was the most exciting place a little boy could dream of.

Charles would grow up to play a crucial part in San Francisco’s burgeoning literary scene.

He was just a teenager when his first poems were published in the Golden Era, and his talent and sweet personality were such that he developed long-lasting friendships with the other usual-suspect San Francisco bohemians, Ambrose Bierce, Ina Coolbrith, Bret Harte, and Samuel Clemens.

Stoddard is probably best remembered for the mildly homo-erotic short stories inspired by his extensive travels in the South Seas, but in 1902 he published a kind of memoir entitled In the Footprints of the Padres. As the old song goes, it recalls “the days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49” from a very personal point of view.

footprints_of_the_padresThe reviewers of the New York Times praised the work for Stoddard’s “vivid and poetic charm”, but I have to admit that I’m mainly in it for his memories.

In this piece, Charles and his little gang of pals are about to embark on a day-long ramble along the north-eastern edge of the city.

Let’s roll the clock back to 1854, and with Charles’ help, put ourselves into the shoes of an 11-year-old boy anticipating the freedom of a sunny spring Saturday.


There was joy in the heart, luncheon in the knapsack, and a sparkle in the eye of each of us as we set forth on our exploring expedition, all of a sunny Saturday. Outside of California there never were such Saturdays as those. We were perfectly sure for eight months in the year that it wouldn’t rain a drop; and as for the other four months — well, perhaps it wouldn’t.

It did not rain so very much even in the rainy season, when it had a perfect right to; therefore there was joy in the heart and no umbrella anywhere about when we prepared to set forth on our day of discovery.

Meigg’s Wharf

We began our adventure at Meigg’s Wharf.

Meiggs Wharf was the original Fisherman’s Wharf. The shallow waters of the cove have been long filled in, but at that time the wharf actually began at Francisco Street between Powell and Mason.

We didn’t go out to the end of it, because there was nothing but crabs there, being hauled up at frequent intervals by industrious crabbers, whose nets fairly fringed the wharf. They lay on their backs by scores and hundreds, and waved numberless legs in the air — I mean the crabs, not the crabbers.

We used to go crabbing ourselves when we felt like it, with a net made of a bit of mosquito-bar stretched over an iron hoop, and with a piece of meat tied securely in the middle of it. When we hauled up those home-made hoop-nets — most everything seems to have been home-made in those days — we used to find one, two, perhaps three huge crabs revolving clumsily about the centre of attraction in the hollow of the net; and then we shouted in glee and went almost wild with excitement.

warners cobweb palaceThe Cobweb Palace

Just at the beginning of Meigg’s Wharf there was a house of entertainment that no doubt had a history and a mystery even in those young days.

Now — I’ve got to interrupt here and explain that Charles is talking about a notorious establishment known as Abe Warner’s Cobweb Palace, and it occurs to me that it’s practically criminal that I’ve never devoted a show to the place! For now I’ll just tell you that it was a San Francisco classic, a terrifically popular saloon run by a man who — due to admiration or superstition — never allowed a spider to be disturbed. But let’s hear young Stoddard’s impression:

We never quite comprehended it: we were too young for that, and too shy and too well-bred to make curious or impertinent inquiry. We sometimes stood at the wide doorway — it was forever invitingly open, — and looked with awe and amazement at paintings richly framed and hung so close together that no bit of the wall was visible. There was a bar at the farther end of the long room, — there was always a bar somewhere in those days; and there were cages filled with strange birds and beasts, — as any one might know with his eyes shut, for the odor of it all was repelling.

The strangest feature of that most strange hostelry was the amazing wealth of cobwebs that mantled it. Cobwebs as dense as crape waved in dusty rags from the ceiling; they veiled the pictures and festooned the picture-frames, that shone dimly through them. Not one of these cobwebs was ever molested — or had been from the beginning of time, as it seemed to us.

A velvet carpet on the floor was worn smooth and almost no trace of its rich flowery pattern was left; but there were many square boxes filled with sand or sawdust and reeking with cigar stumps and tobacco juice. Need I add that some of those pictures were such as our young and innocent eyes ought never to have been laid on? Nor were they fit for the eyes of others.

There was something uncanny about that house. We never knew just what it was, but we had a faint idea that the proprietor’s wife or daughter was a witch; and that she, being as cobwebby as the rest of its furnishings, was never visible.

The wharf in front of the house was a free menagerie. There were bears and other beasts behind prison bars, a very populous monkey cage, and the customary “happy family” looking as dreadfully bored as usual. Then again there were whole rows of parrots and cockatoos and macaws as splendid as rainbow tints could make them, and with tails a yard long at least.

Around Black Point

From this bewildering pageant it was but a step to the beach below. Indeed the water at high tide flowed under that house with much foam and fury; for it was a house founded upon the sand, and it long since toppled to its fall, as all such houses must. We followed the beach, that rounded in a curve toward Black Point.

Black Point is the area on which Fort Mason would later be built, an elevated promontory between Aquatic Park and the Marina.

Just before reaching the Point there was a sandhill of no mean proportions; this, of course, we climbed with pain, only to slide down with perspiration. It was our Alp, and we ascended and descended it with a flood of emotion not unmixed with sand.

Near by was a wreck, — a veritable wreck; for a ship had been driven ashore in the fog and she was left to her fate — and our mercy. Probably it would not have paid to float her again; for of ships there were more than enough. Everything worth while was coming into the harbor, and almost nothing going out of it. We looked upon that old hulk as our private and personal property. At low tide we could board her dry-shod; at high tide we could wade out to her.

We knew her intimately from stem to stern, her several decks, her cabins, lockers, holds; we had counted all her ribs over and over again, and paced her quarter-deck, and gazed up at her stumpy masts — she had been well-nigh dismantled, — and given sailing orders to our fellows amidships in the very ecstasy of circumnavigation. She has gone, gone to her grave in the sea that lapped her timbers as they lay a-rotting under the rocks; and now pestiferous factories make hideous the landscape we found so fair.

As for Black Point, it was a wilderness of beauty in our eyes; a very paradise of live-oak and scrub-oak, and of oak that had gone mad in the whirlwinds and sandstorms that revelled there.

flume black pointThe flume

Beyond Black Point we climbed a trestle and mounted a flume that was our highway to the sea. Through this flume the city was supplied with water.

The flume was a square trough, open at the top and several miles in length. It was cased in a heavy frame; and along the timbers that crossed over it lay planks, one after another, wherever the flume was uncovered. This narrow path, intended for the convenience of the workmen who kept the flume in repair, was our delight. We followed it in the full assurance that we were running a great risk. Beneath us was the open trough, where the water, two or three feet in depth, was rushing as in a mill-race. Had we fallen, we must have been swept along with it, and perhaps to our doom. Sometimes we were many feet in the air, crossing a cove where the sea broke at high tide; sometimes we were in a cut among the rocks on a jutting point; and sometimes the sand from the desert above us drifted down and buried the flume, now roofed over, quite out of sight.

So we came to Fort Point and the Golden Gate — the southern footing of the Golden Gate Bridge would be constructed on this spot about 3/4 of a century later — and beyond the Fort there was more flume and such a stretch of sea and shore and sunshine as caused us to leap with gladness.

Lands End

We could follow the beach for miles; it was like a pavement of varnished sand, cool to the foot and burnished to the eye. And what sea-treasure lay strewn there! [ . . . ]

We hid in caverns and there dreamed our sea-dreams. We ate our lunches and played at being smugglers; then we built fires of drift-wood to warn the passing ships that we were castaways on a desert island; but when they took no heed of our signals of distress we were not too sorry nor in the least distressful.

At the seal rocks we tarried long; for there are few spots within the reach of the usual sight-seer where an enormous family of sea-lions can be seen at home, sporting in their native element, and at liberty to come and go in the wide Pacific at their own sweet wills. There they had lived for numberless generations unmolested; there they still live, for they are under the protection of the law.

This was, of course, the famous Seal Rock visible from Land’s End, just below the not-yet-constructed Cliff House. The sea lions themselves have long since migrated to the more satisfying feeding ground of Fisherman’s Wharf.

Sand, and the long way home

The way home was sometimes a weary one. After leaving the bluff above the shore, we struck into an almost interminable succession of sand-dunes. There was neither track nor trail there; there was no oasis to gladden us with its vision of beauty.

This was, of course, the original state of San Francisco’s Western Lands, in the days long before Golden Gate Park and human habitation.

In that wide waste there was not even the solitary tree that moved the poet to song; nor a bird in our solitude, save a sea-gull cutting across-lots from the ocean to the bay in search of a dinner. There were some straggling vines on the edge of our desert, thick-leaved and juicy; and these were doing their best to keep from getting buried alive. The sand was always shifting out yonder, and there was a square mile or two of it.

We could easily have been lost in it but for our two everlasting landmarks — Mount Tamalpais across the water to the north, and in the south Lone Mountain.

Lone Mountain is now the hilltop home of the University of San Francisco”, but back then loomed over a vast collection of cemeteries. [ . . . ]

And so we crossed the desert, over our shoetops in sand; climbing one hill after another, only to slide or glide or ride down the yielding slope on the farther side. Meanwhile the fog came in like a wet blanket. It swathed all the landscape in impalpable snow; it chilled us and it thrilled us, for there was danger of our going quite astray in it; but by and by we got into the edge of the town, and what a very ragged edge it was in the dim long ago!

In 1854 Larkin Street marked the westernmost border of San Francisco.

Once in the edge of the town, we were masters of the situation: you couldn’t lose us even in the dark. And so ended the outing of our merry crew, — merry though weary and worn; yet not so worn and weary but we could raise at parting a glad “Hoorah for Health, Happiness, and the Hills of Home!”