San Francisco history lovers:

A notice that’s a bit overdue: I haven’t recorded a podcast for years, now, and the chances that I’ll return to this project are slim.

That said, I’m committed to leaving ALL THESE PODCASTS online – as a resource for San Franciscans, of course, but also for lovers of this fascinating city from all around the world.

Peruse the list (over there on the right) for hours and hours of San Francisco stories, trivia, and history.

And thanks for listening!

Just received an email from an old contact — and though I’ve not been actively updating Sparkletack, this project is just too fantastic not to mention.

I’ve pillaged the San Francisco History Center’s online photo archive myself many, many times … and often dreamed of a resource exactly like this one. in Dan’s own words:

“A long time ago you blogged about a map I made of photographs from the Cushman collection.

After much work and many rocky starts, I’ve put together the next incarnation of this:

It’s a map of the San Francisco Public Library’s Historical Photograph Collection, which contains 40,000 digitized images from San Francisco’s past. We’ve located about 13,000 of them on a map and built an interactive site to help you explore the photographs. It’s a bit like historypin, but it’s focused exclusively on San Francisco and has far more images of SF than historypin does.

There are countless finds in the collection, but here are a few that we enjoyed:

Also worth mentioning: while this is not an SFPL project, it is done with their blessing.

Hope all is well. And many thanks for Sparkletack. Listening to your podcast when I first moved up to the city really sparked my interest in SF History.”

You’re welcome, Dan — and thank YOU!

Bimbo's mermaid

A couple of days ago, Toby of Bimbo’s 365 Club dropped me a line:

“Here at Bimbo’s, we’ve recently stated to scan some of the amazing things we have in our archives here at the club. We have soooo much stuff. We’ve posted some things in our blog and galleries. We’ve just started this and there’s lots more to come. I thought you might want to take a look.

Thanks for giving me many hours of entertainment as I listen to your podcast on my walks through the city.”

From the moment I first spotted that classy marquee looming over Columbus Avenue, Bimbos was always my favourite San Francisco nightclub — just a peek into the swank ’40s lobby is enough to make anyone want to don a sharp suit, a skinny tie, and start sippin’ cocktails.

And I don’t think I even need to mention the girl in the fishbowl, do I?

A teensy bit of background from the history section of their website:

Agostino Giuntoli left Tuscany, Italy in 1922 at the age of 19 and sailed to America. He spent five years working his way to San Francisco and found a job as janitor at the famed Palace Hotel. From there he became a cook at a nearby establishment where his boss was unable to pronounce his name and dubbed him “Bimbo”, the Italian word for boy. The name stuck for good.

The original 1931 location of the nightclub was 365 Market Street (get it? get it?), and you guessed it, the joint opened as a speakeasy. Mr. Bimbo moved the place to its current location in 1950.

Bimbo’s just reeks of history, and I’m delighted that they are starting to share it.

As Toby pointed out to me, their site is now lousy with scans of club photos, vintage newspaper ads, classic photos of Mr. Bimbo himself, and a brand new blog highlighting the best of the collection.

The only thing I wish is that some of these shots had captions, hint hint!

Enjoy …

This is awesome.

SepiaTown is a brand new website integrating mapping technology with crowd-sourced historical photos to create a virtually strollable San Francisco.

They’ve collected over 150 images of San Francisco thus far, mostly clustered around California, Montgomery, and Market Streets … but it’s easy to see how the entire city could be reconstructed.

Reconstructed with your help. Whether you have a boxful of old photos in the closet, or run a professional photo archive, you are respectfully encouraged to load ’em up!

Here’s the skinny on SepiaTown from its own sepia-toned lips:

“SepiaTown lets you search, view and upload historical images by location, in order to see what once stood where you now stand.

As the SepiaTown collection comes to encompass thousands of locations throughout the globe it will allow people to interact with history and geography in a new and exciting way; to tour the landscapes, cityscapes and events of history with a scope and breadth never before possible.

Whether you’re a large institution like a museum or library, or an individual with a cool collection of old snapshots, uploading is simple. We display low res versions of your images which, if you choose, are accompanied by a link to your site.

There is no charge to upload and display images via SepiaTown and we make no claim of copyright on any uploaded material. All images legally owned by you remains yours.”

It’s not the only website of its kind, but it might be the nicest — not only is the interface beautifully clean and easy to navigate, but uploading images is a snap.

They hope to survive via advertising and donations. My donation is this very post — and I wish them luck.

It’s not because Herb Caen got hot under the collar about it.

And yeah, I know it was practically the official name of the City in the decades following the Gold Rush — a moniker beloved by locals and visitors alike.

In fact, here’s Exhibit A on the pro-Frisco side, a song sung by thousands of ’49ers to the tune of Oh Susanna:

“I soon shall be in Frisco and there I’ll look around,
And when I find the gold lumps there I’ll pick them off the ground.
Oh, California, that’s the life for me … “


I don’t care. I’m not going there.

My own aversion to the undignified moniker of “Frisco” comes straight from the regal lips of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico.

In 1872, the good Emperor issued the following edict:

“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

As far as I’m concerned, thus endeth the discussion.

But not in Hollywood! In fact, this little rant was inspired by Paul Potocky’s post over at SF Bay Timeless (or whatever the heck it’s called): Hollywood calls us Frisco!, a very entertaining list of the films which have helped to perpetuate the irritating misnomer.

By my calculations, Hollywood owes about eleventy bazillion dollars to Norton’s Imperial Treasury.

Pay up!

For years I’ve said that the enshrinement of San Francisco’s favourite son Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul at Cooperstown is overdue.

LONG overdue.

Sure, we in San Francisco named a drawbridge after him — but Lefty is due some recognition at a national level.

I’ll resist the urge to restate my entire podcast about Lefty’s colorful life here, but a couple of lines from the thrilling conclusion make the case pretty well:

“For one thing, Lefty finished up with a career Major League batting average of .349. If you’re not a connoisseur of baseball numerology, that number is almost unbelievably good.

In the history of major league baseball only three other players have ended with higher lifetime averages, each a legendary figure: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. And of the 66 batters already in the Hall of Fame, Lefty’s number is better than 64 of them.

But numbers have an almost fetishistic value in baseball, and had he gotten just two more hits in his peak 1929 season, his average of that year would have jumped from .398 to the magical .400 — and the whole baseball world would remember his name.

But numbers aside, Lefty could be honored for his work promoting the international game alone.

In 1964 the San Francisco Giants signed Masanori Murakami as the first Japanese player in the American big leagues. There are many more playing here today — Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Daisuke Matsuzaka to name just a few — and frankly, without Lefty’s contribution none of that would have happened.

The “Father of Japanese Baseball” was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. The least we can do is induct him into ours.”

Convinced? Now’s your chance to cast a vote!

Did I say “cast” a vote? What I meant was “lean on the folks who actually get to”.

Tom O’Doul (the last name’s no coincidence, he’s Lefty’s cousin) is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to get the slugger into the Hall — as a recipient of the Buck O’Neil “Lifetime Achievement Award”.

An email from Tom showed up this afternoon, and he’s enthusiastically granted me permission to reprint it on Sparkletack.

Without further ado ….

Fans and friends of “Lefty” O’Doul,

The time has come to start a letter writing campaign to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and put “Lefty” into the hall.

The Buck O’Neil Award is to be awarded to persons who were ambassadors to the game and have promoted the game over their lifetime.

Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul was one of those pioneers and a true ambassador to the game.

What he did for baseball in Japan, qualified him for induction into the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002.

What he did for baseball on the West Coast, qualified him for induction into both the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame.

No one is more deserving to be recognized as an ambassador to baseball than Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul. He deserves to receive the Buck O’Neil Award.

The award will be announced in 2011. But, now is the time to start writing letters.

Send your letters only — no e-mail or fax — to:

    Buck O’Neil Award
    National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
    25 Main Street
    Cooperstown, NY 13326-1330

Thank you for your support.

All the best,

Tom O’Doul

I’ve been meaning to post about these amazing T-shirts forever. Because they’re — I kid you not — unbearably cool.

It’s an idea so good that I’ve been kicking myself constantly (though ever so gently) for not having thought of it first!

What we have here is a series of San Francisco historical T-shirts, each one inspired by a historical neighborhood icon or institution. Locally made, totally cool … and they’re beautifully designed, too.

Just a couple of examples, some more gangster than others:

  • Devil’s Acre — From the most nefarious district of North Beach’s already infamous Barbary Coast
  • Beertown Brawlers — inspired by the 1870s–90s-era saloon-saturated stretch of Fulton Street, north of Golden Gate Park
  • Dog Patch — From the extinct east-side working-class neighborhood below Irish Hill
  • Carville FalconsCarville you remember, right? One of those cars was the headquarters of the Falcons — an all-girl cycling club.
  • Hunter’s Point Butchers — a little confusing, since Butchertown was a neighborhood distinct from Hunter’s Point, but what the hell … even though it’s currently out of print, this one’s totally my favourite.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Take a peek… and flash some vintage neighborhood pride. Tell ’em Sparkletack sent you!

Ork Posters has created something guaranteed to delight typophiles (that’s me) and San Francisco neighborhood geeks (check) alike.

It’s a typographic neighborhood map of Our Fair City.


Oh sure, they do it for a bunch of their other favourite cities too. But this is so cool that I forgive them for that.

Screen-printed. Multiple color options. Totally cool.

On the other hand, partial (dis)credit for using “San Fran” in the URL. They’ll be hearing from Emperor Norton about that …

In honor of that most noble of American pastimes, a lovely painting inspired by a favourite photo of the great San Francisco character, Lefty O’Doul … otherwise known as Mr. Lefty not-yet-in-the-damn-Hall-of-Fame O’Doul.

But I digress.

If you’ve heard my podcast about Lefty, you’ll have guessed that this photo was taken on one of Lefty’s famous tours of Japan — a preoccupation which would eventually earn him a second nickname, “the Father of Japanese Baseball”.

As to the source of nickname number three, well — take a look at the painting! Thanks to his signature garment, Lefty was known throughout San Francisco as “the Man in the Green Suit”. chris_felix_lefty_odoul___the_man_in_the_green_suit_1486_64
Chris Felix, 2009 — “Baseball’s Ambassador – The Man in the Green Suit” Lefty O'Doul in Japan
San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection – 1935

I was tipped off about this painting by an inquiry (on behalf of Chris Felix) about the precise shade of Lefty’s infamous green suit, and the source of the photo on the Sparkletack website. Since I was only about three years old when Lefty passed, I wasn’t much help with the sartorial question — but the photo was found in the amazing online collection at the San Francisco Public Library.

A few weeks later, Lefty’s cousin Tom O’Doul dropped me a line letting me know that the painting was actually here in San Francisco. Thanks Tom!

It will be on display at the George Krevsky Gallery in Union Square until June 20th, 2009, as part of their 12th annual baseball exhibition.

“Thank you for making such an awesome show. It’s really helped me out with this art project I’ve been working on.

I’m in an art show at the San Francisco Arts Commission and the theme is “Trace Elements”, or uh, Hidden Histories of San Francisco, so I’m making an illustrated map of San Francisco with bits of its hidden history. I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at with this thing if it wasn’t for your podcast.”

How cool is that?!

Very. I replied to this email from San Francisco artist Deth P. Sun immediately, demanding (okay, “enthusiastically requesting”) to see the work as soon as it was done.

A few weeks later, he emailed me a photo … and it’s awesome.

It’s a eccentric, surreal treasure map, a visual guide to San Francisco that’s packed with hidden cemeteries, lost neighborhoods, forgotten heroes … I mean, this is what the city is all about — stories, spooks and secrets:

Deth P. Sun - San Francisco Secret Histories map Deth P. Sun, “Secret Histories of San Francisco” — click the map for a larger image


Deth P. Sun - San Francisco Secret Histories map detail Deth P. Sun, “Secret Histories of San Francisco” — detail


Deth drew from a lot of great sources, of course, not just Sparkletack —, … in fact, he’s put together a Google map of stories and sources — a kind of legend to the map — that’s almost as cool as the painting.

The “Trace Elements” group show will be up until July 3rd, 2009, at the SFAC Gallery at 401 Van Ness — check it out!

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.

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