Just plain cool

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


This is spectacular.

Twenty-four hours of San Francisco are compressed into less than three minutes of time-lapse video, gorgeously captured from the hills above Sausalito. The city and bay spend most of the day almost buried by a dramatically roiling mass of fog, which finally whisks itself out to sea to reveal the sparkling lights of the nighttime skyline.


It’s a little odd to see the fog pouring out of the bay — as every shivering tourist on the Golden Gate Bridge can attest, it normally flows in from the Pacific, running west to east. For more on where our fog comes from, along with a few romantic musings on the subject, check out my “Fog City” podcast from a couple of years back.

A live feed from the cameras of Hi Def-San Francisco is also available. Here are some of the geeky-cool details of this ongoing project:

Hi-Def San Francisco is project of CloudView Photography. The camera is a 3 megapixel StartDot Technologies Netcam XL mounted in a weather proof enclosure high in the hills of Sausalito. Images are captured every 60 seconds cropped from the full resolution to 1920×1080 and uploaded in 480, 720 and 1080 resolution to the web server. Periodically the software (running on a FreeBSD server) creates a time lapse that collapses the prior 24 hours into 144 seconds of video.

thanks for the tip: Laughing Squid

Researching San Francisco history means spending way too much time sitting in the dark. In the library, I mean, staring at microfilm of old newspapers. Hours of scanning those scratched and blurry archives makes me a little punchy, so I blinked and rubbed my eyes at this gruesome headline from the February 13, 1902 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I wondered momentarily if it was a prescient comment on the state of contemporary San Francisco baseball, then lapsed into a reverie about the fate of urchin ‘Bricky’ Sylva.

It was just so weirdly entertaining that I had to share it — first at SFist.com, and now at here at Sparkletack:

bone bat

Boys of Russian Hill Put Their Discovery to Queer Use

When John Doe and Richard Roe laid themselves down to dreamless sleep they little suspected that the urchins of Russian Hill would be using their leg bones as ball bats and their hollow skulls as balls, but that is precisely what occurred last night. Residents of the vicinity of Leavenworth and Broadway going home to dinner were treated to a choice assortment of cold shivers at the sight of the national game being played with the grisly loot from a tomb. Half a dozen boys were making long drives of the ball to center filed with resounding thwacks from the long bones, the femur and fibula radius and ulna humerus. Between times two yellow skulls would be tossed to the batters, and the fun characteristic of the reverence of the North American youth, waxed warm until a policeman swooped down upon the players.


San Francisco is following me around.

You know what I mean — it probably happens to you too: wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, something pops up to bring your attention back to the City Formerly Known as Yerba Buena.

Which brings me to my point: I’m in the midst of a short trip to coastal Oregon, visiting the uncle of my Lady Friend. He and his wife live in a fabulous little cabin in the mountains outside of Creswell, tucked into the foothills of the Coast Range — hundreds of miles from San Francisco.

As I woke up this morning I was greeted by the pattering of rain and the aroma of a freshly brewed pot of Yerba Buena tea. Yerba Buena! If that name doesn’t ring a Bay Area bell, you just haven’t been paying attention!


The results of the Sparkletack “favourite episode poll” are in!

Okay, they’ve been in for a month already — but it isn’t as if the dominance of Emperor Norton is something that’s going to go stale … or even come as a real surprise. One hundred and twenty-seven years after his passing, the “Emperor of San Francisco and Protector of Mexico” continues his undisputed reign over the imaginations of San Franciscans.

In celebration of Abraham Norton’s Sparkletack victory, I offer a photo of the Emperor attempting to add mastery of nineteenth-century technology to his arsenal of political skills.

Incidentally, this moody portrait was taken by the legendary photographer Eadweard Muybridge. To modern eyes, it suggests an obvious question: why the heck hasn’t Emperor Norton been adopted as the Patron Saint of Critical Mass?

Make no mistake, though, the Sparkletack poll was a very close contest. Rounding out the top five finishers, and trailing the Emperor by just a handful of percentage points, we have:

Thanks to everyone who made his or her virtual voice heard! And never fear, the next Sparkletack episode, which I hope will become your new favourite, is on the way.

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 outloudradio.org (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.

Dearest San Francisco History Center,

I have longed to write to you for so long, but it has taken me months to work up the nerve.

If only you could appreciate how wonderful you are. Here’s what you reveal about yourself on the official website, so typically demure and self-effacing:

The Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center contains a research collection of books, newspapers and magazines, photographs, maps, posters, archives and manuscript collections, and ephemera, documenting all aspects of San Francisco life and history. The Center is also the official archives for the City and County of San Francisco.

Coyly, you neglect to tell the world what real treasures await inside the walls of your sixth floor Civic Center aerie. Whether the approaching suitor is a scholar or just a Curious George citizen, you, dear History Center, already know the answers to their questions.


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.

An amazing 63 episodes of Sparkletack have floated out into the digital ether so far — 64 if you count the infamous “Trolls” episode. That’s well over two years of storytelling, and though I’ve read some fantastic individual comments, I don’t have a good sense of which stories you like the best.

The style of Sparkletack has changed significantly over the years, with the depth of the research and (I hope!) the quality of the storytelling gradually improving. I could just guess which ones have really made an impression on you, but why speculate when I can just ask?

For me it’s a “which is your favourite child” kind of question — impossible to say! I have no doubt that you have an opinion, though… and I can’t wait to find out. Cast your vote below…


I’m addicted to the “moving images” section of the Internet Archive — particularly the Prelinger Archives, recently absorbed into the Library of Congress. This massive collection of “ephemeral films”, a term which covers just about anything not made for commercial entertainment (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) is a fantastic source for unexpected historical treasures.

I’ve found all manner of fascinating clips here, from documentaries about 50s-era juvenile delinquents to home movies of the ’39 World’s Fair — about 2000 are online. A nice documentary introduction to the film archive actually narrated by Rick Prelinger (a San Franciscan!) can be found here — well worth a look.

Since I can’t seem to stay away from this stuff, I will share it, starting with…


File this under cheap and geeky thrills: full-size photocopies of old San Francisco maps for pocket change!

I got a hot tip about this from a friend of mine several years ago, but with my usual alacrity, didn’t follow it up until this week! Kevin works in the public housing industry, and often has occasion to visit San Francisco’s Department of Public Works — specifically the Bureau of Street Use & Mapping. Your average citizen would not stumble into room 460 of 875 Stevenson Street by accident, but if said citizen did so, he or she would find flourescent lighting, helpful employees, and a couple of large black and white maps affixed to the wall opposite the front counter. (note: address has changed – see below)


The buzz over recently exposed timbers of the “King Philip”, a clipper ship which foundered at Ocean Beach in 1878, got me thinking about San Francisco’s legacy of maritime corpses — especially those which ended up becoming part of the foundation of the city. I’m talking about the ships buried underneath downtown San Francisco.

One way trip

Hordes of souls poured into Yerba Buena (As San Francisco was then known) in pursuit of gold, the vast majority arriving by ship — and for many of these watercraft the Gold Rush proved to be a one-way trip. By the end of 1850 over 500 were floating in the harbor, with countless more arriving every day. Their crews were only human, of course, and — hardly immune to the lust for gold — many simply abandoned ship and headed for the hills. The harbor in Yerba Buena Cove was soon choked with abandoned vessels being scavenged for lumber, rotting, and gradually sinking into the bay, forming the bulk of the landfill upon which modern downtown San Francisco is built.


My long-time supporter Michael Roberts sent an email several months ago that absolutely made my day:

After listening to your podcasts for the last six months, I couldn’t wait any longer and took a trip to the city so that I could experience some of your “brand” of history.

He’s in good company. This isn’t the first time a listener has been inspired by the show to book a flight and visit San Francisco. But Michael actually toured the city using his favourite Sparkletack episodes as a kind of audio guidebook. Attached to his email to me was a batch of photos from the trip — he’d documented the site of each episode with a digital snapshot.

This is just plain cool — thanks to Michael for letting me share this with the rest of the Sparkletack world.

Sparkletack Inspiration

#23: the Wave Organ
view towards the Marina

#52: Adolph Sutro
Sutro Baths at Lands End

#16: San Francisco Pyramid
Trans-America Pyramid

#35: Birth of San Francisco
Portsmouth Square

#13: Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Julius Castle – Telegraph Hill

#55: Caruso, the Palace, and the 1906 Earthquake
Palace Hotel – Market Street

#56: Lotta Crabtree
Lotta’s Fountain – Market Street

#42: Alexander Leidesdorff
grave marker – Mission Dolores

#15: Golden Gate Bridge and Suicide
Golden Gate Bridge

#46: San Francisco Fortune Cookie
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

#18: Lillie Coit
Coit Tower – Telegraph Hill

#33: Andrew Hallidie
Cable Car Museum – Nob Hill

#19: San Francisco Burrito
Taqueria Cancun – Mission Street

#20: Fog City
Golden Gate Bridge


random episode from the archives:
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I have more than a passing interest in transportation and urban infrastructure issues — not because I have any expertise in the subject, mind you — I just find it fascinating to ponder the way technology and movement have shaped our surroundings.

Craig Butz, a listener of mine, feels the same way. While examining his neighborhead from the aerial vantage of GoogleEarth, he noticed what seemed like the remnants of an old railroad course — blocks cut apart in strange ways, angular buildings and so on — all throughout the Mission district:

“I did a little walking around and found that when you’re looking for it, there are so many hints about the railroad right-of-way, many too small to see in google earth. Across from Juri Commons there’s some diagonal curb in the sidewalk. A couple of stores by McDonald’s at 24th and Mission have diagonal walls inside. And there are still tracks in the right-of-way by 22nd and Harrison.”

Most of the tracks in the Mission are now gone, but what had Craig spotted were the traces of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which once traveled directly through our fair city.

Craig has put together an amazing graphic combining those GoogleEarth views with a ca. 1900 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, tossing in a few period photographs, and adding explanatory historical text. He sent it to me because he thought (correctly!) that I’d be interested. I’ve had a show about vanished rail lines in San Francisco in mind, but who knows when I’ll get to it… so, with his permission, I thought I’d just share the thing.

Enjoy! (it’s on the largish side, so prepare to wait for a few seconds.)

random episode from the archives:
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