A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

November 22, 1852:
Earthquake opens a channel from Lake Merced to the sea — or does it?

lake merced 1881

In several places, the historical record tells us that on this date, a “severe earthquake created a fissure a half mile wide and three hundred yards long through which the waters of Lake Merced flowed to the sea.”

Lake Merced is a spring-fed freshwater lake in the southwest corner of San Francisco, so this is interesting news, right? Unfortunately, according to the scientific record, such as it is, there was no earthquake on that date.

I discovered the solution to this conundrum in an obscure paper published by the United States Geological Survey:

The waters of Lake Merced … which cover several hundred acres, sank about thirty feet. Shortly before midnight … a shock like that of an earthquake was felt by parties residing near this place; the following morning it was discovered that a great channel between the lake and the sea had opened, through a broad and high sand bank … The most probable conjecture is, that the excessive rains of the season had simply forced open a passage through the broad and loose sand-bank from the lake to the ocean. Formerly the lake had no visible outlet whatever; and its waters had insensibly been kept at about the same level.

That “great channel” to the sea ran more or less along what is now Sloat Boulevard, right through the Zoo — this map from 1881 shows the outlet quite clearly. Decades of human activity gradually filled it in again, and — as the Lake Merced dog-walkers and joggers can attest — that’s the way things stand today.

November 18, 1865:
Unknown San Francisco author takes New York

jumping frog Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s improbable wild west tale about an inveterate gambler and a jumping frog becomes the talk of New York City.

Mark Twain — or, let’s use the name his mother gave him — Samuel Clemens was not much of a miner. Up in the rainy foothills of the Sierra Nevada gold country, he preferred sitting around the camp tavern stove and listening to local characters tell tall tales.

Now, a story about a jumping frog stuffed full of lead shot already existed in American folklore, but after hearing the version narrated by one old river pilot, Clemens remarked “if I can write that story the way Ben Coon told it, that frog will jump around the world”.

He was right. Here’s the way San Francisco’s Alta California described it:

Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, 1865 called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark. I have been asked fifty times about (the story) and its author, and the papers are copying it far and near. It is voted the best thing of the day.

That little story, with its darn-tootin’ Western voice, naturalistic vernacular style and wry humour was an absolute sensation. Soon to be renamed “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“, it became the signature piece and stepping stone to national celebrity of our most authentically American novelist.

November 22, 1935:
“China Clipper” make its first trans-Pacific flight

china clipper

Turns out it’s “National Aviation History Month“, so this anniversary is a timely one.

On the afternoon of November 22nd, 73 years ago, a sleek seaplane bearing the livery of the fledgling Pan American Airlines taxied from its Alameda slip out onto the Bay. The plane had been dubbed the China Clipper, and was cheered into the sky and over the Golden Gate Bridge by a crowd of 150,000 San Franciscans.

Eight thousand miles, stops in Hawaii, Midway, Wake and Guam, and about 60 hours later, the Clipper splashed down in Manila Bay, making Pan Am the first airline to cross the Pacific Ocean. job.

The big silver Martin M-130 had been loaded with mail — to be precise, 110,865 letters weighing nearly 2000 pounds. Juan Trippe, the airline’s founder, had swung a deal with Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to give Pan Am a monopoly on trans-Pacific mail service — providing only that the company could swing it.

Today’s flight proved that “swing it” they could, and less than a year later, the gorgeous flying boats began carrying passengers along the legendary route to Hawaii, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Pan American’s Clipper fleet would go on to rule trans-oceanic travel until World War II arrived, signaling the end of an elegant era.