The latest from my little column over at the SFist:

San Francisco gold rush streets

“Not Even Jackassable”

We perused the recent SFist post about the pitiable state of San Francisco’s streets with a certain sense of nostalgia for the good ol’ days. You know, the days before this newfangled “asphalt paving” even entered the scene.

In the Year of the Gold Rush (1849-50ish), the city’s population exploded from a cozy 500 citizens to almost 100 thousand — and not a single one of those gold-crazed invaders wasted a second thinking the state of the village’s streets.

See, the streets in the good ol’ days were good ol’ dirt. And when the rainy season arrived, the torrent of horse, foot and cart traffic tearing through town trampled that sandy earth into a boggy quagmire.

How bad was it? Bad. Not to mention deep. Horses, mules, and countless drunken souls staggering out of saloons were sucked down into the street muck and drowned. This situation entered into legend, as historian Herbert Asbury writes, when “the mud at Clay and Kearny streets, in the heart of town, at length became so deep and thick that a wag posted this sign:


In a vain attempt to ameliorate the situation, the city fathers (such as they were) dumped in piles of brush and tree branches, but any object that entered the muck slowly sank from sight and vanished forever.

Though the construction boom had caused the price of wood to skyrocket, streets constructed from planks eventually began to appear. This was an improvement over mud, but wooden streets — though reducing the risk of drowning (!) — were slippery when wet, prone to break under horses’ hooves, and (on the rare occasions when they were dry) quite flammable. San Francisco’s six major Gold Rush-era fires (1849 to 1853) sent miles of costly plank streets up in smoke.

That sixth fire must have been the charm for the city fathers. In 1854 that the miracle of the paved street arrived, first appearing on the block of Kearny Street between Clay and Washington, where City Hall (originally the Jenny Lind Theatre) once stood. Whew!

Bicycle over and pay your respects … but watch the potholes.

The latest from my little column over at the SFist:

Victorian Whiskers

Whiskerless Waiters
at the Palace Hotel

In the middle part of the 19th century, a thick set of whiskers were an essential facial feature of every man of Victorian respectability.

These were not simply expressions of pride or masculine peacock vanity, but due to a whole rainbow of reasons, ranging from the fact that Man had been created in God’s image, to the “fact” that beards protected the wearer against tuberculosis, and even that shaving led to immorality, murder, and suicide!

In the late 1880s, however, a movement began to sweep towards San Francisco from the far-off shores of Europe.

No, it wasn’t Bolshevism — anyway, not yet. In the words of historian Oscar Lewis, “It was no less than a world-wide agitation in favor of whiskerless waiters” (“Whiskerless Waiters” — I respectfully offer that up as a name for an indie-rock band. No charge!)

But back to Gilded Age San Francisco.

Just about every high-falutin’ eating establishment in town followed the new, hygienic fashion; the Poodle Dog, Maison Riche, all began featuring clean-shaven waiters. All of them, that is, except for William Sharon’s Palace Hotel. The Palace remained proudly pro-moustache, in way that vividly recalls the social instability brought on by the Gold Rush:

“In the leading European hotels a waiter cannot wear a moustache, and the swell establishements in New York are imitating this fashion, but it will not do here. There is this difference: in Europe a man once a servant is always a servant, but in America the servant of today may be a millionaire tomorrow. We wouldn’t try to enforce such a rule at the Palace. We have trouble enough without trying to bring (that) on!”

I wish I could tell you that the Palace held out against the Anti-Moustache Menace, but that turned out not to be the case. The movement gradually gained momentum, and the Palace eventually caved in, issuing the following brand new dress code:

  • white jackets with black pants
  • turn-down collars
  • black ties for breakfast
  • white ties for lunch and dinner, and …

  • The waiters complained bitterly, but that was it — the end of a hirsute era.

    Researching San Francisco history means spending way too much time sitting in the dark. In the library, I mean, staring at microfilm of old newspapers. Hours of scanning those scratched and blurry archives makes me a little punchy, so I blinked and rubbed my eyes at this gruesome headline from the February 13, 1902 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    I wondered momentarily if it was a prescient comment on the state of contemporary San Francisco baseball, then lapsed into a reverie about the fate of urchin ‘Bricky’ Sylva.

    It was just so weirdly entertaining that I had to share it — first at SFist.com, and now at here at Sparkletack:

    bone bat

    Boys of Russian Hill Put Their Discovery to Queer Use

    When John Doe and Richard Roe laid themselves down to dreamless sleep they little suspected that the urchins of Russian Hill would be using their leg bones as ball bats and their hollow skulls as balls, but that is precisely what occurred last night. Residents of the vicinity of Leavenworth and Broadway going home to dinner were treated to a choice assortment of cold shivers at the sight of the national game being played with the grisly loot from a tomb. Half a dozen boys were making long drives of the ball to center filed with resounding thwacks from the long bones, the femur and fibula radius and ulna humerus. Between times two yellow skulls would be tossed to the batters, and the fun characteristic of the reverence of the North American youth, waxed warm until a policeman swooped down upon the players.


    The 74th anniversary of “Repeal Day”, the end of Prohibition in the United States provided the inspiration for this entry.


    Tippling with Kipling, San Francisco 1889

    Ah, today should be a citywide holiday, it really really should.

    December 5th marks the 74th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, just a tick of the geological clock since that final state (Utah, who else) grudgingly ratified the 21st Amendment.

    You couldn’t really blame the Prohibitionists for their distaste for John Barleycorn. A flood of cheap corn whiskey in the early years of the nineteenth century changed the way an already soggy American society imbibed — for the soggier. The forerunner of today’s coffee break emerged as the mid-morning whiskey “elevenses”, and by 1820 the average Joe was pouring down half a pint a day — that’s over five gallons a year!


    This meandering SFist entry was inspired by an email from a listener. Royce recalled hearing those evocative words in some episode or another, and just wondered if I could tell him which one it was. Turns out I’ve used them four times already — in episodes #26, #40, #43, and #55 if you’re keeping track. The phrase evokes the aspirations of the Gilded Age city like nothing else, but of course it isn’t at all original with me. But where did it come from? Well…


    San Francisco, “the Paris of the West”

    It’s a phrase that’s been liberally applied to our fair city, perhaps most notably when the mayor of the Paris of, um, “France”, arrived in San Francisco last November to commemorate the 10th anniversary of our “Sister Cities” agreement.

    Never heard it? A quick Googling brings up a hefty 7500 matches, and as the scanning of turn-of-the-century tomes marches forward, that number will certainly increase.

    But to the point; sure, all of our friends from The Continent flatter us by calling San Francisco the “most European of America cities”, but where did this phrase originate?


    Number 6 in the new series of Sparkletack posts on SFist.com, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project.

    Anniversary of a Flesh Wound

    The violent melodrama characterizing the recent murder of a journalist investigating “Your Black Muslim Bakery” has conjured the entire Bay Area history of political violence into our memories. Dan White, James P. Casey, David S. Terry… the list is long and impressive. The anniversary of one of our bloodier favorites is coming up this Thursday (August 23rd) — it’s hard to believe that a mere 128 years have passed since the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle pumped a bullet into a future mayor.


    Treasure Island is easily visible from San Francisco’s Embarcadero, a low-lying front porch jutting out towards the Golden Gate from Yerba Buena Island. Palm trees in a silhouetted row set off massive white buildings, dwarfed by the towering silver Bay Bridge marching across the water towards Oakland. That bridge carries over 130,000 people a day within yards of this artificial lily pad, most of them whizzing by at 70 miles per hour without giving it a second thought.

    What is Treasure Island? Why is it there? And where is it going?

    In the first episode of this 2-part podcast series, you’ll learn how politics, pride, and the Great Depression collided to spark this audacious construction project, and the story of its glamorous first occupant — the 1939 World’s Fair. Crazed seagulls, the tooth of a woolly mammoth, Irving Berlin, and a radio signal from Bombay are just a few of the elements that make this story a San Francisco classic.

    Skip to Part Two.

    For further edification:
    » “Trails End for ’39ers” – Almanac for Thirty-Niners – WPA, 1938
    » “Western Wonderland” – Time Magazine, 1939
    » Gorgeous pre-Fair Publicity Film – Prelinger Archives
    » Newsreel footage of ’39 World’s Fair – Prelinger Archives
    » Home movie from the ’39 World’s Fair – Prelinger Archives
    » “Not So Golden Gate” – Time Magazine, 1939
    » “The Legend of Yerba Buena Island” 1936
    » Treasure Island – Wikipedia
    » Treasure Island Music Festival – Noisepop/Another Planet

    random episode from the archives:
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    The re-post of #5 in the new series of Sparkletack posts on SFist.com, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project.

    Mark Twain Torched Lake Tahoe?

    The wildfire raging up near Lake Tahoe reminded us of our dear old cousin Mark. Mark Twain, that is, and what we remembered was his own brush with accidental arson up Tahoe way.

    It’s a little-known fact, if “fact” be something that can safely ascribed to Twain’s baroquely embellished reminiscences of his years out West, that he was solely responsible for a horrendous forest fire on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

    It was 1861, and the young not-yet-famous author was taking a break from the imaginary job of assisting his brother, the Secretary to the Governor of the Nevada Territory. There wasn’t much government to speak of in Nevada, nor any real work at all — but he’d heard tales of a gorgeous mountain lake paradise to the north, so one day he and a friend set out to find the spot. All was idyllic for the first two weeks of camping, but then… maybe we should let him tell the story in his own words — Mark Twain in an excerpt from Roughing It:


    The re-post of #4 in the new series of pieces for the SFist, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project.

    nugget o’ history — Island for Sale

    Who knew that one of the five islands in San Francisco Bay was privately owned? Even stranger, “Red Rock Island” is now up for sale, for a paltry $10 million.

    The last time we remember one of our islands changing hands was way back in 1847, when Captain John C Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5000.


    Here it is, the re-post of #3 in the new series of little pieces for the SFist, one of San Francisco’s fastest growing collaborative blogging projects.

    nugget o’ history — Sands-can-drift-so

    San Francisco was once pretty much a giant sand dune. We’ve even heard it said that the very name derives from the once common epithet “sands-can-drift-so”, but we’re pretty sure that this tale is apocryphal. Okay, we’re positive, but a sunny weekend of wandering through Golden Gate Park prompted us to drift back to those early, sandier days.

    Golden Gate Park was established in 1868, and a local newspaper described it as a “dreary waste of shifting sandhills where a blade of grass cannot be raised without four posts to keep it from blowing away.”

    And so it was. It was up to the first Park Superintendent William Hammond Hall to figure out a way to turn those rolling dunes into parkland, and he wracked his brain over the problem. Every exotic plant in the nursery was planted out in the dunes, but the strong ocean winds made short work of every one.

    In fact, we might still be picnicking on sand today if it wasn’t for one hungry horse.


    Here it is, the re-post of #2 in the new series of little pieces for the SFist, one of San Francisco’s most well established collaborative blogging projects.

    At Least Today They’re Being Shot with Cameras

    Could it be that our lost little whale pair have finally had their sonar set to rights? And wouldn’t that be nice.

    Makes us hark back to 1914 when the brutal “golden era” of whaling finally ended and it was the whaling ships that were leaving instead of the whales. Incidentally, the very last whaling ship to sally forth from San Francisco Bay was none other than the “Gay Head” (insert your own joke here). But that’s quite another story.

    What those delta-wandering whales don’t realize, though, is just how lucky they are. Relatively speaking. Back in the day — or to be precise, the quarter-century between 1882 and 1908 — San Francisco was the whaling capital of the world, putting even the New Englanders to shame. During these few years, more ships sailed through the Golden Gate in search of the Arctic bowhead whale than from anywhere else on earth.


    Sharp-eyed readers — or should I say “San Francisco blog addicts” — will have noticed the recent appearance of yours truly on the SFist, a San Francisco-obsessive collaborative blogging venture. And why? Well…. because they asked me. They’re a solid bunch of San Franciscophiles, and I jumped at the chance to wedge a little historical consciousness into their current-events-focused flow. And the SFist also seems like the perfect place to showcase all those little nuggets of history that don’t necessarily fit into a specific podcast theme.

    These pieces will be appearing irregularly (of course!), and I’ll be copying them here, too, so you won’t miss a thing.

    “Hoodlum: a person who engages in crime or violence; a hooligan or gangster’.”

    The last time we were accosted in the wee hours of a Mission Street morning, “hoodlum” was definitely not the first word to spring to mind. The epithet’s intensity has faded over the years. In fact, the last time we heard it, it was being hollered at a hyperactive five-year-old.

    But we say it’s time for a hoodlum comeback! Why? Well, it turns out there’s a San Francisco angle. “Hoodlum” is a coinage from the 1860’s Barbary Coast, just like “shanghai” – a word invented right here in the City, way back when street gangs ruled our muddy streets. (more…)