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THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1922: Flappers in the newspapers

May 19, 1922

flapper_smRight off the bat I have to admit the fact that — to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck — what I don’t know about San Francisco in the 1920s is a lot.

I did know that all sorts of great Prohibition and gangster stuff must have gone on, though, so I started leafing through a couple of 1922 editions of the Chronicle looking for stories.

And was immediately distracted by the flappers.

You know, flappers.

Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald

A little ’20s background …

Alright. After the unspeakable horrors of World War I, the prudish moral strictures of the Victorian era were pretty much destroyed. “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” became the guiding principle of the Roaring Twenties which followed — not just for the men who’d survived the carnage, but for a generation of young women as well.

Jazz appeared. Corsets vanished. Hemlines rose, and hair was bobbed. Women had gone to work and won the right to vote. Women smoked, women danced, and — Prohibition be damned — women drank moonshine out of hip flasks. Sit in the parlor and wait for a suitor to call? You’ve got to be kidding. It was the advent of the “modern American woman”, and — you might say — American modernity in general.

Flappers in the newspapers

So. The war ended in 1918, Prohibition began the following year, and by 1922 — the year in which these papers were published — the word “flapper” already appears in half a dozen different articles.

Amidst pieces with names like “Peggy’s Paragraphs: Home Sewing Week” and “Movie Men Linked in Liquor Plot” appear stories portraying flappers as an already-accepted element of society, right alongside others characterizing these girls as a menace.

Here’s one, covering a talk by an Adventist preacher: “Jazz, Flapper and Easy Divorce called Ulcers”. A few pages later, a cutesy-pie story about a High Society benefit boxing match takes the opposite approach: “Powdered Noses and Busted Beaks at Carnival; Flappers Thrilled by Boxers’ Pretty Tights.”

I think I’ll just read parts of two other stories that struck my fancy, and hope that they add bits of 1920s sparkle to the mosaic of history that we’re assembling at Sparkletack.

First, a piece about a San Franciscan meeting his immigrating sister at the Ferry Building. Not quite sure how this qualified as news, but — even though it reveals a certain American parochialism — it is kind of cute.

hamburg-flapperGerman Flapper Outflaps American Variety –– and Her Brother is Flabbergasted

Her Kind May Have Been Side Inspiration for “Berlin or Bust”

When Miss Elsie Glissman of Hamburg arrived at the Ferry Building yesterday to become a permanent resident of San Francisco, the personnel of the Traveler’s Aid Society who met her, discovered for the first time why soldiers of the United States have been making such a battle for the last three years for assignment to duty with the army of occupation in Germany.

Also they learned that the doughboy’s “Berlin or Bust” slogan of 1918 came from more than a desire to capture the Kaiser.

Figure on Powell Street

Miss Glissman is 22 years old. She has never been in America before, but you can take it from the Traveler’s Aid people that in looks and dress she can stroll down Powell street any day and “knock ’em cold.”

Her brother, John Glissman, long a resident of this city, and who hadn’t seen his sister for eight years, had an idea that she’d appear at the Ferry building severely dressed, with a long skirt and all that sort of thing, and with her hair drawn back, also severely. Also Miss Elsie would, in John’s opinion, be rather helpless, not being able to speak English.

John Flabbergasted

It takes a lot to flabbergast a San Franciscan, but John was properly flabbergasted when the prettiest girl he’s seen in months, wearing the most up-to-date American clothes, short skirts and all, silken hose, patent leather slippers and a hat that looked like Fifth Avenue, New York, threw herself in his arms, called him “brother” in good English, and in equally good English told him she’d had a delightful trip across the continent.

San Francisco Chronicle — 5.19.1922

Speaking of Fifth Avenue, here’s a hilarious piece about de-flapperization that must have been swiped by the Chron from some New York City paper. The paragraph describing prototypical flapper style is especially priceless.

business-flapperBig Business Banishes the Flapper

When the Flapper smashed all the traditions in sight and tinkered a bit with the prevailing moralities a great many people smiled indulgently.

True, she had to stand a series of hot shots from conservative pulpits, not to mention a few shrill cries of protest from social workers, old-fashioned mothers and modest young men who were afraid of being corrupted.

But on the whole, she got away with it. It was not until she began to interfere with the sacred institution of business efficiency that she got hers.

Now it looks as if Big Business may banish the Flapper. She will at least be made non-existent during working hours if the present movement for de-flappering female employees of business houses gets very far.

Why the Boy Lingered

The movement was first noticed in Newark NJ. A fond mother was wont to send her son to make deposits at the bank. After a while he began to consume much more time in the operation than the mother considered necessary. She investigated and found that he had all his business dealings with a young woman that mother considered illegally attractive.

Everything about the young woman had a modern — and if the truth must be known — a provocative slant. Her hair was bobbed, her hidden ears were hung with jade earrings, her low-cut waist allowed certain exciting revelations, and suggested even more. And as she walked toward the back of her cage a pair of low-cut, flat-heeled sport shoes with champagne-colored legs springing out of them, came into view. Even in the way she checked the deposit slips was an insouciance suggestive of a new age and new ideas.

The circumstance was duly reported to officials of the bank — The Fidelity Trust Company — whereupon the head of the institution paused in his consideration of foreign exchange, outstanding loans, etc., etc., and gave a thought to the feminine personnel of his establishment. The result was the issuance of the following order:

“A rule is herein adopted regarding requirements in dress for employees holding positions in the bank. I’ll skip what the boys had to wear — here’s what the girls were required to put on: “The dress (he refers to some specific pattern), sold in all stores at a cost of $5, must be worn and must be provided by the employees, in either blue, black or brown, and sleeves must not be shortened above the elbow. The dress must not be worn higher than twelve inches from the ground. “

This order caused all the indignation that might have been expected. In the first place the girl workers resented the charge that exposed biceps and dimpled knees militated against efficiency. The girl whose get-up started the investigation contended that she couldn’t be held responsible for the wandering brain of some weak-witted mother’s boy.

“These low-hipped gobbies never worry me,” she said. “I keep my cash straight and my decimal points in order. Furthermore, if some dumbbell starts hanging onto the cage I tell him to move on. They don’t block traffic outside my cell. Why, then, should they be starting all this plain-jane-and-no-nonsense business? They’ll be putting us in gunnysacks with nothing but our hands sticking out the next thing you know.”

The article goes on to worry about the cost of the outfits, and to speculate about a time when women’s business attire would become as standardized as men’s, and then wraps it up with the following:

… Big Business has apparently decided that the Flapper must go. Whether she will finally disappear, not only from business offices but from the parks, promenades and places where two or three are gathered for jubilation, remains to be seen.

San Francisco Chronicle — 5.21.1922

Oddly enough, Big Business actually did end up eradicating the Flapper — not in the way that the old men intended, of course — but by bringing on the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

1879: Stoddard, Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Sometime in 1879:
The house on Rincon Hill

Last week I read to you from In the Footprints of the Padres, Charles Warren Stoddard’s 1902 reminiscences about the early days of San Francisco.

That piece recounted a boyhood adventure, but this book is full of California stories from the latter years of the 19th century; some deservedly obscure, but some that ring pretty loud bells.

Todays’ short text is a great example of the latter, one that dovetails beautifully with two other San Francisco stories, both of which I’ve talked about at Sparkletack: the story of the Second Street Cut and the visit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The now all-grown-up Stoddard had returned to San Francisco after the Polynesian peregrinations that would inspire his best-known work, and Stevenson had just arrived from Scotland in hot pursuit of the woman he loved.

The two authors hit it off, and — as you’ll hear at the end of today’s Timecapsule — it’s to Stoddard and the house on Rincon Hill that we owe Stevenson’s eventual fascination with the South Seas.

charles warren stoddardSouth Park and Rincon Hill!

Do the native sons of the golden West ever recall those names and think what dignity they once conferred upon the favored few who basked in the sunshine of their prosperity?

South Park, with its line of omnibuses running across the city to North Beach; its long, narrow oval, filled with dusty foliage and offering a very weak apology for a park; its two rows of houses with, a formal air, all looking very much alike, and all evidently feeling their importance. There were young people’s “parties” in those days, and the height of felicity was to be invited to them.

As a height o’ertops a hollow, so Rincon Hill looked down upon South Park. There was more elbow-room on the breezy height; not that the height was so high or so broad, but it was breezy; and there was room for the breeze to blow over gardens that spread about the detached houses their wealth of color and perfume.

How are the mighty fallen! The Hill, of course, had the farthest to fall. South Parkites merely moved out: they went to another and a better place. There was a decline in respectability and the rent-roll, and no one thinks of South Park now, — at least no one speaks of it above a whisper.

As for the Hill, the Hillites hung on through everything; the waves of commerce washed all about it and began gnawing at its base; a deep gully was cut through it, and there a great tide of traffic ebbed and flowed all day. At night it was dangerous to pass that way without a revolver in one’s hand; for that city is not a city in the barbarous South Seas, whither preachers of the Gospel of peace are sent; but is a civilized city and proportionately unsafe.

A cross-street was lowered a little, and it leaped the chasm in an agony of wood and iron, the most unlovely object in a city that is made up of all unloveliness. The gutting of this Hill cost the city the fortunes of several contractors, and it ruined the Hill forever. There is nothing left to be done now but to cast it into the midst of the sea.

I had sported on the green with the goats of goatland ere ever the stately mansion had been dreamed of; and it was my fate to set up my tabernacle one day in the ruins of a house that even then stood upon the order of its going, — it did go impulsively down into that “most unkindest cut,” the Second Street chasm. Even the place that once knew it has followed after.

charles_stoddard_second_street_cutThe ruin I lived in had been a banker’s Gothic home. When Rincon Hill was spoiled by bloodless speculators, he abandoned it and took up his abode in another city. A tenant was left to mourn there. Every summer the wild winds shook that forlorn ruin to its foundations. Every winter the rains beat upon it and drove through and through it, and undermined it, and made a mush of the rock and soil about it; and later portions of that real estate deposited themselves, pudding-fashion, in the yawning abyss below.

I sat within, patiently awaiting the day of doom; for well I knew that my hour must come. I could not remain suspended in midair for any length of time: the fall of the house at the northwest corner of Harrison and Second Streets must mark my fall.

While I was biding my time, there came to me a lean, lithe stranger. I knew him for a poet by his unshorn locks and his luminous eyes, the pallor of his face and his exquisitely sensitive hands. As he looked about my eyrie with aesthetic glance, almost his first words were: “What a background for a novel!” He seemed to relish it all–the impending crag that might topple any day or hour; the modest side door that had become my front door because the rest of the building was gone; the ivy-roofed, geranium-walled conservatory wherein I slept like a Babe in the Wood, but in densest solitude and with never a robin to cover me.

He liked the crumbling estate, and even as much of it as had gone down into the depths forever. He liked the sagging and sighing cypresses, with their roots in the air, that hung upon and clung upon the rugged edge of the remainder. He liked the shaky stairway that led to it (when it was not out of gear), and all that was irrelative and irrelevant; what might have been irritating to another was to him singularly appealing and engaging; for he was a poet and a romancer, and his name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He used to come to that eyrie on Rincon Hill to chat and to dream; he called it “the most San Francisco-ey part of San Francisco,” and so it was.

It was the beginning and the end of the first period of social development on the Pacific coast. The little glimpse that Louis Stevenson had of it in its decay gave him a few realistic pages for The Wrecker.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got to read those “few realistic pages” of Stevenson’s — and here they are.

Robert Louis StevensonFaces on the City Front

from The Wrecker, chapter 8:

The first of these incidents brought me in acquaintance with a certain San Francisco character, who had something of a name beyond the limits of the city, and was known to many lovers of good English.

I had discovered a new slum, a place of precarious, sandy cliffs, deep, sandy cuttings, solitary, ancient houses, and the butt-ends of streets. It was already environed. The ranks of the street-lamps threaded it unbroken. The city, upon all sides of it, was tightly packed, and growled with traffic.

To-day, I do not doubt the very landmarks are all swept away; but it offered then, within narrow limits, a delightful peace, and (in the morning, when I chiefly went there) a seclusion almost rural. On a steep sand-hill, in this neighbourhood, toppled, on the most insecure foundation, a certain row of houses, each with a bit of garden, and all (I have to presume) inhabited. Thither I used to mount by a crumbling footpath, and in front of the last of the houses, would sit down to sketch.

The very first day I saw I was observed, out of the ground-floor window by a youngish, good-looking fellow, prematurely bald, and with an expression both lively and engaging.

The second, as we were still the only figures in the landscape, it was no more than natural that we should nod.

The third, he came out fairly from his intrenchments, praised my sketch, and with the impromptu cordiality of artists carried me into his apartment; where I sat presently in the midst of a museum of strange objects, — paddles and battle-clubs and baskets, rough-hewn stone images, ornaments of threaded shell, cocoanut bowls, snowy cocoanut plumes — evidences and examples of another earth, another climate, another race, and another (if a ruder) culture.

Nor did these objects lack a fitting commentary in the conversation of my new acquaintance. Doubtless you have read his book. You know already how he tramped and starved, and had so fine a profit of living, in his days among the islands; and meeting him, as I did, one artist with another, after months of offices and picnics, you can imagine with what charm he would speak, and with what pleasure I would hear.

It was in such talks, which we were both eager to repeat, that I first heard the names — first fell under the spell — of the islands; and it was from one of the first of them that I returned (a happy man) with Omoo under one arm, and my friend’s own adventures under the other.

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.


1906: Hotaling’s Whiskey is spared by the Great Fire and Earthquake

hotaling whiskeyApril 20th, 1906
The deliverance of Hotaling’s Whiskey

As of Friday the 20th, San Francisco was still on fire. The Great Earthquake had happened two days earlier, but the Fire (or fires) that devastated the city were still well underway.

The eastern quarter of the city — nearly five square miles — would be almost completely destroyed. But after the smoke cleared, a few precious blocks would emerged unscathed. Among these survivors would be the two blocks bounded by Montgomery, Jackson, Battery and Washington Streets.

great earthquake and firestorm fradkinOceans of ink have been spilled in documenting the incredible individual heroism and unfathomable professional incompetence displayed in fighting those fires. One of the best books on the subject is “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906” by Philip Fradkin, from which I’ve swiped much of today’s timecapsule.

This is the story of a single building, but one of vital importance to the delicate Western palette: AP Hotaling & Co.’s warehouse at 451 Jackson Street — the largest depository of whiskey on the West Coast.

Day One: the first escape

Hotaling’s warehouse was threatened on the very first day of the fires, Wednesday, April 18th. This particular blaze was one of the many inspired by rampant and ill-advised dynamiting, in this case by an allegedly drunken John Bermingham, not coincidentally the president of the California Powder Works.

Encouraged by the blast, the fire roared towards the whiskey-packed warehouse. Its cornices began to smoulder, but a quick-acting fireman bravely clambered to the top and hacked them off.

This was Hotaling’s first escape.

Day Two: the Army and the Navy

1906_burn_area_smOn the second day, the Army arrived — with orders to protect the adjacent Appraisers Building by dynamiting the warehouse. The Appraisers Building was, after all, government property. In this case, though — unlike in so many others all around San Francisco — the managers of the warehouse were able to make the officer in charge listen to reason:

“On account of the large stock of whiskey in the warehouse, the consequences of a dynamite explosion would be the immediate combustion of all this vast amount of highly inflammable spirit, which would flow all over the place in a liquid wave of flame, and be virtually certain to destroy (the Appraisers Building).”

Instead, a motley crew of waterfront toughs were hired to empty the warehouse, rolling the heavy wooden casks to a vacant lot, two blocks away. The Army posted guards and gave them orders about dealing with would-be booze thieves — shoot to kill.

By midnight, twelve hundred barrels had been moved — but then the fire struck again. This time the saviour was a single length of hose from a Navy fireboat off the Embarcadero. The hose ran from the boat over Telegraph Hill, up along Broadway, and all the way to Montgomery Street, pumping sea-water eleven blocks and saving the Bank of Italy, the Appraisers Building — and Hotaling’s warehouse.

Day Three: saved by sewage

By noon on the third day, another thousand barrels had been rolled to safety — but then the wind shifted. The fiery maelstrom ravaging the Barbary Coast now bore savagely down on Jackson Street. All seemed lost, and it was decided to abandon ship — the heavy iron shutters of the warehouse were bolted and the men turned to helping save documents from the Appraiser’s office.

hotaling buildingBut then the wind relented, and warehouse manager Edward Lind was struck by a hopeful inspiration. What about the sewer from the construction site next door? Hey, water is water. Two wine pumps were found, and a “compote of the sewage and (salt-water) seepage” was pumped out of the ground. A bucket brigade slopped the foul-smelling goo onto the whiskey barrels remaining in the warehouse.

Lind remembers that “it was horrible. One side of Jackson Street was a roaring fury of flame, with walls toppling, and smoke choking people. The evil-smelling stuff made a steam that was suffocating as it evaporated on the roasting woodwork.”

But that muck did the trick. The opposite side of Jackson was completely destroyed, as you can clearly see in the dramatic photo at the top of the post — but on this Friday, April 20th — Hotaling’s Whiskey was saved.

As the Argonaut would later report, “while millions of dollars worth of normally non-inflammable material was reduced to ashes, (thousands of) barrels of highly inflammable whisky were preserved intact in the heart of the tremendous holocaust.”

The fires are out, as are the poets

By Saturday the 21st, San Francisco’s fires were out. Every other stock of whiskey in the city had been destroyed, but Hotaling’s — by the grace of God, man, sewage, and the Navy — had been spared.

The burning of San Francisco was greeted by a good many clergyman as divine retribution for its wicked, wicked ways. The fact that houses of worship were incinerated right along with everything else — and that Hotaling’s whiskey warehouse was spared — inspired an immortal piece of doggerel by poet and wit Charles Kellogg Field:

If, as some say, God spanked the town

For being over frisky,

Why did He burn the Churches down

And save Hotaling’s Whisky?

old_kirkdecanterThat last line originally read “and saved Old Kirk’s Whiskey”, since that was the bottling name of the liquor — but somebody at Hotaling’s wisely changed the last line of the verse for advertising purposes — and it stuck.

A bronze plaque bearing those modified lines is attached to the old Hotaling warehouse today — but an even more fitting memorial was produced for the 2006 earthquake centennial by the Anchor Distillery — a limited edition single malt barrel-aged rye called “Hotaling Whiskey“.

That’s the spirit!

1958: The Giants play the Dodgers in the first major league baseball game on the West Coast

April 15, 1958
Major League Baseball in San Francisco!

ph_history_timeline_art17Exactly fifty-one years ago today, two New York City transplants faced each other for the first time on the fertile soil of the West Coast.

Decades of storied rivalry already under their respective belts, these two legendary New York baseball clubs — the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers — were trapped in aging, unsuitable parks. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had been considering a move to Minnesota until Dodger owner Walter O’Malley — whose plans for a new Brooklyn park were being blocked — set his sights on the demographic paradise of Los Angeles.

The National League wouldn’t allow just one team to make such a drastic geographic move, so O’Malley talked Stoneham into taking a look at San Francisco. To the eternal regret and dismay of their New York fans, following the 1957 season, both teams pulled up stakes and headed for the welcoming arms of California.

San Francisco welcomes the Giants

willie_mays_san_francisco_1958Hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans turned out for the Giants formal introduction to their new city, a Market Street ticker-tape parade. Keys to the city were handed out, Shirley Temple was the official Queen of the parade, and Willie Mays — the New York Giants’ biggest star — rode in the first of a long parade of player-filled convertibles, accepting the adoration of the crowd. The action around that whole first season has been beautifully documented in Steve Bitker’s book “The Original San Francisco Giants

A new stadium was in the works — the controversial Candlestick Park — but it would be a few years before that windblown soup tureen was ready for action. For now major league baseball would be played in what long-time Giants announcer Russ Hodges called a “beautiful little watch-charm ballpark” — Seals Stadium.

Seals Stadium at the corner of 16th and Bryant was a state-of-the-art ballpark in 1931, but it a little sprucing up to play host to the big leagues. Seating capacity was increased to the tune of 2600 bleacher seats, and — get this — the walls in the outfield were lowered and brought in closer to the plate! The lighting was beefed up, and 3000 parking places were added, mostly across Bryant Street at the famous Hamm’s Brewery.

Standing room only

The year before, Kansas City had been the western-most outpost of major league baseball. On April 15th, 1958, that honour belonged to San Francisco.

seals_stadium_aerialThe game took place on a warm and breezy afternoon, the freshly painted park heavily swathed in red white and blue bunting. The standing-room-only crowd of 23,449 converged on the stadium by car, bus, trolley and foot.

Box seats sold for $3.50, reserved seats for $2.50, and bleachers went for 90 cents — but scalpers were getting as much as $15 a ticket. Some people took in the action from Franklin Square across 16th Street. Old-time ballplayer Ty Cobb was there, and he remarked that 75,000 would have shown up if they’d just had the room.

“They seem hep about baseball”

It was the most heavily-covered game in big league history, with over a hundred journalists roaming the stands and packed into the newly-constructed press box. Dick Young of the New York Daily News expressed surprise over the behaviour of the San Francisco crowd:

“The general consensus is that the new Giant fans have big-league maturity. They have restrained enthusiasm. They are not the wild, fanatically partisan fans of the Milwaukee breed. They seem hep about baseball. Cheer when a play rates it, and not over a routine catch of a foul pop. And they are fair”.

Well, of course they were. Baseball had come to California with the Gold Rush, and was already well-established by 1888 when the epic poem “Casey at the Bat” was first published in the Examiner. In fact, San Francisco had already hosted a number of pro baseball teams, most notably the San Francisco Seals, established in 1903.

The Seals and other members of the Pacific Coast League played a caliber of baseball that stacked up against anything back east, and San Franciscans had witnessed dozens of future major-leaguers competing at Seals Stadium — the DiMaggio brothers, Frank Crosetti, Babe Pinelli, and the great Lefty O’Doul, to name just a few — but though I’m wearing a Seals cap as I write this, today’s story is about the major leagues.

Batter up!

The first Dodger batter to step to the plate was — ironically — the only San Francisco native on the field, Galileo High graduate Gino Cimoli. Giants’ pitcher Ruben Gomez struck him out swinging, and that proved to be an omen — this game would belong to San Francisco.

The high point of the afternoon, in hindsight, anyway, has to be the home run clouted by rookie outfielder Orlando Cepeda. It was the first base hit for “the Baby Bull,” and the first of the 379 home runs of his career. The Puerto Rico native would go on to become the Rookie of the Year, and a favourite of fans all over Northern California — including my mother!

The starting lineups were loaded with future Hall of Famers: for the Giants, Willie Mays, the greatest all-around player in the history of the game, along with Orlando Cepeda; and for the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Don Drysdale. Even the home-plate umpire Jocko Conlan would end up enshrined in at Cooperstown.

Giants win!

The Dodgers wouldn’t score a single run that day, with Gomez going the distance for a complete game shutout.

Final score, Giants 8, Dodgers nothing.

If you’re interested — and I know at least of couple of you are — you can find the box score right here.

Though the Giants finished third in the National League standings in 1958, the New York rivalry had survived the cross-country trip. The fact that the Giants finished ahead of the Dodgers — and beat them 16 times out of 22 meetings — made the season a success.

After Pee Wee Reese struck out to end the game, many in the crowd headed to baseball-oriented neighborhood saloons — Third Base, Lou’s, or the Double Play. Though Seals Stadium was demolished in October of 1959 — yes, a tragedy — the Double Play Bar & Grill still stands. In fact, it just turned 100 years old this year! With walls lined with baseball memorabilia, including the tip of Seals Stadium’s old flagpole — it’s far and away the best place in town to soak up the atmosphere of baseball from the first half of the 20th century.


Last year a plaque was finally laid in the sidewalk at 16th and Bryant, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of that first major league game right on the spot of the old stadium. Willie Mays was there for the occasion, along with Jim Davenport and Orlando Cepeda. The now-graying Orlando recalled his rookie home run perfectly — pointing to the spot where it landed, he recalled that he hit it at 2:30 in the afternoon, that the sky was overcast, and that the pitch was a 3-1 changeup. It was the biggest thrill of his career.

My biggest thrill would be for the Giants to bring home a World Series title — in their now half-century-plus of San Francisco baseball, it still hasn’t happene … yet.

Keep your fingers crossed.

1871: The fall of a hoodlum king

April 9, 1871:
A hoodlum king’s power is broken, and all because he hated the sound of music. Apparently.

This isn’t going to come as a surprise, but one of my favourite histories of this fair city is Herbert Asbury’s Barbary Coast, first published in 1933. That’s where I ran into the little story of Billy Smith, one of the most notorious hoodlums that San Francisco ever produced.

In the early 1870s, Billy Smith was the leader of a gang known as the Rising Star Club. This was a group of Barbary Coast thugs about 200 men strong, and Billy ruled them — and the Coast — with an iron fist. Literally. Billy was a monster of a man, and scoffed at the notion of using a knife, club or gun. No, Billy’s weapon of choice was a gigantic pair of corrugated iron knuckles, which he used to tear his antagonists into shreds.


This low-tech weaponry was actually not unusual for San Francisco hoodlums. They rarely used guns, since — bullies that they were — they tended to enter battle only when massively outnumbering their opponent … a lone Chinese laundryman, for example, or a recalcitrant shopkeeper.

I’ve written about the derivation of the term “hoodlum” in a previous blog post, but what’s just as interesting is how proud the Barbary Coast hoodlums were of that appellation. According to Asbury,

“Sometimes when they sallied forth on their nefarious errands, they heralded their progress through the streets of San Francisco by cries of “The Hoodlums are coming!” and “Look out for the Hoodlums”! Many of them had the curious idea that the very sound of the word “hoodlum” terrified the police, and that by so identifying themselves they automatically became immune to arrest.

It begins with a picnic.

One fine morning, Billy decided to give his boys a little break from the “daily grind” of pimping, blackmail, mayhem and marauding. On Sunday, April 9th 1871, Billy Smith and the Rising Star Club boarded a ferry boat, and floated off towards Alameda for a nice spring picnic.

It seemed like a perfect day; the weather was beautiful, the park lush and green, and the hoodlums passed their day emptying the various kegs of whiskey and beer they’d brought along. The trouble didn’t start until they boarded the train back to the ferryboat.

It just so happened that a volunteer military regiment known as the Swiss Guard had also planned a Sunday picnic in Alameda. There were about 200 Guardsmen, but along with friends, wives and children, their party actually numbered almost a thousand. They’d brought their muskets and bayonets along, but since it was a family outing, ammunition had been left at home.

The Guards had selected a park at the opposite end of the island — anyway, it must have been far enough away that the hoodlums couldn’t hear them. See, though I don’t know very much about the Swiss Guards, what I do know is that their principal form of recreation was singing. In fact, they boasted a formal singing group called — what else — the Guard Glee Club.

“To the outspoken disgust of the hoodlums … ”

As the sun began to set, hoodlums and Guards boarded the train back to the ferry slip at precisely the same time. Billy Smith’s boys were loaded, and the Guard Glee Club had apparently not yet sung themselves hoarse. The moment the train rocked into motion, they burst into song, as Asbury puts it “to the outspoken disgust of the hoodlums”. Billy sent a message to the Guards informing them that they’d be hurled from the train if they didn’t cut it out. Words were exchanged, but no physical contact was made until both parties had transferred from the train to the ferry heading back towards San Francisco.

I’ll let Herbert tell the rest of the story:

“The members of the Glee Club gathered in the boat’s cabin and renewed their singing, whereupon Billy Smith and a score of his followers tried to stop them. Billy Smith was promptly ejected from the cabin, but returned to the assault with the entire membership of the Rising Star Club at his heels, all armed with clubs, brass knuckles, and knives.

A general fight ensued, while the women and children fled to the after part of the cabin. Most of the windows were soon broken, and practically all of the furniture in the cabin was smashed. The Guardsmen finally fixed bayonets and succeeded in prodding the hoodlums out of the cabin and to the after deck, where they were surrounded.

The rowdies attacked again as the ferry-boat neared its San Francisco slip, but were again driven back by the bayonets. When the boat docked, the Guardsmen massed near the bow and refused to allow anyone to go ashore until the arrival of the police.”

At the end of the affray, the Guardsmen were bruised and bleeding, and the thugs had sustained some pretty good punctures from the bayonets.

Several hoodlums leapt overboard and escaped as the police showed up, but a goodly number were taken into custody — and this included Mr. Billy Smith. The police had actually witnessed Billy bashing a Guardsman with his famous iron knuckles, and he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. The notorious hoodlum king was tried, convicted and shipped off to prison.

Billy Smith eventually returned to the Barbary Coast, but it just wasn’t the same. According to Asbury, “he was never again a power among the rowdies”.

The San Francisco “Cocktail Route”

The Cocktail Route — “Champagne Days of San Francisco”

Spring is most definitely in the air right now, which has brought my thoughts back to one of the great phenomena of San Francisco’s pre-earthquake era, the “Cocktail Route”.

champagne-days-of-san-franciscoI know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in previous shows, but I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear that it was both a real, chartable path and a kind of a beloved civic institution. I’m far from an expert on the subject, though — for details, the woman to consult is Evelyn Wells.

If you ever start nosing around the 1890s, that most sparkling decade of the Gilded Age — you’ll inevitably end up perusing a charming volume from 1939 entitled Champagne Days of San Francisco. Evelyn Wells wrote for Fremont Older at the San Francisco Call back in the day, and in this lovingly written narrative she reveals the City’s quirks, foibles and peculiarly San Francisco-flavoured ways of doing business through a trio of characters called only the Senator, the Banker, and the Judge.

And though it’s completely un-footnoted and occasionally inaccurate, Evelyn’s portrayals are so vivid, and provide such entertaining insight into the way lives were lived among San Francisco’s upper crust, that this book is always right up there at the top of my recommended reading list.

I’m going to start right in on a lightly edited version of Chapter Four, “The Cocktail Route” — and I think you’ll see exactly what I mean.

geary at kearny streets, lotta's fountain - 1885The Cocktail Route

The Senator, like all true sons of the Champagne Age, never permitted pleasure to disrupt the even flow of business. “No matter how enthusiastically we celebrate the week-end,” once commented, “we are always in our offices by two on Monday afternoon.”

Easy-living, unhurried San Francisco had resumed the burden of life again by two o’clock … the male population that had celebrated so violently the week-end had resumed responsibility — personal, civic, or state. Again, in bearded dignity, the men of the vivid nineties trod the corridors of banks and hotels and courts. Life was real and very earnest, until five o’clock.

At five the Senator drew his large gold watch from its chamois bag and sighed with relief. It was Cocktail Hour.

All over San Francisco at this moment men were buttoning Prince Alberts and cutaways, balancing derbies and toppers, preparatory to venturing forth into Montgomery, Kearny, and Market Streets, following a Cocktail Route famous around the world.

On the Route they would meet friends discuss politics and the latest scandal, and adjust matters of business.

The Cocktail Route was a tradition. Created in the eighties, in the city where free lunch and the cocktail itself was born, it was trod by San Francisco males “to the Fire” of ’06.

The Senator proceeded down Kearny Street to Sutter, to the Reception Saloon where the Cocktail Route began, at five on weekdays and earlier on Saturdays. Some men started the Route at its opposite end, on upper Market Street. But the Senator adhered to tradition. To start the Route at the wrong end was to upset a man’s entire evening.

There was no haste in the Senator’s gait. Men did not hurry in the Champagne Age. There was no “after-work” rush at five o’clock. At that hour loitered along the streets and strolled leisurely through swinging doors upon such scenes, rich and warm, as greeted the Senator’s brightening eye when he marched into the Reception Saloon.

For the saloon, in champagne days, was more than a warm meeting place at the day’s end. It was a man’s club and salon and conference place.

Fleas, cold, poor beds, and drafty lodgings had driven the pioneer into the saloon. Food, drink, and conviviality held him there. In the nineties comparatively few saloons were cursed by the prophetic legend over a side door, “Family Entrance”. It was still a man’s age. The saloon was still a haven against feminity. In it elections were predetermined, political machines adjusted, and voting machines “fixed”.

san-francisco-saloonFor a moment, halting in the heady atmosphere, the Senator’s noble nose quivered over his splendid beard. Surely, over this fragrance of imported liquor and Havana smoke and sundry mouth-watering odors emanating from the free lunch counter, there hovered the scent of freshly cooked terrapin! Other saloons had other specialties, such as crab, turkey, or corned beef.

The sparkle of gas-light through crystal candelabra shone on colorful banks of bottles, large mirrors, and expensive oil paintings, white-coated bartenders, and many friends of the Senator grouped along the shining mahogany bar. Here were the leaders of the city — merchants, judges, politicians, bankers, newspaper men, and gay young blades, resplendent in striped trousers, fine cravats, and amazing waistcoats, some brocaded, some of moleskin and one, even, of seal. A few men carried canes crooked over arms not needed at the bar.

Low-voiced, well-mannered, they made room for the Senator.

For the rest of the content of this podcast, you’re going to have to, well, either listen to it, or peruse Chapter Four of “Champagne Days of San Francisco“!

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: Slumming the Barbary Coast

“A Barbary Cruise”

I’ve been thinking about the fact that — just like our out-of-town guests inevitably insist that we take ’em to Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf — in the 1870s, visitors from back in “the States” just had to go slumming in the infamous Barbary Coast.

The piece I’m about to read to you was written by Mr. Albert Evans, a reporter from the good ol’ Alta California. The Barbary Coast was part of his beat, and this gave him connections with the hardnosed cops whose duty it was to maintain some kind of order in that “colorful” part of town.

As romanticized as it has become in popular memory, the Coast was a “hell” of a place — filthy, violent and extremely dangerous for greenhorns.

When some visitors came to town in about 1871, Albert asked one of his policeman buddies to join them on the tour.

His account of this “Barbary Cruise” is a remarkable firsthand snapshot of the territory bounded by Montgomery, Stockton, Washington and Broadway. But what’s almost more interesting is the way he reports it; the purple prose, the pursed-lip moralizing, and — though I’ve skipped the Chinatown part of the tour — the absolutely matter-of-fact racism on display.

This is the Barbary Coast seen through the eyes of white, bourgeois, and extremely Victorian San Francisco — prepare to be both educated and annoyed.

The piece is edited from Albert S. Evans’ memoir,

“A la California. Sketches of Life in the Golden State.”

john_devineEVERY city on earth has its special sink of vice, crime and degradation, its running ulcer or moral cancer, which it would fain hide from the gaze of mankind. San Franciscans will not yield the palm of superiority to anything to be found elsewhere in the world. Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity — from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever — and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone.

It is Saturday evening, in the middle of the rainy season, when no work is doing upon the ranches, and work in the placer mines is necessarily suspended, and the town fairly swarms with “honest miners” and unemployed farm-hands, who have come down from the mountains and “the cow counties” to spend their money, and waste their time and health in “doing” or “seeing life” in San Francisco. The Barbary Coast is now alive with “jay-hawkers,” “short-card sharps,” “rounders,” pickpockets, prostitutes and their assistants and victims; we cannot find a better night on which to pay a visit to the locality.

They visit Chinatown first, but I’m going to skip that and focus on the Coast.

We go on down to Pacific street, the roughest and least pacific of the streets on the Barbary Coast. The whole street, for half a dozen blocks, is literally swarming with the scum of creation. Every land under the sun has contributed toward making up the crowd of loafers, thieves, low gamblers, jay-hawkers, dirty, filthy, degraded, hopeless bummers, and the unsophisticated greenhorns from the mines, or from the Eastern States, who, drawn here by curiosity, or lured on by specious falsehoods told them by pretended friends met on the ocean or river steamers, are looked upon as the legitimate prey of all the rest.

From the “deadfalls,” as the low beer and dance cellars are designated, which abound on all the streets in this vicinity, come echoes of drunken laughter, curses, ribaldry, and music from every conceivable instrument.

Hand-organs, flutes, pianos, bagpipes, banjos, guitars, violins, brass instruments and accordeons mingle their notes and help to swell the discord. “Dixie” is being drummed out of a piano in one cellar; in the next they are singing “John Brown;” and in the next, (the) “Wearing of the Green.” Women dressed in flaunting colors stand at the doors of many of these “deadfalls,” and you frequently notice some of them saluting an acquaintance, perhaps of an hour’s standing, and urging him to “come back and take just one more drink.”

mary_wetherbeeTen to one the already half-drunken fool complies, and finds himself in the calaboose next morning, with a broken head, utterly empty pockets, and a dim recollection of having been taken somewhere by some woman whom he cannot identify, and finding himself unexpectedly in the clutches of men he never saw before, who go through him like a policeman, taking from him watch, chain, and every other valuable, and pitch him headlong down a stairway; after which all is a blank in his memory.

All these dens are open and in full blast, yet we see few persons going in or out who appear like customers, and they do not seem to be selling lager or whisky enough to pay for gaslight. Look in the papers tomorrow morning, and you will see items like this:

ROBBED ON THE BARBARY COAST. – John Smith, a miner from El Dorado County, came down on the Sacramento boat last evening, and put up at the What Cheer House. On his way to the hotel, he made the acquaintance of a man who claimed to know a friend of his who had worked with him at mining. The two started out in search of this mythical friend, and visited numerous deadfalls without finding him. They drank at each place they visited, however, and about one o’clock this morning Smith reached the calaboose in a half- stupified condition, and charged a girl known as “Pigeon-toed-Sal,” … with robbing him of $800, her companion holding him down while she searched his pockets. Officers Smith and Brown arrested Sal and her confederate, the “Billy Goat,” but it is doubtful if the charge can be sustained, as the money was not recovered, and the friends of the accused will fee a lawyer with the money, and hire the witnesses … to leave the State, or swear that Smith had agreed to marry the girl, and gave her the money … to purchase the necessary outfit for the wedding with it. It is, in all probability, the old story of the fool and his money.

A few such items will enlighten you on the question of how the proprietors of so many of these well-named “deadfalls” manage to make a living.

“Pirates” at large

Three men come up the street as we stand on the sidewalk looking and listening, and two of them eye our friend the policeman uneasily as they pass. These two are unmistakably of the Algerine pirate class, and the third evidently a middle-aged greenhorn from the mining country.

The officer comprehends the situation at a glance, and stepping forward, says emphatically, “Look here, Jack; I told you once before to get out of the jayhawking business, and not let me catch you on the Coast again. And you, Cockeye; when did you come back from over the Bay? I’ll bag you both, as sure as I’m a living man, if I catch either of you on my beat again. You can go this time, but cuss me if it ain’t your last chance. Toddle, blast you, and don’t let me see you again!”

The young fellows slink away without a word, like renegade curs caught in the act of killing sheep, and the officer addresses himself to their intended victim. “Look here, old fellow; those fellows picked you up at the wharf, or around the What Cheer, and pretended they used to know you at home. They are two State Prison thieves, and would have robbed you before daylight, sure. Now, you go back to your hotel, put your money in the safe, and go to bed, or I’ll lock you up for a drunk; do you hear?” The countryman stares a moment with blank astonishment, and then, with many thanks, tells the officer just what the latter had already told him, and leaves the Barbary Coast in all haste.

A hidden gambling-den

“Do you want to see what they are doing in these places?” says the officer. “Come in here with me.” We enter what appears to be an ordinary “corner grocery,” with piles of potatoes, … soap, and other ordinary goods, stacked up in front. Everything looks quiet and respectable, but the German or French proprietor of the place glances anxiously at our escort, who pushes open a green Venetian blind, … and motions for us to enter. Here, in an inner room, for which the grocery … is but a screen … , we find some twenty rascally-looking negroes from Panama, the West Indies, Peru and Guiana, sitting round dirty tables, playing draw-poker and other swindling games, with greasy, fairly stinking cards, for money which we know they never honestly earned.

“Hulloa, that is you, is it? You are a healthy crowd, you are! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine ‘old cons.’ One, two, three, four, five, six, seven chain-gang customers; and six that ought to be hanged, and will be, sooner or later.” Having thus classified the occupants of the place, for our and their benefit, the officer leads us out once more on the street.

A miserable “deadfall”

We next enter a low room on the ground floor of a rickety, old frame-building, which has stood here since 1849, and passing the screen which shuts off the view from the street, find a bar stocked with every species of liquid poison, at “5 cents a glass.” A rough-looking Irishman is behind the bar; two miserable, bloated, loathsome-looking, drunken white females are quarrelling with each other in front; on the settee ranged along the wall sits a third wreck of female humanity, swearing like a pirate, and cursing “the perlice” at every breath; while a man with a face like a diseased beefs liver, who once represented a Western State in Congress, is patting her on the back caressingly, and endeavoring vainly to quiet her, lest the police outside should hear her and make a raid on the establishment. In one corner, a party of Kanaka sailors, from a Honolulu whaling-vessel, are holding a drunken pow-wow; but as we cannot understand a word of their language, we pass them with a glance.

At the sight of the policeman, the woman on the sofa breaks out, like a maniac, in fresh curses and vituperation, and stepping to the door he gives a long, sharp whistle. Two answering whistles are heard, and in a few seconds two more policemen arrive, and start with the furious woman between them for the calaboose.

A dissipated dance-cellar

margaret_mcinnarnyGuided by the music of violins, guitars and a piano, and the tramping of many feet, we descend a narrow stairway, and find ourselves in one of the most notorious dance-cellars of San Francisco. There is a low bar at one side of the room, and at the farther end a raised platform for the musicians. About forty young women and girls, ranging down to ten or twelve years of age, dressed in gaudy, flaunting costumes, and with eyes lighted up with the baleful glare of dissipation, are on the floor, dancing with as many men, of all ages: rowdies, loafers, pimps, thieves, and their greenhorn victims; while perhaps fifty men of the same stamp stand looking on and applauding the performers. The room is blue with tobacco-smoke, and reeking with the fumes of the vilest of whisky.

Half a dozen men, or overgrown boys, are sitting or lying on the floor in various stages of inebriety, but they are unnoticed by the other occupants of the place. Every time a man takes a partner for the dance he pays fifty cents, half of which goes to the establishment and half to the girl, and at the close of each dance he generally takes her to the bar and treats her. We notice with thankfulness that the females appear to be almost all of foreign birth, the exceptions being Spanish-Americans, with occasionally an Indian girl, who has been raised as a servant in some family in San Francisco, but, Indian-like, prefers a life of idleness, vice and degradation to one of comfort and honest labor.

This place has been the scene of many a savage affray and brutal murder; and often have we seen the sawdust on its floor red with the blood of some victim of the knife or bullet. It is long past midnight, but the drunken orgies go on unchecked, and will do so for hours yet, if no bloody row occur to end them prematurely.

Skulking thieves

Bang! bang! bang! What was that? We hear the sharp whistle of a policeman and several answering whistles, and run out to the street to see what is going on.

An officer has met three well-known thieves skulking through an alley with something in bags on their backs. On general principles, he orders them to halt, and is answered with a staggering blow with a slungshot by one of them. To draw his revolver and let fly at each in succession is the work of an instant. One of the desperadoes is shot through the heart and falls dead in his tracks; one is lying on the ground with his right thigh-bone shivered by the bullet, so that it will require amputation; and the third, barely hit in the side, has thrown up his hands, and stands waiting for the irons to be put on him.

The police clear the field of action in a few minutes, and on searching the bags fnd a quantity of valuable goods just taken from a grocery store on Pacific street, which the defeated party had broken open and plundered.

And here our slumming author heads back into Chinatown, denounces the Celestial vices of prostitution and opium, and encounters the aftermath of an extremely bloody murder … but we are going to leave the infamous neighborhood to its own devices — the Barbary Coast of 1871.

America’s “Master Birdman” makes his final flight

lincoln_beachey_in_looper_1914March 15, 1915:
“The Man Who Owns the Sky”

It was the year of the legendary Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco had once again earned that phoenix on her flag by rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire — and just nine years later, the city celebrated its rebirth by winning the right to host the World’s Fair. Visitors from every point on the compass swarmed towards California to visit the resurgent city.

You probably know that the site of the Fair was the neighborhood now called the Marina, that acres of shoreline mudflats were filled in to create space for a grand and temporary city, and that the mournfully elegant Palace of Fine Arts is its lone survivor. The exhibits and attractions on offer were endless and famously enchanting, but one of the most spectacular events took place in the air above the Fair.

On March 15, a quarter of a million people gathered in the fairgrounds and on the hills above them to see a man in an ultra-modern experimental airplane perform unparalleled feats of aeronautical acrobatics.

That man was Lincoln Beachey, and in 1915 he was the most famous aviator in the country — known from coast to coast as “The Man Who Owns the Sky”.

Lincoln Beachey, home-town boy

Lincoln Beachey was born in San Francisco back in 1887. It was the age of technology and tinkering, and young Lincoln was a kid of his time. The family was a poor one — his civil war veteran father was blind — so Lincoln had acquired a small bicycle shop and was learning to ride and fix motorcycles by the time he was thirteen years old.

But speeding along the ground was one thing. At the turn of the century it seemed as though the whole world was trying to get into the air, and Lincoln was no exception.

By the time the bicycle-tinkering Wright Brothers had made aeronautical history at Kitty Hawk in 1903 — Lincoln had already pinned his aerial hopes to a rival technology, the balloon.

At age 17 he joined Thomas Scott Baldwin’s already famous powered-dirigible troupe, and then built his own airship. To the consternation of Congress, he flew it around the Washington Monument and parked on the White House lawn. Though occasionally crashing the thing into buildings, rivers, and trees, Lincoln toured the country demonstrating his balloon-piloting prowess and becoming one of America’s most best-known aeronauts.

Introducing the aeroplane

He was a little behind the times. Several years earlier, the Wright Brothers had demonstrated their fixed-wing aeroplane in Europe, and in 1908 the United States Army ordered one. This was the beginning of the end of the Airship Era.

Lincoln himself was finally convinced after a 1910 race with an aeroplane. He and his balloon were beaten badly, and — remarking to a pal that “Boy, our racket is dead!” — he switched, never flying an airship again.

Off to a questionable start

His first two attempts at Glenn Curtiss’ flying school ended very quickly in piles of twisted aeroplane wreckage. Somehow he talked his way into making try number three, which was a successful solo flight. In fact, he showed such aptitude for flying — specifically that combination of fearlessness and skill necessary for stunt flying — that by the end of 1911 he was a member of Curtiss’ official team.

Over the next few years Lincoln would pull off an amazing series of aerial stunts.

In New York, he flew over Niagara Falls, down the gorge and under Honeymoon Bridge. In Chicago he dove down into the skyscraper walled streets and skimmed the roofs of cars with his landing gear — then set an altitude record by climbing until his fuel ran out. At the under-construction World’s Fair grounds in San Francisco, Lincoln actually took off, accelerated to 60 mph and landed his plane — all inside the huge Palace of Machinery!

He was the first to fly a plane inside a building, the first to figure out how to pull out of a spin; to tail-slide on purpose, nose dive with the engine off from 3000 feet, and he could pick a handkerchief off the ground with a wing-tip. And all of this while wearing a three-piece suit!

The man had style.

lincoln_beachey_flying_a_loopThe stuntman retires — not!

Lincoln owned every stunt that could made in an airplane, but after learning that something new had been accomplished in Europe — the inside loop — he couldn’t live without giving it a try.

Glenn Curtiss refused to build Lincoln a plane capable of the act — so he retired from flying. And he stayed retired until Curtiss gave in. On his first attempt with the new plane — Lincoln made a speed-related mistake that actually killed a spectator. He retired again.

This time it was only until spotting a circus poster showing a plane flying upside down — and he was lured right back into the sky. When he climbed into the cockpit of his Curtiss biplane, he became the first flyer in the United States to accomplish — and master — the inside loop.

Barnstorming, 1914

In 1914, he set off on his own for what would become the most celebrated barnstorming tour in American history. He cavorted in the air above 126 cities that year, also working up a series of staged airplane-motorcar “races” with the famous driver Barney Oldfield.

Somewhere along the way, Lincoln ordered a custom biplane he called the “Little Looper”. Instantly recognizable by the gigantic capital letters spelling out BEACHEY on the upper wing, he could loop-the-loop until the cows came home, setting records almost every time he went into the air. At one exhibition he Ferris-Wheeled through the sky 80 times in a row!

By the end of 1914, he was the most popular and well-known flyer in the country, earning a quarter of a million dollars, and performing in front of nearly 20 million people. And here’s some perspective — that’s nearly a quarter of the population of the entire country!

Among those millions who saw the man fly was Orville Wright himself, who earlier had dismissed Lincoln’s acrobatics as “optical illusions”. After seeing the show for himself, Orville opined that

“An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry. His mastery is a thing of beauty to watch. He is the most wonderful flyer of all.”

He was declared “the eighth wonder of the world” by newspapers, and writer/philosopher Elbert Hubbard declared that

“Each art has its master worker — … its Michelangelo, its Milton. There is music and most inspiring grace … in flight by man in the heavens, and posterity will write the name of Lincoln Beachey as the greatest artist on the aeroplane. The deftness of stroke of any of the old masters cannot exact his touch. He is truly wonderful.”

Lincoln was also a handsome devil. His biographer Frank Marrero writes that the airman’s only vices were “an extreme boldness … (and) … too many women”. The blonde and firm-jawed airman was a magnet for young, female admirers, and he didn’t exactly beat them off with a stick. Intimacy outside the bonds of marriage — or at least engagement — was, let’s say, “frowned upon” in those gilded days — so Lincoln bought “diamond engagement rings by the dozen”, and always carried one in a vest pocket for amorous emergencies.

World War I

Europe was in the throes of the first World War by now, and the aerobatics that Beachey and others had pioneered — once derided as needlessly dangerous and self-aggrandizing — were being put to deadly use. The climate of the times was such that, working with the Army and Navy to get Congress interested in creating an Air Force, Lincoln added demonstration bombing to his repertoire. He criss-crossed the country dropping smoke bombs in exhibitions, culminating in a dive-bombing run at the White House itself.

Back to San Francisco, 1915

All right. All of this flying and fame brings us right back up to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Lincoln Beachey, as one of San Francisco’s favourite sons, was delighted to take part.

The “Master Birdman” added to the frenzied spectacle leading up to the opening by bombing a huge scale model of the Battleship Oregon floating a mile offshore. As multiple explosions rocked and sank the wood-and-canvas vessel, spectators screamed and even fainted, imagining that the real battleship had just been sent to the bottom of the Bay.

But that wasn’t enough for Lincoln. For him even the old loop-the-loop was becoming old hat, and he had stunts in mind that required a new-fangled kind of plane. Sleek and speedy single-winged aircraft were just starting to appear in workshops around the world, and Lincoln had been knocked out by seeing one airborne in France.

Though it’s often reported that his model was an Austrian-made Taube, other sources indicate that he had actually collaborated in the design of a brand new machine — a one-of-a-kind, extra-small, high-performance monoplane. It was built in San Francisco, and what better occasion to give it a debut than at the World’s Fair?

lincoln_beachey_takeoff_1915The fateful day

The 250,000 people watching on that fateful March 15th knew Lincoln’s reputation well, they knew about the cool new plane, and they were primed and ready to see something.

The tiny plane taxied along in front of the grand exhibition halls and accelerated, rapidly disappearing into the sky at the unheard of speed of 100 mph. As the crowd craned their necks, Lincoln took the plane into one of his famous inside loops, then climbed up to 3000 feet.

And then …

And here’s where history becomes somewhat confusing. I’ve found eyewitness accounts, newspaper stories, read the fun-filled Wikipedia article, and so on — and I cannot for the life of me decide which of the conflicting stories to believe.

Some say it happened as he performed the “Dip of Death”, his dive-from-the-sky-and-pull-up-at-the-last-second routine; others, at the end of an inside loop: still others, at the very end of his performance, flying back towards the landing strip. One school of thought even conjectures that he was about to — or even in the act of — trying to become the first aviator to fly a plane upside down.

Whatever the story, the ending is the same. To the horror of all present, including Lincoln’s friends and family, what happened was this: the slender wings of the little plane snapped right off; first one, then the other — Lincoln Beachey plunged helplessly downward, and vanished beneath the surface of the Bay.

Divers, ironically from the real Battleship Oregon, entered the water — and as the spectators held their collective breath, the bodies of both plane and pilot were brought to the surface. The greatest airman on the planet, three-piece suit and all, was still strapped into his cockpit — drowned.

A pioneer forgotten

The City mourned. And somehow in the intervening years, one of the greatest of the air pioneers, our own Lincoln Beachey has been forgotten. I suspect the daredevil would like to be remembered in his own words — this comes from an interview given shortly before his death.

“It is simply the dancing along life’s icy brink and the attendant excitement that makes life worth while. Chance-taking is not a business with me. It is a delightful diversion, and no music lover ever is more charmed by listening to the inspiring strains of his favorite opera, than I am charmed by the hum of my motor when I am sailing in or out of a loop and upside-down flight.

Some hunt lions and tigers for thrills. But I love the sky and answer its call because my whole life centers around the sensations of flying. It feels like being in love.”

1956: Gold medals or Gold records? An athletic crooner makes a life-changing choice

“Send blank contracts”

johnny-mathis-1960Of course you know Johnny Mathis. The velvet-voiced crooner is a fixture of the softer side of American pop culture, providing reliably romantic background music for cuddling couples for over sixty years.

He’s sold 350 million records worldwide, his Greatest Hits album was on the Billboard charts for almost a decade, and at one point he had five albums on the charts at once, a feat equaled only by Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra.

But what you might not have known about Johnny Mathis is this. The music world discovered him right here in San Francisco. And the story is more interesting than that — his musical calling deflected Johnny from a completely different career — as a world-class athlete.

Born singing

Johnny’s family moved to San Francisco when he was just a kid. His father Clem, an ex-vaudeville character, spotted his musical aptitude early, and taught the boy every song he knew. Johnny was crazy about performing, and sang wherever there was a stage — at school, in the church choir, even competing in amateur talent competitions.

When Johnny turned 13, his father brought him to a local voice teacher, who also saw promise in the boy. In exchange for his doing odd jobs around the house, she gave Johnny classical vocal training throughout his high school and early college years.

“… best all-around athlete to come out of San Francisco … “

Speaking of high school, out at George Washington High in the Richmond District, Johnny wasn’t known for singing so much as for his athletic skills. He became the star of the track and field team, and lettered in basketball for four straight years.

In 1954 he entered San Francisco State University. Though his vocal training continued, just as in high school, Johnny made his mark on campus as an athlete. His name pops up all over the sports pages of 1950s San Francisco newspapers, often referred to as “the best all-around athlete to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area”.

In that first year at SF State he shattered future basketball legend Bill Russell’s high jump record by elevating to 6”-5 1/2’ — just two inches short of the contemporary Olympic record, and a number that still ranks among the University’s top 15.

The Black Hawk nightclub

A fellow student of Johnny’s happened to be a member of a jazz combo with a regular gig down at the Black Hawk nightclub. The Black Hawk holds an almost mythical status in the annals of west coast jazz, having hosted everyone who was anyone during the golden decade of the fifties, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gillespie, Tatum, Getz, Billie Holliday … forget it, the Black Hawk was the place.

Johnny’s pal knew that the star athlete could sing as well as sweat, so he invited him down to the Tenderloin for a Sunday afternoon jam session. When Helen Noga, the club’s co-owner, heard him sing, she insisted on becoming the kid’s manager.

Two weeks later, Johnny was singing regularly at Ann Dee’s 440 Club in North Beach. As he worked the stage, his new manager worked the phones, trying to get her protegé a recording contract.

“Send blank contracts”

In September of ’55, Columbia Records’ jazz guy George Avakian just happened to be on vacation in San Francisco. Helen Noga hounded the poor man until he agreed to spend an evening listening to her boy.

As the story goes, Avakian heard Johnny sing just once and fired off a telegram to New York City:

“Have found phenomenal 19 year old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”

The executive returned to the East Coast and told Johnny to go back to school — he’d be sent for when the time was right.


In early 1956, Johnny’s athletic prowess was recognized at a national level. He received an invitation to the Olympic Trials for the American track and field team, which would go on to compete in the Melbourne Summer Games. This momentous news had barely had a chance to sink in when another invitation arrived; this one the promised summons from Columbia Records.

There aren’t too many people who have the talent and skills to even imagine facing such a dilemma. Teenaged Johnny Mathis stood at the crossroads of his career, facing the single most important decision of his life: should he pursue gold medals — or gold albums?

Papa Clem — the veteran performer — cast the deciding vote, advising his son to sing his way to stardom. In March of 1956, 53 years ago this week, Johnny Mathis left San Francisco and headed for New York. His first record — “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song” — was released later that year, and the rest — as they say — is history.

San Francisco remembers

Though the world knows him as the “man with the velvet voice”, a permanent member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, and yes, the proud owner of dozens of gold and platinum records — the Bay Area hasn’t forgotten Johnny’s athletic past. in 1982, San Francisco State inaugurated the annual Johnny Mathis Invitational Track & Field Meet, an event which will be held for the 27th time this coming April 4th.

He doesn’t make an appearance every year, but once in a while Johnny shows up to recall his athletic glory days and to cheer San Francisco on.

1852: English adventurer Frank Marryat pays a visit to a San Francisco Gold Rush barbershop.

more-san-francisco-memoirs1852: A Gold Rush shaving-saloon

I love personal accounts of the goings-on in our little town more than just about anything. The sights, the smells, the daily routine … I want the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live here THEN!

It’s even better when the eyeballs taking it all in belong to an outsider, a visiting alien to whom everything’s an oddity.

For my birthday a couple of years ago my Lady Friend gave me a book that’s packed to the gills with this kind of first-person account. It’s called — aptly enough — San Francisco Memories. And because I’m kind of a dope, it’s only just occurred to me that this stuff is the absolute epitome of what a timecapsule should be — and that I really ought to be sharing some of this early San Francisco gold with you.

Ahem. So share it I will.

Our correspondent: Frank Marryat

Frank Marryat was the son of Captain Frederick Marryat, famous English adventurer and author of popular seafaring tales. A chip off the old block, young Frank had himself already written a book of traveler’s tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on an even more exotic locale — Gold Rush California.

mountains-and-mole-hillsIn 1850, with manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left the civilized shores of England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate.

The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, would be published in 1855 — ironically the year of Marryat’s own demise from yellow fever.

He covers a phenomenal amount of oddball San Francisco and early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiousity of his English reading public — the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta — and to top it off, Marryat sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed (again) by fire, this one the Great June Fire of 1850!

Don’t worry. They’ll have the city rebuilt in a couple of weeks, in plenty of time for Frank to spend some quality months slumming in the Gold Country, and then, like the rest of the Argonauts, ride down into the big city for supplies — and a shave.

That’s right — put your feet up and relax — in today’s Timecapsule, we’re going to visit a Gold Rush barber shop.

from California Mountains and Molehills, 1852

high-and-dry-marryat-1850Gorgeous decoration is characteristic of San Francisco; the people pay high prices for the necessaries of life, so velvet and gilt work is thrown into the bargain. In the “shaving-saloons” this system of internal decoration is carried out in great force, and the accommodation these establishments afford is indispensable to a Californian public.

Let me suppose myself to have arrived at San Francisco from the mines early one morning. Having traveled down on the Old Soldier, I have no carpet bag of course, and I enter a shaving-saloon.

At a counter I purchase any quantity of linen I may require for the moment, and with this I proceed to the bath-room; when I return from my ablutions, I am asked if I would like my head “shampoo-ed.” With a reckless feeling in respect of shampooing, the result of an intimate acquaintance with Turkish baths, I submit to this operation.

Seating myself on an easy chair of velvet, and placing my legs on an easy stool, also of velvet, I become drowsy under the influence of the fingers and thumbs of the operator, as they are passed over my skull, as if with a view to making a phrenological chart, and which produce a feeling at last as if hundreds of fingers and thumbs were at work, and the whole force of the establishment were scratching my head.

I am conducted to a marble washstand, and a tap of cold water is turned on me. I thought I had washed my head in the bath, but it appears not, judging by the color of the water. My head is dried by hard labor, then it is wetted again by a shower of eau de Cologne and water, thrown at me when least expected.

“Will I be shaved, sir?”

Of course I will!

“Take a seat.”

I sink into the velvet chair, and contemplate my dirty boots, that for days have not known blacking, but have known mud, as they contrast with the crimson pile velvet on which they rest. The back of the chair is raised by means of a screw, until my head is in the proper position for operation.

First I have hot water on my chin, and a finger and thumb (generally the property of a colored gentleman) feels for my beard in a dreamy way with a view to softening the stubble. Then comes the lather, and shave the first, and I am about to get up, when I am stopped by more lather, and shave the second; this is conducted in a slow methodical manner, the finger and thumb wandering about in search of any stray hairs, like gleaners after the harvest.

The operator says not a word to me–San Francisco barbers are not loquacious–but his eyes wander to the open door, and suddenly he leaves me with a rush, and apostrophizing some one passing in the street, he says, “Say, how about that sugar?” The reply is inaudible, but I observe that the barber produces a sample of cigars from his pocket, and says, “See here! Fifty dollars a thousand for these won’t hurt you;” and so, having failed to make a “trade” he comes back, and, as he “finishes” me, he observes, in a general way, that “Damn him if that (the gentleman in the street) wasn’t the meanest man in all creation!”

I am then released, and this was a San Francisco shaving-saloon in 1852.

1921: the cornerstone of the Palace of the Legion of Honor is laid … but what was underneath?

legion-of-honor-1923February 19, 1921
Ghosts of Lands End

On this date the cornerstone for San Francisco’s spectacular Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was levered into place.

The Museum was to be a vehicle for the cultural pretensions of the notorious Alma Spreckels. This social-climbing dynamo envisioned her Museum as a far western outpost of French art and culture. Drawing on the vast fortune of her husband — sugar baron Adolph Spreckels — she constructed a replica of the Palace of Versailles Parisian Palais de Legion D’Honneur out at Lands End. Alma would stock the place with art treasures from her own vast collection — including one of the finest assemblages of Rodin sculpture on the planet.

I’ve already talked myself hoarse on the subject of Alma Spreckels’ rags-to-riches clamber up the social slopes of Pacific Heights, but what’s really interesting me today is not what’s inside her museum, but what lay underneath that cornerstone in 1921.

Location, location, location!

As Alma recognized, the site is just spectacular — one of my favourite spots in all of San Francisco. The circular parking lot out front, overlooking the Lincoln Park golf course, offers a sweepingly dramatic view of the city skyline, and the winding road leading down towards Seacliff is a wonderful spot from which to admire the Golden Gate.

But there’s something else about the site of that Museum that makes it a bit … mmm, “unusual”.

It’s located smack dab in the center of what was once the largest cemetery in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Cemetery

golden gate cemeteryThe Golden Gate Cemetery was established out at Lands End in 1868 as a final resting place for a rainbow of ethnic groups and fraternal orders. The largest section, though, was a “potter’s field” — a dumping ground for San Francisco’s indigent population, people too poor to afford a proper burial.

By the turn of the century, as the city grew westward, it became clear that this land was just too good to waste on dead people.

In 1909, the land was “repurposed” as part of the new Lincoln Park, and construction of the golf course began. Sure, the City requested that the various groups, associations and orders connected with the graveyards dig up their bodies and ship them to the vast new cemeteries down in Colma. And many of them did.

rodin-thinker-legionBut who would be responsible for the abandoned denizens of the lowly potter’s field?


Construction crews simply knocked down the gravestones and scraped all evidence of the cemetery away — leaving the corpses mouldering beneath the surface.

By the time the cornerstone of the Legion of Honor Museum was laid in 1921, there was no evidence that a cemetery had ever existed.

Fast forward 62 years.

In 1993, the Museum launched an expansion and renovation project — and guess what they uncovered?

Right under the columned courtyard, right beneath Rodin’s massive bronze “Thinker”, workmen revealed the remains of 300 bodies.

As was to be expected, most of the bones were of poor old men interred in the last years of the 19th century — but the remainder were much much older, dating back to the days when San Francisco was still known as Yerba Buena.

If you’ve heard the Sparkletack podcast called “Moving the Dead“, you already know something about how the bodies of hundreds of ’49ers were shuffled from graveyard to graveyard as San Francisco grew — finally shoved out here to the City’s far western margin.

Treasure trove

After workmen stumbled on the first of the coffins, an archeological team was called in. They uncovered a minor historical treasure trove: Rivets from ancient Levi’s jeans, rosaries still wrapped in bony fingers, the remains of hand-made dentures, and even a withered heart in a small tin box. A map detailing each body’s location is online at

The scientists had access only to the land underneath the Museum’s courtyard, and begged to be allowed to make a more extensive dig — but with an eye on renovation deadlines, officials refused.

Between 1868 and about 1890, 11,000 bodies had been buried in the land underneath Lincoln Park — and just 300 were recovered. Are there still mortal remains lying beneath the Museum, the golf course and your feet as you take in the gorgeous view?

You do the math.

Alma tries to join the haunt

alma-spreckelsIt’s unclear just how much Alma Spreckels knew about the haunted history of Lands End when she picked the site for her Museum — but perhaps the ghosts are what prompted her to attempt her own minor addition to the underground population.

In a vain attempt to sneak around the 1903 ordinance forbidding burials within the city limits, Alma ordered her architect to construct a secret burial chamber in the walls of the Museum, with space for both her and Adolph.

The Spreckels were eventually buried — but not in the Museum.

Newspapermen sniffed out the story, thwarting Alma’s plans and causing a scandal. The thousands of bodies left beneath Lincoln Park should have ended up down in the cemeteries of Colma. Instead, Colma would be the final resting place for Alma and Adolph Spreckels.

1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two.

2nd-street-cut-1-1869February, 1869
The laceration of Rincon Hill

There aren’t too many people living who remember this now, but Rincon Hill was once the fanciest neighborhood in San Francisco.

You know the place, right? It’s south of Market Street, an asphalt-covered lump of rock with the Bay Bridge sticking out of the north-east side and Second Street running by, out to the Giants’ ballpark. That’s Rincon Hill. What’s left of it, anyway.

Exactly 140 years ago this month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a scheme which would destroy it.

San Francisco’s first fashionable address

As San Francisco’s Gold Rush-era population explosion of tents and rickety clapboard started to settle down, the bank accounts of merchants and lucky miners started to fill up. Men were becoming civilized, acquiring culture, and the sort of women known as “wives” were moving into town. This led to a demand for a neighborhood that was distinctly separate from the barbarous Barbary Coast, and with its sunny weather, gentle elevation, and spectacular views of the Bay, Rincon Hill filled the bill.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1865According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with “numerous elegant structures” — including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city.

And then in 1867 (cue evil-real-estate-developer music here) a San Franciscan named John Middleton got himself elected to the California State Legislature. According to some sources, his elevation was part of a conspiracy to push through a specific radical civic “improvement”.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1869The Second Street “Cut”

Here’s the situation that required “improving”: at the time, there was a high volume of heavy commercial horse cart traffic to the busy South Beach wharves from Market Street. Second Street provided a direct route, but — since it went up and over the highest part of Rincon Hill — horse carts were obliged to take the long way around via Third Street.

Middleton’s plan was simplicity itself: carve a deep channel through the heart of the hill, right along Second Street. He just happened to own a big chunk of property at Second and Bryant Streets, and couldn’t wait to see his property values go through the roof.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “what about the owners of those lovely homes up on fashionable Rincon Hill? Won’t they object to having their front doors open up to a 100-foot canyon instead of a sidewalk? Do they even have the technology to pull this off? And what about the horrific mess the construction is going to make? We are talking high society here, right?”

Oh yes indeed. And what was even more galling was the fact that Rincon Hill property owners were going to be directly taxed for this “improvement” to their neighborhood.

John Middleton arrived in Sacramento with a plan to push legislation that would bypass the objections of these not-in-my-backyard obstructionists to progress, and that’s just how it worked out. Palms were greased, back-room deals were cut, and a bill was duly passed authorizing the project.

The citizenry of Rincon Hill did object, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — but the way I see it, the players behind this scheme were well connected, and fix was already in.

2nd-street-cut-2-1869The disaster begins …

In 1869, the vivisection of Rincon Hill began. The carving started at Folsom Street and cut through to Bryant. Harrison Street was chopped in half, of course, but then reconnected by a cast-iron bridge hovering 100 feet above the chasm. The only access to Rincon Hill from Second Street was a set of steep and rickety wooden stairs.

And then the winter rains arrived, dissolving the steep canyon walls into mud. Whole sections of hillside were washed away. Homes on each side of the cut began to shift from their foundations, at least one sliding all the way down and splintering onto the street below.

Those who had houses left to sell, sold at a loss, and Rincon Hill descended rapidly from elite address to has-been.

By the 1880s Robert Louis Stevenson could accurately describe the Hill as “a new slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs, deep sandy cuttings, solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets.”

Thanks to the invention of the hill-climbing cable car, Nob Hill and the newly mapped Western Addition and Pacific Heights had become the new centers of upper-crust prestige.

2nd-street-harrison-bridge-1869The Second Street Cut became a hangout for thieves, muggers, and hoodlums, whose favourite sport was reported to be hurling stones down at Chinese cart drivers. These dangers reminded some of the perils of crossing the Western Frontier, earning the Cut the nickname of “Apache Pass”.

… and all for naught.

But here’s the deepest irony of all. The expected flood of commercial traffic that was to have raised property values and somehow make the whole thing worth it? Drivers chose different routes, and the traffic never materialized.

The Second Street project cost $385,000, a neighborhood was ruined in the process, and the slice through Rincon Hill was the first of many topographical disfigurements — and after all of that, John Middleton and his supporters never made dollar one.

1849: As the fateful year of 1849 begins, a newspaper editor scrutinizes San Francisco’s gold rush future.

gold rushFebruary 1, 1849
The eye of the Gold Rush hurricane

The spring of 1849 — dawn of a year forever branded into the national consciousness as the era of the California Gold Rush.

And so it was — but that was back East, in the “States”. In San Francisco, the Gold Rush had actually begun an entire year earlier.

I’d better set the scene.

The United States were at war with Mexico — it’s President Polk and “Manifest Destiny” time. San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) was conquered without a shot in July of 1847.

In the first month of 1848, gold was quietly discovered in the foothills east of Sutter’s Fort. Days later, the Mexican war came to an end, and Alta California became sole property of the United States.

Sam Brannan kick-starts things in ’48

San Francisco was skeptical about the gold strike, but in May of ’48, Sam Brannan made his famous appearance on Market Street brandishing a bottle of gold dust. His shouts of “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River” triggered the first wave of the Gold Rush.

The village of about 500 souls was emptied almost overnight as its inhabitants hotfooted it for the hills. Among the many businesses left completely in the lurch was Sam Brannan’s own newspaper, the California Star.

While the entrepreneurial Brannan was busy becoming a millionaire selling shovels to gold miners, by June his entire staff had abandoned the paper and set off to make their own fortunes.

Edward Kemble publishes the Alta California

alta california newspaper buildingBrannan sold what was left of his newspaper to a more civic-minded businessman, Mr. Edward Cleveland Kemble. Kemble resuscitated the Star (along with San Francisco’s other gold rush-crippled paper, the Californian) as a brand spanking new paper he called the Alta California. The first issue appeared at the tail end of 1848.

That brings us right up to today’s timecapsule.

The editorial on the front page of issue #5 of the new paper is a treasure trove of contemporary San Francisco perspectives.

As editor Kemble was composing this piece — a retrospective of the previous year, and a peek into the uncertain future — it was the dead of winter, and the first wave of the Rush had crested and broken back towards the city.

Kemble was first and foremost a businessman, and he was concerned with the civic and financial future of San Francisco. He points out that the city is poorly governed, a little short on law and order, already swelling with gold-seekers from Mexico and Oregon, and — to sum it up — is woefully unprepared for the onslaught of humanity, the avalanche of “49ers” already looming on the horizon.

But though he’s aware that the next wave is going to be a doozy, with 20-20 historical hindsight we know that he doesn’t really have a clue.

What Kemble doesn’t know … yet.

san francisco harbor 1851By the end of 1849, the village of San Francisco will have burst at every seam, with a population exploding from 2000 to 25,000. Tens of thousands of gold seekers will flow through the port and even more will stagger in overland from the East, all in all 100,000 strong.

The beautiful harbour will be choked with hundreds of deserted, rotting ships, and the local government will prove to be ineffectual and almost totally corrupt. By the end of ’49 San Francisco will have become a wild, sprawling, lawless shanty boomtown, and the soul and future of our City by the Bay will be permanently transformed.

Kemble’s observations give us ground-level insight into the concerns of the village of San Francisco in the winter of 1848 — a priceless peek into the eye of the gold rush hurricane.

Note: article subheads below added by yours truly

San Francisco — Her Prospects

alta california mastheadIn the month of June, 1847, a census of the town of San Francisco was taken, by a Lieutenant of the 1st New York Regiment, who was then on duty here. That census exhibited the fact, that her population had increased one hundred percent in the preceding year, and then amounted to 459 souls. There had been erected within the year previous to June, 1847, thirty houses; and laboring men and mechanics were earning from two to three dollars per day. Business was brisk, and all the necessaries and some few of the luxuries of life met with ready sale at good prices. There was but little capital in the country, but that little was judiciously, economically, and steadily applied, and its effects were perceptible and satisfactory.

San Francisco before the Gold Rush

The prosperity and increase of the town was rapid and sure. Unimproved lots which had originally cost sixteen dollars were sold at prices varying from fifty dollars to five hundred, according to situation, and some of the most central were held as high as two thousand dollars. In the months of July and August, 1847, there were forty-eight houses erected, a number equal to five-eighths of all the buildings theretofore erected in the town. The clink of the hammer and the sliding of the plane were heard in every direction, and a fifteen minutes walk would have brought one in hearing of the woodman’s axe.

The farmers in the surrounding rich valleys had planted sowed and gathered rich harvests, quicksilver mines had been opened in parts of the country, and were being successfully worked, saw mills and grist mills were working profitably, and others were in process of erection, peace existed throughout the territory, and law and order were preserved and life and prosperity were secure.

During all this time the progress of San Francisco was continued and rapid, as a census taken by the school commissioners in the month of March, 1848 clearly proved. The number of white inhabitants, as exhibited by their returns, amounted to 812, which, compared with the number as stated in June, 1847, showed an increase of more than one hundred percent in the space of eight months. Business at this time was good, the mild winter had contributed to advance trade and agricultural pursuits, and the country was looking forward to a prolific harvest, a steady advance on the price of real estate, a large immigration, a profitable working of quicksilver mines, an influx of capital and industry, and a general and solid prosperity.

Gold discovered on the Rio Americano!

About this time (April, 1848,) rumors of the discovery of extensive gold mines on the Rio Americano began to circulate from mouth to mouth. Little knots collected at street corners to hear and tell the news — squads of workmen might be seen listening with eager faces to the tale of some newly arrived “digger”, and merchants and speculators bean seriously to calculate the changes this state of things was likely to produce in the value of merchandise and town lots, and its effect upon trade generally. Society was in a state of fusion; and the prospects, condition and business of the country were about to undergo a wonderful revolution.

For a moment, as the intelligence of new discoveries and the substantial evidences of old ones, came to the knowledge of the community, public energy, enterprise and industry seemed paralyzed. The laborer leaned thoughtfully on his spade, the mechanic, with hands in pocket, looked listlessly and abstractedly upon his work, and the merchant shut himself up in his counting-room and turned over the pages of his ledger with a desperation which showed how eager he was to clutch the golden spoils.

All classes and all conditions were spell-bound. But suddenly the change came. — The whole community, as if by a simultaneous impulse, literally rushed to this El Dorado. No inducement, no ties, could keep them away. The desire for gold reigned supreme, and swept before it, like a resistless torrent, every landmark of “things that were”.

“A dark and gloomy moment”

This was a dark and gloomy moment for San Francisco. Her streets were deserted, her houses untenanted, her improvements stopped in their very beginning, and the bud of her prosperity and advancement nipped. Real estate had no value, for there were no purchasers; the wages of laborers and mechanics had risen to five and ten dollars per day, and they were not to be procured at that; food had become enormously high, and the costs of the minor necessaries of life had so advanced that those few whose engagements rendered it impossible for them to go to the mines could see no probably means of procuring a bare subsistence.

Like fire, the news spread throughout the land. — The conservative industry of the country was dead; the plow was left to rust in the furrow, the crops to decay and waste where they grew, and the cattle to stay and wander where they choose. The news swept across the land and ocean, and Oregon, the Sandwich Islands, and Sonora sent their hundreds and thousands to participate in the golden harvest. The Indians in the country were seized with the mania, and not understanding the value of the article they found, they paid immense prices for food, beads, cloths of bright colors, and merchandise generally.

Inflation strikes the city

The sudden acquisition of wealth begat in all a desire to spend, and to spend freely. — Merchandise rose in price immensely, vile brandy and rum became as valuable as an oriental emperor’s choicest attar and rose, and provisions were almost worth their weight in gold. Business men turned their attention to the subject, whole cargoes were purchased at high prices, and sent into the mines, and still the demand continued, aye, increased.

The cost of transportation, and the means thereof, had gradually risen, until the wages of boatmen, instead of being from ten to forty dollars per month, were from thirty to three hundred dollars, and the value of launches that had originally cost from one hundred to two thousand dollars, now ranged from five hundred to ten thousand. Freight from San Francisco to Sutter’s Embarcadero, a distance of some one hundred and sixty miles, was three dollars per one hundred pounds, and the passage money for each passenger was ten dollars. The land transportation for Sutter’s Embarcadero to the Placer varied from twelve dollars to twenty-five dollars per one hundred pounds, according to distance, which in no case exceeded sixty miles. Notwithstanding these monstrous prices, merchandise, clothing, provisions and liquors continued to go forward to, and were in demand in, every portion of the mines.

A summer of sickness

In the month of July, 1848, the miners began to suffer from sickness, A new and furnace-like climate, unwholesome food, intemperate habits of eating and drinking, exposure to a fierce sun with the lower part of the body immersed in ice cold water, and the complete change of manner of living, did their work. Fever seized upon them, and many died. In the months of August and September the mines were nearly deserted, and every launch from Sutter’s Fort brought numbers of pale and emaciated sufferers. The hardy and strong, seeing their companions falling around them, also returned, and San Francisco again wore a populous though not as enterprising and advancing aspect.

But it could not long so remain. The inherent industry of its citizens soon manifested itself, and many buildings were erected and other improvements made. In the latter part of September, however, the current set again towards the mines, and beyond the merchants and those employed by them, but few remained.

A winter break — and proof that the Gold Rush is good for the city

In November, though, when the people returned from the mines for the winter, rich with the precious metal, the effects of the gold mines upon San Francisco were more sensibly felt, and more properly appreciated. Real estate rose immediately in value. Lots that had been purchased in the spring for from one hundred to two thousand dollars now ranged from one thousand to fifteen thousand dollars; buildings that had theretofore rented at from ten to twenty dollars per month, were now taken with avidity at from twenty to one hundred dollars per month; merchandise and provisions though enormously high before, advanced one hundred percent., lumber and building materials advanced in the same ratio, and it was then, and not til then, that the problem was solved, “Will San Francisco be benefited, or not, by the discovery of the gold mines?”

From that time all have conceded that she must advance and prosper, and that too, in a ratio which will astonish the methodical and plodding calculator. Recent accounts from different parts of the world, and recent arrivals of ship loads of immigrants, render this position incontrovertible. But to make it still more incontestible let us state a few important facts —

1st.   San Francisco possesses the safest, largest, and most accessible harbor on the whole Pacific coast;

2d.   The situation of the town is picturesque, and but four miles from the sea;

3d.   The large bay of San Francisco is navigable for medium sized vessels, as are also its great tributaries the Sacramento and San Joaquin;

4th.   The climate, though disagreeable to new comers from the prevalence of northwesterly winds, is remarkably healthy;

5th.   The population has increased since March last from 800 to about 2000 souls;

6th.   Real Estate has risen in value from one hundred to ten hundred per cent;

7th.   The export of gold dust from this port since May last is supposed to exceed $20,000,000;

8th.   The duties collected at the custom house were,

4th Qr. of 1847, $12,040.19
1st " 1848, 11,931.27
2d " " 8,835.38
3d " " 74,827.98
4th " " 100,480.83

Total, in 1848,   $196,074.66

9th.   The imports of merchandise, during the year 1848, have probably exceeded in value $1,000,000;

10th.   The importation of coin in the same period for the purchase of gold dust, have probably amounted to $1,000,000;

11th.   The arrival of passengers by sea have amounted to about 1000 souls;

And 12th.   The number of new buildings erected in the past year will probably exceed fifty.

“The worst governed community in existence”

And yet, with all those natural and acquired advantages, San Francisco is perhaps the worst governed community in existence. Her public funds have been expended in ill-digested and ill-planned schemes, whose results are scarcely perceptible and of but little benefit — her public domain has been parcelled out and sold, with the reservation of lots for public buildings, school-houses, hospitals or jails. She is without law, without proper executive officers, and without the means of confining and punishing offenders, and were it not that gold is so abundant, no man could calculate how long before the assassin’s knife would be at his throat, or at what moment the incendiary’s torch would be applied to his dwelling.

All men deplore this state of affairs, all exclaim loudly against it — and yet, it has heretofore been found utterly impossible to get a dozen reputable and intelligent inhabitants to stop a moment in their pace for wealth. And remember that there are higher motives than the desire for gold — dearer interests than the acquisition of property — and sublimer aspirations than schemes for making money. All can bring changes on the unfortunate circumstances that surround us, but united, determined, proper and continued action cannot be elicited.

“What shall be done?”

What, then, shall be done? Every breeze that sweeps across the Pacific or Rocky Mountains brings us intelligence that thousands of emigrants are already en route for California. Many of these will arrive in San Francisco, and it is fair to infer that the influx of strangers will add to the present unsettled and unsatisfactory situation of affairs, unless suitable means be adopted to prevent such a result. We shall be exposed to new evils, and it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for then. Again we ask, “What shall be done?”

We have indulged in the foregoing remarks, not so much to show to the world the prosperity of San Francisco, despite her bad government, as to make her citizens fully sensible that they are playing an important part in history — that as denizens of the place destined too to be the first city of commercial importance on the west coast of North or South America, it is de to the world, to the country, and to themselves, that they should labor to have good laws and to have them properly executed — that they should forget for a moment their personal interests, and attend to the public’s — and that they should not fail to remember that no man can be a good citizen unless he fully discharges his every duty towards that society of which he constitutes a part.

Alta California — Thursday, Feb. 1, 1849

1847: Thanks to a Spanish noblewoman and the quick thinking of Yerba Buena’s first American alcalde, San Francisco gets its name.

early-yerba-buenaJanuary 30, 1847:
Yerba Buena becomes San Francisco

Yerba Buena

That was the name given to the tiny bayside settlement back in 1835, a name taken from the wild mint growing on the sand dunes that surrounded it. And if it hadn’t been for the lucky first name of an elegant Spanish noblewoman, that’s what the city of San Francisco would still be called today.

Our magnificent bay had already worn the name of San Francisco since 1769 — but though some in Yerba Buena apparently used it as a nickname, it never occurred to its motley population to make “San Francisco” official.

In July of 1846 Yerba Buena was just 11 years old, a sleepy hamlet in Mexican territory with just about 200 residents. The place woke up some when Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into the harbour, marched into the center of town and raised the Stars and Stripes.

The Mexican alcalde and other officials split town before Montgomery’s marines arrived, so — at least as far as Yerba Buena was concerned — the annexation of California in the Mexican-American war took place without a fight.

mariano-vallejorobert-sempleDon Mariano Vallejo, Dr. Robert Semple and the Bear Flag connection

A couple of weeks earlier up in Sonoma, the rancho of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had been invaded by a ragtag collection of American frontiersman. They were attempting to strike a blow for California’s independence from Mexico. Don Vallejo, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the Mexican territory of Alta California, was arrested — kidnapped, perhaps — and transported to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River.

You’ll undoubtedly recognize this as a scene from the infamous “Bear Flag Revolt” — a terrific story, but I’m in grave danger of digressing here. In fact, I mention it only because the route taken by Vallejo’s captors led them across some of the General’s considerable Mexican land-grant holdings, specifically those around the convergence of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay.

One of the more civilized members of that Bear Flag group was one Doctor Robert Semple, an energetic, well-educated and nearly seven-foot-tall Kentuckian. Doctor Semple was also a man with vision, and he carefully noted the beauty — and strategic potential — of this location.

About six months later, once hostilities had settled down a bit, Doctor Semple and his one-time prisoner Don Vallejo struck an agreement to found a new city on that spot — right on the northern shore of the Carquinez Straits.

“Francisca”, new metropolis of the West

On January 19th, 1847, Vallejo deeded a five-square-mile tract of his lands to Semple. Don Vallejo made one important stipulation to this deal; that the new city be named for his beloved wife: “Doña Francisca Benicia Carrillo.”

Doctor Semple agreed.

The name would honour Señora Vallejo, but also — and more importantly to the enterprising Semple — associate itself with the great San Francisco Bay. The city he envisioned as the new metropolis of the West would be dubbed “Francisca”.

Lt. Bartlett sees the future

The agreement was officially recorded in Yerba Buena by the new American alcalde — Captain Montgomery’s second in command, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett. Though Bartlett’s position in Yerba Buena was only temporary, he had apparently already fallen under the patriotic influence of his new surroundings.

Washington Bartlett, like Semple, realized that names carry symbolic weight. Association with the already well known San Francisco Bay — and the mission — would help the upstart “Francisca” attract shipping, commerce, and national renown.

Yerba Buena had grown to a population of barely 500 at this point, and there was absolutely nothing that guaranteed its future as the primary city of the West — or even of the Bay Area. The formation of “Francisca” right across the bay had real potential to eclipse the little town altogether.

As one writer tells it, “Alcalde Bartlett went into executive session with himself”, and solved the problem by scratching out the following decree:

AN ORDINANCE WHEREAS, the local name of Yerba Buena, as applied to the settlement or town of San Francisco, is unknown beyond the district; and has been applied from the local name of the cove, on which the town is built: Therefore, to prevent confusion and mistakes in public documents, and that the town may have the advantage of the name given on the public map;

IT IS HEREBY ORDAINED, that the name of SAN FRANCISCO shall hereafter be used in all official communications and public documents, or records appertaining to the town.

– Washington Bartlett, Chief magistrate January 30, 1847

francisca-benicia-vallejoDoctor Semple, who in addition to his city-planning activities had launched California’s first newspaper a few months earlier, used it to splutter, bloviate and cry foul in a hundred different ways.

But the deed was done, and “Francisca” was out.

The new town would have to settle for Señora Vallejo’s second name: “Benicia“. And that, of course, is the name it bears to this day … as well as a long-standing grudge against the city across the bay.

California’s hidden Gold Fever infection wouldn’t erupt for another year and a half, but when it did, it would be the name of San Francisco that would echo around the world.

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