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Monday, October 6th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, October 6-12


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

October 9, 1776

Saint Francis

Two hundred and thirty-two years ago this week, the original “Mission San Francisco de Asis” — better known as Mission Dolores — was officially dedicated on the banks of Dolores Lagoon, in today’s aptly named Mission District.

I’m not talking about the graceful white-washed adobe that stands at 16th and Dolores streets today — it would be some 15 years before the good padres, in an early chapter of the church’s “problematic” relationship with native Americans, would draft members of the Ohlone to construct that edifice. No, this was more like a cabin, a temporary log and thatch structure hacked together a little over a block east of the present Mission, near the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets.

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Monday, September 29th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, September 29-October 5


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

October 1, 1938

blackie swims the golden gate in 1938

On a foggy Saturday in 1938, a swaybacked, 12-year-old horse named Blackie swam — dog-paddled, really — completely across the choppy waters of the Golden Gate. The horse not only made aquatic history with that trip, but he soundly defeated two human challengers from the Olympic Club, and won a $1000 bet for his trainer Shorty Roberts too.

It took the horse only 23 minutes, 15 seconds to make the nearly mile-long trip, and the short film made of the adventure shows that Blackie wasn’t even breathing hard as he emerged from the waters at Crissy Field.

His trainer Shorty couldn’t swim, but he made the trip, too — and this was part of the bet — by hanging onto Blackie’s tail. A rowboat led the way, with Shorty’s brother offering a handful of sugar cubes from the stern to keep the sweets-lovin’ horse on track.

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Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, September 22-28

September 24, 1855

joaquin murieta - the Mexican Robin Hood

The preserved head of Joaquin Murieta and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack were sold at auction today to settle their owner’s legal problems. Joaquin Murieta was a notorious and romantic figure in the early history of California.

With Jack, his right-hand man, Murieta led a gang of Mexican bandits through the countryside on a three-year rampage, brutally “liberating” more than $100,000 in gold, killing 22 people (including three lawmen), and outrunning three separate posses. After posse #4 tracked him down and chopped off his head — or at least the head of someone who might possibly have maybe looked like him — Murieta’s story entered California folklore.

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Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Something new: weekly Time-capsule podcast, September 15-21

A little explanation is in order

So. The schedule of Sparkletack production has fallen off a bit during the past year, and for that I apologize. I miss the show myself, so I’ve decided to tweak the format a bit.

Here’s my new plan. I started to think about the fact that every time the planet spins around its axis, it’s the anniversary of some interesting, odd, or somehow notable happening in the history of our fair city.

I’m going to select a handful of these every week, and put together a short piece just to remind you — and myself — of the marvelous and wacky things that have taken place all around us during the past 170 years or so.

The format is far from settled yet — this is officially an experiment, and I’m open to suggestions.

The longer, more in-depth shows won’t disappear — the plan is to keep producing them as well, at a more comfortable pace. They’ll just appear when they appear. The Sparkletack blog won’t change at all, and I should mention here that I really love the tips and info that you constantly send me, dear listeners … thanks, and keep ’em coming.

San Francisco's Emperor Norton

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Monday, September 15th, 2008

Lana Turner — a San Francisco noir

Lana Turner

Yet another one for the “there’s always a San Francisco angle” files …

Years before the discovery of the platinum haired Lana Turner at a Hollywood cafe propelled her into a life of glamour and super-stardom, her lifeline intersected San Francisco — and with tragedy.

I suppose we could begin the tale in Oklahoma, 1920.

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Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Sunset neighborhood — televised history tour

The ubiquitous and erudite Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhood Project takes Brian Hackney of CBS Channel 5 on a televised history tour of his beloved Sunset stomping grounds. Just in case you’ve been missing out, the Western Neighborhood Project (outsidelands.org) is a wonderful organization, a non-profit passionately dedicated to uncovering and preserving the legacies […]

2 Comments » - Posted in Just plain cool,San Francisco history blog by

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Vintage snapshots of San Francisco pt. 2: Google-mapped

A couple days after I passed on this alert to the amazing Charles Cushman photo collection, another reader immediately saw possibilities for this carefully filed and annotated archive of our city in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

He’s created a Google map, digitally mapping over 200 of the enormous collection’s slides to their places of origin.

This looks like it must have been a TON of work, but as Dan wrote, “Richard — this wasn’t so much effort as it looks. Google maps has a geocoder which takes street intersections and turns them into GPS coordinates. I wrote a script to download the Cushman archive pages, look up the street addresses in the geocoder, and add them to the map.”

Right — it’s easy if you know how! And I suspect that slightly more energy went into this project than Dan is letting on.

Though just a bit over 10% of the 1791 images in the San Francisco portion of the archive were readily identifiable, it’s more than enough to pull you back into a visceral, three-dimensional experience of our city in the era of Kodachrome.

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Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Faded time capsule — vintage snapshots of San Francisco

A reader alerted me to an amazing post that just popped up over at Laughing Squid.

See the two photos below? The first comes from an online collection of vintage color snapshots of San Francisco, courtesy of an online gallery at Indiana University — it’s the intersection of South Van Ness and Army, snapped by who-knows-who back in 1953.

The second one was snapped by Todd Lappin just yesterday — and at first glance, not much has changed in the last fifty years but the trees on the Bernal Hill and the price of gas!

San Francisco, South Van Ness and Army 1953
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Friday, August 8th, 2008

Kitchen Sisters on NPR: “Birth of Rice-A-Roni”

Rice-A-Roni - the San Francisco Treat

1940s San Francisco. A young Canadian immigrant and her Italian pasta family husband move into the spare room of an old Armenian woman.

The result of this temporary arrangement? The boxed rice and pasta side dish which — for good or ill — would come to be as strongly associated with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge:

“Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat”

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Friday, August 1st, 2008

Grandpa’s archives: San Francisco Chronicle aerial photo ca. 1949

My mother called a few days ago, opening the conversation with a breathless “I think I’ve found something that might interest you!”

She was right.

Her sister had recently gone through some papers belonging to my late grandfather Elmer Plett, a sober, hard-working dairy farmer who spent the majority of his adult life in the central valley town of Turlock.

Among piles of receipts and newspaper clippings my aunt discovered a mysterious item bearing the handwritten label “San Francisco picture, 1949”. Sure enough, nestled between protective cardboard sheets was a large, glossy, black and white aerial photograph of San Francisco.

The shot is spectacular, taken on an unusually clear winter day. The angle is unusual too, looking almost precisely north towards Mount Shasta — and according to the story of how the photo came to be taken (see below), that view of the distant volcano is what prompted the photographer to take to the air.

What we’re interested in, though, is the city in the foreground — captured in all its hat-wearing, freeway-building, pre-jet-age post-war glory. Take a look:


San Francisco Chronicle aerial photo 1949

click image to view at full size

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Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

SFWeekly: “Nonconformity Still Reigns”

SFWeekly logo Nonconformity Still Reigns

Apparently yours truly is the go-to source on non-conformity in historical San Francisco. That’s the way the SFWeekly is leaning, in any case. An hour of phone-schmoozing with intrepid reporter Lauren Smiley resulted in the following introduction to story about modern-day San Francisco kooks and characters:

In the beginning of our city’s love affair with odd ducks, there was Emperor Norton. A businessman in Gold Rush San Francisco who lost his pants on an investment in Peruvian rice, he re-emerged as a grand character of his own invention: “Emperor of These United States” and “Protector of Mexico.” He waltzed about town in a secondhand military uniform while newspapers printed his official edicts without caveat and establishments honored his fake currency.

If Los Angeles lionizes its celebrities, San Francisco has always embraced, or at least tolerated, its homegrown eccentrics. “I can’t imagine any other city in the world where [Emperor Norton] could have become what he became with the acceptance of the city,” says Richard Miller, an armchair historian who creates podcasts on San Francisco legends for his Web site, Sparkletack. “Some say all the loose nuts rolled west … people who hadn’t made it elsewhere, or just different from the average bears.”

Take a look at the rest of the SFWeekly’s article, and not just because of that little quote — Lauren hits the high spots from the Brown Twins (who refused to be interviews by the Weekly without cash on the barrelhead) to Frank Chu (who could not be contained). The premise of the story is that there’s still hope for San Francisco … and I hope she’s right.

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Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Bullitt: the greatest car chase ever (from space!)

This video takes Bullitt about ten steps further. It’s a side-by-side display that — through the techno-wizardry of geocoding — shows the chase scene’s logic-defying route from space. Now you can track Steve’s ’68 Mustang GT turn by screeching turn through every neighborhood in the city — just like a James Bond super-villain:

Click to view at full size

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Friday, June 20th, 2008

book review: Oakley Hall’s “Ambrose Bierce Mystery Novels”

An inordinate number of my youthful hours were spent in the company of the mystery novel; Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers … I couldn’t get enough. Somewhere along the line, though, the fixation faded …

But it’s back.

I’ve discovered a series of detective novels that — in a “you got chocolate on my peanut butter!” kind of way — seem to have been written with me in mind:The setting is 1890’s San Francisco, the lively heart of the Gilded Age. And the detective? None other than our own famously cynical wit-about-town, that brilliant literary misanthrope Mr. Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce.

See what I mean?

Just a minute: Ambrose who?

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Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

And I quote: “Buried Treasure in San Francisco?”

I love this blog, if for no other reason than the jawdropping diversity of the email that slips over the digital transom. This note from a few weeks ago just about takes the biscuit. In breathless terms it tells the story of a decades-long treasure hunt, a project just brimming with danger, doggedness and derring-do! […]

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Sunday, May 25th, 2008

book review — “Historic Photos of San Francisco”

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […]

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