From the community

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 …

“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!

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:

bush-and-montgomery“This is regarding the Sparkletack posting I sent you with regards to the letters ‘E’ that I keep seeing everywhere engraved on granite curbs in the Financial District (mostly).”

This is driving me nuts! I have noticed the letter ‘T’ on occasion as well, but by far the letter ‘E’ is the most common letter haunting my walks around the Financial District.

The letter “E” and the letter “T”.

Straightforward question, right? And so I tried to figure it out. I looked in the usual locations, posted the question on some other San Francisco history websites, even (because my first guess was “quarry mark”) tracked down the quarry which had supplied those granite curbs to the City after the ’06 quake …

Nothing. Weeks went by.

And then, out of the blue, an email dropped into my inbox from one Peri Cosseboom.

Peri Cosseboom is a San Francisco history buff focused on surveying and land development. He’s a San Francisco native, raised in the Mission and Tenderloin, married to a native of Chinatown, and even speaks with that elusive “south of the slot” San Francisco accent. Now those are what I call credentials!

His generous explanation prompted an immediate slap to my forehead.

Aargh, it was SO obvious …

The “E”, “T” and on curbs downtown represent the approximate point where underground electrical and telephone ducts crossed the cubline and entered the building that they served. “WU” represented Western Union” telegraph crossings but are quite rare. My recollection is that Western Union maintained active overhead lines downtown until the early 80’s. “G” represents gas lines, but is also uncommon.

These marks date back to just after the ’06 quake when undergrounding electrical and telephone lines was uncommon and having marks of this sort to indicate the point of service was useful.

The “T” & E” marks when found on the curved parts of curbs at street intersections (curb returns) do not represent crossings, but are reference points for the location of telephone/electrical manholes. The company involved would measure from 2 of these marks (on opposite curbs) to a manhole. Crossing 2 tapes at the recorded measurements would locate a buried manhole. These record measurements are now also obsolete.

These marks are also found in subdivisions created just after WW1, (e.g.. Forrest Hills) where the utilities were undergrounded for aesthetic reasons. The practice was discontinued soon thereafter when utility undergrounding became more common and when infrastructure records became more accurate.

“W” & “S” are found everywhere in the City, representing water line and sewer lateral crossings. The “S” is most commonly found on the “armored curbs” constructed in the neighborhoods by the WPA during the depression, but they can occur anywhere. The “W” seems to only appear on granite curbs and thus predate about 1930. Again, accurate infrastructure mapping made their use obsolete.

Thanks, Peri — curiousity satisfied, and how!

zoe dell lantis - treasure island

Since writing and recording the (epic!) Sparkletack two-podcast series on the history of Treasure Island, Anne Schnoebeln Schnoebelen of the Treasure Island Museum Association has been a regular correspondent of mine — keeping me posted about the struggle to reopen the long-shuttered Treasure Island Museum.

To get you quickly up to speed, as plans for the Island’s transfer from the Navy to San Francisco crept slooowly along, the Museum fell into bureaucratic limbo … and it’s still there. The collection was shoved into a basement, and we’ve just been waiting to see what will happen next.

Nothing guarantees that the fabulous collection of Treasure Island artifacts will even stay in the Bay Area, but last night, I got the word that Treasure Island’s magnificent Art Deco showpiece” Building One” is once again home to a historical exhibit. And that’s something, right?

I’ll reprint the details of the exhibit below, but here’s the sweet part: see the fetching young woman whacking a bottle of bubbly against a China Clipper up there? That would be Zoe Dell Lantis, the official “Pirate Theme Girl” of the ’39 Treasure Island World’s Fair … and she will be the guest of honor at the exhibit’s unveiling this evening.

As to the eventual fate of the Museum itself … well, keep your fingers crossed.

The Treasure Island Museum Association unveils its new exhibit ‘Portal to the Pacific in War and Peace’, showcasing historical images from Treasure Island’s 70 year history. The exhibit celebrates Treasure Island’s rich history through a series of hanging panels, including many previously unpublished color photographs.

The opening of the exhibit is being held from 6pm – 9pm Thursday, November 13, 2008 at Treasure Island’s Lobby Gallery in Art Deco Building One. It is open to the public.

The exhibit runs through January 2009 in the Treasure Island Building One Lobby Gallery. Hours: 8:30 am – 5 pm, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday. For directions and information see

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.

Lana’s parents meet cute

Well … sort of.

“… my father was just out of the army. He was heading westward, working in the mines and I guess that’s how he got to Pitcher (Oklahoma). After a night of dancing, he and my mother fell in love.

He was twenty-four, but she was only fifteen. When he began to court her, my grandfather put his foot down. So, what could they do? They eloped.”

Right — eloped to the romantic environs of Wallace, a small mining town in Idaho. Not long afterwards (February 8, 1921), “Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner ” was born to child-bride Mildred and John “Virgil” Turner. (They called her Judy, and though she wouldn’t become “Lana” until hitting the silver screen, let’s keep it simple.)

Though Lana would later reminisce nostalgically about the good ol’ days — mom and pop dancing to the Victrola by candlelight — all was not well in the Turner household.

Virgil worked a series of rough and low-paying jobs in the silver mines. And though making barely enough to support his tiny family, he soon began to squander those meagre earnings on the dancing, gambling and hooch that are part and parcel of mining town life.

His debts mounted, so Virgil turned to bootlegging his own corn liquor — but when the Feds started sniffing around, the Turners packed up the household overnight and high-tailed it for — where else? — San Francisco.

Noir city

young Lana Turner

They pulled into the City at the Edge of the World sometime in 1927, when Lana was just six years old. Something about life in San Francisco, who knows, perhaps something in the city’s inherently unstable nature, provoked a separation between the parents.

Mildred found suitably noiresque work as a nightclub entertainer, and after a murky period in which the young girl was shuttled off to live in a series of abusive foster homes, moved her into a cramped apartment at 760 Geary Street.

Papa Virgil moved into a rough hotel at 4th and Mission, finding work as a stevedore at the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The job suited him, and as for his taste for drinking and gambling? San Francisco nights were the perfect fit.

And this is where the tale takes a darker turn.

“Taken for a ride”

Virgil spends the early morning hours of December 10th, 1930, in an all-night downtown poker game. The cards are turning his way, and as his diamond stickpin sparkles in the electric lights, he brags loudly that he’s going to buy his little girl a bicycle with his winnings.

He leaves the basement game close to dawn, but his big talk had not gone unnoticed, and he was followed. As the San Francisco Chronicle later put it, Virgil was picked up and “taken for a ride” out to the Potrero District. It was the gambler’s last deal.

When the sun came up, Virgil’s corpse was discovered slumped in an alley at Mariposa and Minnesota, out behind the Southern Pacific roundhouse. He’d been bludgeoned to death. The diamond stickpin was gone, as was his watch — but most importantly, so was his left sock, in which he’d kept his bankroll.

The police figured out that gambling was involved, and there was some speculation about gangsters … but the papers were full of such things in the ’30s — I mean, c’mon, Dashiell Hammett himself was probably up writing the Maltese Falcon over at 891 Post Street as the murder took place — and Virgil Turner’s killer was never caught.

A vision

Lana was profoundly shaken by her father’s death. And somehow, the nine-year-old girl had known what had happened before the body was discovered:

“…How long I had been asleep I don’t know, but suddenly I was sitting up straight in the darkness. Before me was a vision so intense that it seemed to be alive. I saw a huge medallion of shining gold, and on it was embossed the face of God, a shimmering countenance, comforting, benign. A voice said, “Your father is dead.” I was filled with awe but also with a strange sense of peace as I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

When I awoke in the morning, my mother and Julia Hislop (a family friend) were whispering in a corner. They didn’t have to tell me why. I already knew that my father was dead. And when the feeling of peace wore off, the surprise at having known intensified my sense of loss and sorrow. Although I was only nine, I could imagine what death meant. I knew he was gone forever.”

In 1935, Mildred Turner, on her doctors’ advice, moved with her daughter to the drier climate of Los Angeles. Six weeks later the now mostly-grown-up Lana was discovered, and the rest is, as they say, history.

San Francisco history, that is

Though Lana Turner passes out of San Francisco’s story and into Hollywood legend, her private life — seven marriages, a gazillion affairs, alcoholism, a gangster lover murdered by her own daughter — seems to somehow have been claimed by our city. In an undoubtedly way-too-romantic way, I’ll think of Lana Turner now as forever marked by San Francisco noir

Thanks to Ron Filion at for the tip — someone had asked him to “confirm” that Lana Turner was a Bay Area high school graduate. Turned out that she wasn’t, of course, but as he poked around, discovered the inevitable San Francisco angle. He thought I might be interested … and I was.

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

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.

Just click on a blue marker for the photo, date, and whatever Cushman noted on the slide. Enjoy …

The Secret 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!

Okay, fine … perhaps there isn’t so much going on in the danger and derring-do department, but as to doggedness, well … that we have here in spades, along with a tip of the cap to yours truly. But I’ll let my correspondent Matthew Sparks fill you in himself:

Buried Treasure in San Francisco?

“Did I get your attention with the subject line? I’m serious, It’s not a huge priceless treasure, but treasure none the less.

“In 1982 author Byron Priess (1953-2005) published a book called The Secret, A Treasure Hunt. I bought a copy the day it came out and have been working on solving it ever since…

“Preiss buried 12 casques. These were small little porcelain boxes each containing a symbolic key — no metal so they can’t be metal detected. Each casque was buried 2-3 feet down in a plexiglas box in 12 cities around North America. If you found the box, you got turn in the key to Byron Preiss and he rewarded you with 1 of 12 jewels. Officially and sadly the hunt ended when Byron Preiss died in an auto accident in 2005. But while the chance to get one of the jewels is probably over, the hunt for the casques continues.

The Secret Book

“The book contains 12 images and 12 verses, which verse goes with which picture is unknown, But if you can put a picture together with a verse you can resolve the location of a casque. Right after the book came out, a group of 3 friends were able to find the casque hidden in Chicago, using Image 5 and verse 12. Then there was a long long pauses of about 20 years, and most readers gave up.. From 1983-2000 I only looked at the book in frustration, but one day I realized there were people on the internet still working on the hunt, an entire online community. With some great success, a large group has banded together, pooling resources to finish the hunt.

A Jitney Elopement
A Jitney Elopement

File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”.

A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park.

A Jitney Elopement” is classic slapstick, featuring a case of mistaken identity, a jitney (think “flivver“), a mustachioed scoundrel and — inevitably — madcap hilarity. This milestone 1915 production has been described as the first “Chaplinesque” Chaplin film, but is that what we’re here for?

Nope … we want to look past the action with San Francisco-tinted glasses and see our city in all its vivid … okay, in all its grainy black and white early-century glory. The first half of the film takes place indoors, but take a look at clip from the second reel, featuring the crucial final ten minutes:

0:0 minutes: We begin somewhere on location in Golden Gate Park; Charlie is about to rescue the Girl from the amorous clutches of the mustachioed Count.

4:53 minutes: The action slowly picks up — over a half century before Steve McQueen will set the standard — with a car chase: high speed Tin-Lizzy!

5:02 minutes: This may be the high point of the film, a rare sight indeed: Golden Gate Park’s fabulous Murphy Windmill, complete with turning vanes! This windmill, the second of the Park’s famous pair, was built in 1905, but the vanes fell off sometime in the ’40s. The magnificent tower is still there, though, slowly rotting away — still unrestored.

6:00 minutes: tearing north past Ocean Beach along the Great Highway, not yet paved (!).

7:46 minutes: In a cinematic maneuver San Franciscans will see countless times over the years to come (hello “Bullitt‘), time and geography are defied with a leap across town into the Mission District. Note the fence advertising “Joe Holle Bicycles” — this handy clue allows us to place the scene precisely at 2336 Folsom Street, right across the street from today’s John O’Connell High School of Technology.

8:30 minutes: A pair of paved roads lead up a hillside … anyone want to take a crack at identifying this spot? Sutro Heights? The Presidio?

9:16 minutes: A major intersection that could be in the Mission, the Richmond or the Sunset districts … anyone recognize the buildings in the background?

9:46 minutes: The car chase finally ends with a splash as Chaplin bumps the villains’ car off a pier and into the bay. Our copy of the film is a little blurry, but our best guess is that this is somewhere around Fort Mason.

But wait, there’s more!


When last we encountered this goddess-behemoth, she was being blown up by the Navy at the end of the ’39 Pan-Pacific Exposition. The mythical goddess Pacifica — symbol of the Fair — had loomed over Treasure Island for the duration, a sternly imposing concrete figure of some 80 feet tall.

Though sculptor Ralph Stackpole had proposed that she be allowed to stay on as a sort of Statue of Liberty of the Pacific, the powers that be were unsympathetic — Pacifica was destroyed and hauled away with the rest of the rubble.

Now, almost 70 years later, the goddess is returning to San Francisco — albeit a bit reduced in scale. An 8-foot replica, reproduced in fiberglass from Stackpole’s original 3-foot working model, will be installed next week at the Community College of San Francisco (CCSF):

WHEN: Thursday, April 17th, 12:30-1:30 p.m.

WHERE: City College of San Francisco
Ocean Campus, 50 Phelan Avenue
in the garden next to the Diego Rivera Theater.

The Rivera connection

Connoisseurs of San Francisco art secrets will already know that the CCSF campus is the repository for one of the great surviving treasures of that fair, the mural “Pan American Unity” — a piece actually painted by Diego Rivera on Treasure Island as Fair patrons gawked.

Rivera’s original connection with San Francisco came from Stackpole, who traveled to Mexico to meet him in the ’20s and helped the lefty Mexican genius get his first mural commissions in the City. The Pacifica statue will be located in the “Olmec Head Plaza” — appropriately facing Rivera’s Treasure Island masterpiece.

The swimmer and the statue

Rivera mural

But here’s an odd angle; one of the figures immortalized by Rivera in that mural is responsible for bring Pacifica back — one Mr. Salvatore DeGuarda. Salvatore was working as a swimmer in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, happened to catch Diego’s eye, and now here he is — the one in the white swimming trunks.

After a long and colorful career, Mr. DeGuarda is now retired — but not very: after getting involved with Treasure Island’s fifty-year anniversary celebrations a couple of decades ago, he became obsessed with the re-creation of “Pacifica”:

“If it wasn’t for this statue, I would probably be dead by now. I have great memories, and I love sharing them with people. I want my legacy to be the re-creation of Pacifa on Treasure Island and the sharing of my stories.”

His donation of this relatively tiny version to CCSF is just a stop along the road — he’s already given a copy to the town of Pacifica (the statue’s namesake) — Salvatore won’t be satisfied until the full-scale 80-foot statue rises again above the Pacific.

For more about Salvatore DeGuarda’s non-profit group “Pacifica II Project”, visit


I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may vary.

subject: San Francisco Ghost Walk
time: 3 hours
cost: $20 adults, $10 kids, discount for groups (cash only)
tack rating:

NOTE: A couple of weeks ago an email from a regular reader dropped into my inbox. She was curious about this Ghost Walk, and had unsuccessfully scoured the Sparkletack website for a review. Well, I’d heard of the tour, but — though curious — just never got around to putting on my calendar. In a flash of inspiration (call it laziness if you must), I wrote back: “How about you go on the tour and write it up?”

So. Allow me to introduce the very first “Guest Sparkler” to this blog: EB of SpiceDish — San Franciscan, Sparkletack fan, and highly entertaining writer about eating and living in the Bay Area. Take it away, Erin …

It was a dark and rainy night …

… no really. It was. It was raining last Friday night when a troupe of my friends and I decided to partake in a ghost hunt!

Since 1998 Jim Fassbinder has offered the San Francisco Ghost Hunt tour. A walking tour that introduces you to the city’s illustrious departed who refuse to leave.

Our host, at first, had a goofy touch of ‘Disney’s Haunted Mansion’ about him (costume and all), but soon we were taken in by his infectious enthusiasm. Fassbinder takes his job very seriously, it’s obvious he loves not only deceased of San Francisco, but also the city and it’s history as well.

After an introduction to what he does and how, the tour starts with Fassbinder encouraging everyone to investigate the 2nd & 4th floors of the Queen Anne. These are reportedly the most haunted floors. Mary Lake, the spirit who walks these halls, has apparently taken to tucking in guests with a fresh blanket while they sleep — all out of love of course. He encourages picture taking and tells you what to look for (a glowing orb or figure) to see if you’ve captured a ghost. My photo from the 4th floor does seem to have few ghostly orbs floating around there. Sparkletack note — This is the same mansion that I visited as part of the Victorian Home Walk in January … have the owners got their PR ducks in row or what?

The rain, adding to the atmosphere of the evening, accompanied us as we left the hotel and walked about 1 mile around the gorgeous neighborhood of Pacific Heights learning about the some ghosts with illustrious and infamous pasts:

Claudia Chambers, a murdered heiress (a gruesome family secret), Flora, who haunts the corner of California and Pine in a white Victorian dress (she once scared an entire cable car full of tourists by walking straight through them!), Gertrude Atherton (yes that Atherton) a moneyed widow known for partying, who’s still at it in her gorgeous mansion and Fassbinder’s personal patron saint…. Mary Ellen Pleasant “The Voodoo Queen of San Francisco.”

Fassbinder gleefully shares the ghosts’ history, why and where they haunt, and how they make themselves known. He imparts all the information he knows about the dead (except their ghostly appearance—how else could he verify that you really saw one or just imagined you did?) He even attempts to attract the spirits to make your experience all the more intriguing.

Fun Facts that were uncovered:

  • Dead husbands can be delivered in booze barrels.
  • You really can have too many cats.
  • Young girls don’t want to marry old men.
  • Blackmail and insider trading may just be good career options, and
  • If you are good to your Voodoo priestess she will be good to you.

Do I recommend going on a ghost hunt?

Yes. Even if you’re more into San Francisco history, than ghosts in particular, Fassbinder really is open to any and all questions, he allows you to take pictures freely and he engages tour-goers at every turn. There are a few parlor tricks to be had (or supernatural experiences depending on your point of view) and while he doesn’t guarantee that you will see ghosts, he guarantees that you will have one of the more unique evenings you can have in San Francisco. For 20$ per adult and 10$ per child you get 3 full hours of entertainment.

The tour even enticed me to take advantage of the 25% off coupon you are given for a stay at the Queen Anne. I booked an in-town weekend ‘away’ and while I won’t be staying in room 410 (the most haunted room)… I do hope to see myself a spirit.

More San Francisco Ghostie links:
» San Francisco Ghost Society
» Top 10 Haunted San Francisco Locations!
» “Is There a Spirit Here Tonight” — SF Chronicle
» “Haunted San Francisco Ghost Stories”

Dolores Street 1907

It’s my favourite thing, finding physical evidence of times past in the landscape of contemporary San Francisco. That’s why I was delighted when Aaron, a Sparkletack reader, sent me to a page of photographs snapped by a railfan in 1907.

The website displaying the photos is the passion of Amtrak engineer (and native San Franciscan) Frank Caron, and its name — Rails Around the Bay — is pretty much self-explanatory. The site is loaded with photos and history, and Frank describes this particular page of century-old rail photographs like this:

“The following photos are from the camera of Robert H. McFarland who grew up in San Francisco. Robert lived right on 22nd Street near Harrison where the original Southern Pacific mainline once ran and as a young man photographed all this action for us to see today. These photos were provided to me by Arnold Menke and are part of his collection. I thank him for allowing me to share with you today a sampling of the many photos that Robert McFarland took.”

The photos of these iron monsters steaming through the Mission are fantastic, but what really caught my eye was the fact that each photo came with a handy location description. What could I do? I had to create an interactive map! Those of you who enjoyed the Mission Street Railroad graphic are going to love this, too … it’s another look at the one-time “San Francisco and San Jose Railroad“, California’s first inter-city rail link. From 1864-1906 a $2.50 fare would bring you from San Jose to the terminal at 3rd and Townsend Streets. Crocker, Stanford and our other favourite robber barons absorbed the line into the Southern Pacific Coast Route in 1870, and it ran until sometime in the 1940s.

If you look closely at this map (choose “satellite” view), you can see the evidence of this long abandoned line all over the place, a still-vivid antique scar: the Juri Commons park between Guerrero and San Jose Avenue is a great place to start; the diagonal slice extends farther north- and east-wards across Shotwell between 24th and 23rd, then cuts through three rectilinear blocks before emerging at 21st and Harrison. It becomes Treat Street, then slices through several blocks between 16th and Bryant, and continues northwards, rolling out of range of ol’ Robert McFarland’s camera.

Google map after the break


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 you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

This odd little tale was brought to my attention by a listener who could not believe that I hadn’t mentioned it in my podcast about Robert Louis Stevenson.

Of course I hadn’t mentioned it because I’d never heard of it. In fact, I’d never read a single line of Stevenson’s short fiction, but with my listener’s promise that it was “spectacularly weird and wonderful”, I trundled off to the library to dig it up.

Boy did that trip ever pay off. The story actually was spectacularly weird — and impossible to put down. I read the entire (very short) book on my feet, unwilling to interrupt the flow by searching for a chair.

My reader — okay, he does have a name — “Scott” had been surprised at the absence of this tale from my podcast. Though most of the action takes place in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the bizarre little fable actually begins among the mansions of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. I hesitate to delve too deeply into the plot — I’d hate to spoil it for you — but a brief synopsis is probably in order:

The Story

Keawe, a young kanaka (as native Hawaiians were known in those days), shows up in San Francisco and buys a strange little bottle from a wealthy, sad-eyed gentleman. A hideous imp trapped inside the bottle has the power to grant every wish and desire of whoever owns it. True to the tale’s fairytale form, though, there’s a devilishly clever catch — why else would the gentleman wish to sell the article responsible for his vast fortune? The bottle must always be sold for less than the price it was purchased for. It may not be thrown or given away – a proposition which Keawe carefully tests — and if the owner dies without having sold it, “he must burn in hell for ever.”

The bottle was said to have been brought to Earth by the Devil and first purchased by Prester John for millions of dollars; as it passed from hand to hand, the price always decreasing, the imp brought fame, fortune and power to men like Napoleon and Captain James Cook. At the beginning of Stevenson’s tale the price has diminished to a mere eighty dollars, and by the end, well — this provides the crux of the Keawe’s dilemma.

It’s a great story, but San Francisco makes only a brief appearance. As Keawe wanders up from the port in the first pages, he looks around him and observes,

“This is a fine town, with a fine harbour, and rich people uncountable; and in particular, there is one hill which is covered with palaces. What fine houses these are! And how happy must those people be who dwell in them, and take no care for the morrow!”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for adventure novels like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but he was a master of horror and the supernatural as well … in his own words, “engaged darkly with an ink bottle.” As an example The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde springs quickly to mind, but short stories such as Markheim and The Body Snatcher also illustrate his ongoing fascination with the subject.

The Nob Hill setting of the first chapter comes from Stevenson’s own San Francisco experience. He lived at a boardinghouse on Bush Street from 1879-80, but — as detailed in “Chinatown Treasure” — he had a propensity for avoiding the Nabobs on the hill. Instead, he spent his time with outsiders — the immigrants of Chinatown. The choosing of a working class non-white for the role of protagonist in the “The Bottle Imp” was no coincidence.


What is it exactly? It’s built like a notebook, with a couple of sheets of green and magenta construction paper sandwiched between its plastic wings … but it can’t really be opened for writing, and on the opposite wing — the Oakland side — there’s a patent number and the tiny word “bookmark”. Bookmark it is!

The side pictured shows a line drawing of Treasure Island complete with the Port of the Trade Winds in the foreground, a three-masted wooden ship and China Clipper seaplane bobbing in the harbor. The other side shows both Golden Gate and Bay bridges from an eastern aerial perspective, the Oakland Hills visible in the background.

An avalanche of memorabilia was created to memorialize the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island, but though far from being unique, or even especially valuable, it’s still thrilling to hold this little plastic-winged butterfly and somehow feel the 75+ years that have passed since the day it dropped off the assembly line. I’m not really a collector of anything but stories, but this thing really is a tiny treasure.

Juliana from (a Sparkletack listener and fellow radiophile) just thought I’d enjoy this memento of the City of Light, and mailed it in. Thanks, I do indeed.

An email showed up last week which I found impossible to overlook, beginning as it did with the words “Hail, Sparkletack!” Clearly a writer of taste and intelligence!

But wait — could a person of “taste and intelligence” be responsible for words like these?:

Here’s the tale of three typically offbeat San Franciscans who do just that. Bay Time Detective Mikki Bingo moonlights at Lusty Lady and volunteer cooks at Glide. Mikki’s sole employee is Pete Bingo, her inventively incompetent grandfather. Their client, Sharky Bate, is a gazillion year old hip-hop bottom fish who flip-flops from petrified to putrefied. Stumbling through epic timequakes, our titanic trio pits wits with nefarious foes in their unending quest for truth, “justice” and a truly affordable apartment.

Mark Pritchard over at San Francisco Metroblog has alerted us to a fabulous new Flickr find; a 1938 street map of San Francisco in vivid pinks, blues, and greens.

And why fabulous? In 1938 there are no freeways yet in sight. Lefty O’Doul’s Seals Stadium is still in place — as are the Sutro Baths. Lafayette Park is not yet whole. Calvary and Laurel Hill cemeteries still occupy Lone Mountain. Treasure Island is still the future site of the World’s Fair, and Mission Rock is still an island.

Feast your eyes, my friends, because that’s just the beginning — and a high-resolution version is available too. On behalf of the whole city, thanks to the intrepid map scanner Octoferret.

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