San Francisco history blog

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 The exhibit celebrates Treasure Island’s rich history through a series of hanging panels, including many previously unpublished color photographs.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

amateur traveler podcast

In which I am interviewed by the capable Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast — a wonderful show devoted to travel and travel stories from around the globe.

It was great fun, with graveyards, greasy spoons, and “houses of ill repute” somehow working their way into the conversation — not to mention Alma Spreckels, Diego Rivera, chantey singing, Louie’s Restaurant, the Wave Organ, and more …

I pretty much just let the stream of consciousness flow, describing my usual cock-eyed plan for showing visitors around the City. The result? A loosely structured aural tour of north-western San Francisco, starting on the Great Highway, wrapping around Land’s End, and running out of time somewhere in the Marina District.

I have to admit that — given my tendency for excited babbling about my favourite subject — I listened to the final result with some trepidation, but Chris is a very good interviewer. You can hear how well he moderates the flow with well-placed questions, comments, and (thank goodness) excellent final-cut editing.

Give it a listen here.

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

November 10, 1849:
Gold Rush ships choke Yerba Buena Harbor

san francisco harbor 1851 san francisco harbor 1849

In the closing days of 1848, President Polk sent a message to Congress confirming the discovery of gold in California. This marked the beginning of the gold rush from the east coast.

By June of 1849 there were already about 200 ships floating deserted in the harbor, abandoned by gold-seeking crews. On this date — November 10, 1849 — the Collector of the Port of San Francisco filed an official report stating that since April 1st, 697 ships had already arrived. For the record, 401 of these were American vessels and the remaining 296 had sailed in from foreign shores.

This brings to mind the famous daguerreotypes of Yerba Buena Harbor looking like a burned-out forest of ship masts, but searching for that little item led me serendipitously to another. This next piece is a far more interesting story, and one that took place just seven years later.

November 15, 1856:
Mary Ann Patten, Heroine of Cape Horn

It was the era of the tall-masted clipper ship, an era of speed, adventure and danger, with every trip around the Horn a race against time, other ships, and the odds. In late June of 1856, three clippers cleared New York Harbour and set off for the race to San Francisco Bay.

One of these — Neptune’s Car — was captained by Joshua Patten. This was to be Captain Patten’s second voyage on this vessel, the first having been a memorable one.

It had been his maiden command, and he’d made the 15,000-mile trip from New York Harbour round the Horn to the Golden Gate in a mere 100 days, 23 1/2 hours — a time as good or better than the fastest clippers on the water. Even more interesting, the promising young sailor had refused to accept the command until the shipping company allowed him to sail with his new wife, Mary.

Though no one yet knew it, this was to be Mary’s story.

Mary Ann Patten was a slim, dark-haired young woman of nineteen, the daughter of a Boston shipbuilder. Despite what’s been described as her “delicate femininity”, Mary hadn’t hesitated in joining her husband on that first grueling year-long voyage, which charted a course not only to the Golden Gate, but across the Pacific on to Hong Kong, to London, then back across the Atlantic to New England, all the way around the world.


california gold rush - cape horn route

The couple took a few months off, but soon it was time again to sail. This time, Captain Patten was planning to set a speed record to San Francisco — and so was the shipping company. In fact, they’d given Patten strict orders that “under no circumstances was the ship to be taken into any other port than San Francisco.” This emphasis on speed was more than a matter of bragging rights; if your ship was the fastest, you ended up with the fattest contracts — this was a simple economic fact.

Captain Patten’s personal lust for speed was such that he’d already developed a reputation for running up maximum sail no matter what the weather, described as “prone to keep as much sail aloft as he could right up to the point of disaster”

The first mate on this voyage disagreed with this daring strategy. In fact, he disagreed with just about every order the young Captain gave. On the night watch, as Patten slept, the first mate arbitrarily pulled down the sails, talked trash to the rest of the crew, and even began sleeping on the job.

Reports later characterized his behaviour as “sullenness and neglect of duty”, and the Captain was forced to toss the man into the brig. The timing could not have been worse. The ship had just entered the cold, violent waters near Cape Horn, and the second mate was no navigator.

Under the circumstances, sleep became a luxury that Captain Patten could no longer grant himself, so he propped his eyelids open and piloted the clipper around the clock.

A Doomed Voyage

flying cloud clipper

Fatigue gradually ground away the already-weary man’s strength, and as Neptune’s Car passed through the Straits of Le Maire, Patten collapsed, struck down by the Victorian period’s favourite all-purpose malady — “brain fever“.

With the first mate locked away, and the second mate incompetent to navigate, Neptune’s Car was doomed.

Or was it?

On Joshua and Mary Patten’s first round-the-world voyage, the stretch across the Pacific to Hong Kong had been mind-numbingly slow. In San Francisco, Neptune’s Car had been challenged to another race, but with virtually no wind in the sails, the contest had become more of “a drifting match”.

The ship was becalmed for weeks at a time, and the intelligent and curious Mary was bored out of her mind. At her wit’s end, she began to pass the time by learning her husband’s trade. Boxing the compass. Using a sextant to determine latitude. Understanding maps and navigational tables, interpreting charts of wind patterns and currents. By the time they returned to New England, the girl knew just about as much about sailing as her husband.

Captain Mary

around Cape Horn

And so it came to pass, in the midst of howling winds, creaking masts and with 60-foot waves crashing over the freezing decks, 19-year-old Mary Ann Patten took sole command of the massive clipper.

From the brig, the first mate began to incite mutiny, demanding that the crew steer the ship as best they could to the nearest port. Mary assembled the men on the quarter-deck and made her case. She informed them of the seriousness of her husband’s condition, of her own recent mastery of the art of navigation, and of the shipping company’s orders to sail on to San Francisco.

We’ll never know precisely how she pulled this off, how this petticoat-wearing slip of a girl gained the confidence of a hard-bitten group of professional sailors — but to a man, they swore to stand by her, all the way to the Golden Gate.

For the next month and a half, Mary didn’t sleep, barely ate, and hadn’t even time to change her clothes. As waves battered the ship, she divided her days and nights between giving orders and making nautical observations up on deck, making meticulous navigational calculations in her cabin, and tending to her delirious husband. By this point, despite Mary’s frantic examination of the ship’s medical library, Captain Patten had lost his sight and hearing.

A month and a half, fifty long, incredibly difficult days on the roughest seas on the planet. And have I mentioned that she was six months pregnant?

Though this story still seems amazing, the crew supported Mary’s command completely, following every order to the letter and trusting her judgement unconditionally — and their trust was finally proven to be well-placed.

Imperishable Fame

san francisco harbor 1857

On November 15th, 1856, Neptune’s Car arrived safely in the waters outside of San Francisco Bay. Mary Ann Patten had not only charted a perfect course, but in the race from New York Harbour — remember that? — she’d actually come in second place, beating the third ship by weeks.

The act of actually sailing through the Golden Gate was a notoriously tricky business, but Mary was now a confident woman of the sea; as San Francisco newspapers told it, with a steady hand “she took the helm herself and steered the vessel safely into port.”

Gold Rush San Francisco went wild with excitement over Mary’s heroic achievement, with newspapers naming her the “Heroine of Cape Horn,” and the “Florence Nightingale of the Ocean.” News of her exploits made it back to New England, and the New York Daily Tribune described her as being “among the noble band of women who, by their heroic bearing, under great trial and suffering, have won for themselves imperishable fame”

Storybook Ending

I’d love to give you a Hollywood happy ending to this stirring tale, but it just can’t be done. The mutinous first mate escaped into the wilds of frontier San Francisco. Captain Patten died of his illness. And Mary — the woman who had defied the expectations of her gender, of Victorian culture, and challenged the ocean itself, died alone and — despite that “imperishable fame” — destitute, just a few years later.

I’m feeling a little sentimental, now, so let me propose a toast to her memory; “To Mary, the Heroine of Cape Horn”.

For further edification:

“The Era of the Clipper Ships” by Donald Ross, a special-edition work detailing not only Mary Patten’s story, but the entire fabulous era of the Clippers. Great stuff!

“The Captain’s Wife”, a fictionalized account of Mary Ann Patten’s story by Douglas Kelley — I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews are terrific.

The obsessions that San Francisco provokes are a clear measure of the city’s seductively nutty power.

This video takes the biscuit; a Rube Goldberg toothpick vision of San Francisco — constructed during the course of 35 years from over 100,000 toothpicks.

And some glue.

What’s even crazier is that the whole thing is basically a gigantic game of “Mousetrap” — drop a ball into the top of Coit Tower and it takes you on a tour of the whoooole town, cable cars, Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and all … this thing has to be seen to be believed.

And as to the motivation behind this fantastic kinetic confection, let me quote the Rohnert Park contraption-builder-in-chief, Scott Weaver:

“for no reason … just to build it so that people will go ‘wow’ … or ‘why'”.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

November 7, 1595:
The accidental naming of San Francisco Bay

Spanish galleon - Cermeno

All right. Let’s get serious about going back in time, way, way, WAY back, 413 years into the past.

How can this even be related to San Francisco, you ask? Well, it isn’t, but then again, yes it is — the first of a long chain of events leading up to the naming of our fair city.

Here’s how it began: Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño was dispatched by the Spanish to sail up the coast of Alta California and find a safe harbour for the pirate-harassed galleons sailing between New Spain and the Philippines.

A violent storm off of what would one day be named Point Reyes forced him to head for shore — yup, “any port in a storm” — and his ship fetched up in Drake’s Bay. He’d missed discovering the Golden Gate by just a few miles.

Cermeño’s ship, the “San Agustin”, ran aground, destroying it — and the loyal captain claimed that ground for Spain. Not knowing that Sir Francis Drake had shown up in the same spot 16 years earlier — or so we think — Cermeño named the bay “Puerto de San Francisco”.

The industrious Cermeño and his crew salvaged a small launch from the wreckage and sailed it all the way back down to Baja California, incidentally discovering San Diego’s bay along the way.

But how does this relate to our bay?

Well, almost 200 years later, scouts from the Spanish mission-building expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junipero Serra discovered the Golden Gate from the land side. Mistaking it for the body of water named by Cermeño, they called it San Francisco Bay — and this time, the name stuck.

November 3, 1910:
“Kolb and Dill” — vaudeville comedians

kolb and dill san francisco

A short notice appears in the local papers, announcing that the entire theatrical wardrobe of Kolb and Dill — the most popular comedy team in San Francisco — is to be sold at auction.

Clarence Kolb and Max Dill were just a couple of boyhood pals from Cleveland who’d decided to go into show biz. They honed their skills working every vaudeville and burlesque house in the midwest, until — in the gay 1890s — they headed west, discovering San Francisco and an adoring public.

Ethnic stereotypes were the stock in trade of the vaudeville stage. So-called “dialect comedians” played Irish, Jews, Chinese and African-Americans in what are (to most of us) absolutely shudder-inducing ways. Kolb and Dill were of the vaudeville flavour known as a “Double Dutch” act, performing a caricature of Germans as coarse, blustering knockabout oafs in loud checkered suits.

Clarence was tall and skinny, Max short and stout — if you’re thinking Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, you’re on the right track. Wearing their trademark stovepipe hats and puffing cigars, the two mixed dopey faux-Teutonic accents with rowdy, physical, prat-falling slapstick. San Francisco was crazy for vaudeville, had been more or less since birth — remember the Bella Union? — and these two clowns hit the local variety circuit right in the funny-bone.

As attendance boomed, the stage show grew to include musical comedy and (of course) a cast of showgirls, but the “Teutonic Twins” probably reached the pinnacle of their Bay Area popularity in the weeks following the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. In a tent erected in the midst of still smoking Market Street wreckage, Kolb and Dill did their damndest to cheer up the whole town.

But backstage, things were far from cheerful — the two old friends had had a falling out. For some years the two hadn’t exchanged a single word with each other — except onstage.

Finally, even the money wasn’t enough to keep them together. Kolb took Dill to court, and in November of 1910, the judge ordered the partnership dissolved, and the team’s mutual effects put up for auction.

Trunks of costumes, false beards, padding, even a chorus girl’s outfit or two went to the highest bidder, and a bit of doggerel commemorating their divorce appeared in the Oakland Tribune:

“Kolb and Dill went up the hill
To corner all the laughter
But Kolb fell down and broke his crown
And was peevish ever after.”

November 9, 1969:
Alcatraz (pre) Occupation

alcatraz occupation

A chartered boat quietly docks at Alcatraz, the legendary prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The Federal prison had closed down six years before, but the small group of Native Americans on the boat have arrived with something else in mind — they symbolically claim the island for the Indian peoples of North America.

The plan was to draw attention to the plight of the more than 500 American Indian nations in the United States — the poverty, discrimination, the theft of their lands, and — perhaps worst of all — a Federal plan to disband and assimilate the Indian nations through something called the policy of Termination.

The symbolic occupation was planned by a charismatic activist student named Richard Oakes. Oakes was a Mohawk, but since the handful of Native Americans on that boat came from many different nations, they named their group “Indians of All Tribes”, and claimed the island in this name.

The visit was brief, but the mission had been so uneventful, so easy, that the group realized that something a little longer was possible. Two weeks later, a full scale occupation was launched which would last almost two years, in which around 100 people would occupy The Rock, and the famous sign at Ghirardelli Square would flash “Go Indians” . The group on Alcatraz would capture the attention — and the sympathies — of just about the entire country.

The occupation eventually disintegrated under internal and external pressures. But though the immediate demands of the group were never met — the deed to the island, the establishment of an Indian university, cultural center, and museum — as I understand it, the event is seen today as a story of success.

During the occupation President Nixon signed papers rescinding the policy of Termination. Thousands of acres of tribal lands were returned, a wide-ranging package of long-hoped-for Federal reforms were passed, and Indian self-determination became official US government policy.

Millions of Americans faced the plight of Native Americans squarely, most for the first time — and a movement of political consciousness was launched which is still active today.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 28, 1881:
A murder in Chinatown

chinese man with queue

Newspapers, particularly the often very nasty San Francisco Chronicle, were full of anti-Chinese propaganda in the last decades before the turn of the century. Stories dealing with Chinese people were usually over-heated, pretty racist, and sometimes hard to even get through.

This item was short and straightforward, though, and I might have even skipped over it if I hadn’t noticed an article about the very same case in a legal journal. The tiny bit of testimony from the victim in that piece helps capture the flavour of the parallel world of 1880s Chinatown.

Shooting of a Courtesan in Kum Cook Alley

Between 7:30 and 8 o’clock last evening, while Choy Gum, a Chinese courtesan, was bargaining with a fruitdealer in her room on Kum Cook Alley, a Chinaman named Fong Ah Sing walked up to her door and fired a shot at her through the wicket in the portal. The intended murderer then fled, but was captured on Brenham Place by Sergeant T. W. Fields, who took him to the city prison, whither the wounded woman had been conveyed by Officer Maurice Sullivan. An examination by Police Surgeon Stambaugh showed that the ball had entered the right breast, piercing through the right lung and … inflicting a wound which it seems must be fatal.

Choy Gum identified Sing as the person who fired the shot, and stated that it was done on account of some trouble which had occurred last week. The prisoner, who is said by the arresting officer to be the head man of a notorious highbinders’ society, was charged with assault to murder.

chinese men reading tong signs

Some terminology — highbinders’ society refers to one of the notorious “Tongs”, Chinatown’s powerful, often criminal, and constantly battling secret societies. The word “highbinder” itself came to refer specifically to hired Tong killers, or “hatchet men”, and — though the etymology is murky — may stem from the hit-man fashion of tying the traditional Chinese braid — the queue — out of the way, up on top of the head.

The Chronicle would have never expended much energy on a story like this, but the 1886 legal journal “Pacific Reporter” notes that Fong Ah Sing was a member of a “highbinder’s society” — the Duck Kong Tong — but certainly not the head man. He was actually just their translator.

There were plenty of witnesses at each of Fong Ah Sing’s two trials ready to swear to both his innocence and guilt. Tong members? We can’t know that, but we do know that the most damning evidence came from his dying victim, a woman who worked at a brothel at which Fong Ah Sing was apparently a customer … and this supplies the motive:

“I don’t know any reason that Fong Ah Sing had for shooting me, unless it was that a few days before the shooting I was bathing my feet upstairs over a room in which (he) was sitting, and spilled a little water on the floor, and it leaked through, and fell upon (him). Fong Ah Sing was very angry thereat, and told the proprietor of the house that I must apologize, and make him some present, to prevent bad luck coming upon the house. The proprietor did make some little present to (him), and I considered the matter settled.”

In Chinatown, 1881 … apparently not.

October 27, 1892:
Starr King monument erected

starr king monument golden gate park

Almost thirty years after the death of the reverend Thomas Starr King, a beautiful granite monument was dedicated to the memory of “the Man Who Saved California for the Union”. For decades afterwards, grateful San Franciscans visit the statue on Memorial Day and wreath it with flowers.

Since I’ve already spent a good hour and a half telling Starr King’s Civil War-era story in a pair of podcasts (numbers 59 and 60), I don’t need to dwell on his years of tireless devotion to the pro-Union cause. I will opine, though, that those flowers were richly deserved, and a tradition that ought to be resuscitated.

The monument stands in Golden Gate Park at the entrance to the Music Concourse — you know, where the Academy of Sciences and De Young Museum are located — and its base bears this inscription:

“In him eloquence, strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellow-men.”

October 31, 1963:
Death of the Black Cat Café

black cat cafe

On Halloween night, the “Black Cat Café” — that notorious, flamboyant and most historically significant of San Francisco’s gay nightspots, held a final celebration before closing down for good.

Though Prohibition had shuttered the venerable North Beach establishment in the ’20s, the Black Cat proudly reopened in 1933. Number 710 Montgomery Street quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, and beatniks. Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Ginsberg all patronized the joint, and in fact, the Black Cat played the role of the “Bohemian Bar” in Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

black cat cafe

Following World War II, a new military policy precipitated the sudden discharge of thousands of gay men into the welcoming arms of our liberal city. The Black Cat became a central gathering place, evolving into a kind of bohemian drag bar, but much more than that; a place where poets, sailors, stevedores and suits could shake off convention, creating a wild sense of revolutionary freedom for gay and straight folks alike.

The San Francisco Police Department began a campaign of organized intimidation, raids, and arrests, and the state suspended the bar’s liquor license. On principle, the (straight) owner took the case to all the way to the California Supreme court, which determined that serving drinks to homosexuals was not a crime — one of the earliest legal affirmations of the rights of gay people in the country.

The state responded with a constitutional amendment creating the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — the “ABC” — giving it broad powers to shut down establishments that didn’t toe a straitlaced line.

black cat cafe

Years of harassment followed, but the Black Cat flourished. The star of the drag show was a certain José Sarria, who eventually — though failing in his bid for a spot on the Board of Supervisors — became the first gay man in the country to run for elective office. The bar had evolved again, into a rallying point for a social and political movement.

By 1963, the owner was too tired and broke to keep up the fight. The ABC yanked the Black Cat’s liquor license for good — and what’s worse, on the night before its famous annual Halloween bash. The boisterous party was held anyway, with soda and juice sold at the bar.

The Black Cat closed down permanently the next day, but even a cursory glance around modern San Francisco will tell you that its legacy lives on.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 24, 1861:
The continent gets wired

transcontinental telegraph utah

The transcontinental telegraph line is finished, literally uniting the United States by wire just as the country was disintegrating into Civil War.

Just before the shooting started, Congress had offered a substantial bribe (known as a subsidy) to any company agreeing to take on the seemingly impossible project — a hare-brained plan to hang a thin wire on poles marching hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, up the Rockies, and into the Wild West.

Work began in June of 1861. Just like the transcontinental railroad a few years later, one section started in the east, one in the west, with the goal of linking up in Utah.

pony express telegraph

The two crews worked their ways toward Salt Lake City for six long months, following the route established less than a year and a half earlier by the Pony Express. It was an epic struggle. Thousands of poles were planted in scorching heat and freezing snow, and the workers negotiated not only with the hostile elements, but with Native Americans and Mormons.

James Gamble, the man under whose supervision the western half of the project was completed, gives this report of the very first transcontinental telegram.

“The great work, which had been … agitated so many years, both on this coast, in the East, and in Congress, was completed … It had been proposed to get up a celebration in honor of such an important event, but owing to the uncertainty as to the exact time when the line would be completed, no preparation had been made. The employees of the company who stood around, manifested the greatest anxiety, watching the first click of the instrument across the continent. At last it came and read as follows:


A more significant telegram, and the one that actually made history, was sent later that day — assuring president Abraham Lincoln that California was loyal to the Union.

The Pony Express, which had faithfully supplied San Francisco with news of the telegraph’s progress, never ran again.

October 20, 1880:
“A Hoodlum Raid”

Barbary Coast hoodlum

Sometimes it’s best to let the past speak in its own words, and even better, on subjects that aren’t going to show up in history books. Here’s an item from an 1880’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, written at a time when the lively iniquities of the Barbary Coast were in fullest swing. The gang of “hoodlums” involved are the very kids who gave rise to that homegrown slang — in fact, it appears right in the headline:

A Hoodlum Raid — How they Swindled a Cheap Coffee House

Last night, after the dives had discharged their sweltering and depraved patrons into the streets, a gang of young hoodlums invaded a Market-street coffee-house. The oldest of the gamins might have been 16, but in rascality he was an octogenarian. The crowd occupied six tables, and for fifteen minutes made the establishment ring with the clatter of their cups and saucers. Having grave doubts of the solvency of the gang, the restaurateur kept a watchful eye on the young scamps, and was not reassured by seeing them slip out, one by one, with the remark, “Them fellers at the last table will pay for it.”

Finally, after about $3 worth of coffee and doughnuts had been disposed of, the alleged cashiers of the crowd began to move. Two walked out, and the third, a sturdy young rascal, coolly sauntered up to the counter and, helping himself to a toothpick, started for the door. “Here,” said the coffee man, “who’s going to pay for this?”

The young (hoodlum) affected the most intense surprise. “Ain’t Crusty paid for it?” he asked. On being assured that Crusty had done nothing so uncharacteristic, he had a spasm of virtuous indignation, which was aggravated by catching sight of the absconding financier on the sidewalk. “Here Crusty,” he cried, “come in and settle fur this. You won’t? Why you dirty etc., etc., etc., I’ll knock the fool-(tar) out of you.” and he rushed at the delinquent to punish him summarily. The moment he got over the threshold “Crusty” gave a whoop, and before the poor coffee man had recovered from his astonishment the whole gang was scampering round the nearest corner.

Investigation showed that they had taken all the spoons and knives with them.

San Francisco Chronicle — October 20, 1880

October 22, 1988:
San Francisco’s literary streets

mark twain street sign

In a ceremony held at City Lights Bookstore, the City of San Francisco renames 12 streets for locally renowned artists and authors. I’ll just tear through them here, but let me tell you, you could do worse than to make this your reading list for the upcoming year:

  • Frank Norris, the turn of the century Berkeley undergrad who produced both the brutally naturalist McTeague and the critique of monopoly capitalism The Octopus;
  • And last but most certainly not least, Mr. Samuel Clemens, local newsman, failed gold miner, teller of tall tales and American Original, commemorated in San Francisco under his pen name, Mark Twain.

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

October 18, 1850:
San Francisco celebrates California’s admission to the Union

san francisco 1851

On this date, after endless politicking and interminable delay, the mail ship Oregon steamed into San Francisco harbor with the news that California had been admitted to the Union.

The reaction of San Francisco’s 25,000 citizens is something I’ll allow the Daily Alta California to report:

“Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark’s Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay.

“Again and again were huzzas repeated, adding more and more every moment to the intense excitement and unprecedented enthusiasm. Every public place was soon crowded with eager seekers after the particulars of the news, and the first papers issued an hour after the appearance of the Oregon were sold by the newsboys (for as much as) five dollars each.

The enthusiasm increased as the day advanced. Flags of every nation were run up on a thousand masts … , and a couple of large guns placed upon the plaza were constantly discharged. At night every public thoroughfare was crowded with the rejoicing populace. Almost every large building, all the public saloons and places of amusement were brilliantly illuminated — music from a hundred bands assisted the excitement — numerous balls and parties were hastily got up — bonfires blazed upon the hills, and rockets were incessantly thrown into the air, until the dawn of the following day.

Many difficulties had occurred to delay this happy event, and the people had become sick at heart with the “hope deferred” of calling themselves, and of being in reality citizens of the great American Union.”

October 15, 1863:
Cliff House opens — first of many!

first san francisco cliffhouse 1863

The first Cliff House opened its doors on this date 145 years ago. The brainchild of a real estate speculator and a State Senator, this first of umpteen incarnations was a simple white clapboard affair. Despite its external modesty, it was a high-class joint, and quickly became the most fashionable destination in town. Presidents Ulysses Grant and Rutherford B Hayes would number among its many distinguished guests over the years, but I choose to look to Sam Clemens for an on-the-spot review, reported for the San Francisco Call just weeks after the place opened:

“Then there’s the Cliff House, perched on the very brink of the ocean, like a castle by the Rhine, with countless sea-lions rolling their unwieldy bulks on the rocks … Steamers and sailing craft are passing, wild fowl scream … (and) the waves roll into breakers, foam and spray, for five miles along the beach, beautiful and grand … the appetite is whetted by the drive and the breeze, the ocean’s presence wins you into a happy frame, and you can eat one of the best dinners with the hungry relish of an ostrich.

“Go to the Cliff House. Go ere the winds get too fresh, and if you like, you may come back by Mountain Lake and the Presidio, overlook the Fort, and bow to the Stars and Stripes as you pass.”

The Cliff House was exclusive because it was hard to reach — an expensive toll road and access to a horse and carriage were the only way out to Land’s End. When public transportation eventually improved in the 1880s, the toney crowd sought other playgrounds. The restaurant and its reputation fell into a steep decline, and after a 30-year run, this first San Francisco Cliff House burned right to the ground.

October 18, 1970:
Dedication of the Chinatown gate

san francisco chinatown gate

The famous gateway to Chinatown — you know the one at Bush and Grant, guarded by fou lions, and surmounted by a couple of dragons — was installed and officially dedicated.

The gate is a paifang. These are markers historically denoting the entrance to a building complex or town, and those evil-spirit-thwarting fou lions are a typical part of the program. Thanks largely to gifts given by the Republic of China (that’s Taiwan to you), these gates have become symbols of Chinatowns all over the world. Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, and countless others acquired their own neighborhood markers this way.

san francisco chinatown gate fou lion

In San Francisco’s case, Taiwan provided materials for the gate, but the design was dreamed up by Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee, whose design apparently won a contest in the late 1960s.

The two-tiered, pagoda-style structure was built according to principles of feng shui, which dictate (among other things) that a city’s grandest gate must face south, and — though somewhat dwarfed by the larger buildings around it — that it does.

A wooden plaque hangs from the central archway, on which stand gilded characters rendering a quote from the “Father of Modern China”, the revered revolutionary leader (and one-time Chinatown resident) Dr. Sun Yat-sen:


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

October 9, 1776:
Dedication of the Mission Dolores

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.

Mission Dolores plaque

The location had been selected by a scouting party sent north by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, spearheading a Spanish drive to explore and settle New Spain’s northern frontier.

Father Pedro Font, a member of the expedition, wrote poetically about the site in his journals:

“We … came upon two lagoons and several springs of good water, meanwhile encountering much grass, fennel and other good herbs. … We arrived at a lovely creek, which because it was the Friday of Sorrows, we called the Arroyo de los Dolores…. On the banks of the Arroyo … we discovered many fragrant chamomiles and other herbs, and many wild violets. Near the streamlet the lieutenant planted a little corn and some garbanzos in order to try out the soil, which to us appeared good. As for me, I judged that this place was very fine, and the best for establishing on it one of the … missions….”

The creek and lagoon have long since vanished, drunk dry and buried under asphalt and concrete, but the name lingers on, applied to the Mission, to the palm-treed street out front, and to countless other Mission District locations: “Dolores”.

October 8, 1865:
The great earthquake of 1865

san francisco earthquake 1865

It was just after noon on a sleepy Sunday, when suddenly, out of the clear October sky, it struck: The Great San Francisco Earthquake!

Those of you who’ve heard to the Sparkletack episode in which Sam Clemens recounts his experience of the original Big One already know whereof I speak, but for the uninitiated — this “Great San Francisco Earthquake” happened in 1865. And even though that title would fade just three years later when a much bigger quake hit, and of course would disappear altogether when the 1906 monster laid waste to the city, the 1865 shaker was a pretty good one.

Here’s how Sam Clemens remembered it in his pseudo-memoir Roughing It“:

“As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar, and it occurred to me that here was an item!–no doubt a fight in that house. Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. I knew what it was now… a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke!”

The local “Alta California” called it “one of the heaviest Shocks ever felt in the vicinity by “the oldest Inhabitants”, and the headline in the New York Times read “GREAT EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA.; Two Tremendous Shocks within Half a Minute. All the Bells in San Francisco Set Ringing by the Motion. Trifling Injury to Property, and No Lives Lost.”

City Hall was badly damaged. Fissures up to 3 inches wide opened in the ground, chimneys fell, walls cracked open, cornices plummeted to the pavement, and many brick structures were so badly damaged that they had to be knocked down — all of these effects amplified, of course, in the “new” areas of San Francisco, those recently created by filling the Bay.

In fact it was this very quake which finally — after dozens of shocks since the founding of Yerba Buena in 1835 — led to San Francisco’s first attempts to make buildings earthquake-proof.

October 11, 1965:
Rest in peace: Dorothea Lange

dorothea lange car

Dorothea Lange, the celebrated Depression-era documentary photographer, died in San Francisco today at the age of 70.

After starting her career in New York, Lange set off with her camera to travel the country. She apparently got stranded in San Francisco, but decided to stay, and opened a portrait studio here in 1918.

With the onslaught of the Great Depression, Lange turned her attention from the drawing room to the street — and her stark but compassionate portraits of poverty in our fair city soon led to New Deal federal employment. The “Farm Security Administration” sent Dorothea into the Dust Bowl to document the plight of America’s suffering farm families and migrant workers.

lange - migrant mother

The Feds made the resultant searing and intimate work available to newspapers free of charge, and the photos became icons of the Depression. These images profoundly influenced modern documentary photography, and make up the body of work for which she’s best remembered today.

Lange traveled widely, but made the Bay Area her permanent home, a base from which she focused her documentary lens on challenging subjects ranging from the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans, to the founding of the United Nations.

Her catalog speaks for itself, and you can see the entire collection at the Oakland Museum of California. I’ll leave you with this thought about what makes photography “good” from Dorothea herself:

“The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects. So that no one would say, ‘how did you do it, where did you find it’, but they would say that such things could be.”

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!

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.

Before that plunge into the waters of the Golden Gate there had been no swimming on Blackie’s professional resume. He had originally arrived in California as a rodeo horse, and after surviving that career joined the Army. He was stabled out at the Presidio, but headed out to Yosemite every spring as part of the park patrol.

Shortly after his famous Golden Gate crossing, Blackie retired from working life, and was put out to pasture in the north bay town of Tiburon. He found a particular spot to his liking in this verdant new home and stood there, rarely moving a muscle, for the next 28 years. He became a fixture of the neighborhood, often visited with gifts of sugarcubes. When Blackie finally passed, Tiburon’s unofficial mascot was buried in the pasture.

A life-sized sculpture of Blackie now stands right there, his old home now known as “Blackie’s Pasture Park”. You may pay him your respects, if you like, at the corner of Tiburon Boulevard and Trestle Glen Road.

October 1, 1964:
Cable cars declared national landmark

San Francisco cable car

It was on this day that the clanking, screeching, bell-ringing symbols of San Francisco — that’s right, cable cars — were declared a special rolling National Landmark, #66000233.

This marked an incredible reversal of fortune for our colorful trolley system, which the City had attempted to banish from the hills not twenty years earlier.

It was an especially poignant moment for the “Cable Car Lady” Friedell Klussman, whose outrage at the City’s 1947 eradication plan had led her to form the “Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars”. Mrs. Klussman’s single-minded determination is the number one reason that lucky tourists can still wait in hour-long lines at the Powell Street Turnaround.

October 2, 1967:
Grateful Dead house raided, man

grateful dead 1967 drug bust

As the rapturous 1967 Summer of Love faded into autumn, the communal home of the Grateful Dead — the Haight-Ashbury district’s unofficial City Hall — was raided by San Francisco’s finest.

The Grateful Dead provided the perfect symbol of the long-haired, drug- and music-fueled ecstatically rebellious freedom promised by the psychedelic movement, and their 3-story Victorian at 710 Ashbury Street had already become a regular stop on the Grayline “Hippie Hop” bus tour. I suppose the buzz-cut boys in blue just couldn’t help themselves.

Despite the neighborhood being flooded with acid — LSD had been made illegal almost exactly one year earlier — the raid netted nothing but a tiny bag of marijuana. That was enough to justify arresting every soul on the premises, though — including, ironically enough, the only non-pot-smoking members of the band — Bob Weir and “Pigpen” McKernan. Jerry Garcia managed to avoid the bust by being out at the time, shopping for “groceries”.

The Dead would pack up and split for Marin shortly after the bust. Before hitting the road, and with just two hours to set the whole thing up, the band staged a free farewell show on Haight Street, completely blocking traffic with a flatbed truck and several hours of happy tripping chaos.

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

September 24, 1855:
The head of Joaquin Murietta

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.

joaquin murieta wanted poster

The backstory-legend of the man known as the “Mexican Robin Hood” sprouted from a fictional account written after his death. This novel spun the tale of a Mexican nobleman whose wife was raped, brother hung, and he himself horsewhipped by a group of white miners — and a racist court system which allowed no Mexican to testify against them.

Murieta vowed to avenge his family’s dishonour himself, and with a small group tracked down and killed all six attackers. Since this act had turned his gang into outlaws, so the story goes, a life of crime was the natural consequence.

Murieta’s head, preserved in a jar, became a lucrative public attraction, until the public’s fancy turned to other affairs. While alive, the reward for his capture had risen as high as $5000. At auction, the pickled head of the outlaw brought a mere 36 bucks.

September 29, 1923:
Crookedest street in the world opens

The Crookedest Street in the World

The 1000 block of Lombard Street, which famously claims the title of “crookedest street in the world”, was once rarely used, straight as an arrow, paved in cobblestones and climbed Russian Hill at a startlingly steep 27% grade!

In 1922, a man who owned several lots on the block proposed the switchback design to make the street accessible to automobiles, and raise his property values. The city of San Francisco spent $8000 on the project, requiring property owners to pay for the fancy brick steps that run along the verge, to maintain the spectacular plants and flowers in the median and to install and maintain light fixtures.

The newly crooked street opened this week in 1923 — but it didn’t become a tourist attraction until the early ’60s, when a photo of the street (flowers in full bloom) appeared on a postcard. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, and the rest is history.

At the risk of creating a new tourist mecca, I will reveal what many San Franciscans already know — namely that the crookedest street in the world is not Lombard at all, but the steeper and crookeder (crookeder?) 800 block of Vermont Street on Potrero Hill.

September 29, 1923:
Steinhart Aquarium opens

steinhart aquarium opening 1923

On the same 1923 day as Lombard Street opened across town, the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park opened its sculpted bronze doors to the public. For the next thirty years, it would be the most outstanding aquarium in Western North America.

Ignatz Steinhart was a wealthy entrepreneur, and, I presume, a great lover of fish. He donated the money to build the place in honour of his deceased brother Sigmund.

The aquarium was designed by San Francisco architect Lewis Hobart, known for a couple dozen other little projects such as the Bohemian Club, Grace Cathedral, and that fabulous Union 76 clock tower at the foot of the Bay Bridge — the one destroyed by Bank of America back in the ’90s.

seahorse railing steinhart aquarium

Everybody’s favourite part of the aquarium was probably that gorgeous bronze sea horse railing around the alligator pit. That railing, along with the doors, were sculpted by San Francisco artist Edgar Walters — also responsible for the beautiful sculpture above the entrance to the PG&E building at 245 Market Street.

Interestingly, after a 4-year rebuilding project which saw the Academy temporarily relocated downtown, the whole California Academy of Sciences will re-open in Golden Gate Park on September 27. That’s this very week, exactly two days short of the 85th anniversary of the aquarium’s original dedication. C’mon, couldn’t they have waited two days to make it come even?

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.

September 17th, 1859

San Francisco's Emperor Norton

It somehow seems appropriate to begin with the anniversary of San Francisco’s first encounter with her patron saint:

It was this very week that a neatly dressed and somewhat earnest gentleman entered the Clay Street offices of the San Francisco Bulletin with a piece of paper in his hand. The next day, the headline of the Bulletin asked the citizens of San Francisco a question: “Have We An Emperor Among Us?”

Thus began Joshua Norton’s 21-year reign over an amused and tolerant city — and a mostly unsuspecting United States of America.

After losing a fortune in spectacular fashion five years earlier, the once-prominent businessman had dropped out of sight, re-emerging from self-imposed exile as a destitute but much more interesting character.

Clad in a Union army officer’s coat with tarnished golden epaulets, wearing a battered top hat with an ostrich plume, and carrying a sword and ornate wooden walking stick, Emperor Norton came to be beloved by San Francisco in a way unique to this city — respectfully saluted by policemen, his hand-drawn banknotes honored by the finest restaurants, and a cascade of proclamations and edicts published in the newspapers — beginning with that Bulletin announcement, printed 149 years ago this week:

“At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S., and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Musical Hall of this city on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”

— NORTON I, Emperor of the United States

Though the good Emperor’s sanity has been questioned on more than one occasion, his concerns sound alarmingly contemporary — we miss the stabilizing presence of his eccentric Imperial Majesty now more than ever.

September 17, 1850

San Francisco fourth great fire

A reminder that the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 was just another turn of the wheel for a city already quite accustomed to burning itself down.

On the morning of September 17, 1850, San Francisco’s fourth Great Fire broke out. Great Fire #4 was a minor blaze in the series of six conflagrations which leveled portions of San Francisco in the early years of the Gold Rush.

Four square blocks just north of Portsmouth Square were destroyed, the area between Washington, Pacific, Montgomery and Grant (then DuPont) streets. Luckily, the area had been scorched by Great Fire #3 just a few months earlier, so the typical welter of rickety wooden gambling halls, brothels, and rooming houses hadn’t yet been completely rebuilt.

September 19, 1899

On September 19, 1899, Ringling Bros. Circus made its first appearance in San Francisco, setting up the big top at 16th and Folsom Streets. If the late September scheduling of today’s, um, “carnivalesque” Folsom Street Fair is merely a coincidence, well … I guess you can insert your own joke here.

September 16, 1927

charles lindbergh

Breaking into the 20th century, Charles Lindbergh touched down at what is now San Francisco International Airport at the height of the Jazz Age.

Lindbergh and his gorgeous aluminum aircraft, “The Spirit of St. Louis”, had just made aviation history by completing the first ever solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He was in the midst of a kind of victory lap around the whole country that summer, giving speeches and riding in parades in all 48 states. Hordes of spectators surrounded the runway that day and lined Bayshore Highway just to catch a glimpse of the now world-famous aviator.

September 18, 1939

Western Union messenger boys go on strike, dramatically parading down Market Street and successfully breaking the Depression-era stranglehold of the company union. I don’t know about you, but somehow a scene from “Newsies” is running through my mind — I guess it’s all those little caps.

September 21, 1959

nikita khrushchev

In the heart of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev arrives in San Francisco during an American “friendship visit”. Kruschev remembers San Francisco with special warmth in his memoirs, noting that, in contrast to many other cities in the United States — I’m looking at you, Los Angeles — San Francisco treated the Soviet visitors with politeness and respect.

“There were neither shouts nor gestures, although Americans know how to do such things if they want to show their hostility”.

Kruschev, rather immodestly, later took credit for his visit having helped re-elect his host, Mayor George Christopher. No shoe-banging on this trip … that would have to wait until New York in 1960.

September 17, 1972

streets of san francisco

The no-nonsense TV cop show “Streets of San Francisco” went on the air for a 119 episode, five season run. The father-son-like chemistry between Karl Malden and Michael Douglas combined with location filming in gritty ’70s San Francisco made it a classic. And here’s a little-known fact — one of the many unknown actors popping up in bit parts was California’s future Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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.

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 ( is a wonderful organization, a non-profit passionately dedicated to uncovering and preserving the legacies of San Francisco’s Richmond, Sunset, West of Twin Peaks, and Lake Merced districts.

Woody’s the founder of this group, and — from the early days of eternal sand dunes to the Doggy Diner head — what he doesn’t know about the Sunset is scarcely worth knowing.

The show is great fun, packed with juicy stuff — and if for nothing else, the rare inside peek at one of Carville’s famous cable car houses makes it worth a look.

thanks for the tip to: Project D

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 …


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