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Monday, April 6th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 04.06.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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.

Bullies

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.”

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Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

The mysterious letter “E”

I get a lot of history questions here at Sparkletack — some I can handle, but others stump me completely. A few weeks ago, a longtime listener named Demetrios hit me with one of those stumpers: “This is regarding the Sparkletack posting I sent you with regards to the letters ‘E’ that I keep seeing […]

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Monday, March 30th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 03.30.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:The San Francisco “Cocktail Route” 1890-something 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”. I know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in […]

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Monday, March 23rd, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 03.23.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
Slumming the Barbary Coast

1871
“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.

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Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 03.09.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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”.

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Monday, March 2nd, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 03.02.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: 1956: Gold medals or Gold records? An athletic crooner makes a life-changing choice 1956: “Send blank contracts” Of 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 […]

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Monday, February 23rd, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 02.23.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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.

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Monday, February 16th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 02.16.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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 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. 11 Comments » - Posted in San Francisco history blog,San Francisco history podcasts by


Monday, February 9th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 02.09.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1865February, 1869
The battle for Rincon Hill is over

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.

According 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 1968 (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?”

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Monday, February 2nd, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 02.02.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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

>Brannan 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.

By 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.

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Monday, January 26th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 01.26.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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. 12 Comments » - Posted in San Francisco history blog,San Francisco history podcasts by


Monday, January 19th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 01.19.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
1890: Nellie Bly blows through town; 1897: “Little Pete” (the King of Chinatown) is murdered in a barbershop.

nellie blyJanuary 20, 1890
Miss Nellie Bly whizzes past San Francisco

I got a hot tip that this was the anniversary of the day Miss Nellie Bly stopped by on the home stretch of her dash around the world. But as it turns out, well … some background first, I guess.

For starters, who the heck was Nellie Bly?

Sixteen years old in 1880, Miss Elizabeth Jane Cochrane of Pittsburgh was a budding feminist. When a blatantly sexist column appeared in the local paper, the teenager fired off a scathing rebuttal. The editor was so struck by her spunk and intellect that he (wisely) hired her, assigning a nom de plume taken from the popular song: “Nellie Bly”.

Her early investigative reportage focused on the travails of working women, but the straitjacket of Victorian expectations soon squeezed her into the ghetto of the women’s section — fashion, gardening, and society tea-parties.

Nellie despised this, and tore off to Mexico for a year to write her own kind of stories. Back in the States, she talked her way into a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s legendary New York World. Her first assignment was a doozy — going undercover as a patient into New York’s infamous Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Her passionate reporting of the brutality and neglect uncovered there shook the world, and Nellie Bly became a household name.

More exposés followed — sweatshops, baby-selling — but then, in 1888, Nellie was struck by a different idea. 9 Comments » - Posted in San Francisco history blog,San Francisco history podcasts by


Monday, January 12th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 01.12.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
1861: the notorious countess Lola Montez dies in New York; 1899: a small boy defends himself in a San Francisco courtroom.

lola montezJanuary 17, 1861
Countess Lola Montez — in Memorium

As was undoubtedly marked on your calendar, San Francisco’s patron saint Emperor Norton died last week, January 7, 1880.

But his was not the only January passing worthy of note. Ten days later (and nineteen years earlier), we lost perhaps the most notorious personage ever to grace the streets of our fair city.

I speak, of course, of Countess Lola Montez . Yes, that’s the one — “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”.

You already know Lola’s story, of course. You don’t? The breathtakingly gorgeous Irish peasant girl with the soul of a grifter and the heart of a despot? How she — with a few sexy dance steps, a fraudulent back story involving Spanish noble blood and the claim of Lord Byron as her father — turned Europe upside down and provoked a revolution in Bavaria?

Still doesn’t ring a bell, hmm? Well, Lola’s whole story is a little too large for this space. She’d already lived about three lifetimes’ worth of adventure — and burned through romances with personalities from King Ludwig the First to Sam Brannan — before conquering Gold Rush-era San Francisco with her scandalous “Spider Dance”.

If you missed the Sparkletack podcast about this amazing character, you might want to rectify that little omission.

After her European escapades, Lola found that freewheeling San Francisco suited her tempestuous eccentricity to a T. Brandishing the title of “Countess” — a Bavarian souvenir — she drank and caroused and became the absolute center of the young city’s attention.

It’s said that men would come pouring out of Barbary Coast saloons to gawk at the raven-haired vision sashaying through the mud with a pair of greyhounds at her heels, a white cockatoo perched on one shoulder, and a cigar cocked jauntily from her lips … and do I even need to mention her pet grizzly bears?

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Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Emperor Norton Day: “Le Roi est Mort”

It’s Emperor Norton Day One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today, the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico crumpled in front of Old St. Mary’s Church on the edge of Chinatown, and died on the way to the hospital. Thirty thousand citizens attended his funeral, and the San Francisco Chronicle commemorated the […]

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Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Sparkletack Interview: Amateur Traveler Podcast transcript!

amateur traveler podcast

As I mentioned here recently, a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of goofing around with Chris Christensen from the Amateur Traveler podcast.

I hadn’t really known what aspect of San Francisco we were going to talk about, but the result was a spontaneous guided tour of the western and northern edges of the city — from the Great Highway to the Marina.

It was great fun to gossip about Our Favourite City while the tape rolled (extemporaneously for a change), but the real reason I’m bringing this up again is this:

Chris has just posted a complete transcript online.

This is perfect for those of you who take stuff in through the eyes better than the ear — drop by, have a little read, and feel free leave him a comment!

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