So this post is long overdue and probably no surprise to anyone who has been keeping track of things here at Evangeline central. The more I learn about early San Francisco history – and believe me I thought I knew a lot before this little quest – the more I want to shift gears ahead a decade or so.
It’s not so much that the land or the people aren’t interesting prior to the era I’m feeling pulled to like a hunk of iron to an industrial strength magnet. It’s that her story just fits so much more cleanly into the time and place that San Francisco was at the start of the Gold Rush. Yep, I had been planning all this time to tell a story of pre Gold Rush San Fran. But the landscape of lawless insanity at the start of the Gold Rush is just screaming for Evangeline’s story.
I kind of thought when we went on the Barbary Coast Tour that we’d hear a little more about Yerba Buena, the place San Francisco was before it was San Francisco and even more about San Francisco before the Gold Rush hit. We did hear some stories and they were interesting. But it became rapidly apparent that San Francisco wasn’t born until the Gold Rush.
Yerba Buena was a sleepy little seaside hamlet. Home to a few hundred people for decades. Even after it was claimed for the United States and the name officially changed to San Francisco, the population stayed pretty much the same and there wasn’t much of a town square to plant a flag in. Don’t ask about streets.
Then they found gold. It was like the city happened in a black out drunk episode. All you remember is the first drink. And you wake up the next morning with a monster headache and a house crammed full of people you don’t know passed out on your furniture. Yeah and it just gets worse, or better depending on if it’s your house or if you’re enjoying the show.
A book was recommended as further reading about the area and the time period while we were on the Barbary Coast Walking Tour. The Barbary Coast An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury written in 1933. Based on newspaper reports, memoirs, and diaries of the time, it has proved to be a juicy read.
So, yep, I’m redirecting Evangeline’s story to 1849. The year of the Gold Rush. She’ll have been in town about a year by then, just before all hell breaks loose in the best kind of way. I think it’s a good move.
So I’m still thinking about how to work those political ideas into Evangeline’s story. It makes more and more sense. She wants so much to be what her father is, a respected member of a shrouded league of mystic champions. But what are champions without a fight? It is an idea to play with. Certainly you can’t paint every soldier with the same brush however, or even each with the same thickness. There are no absolutes in anything – not even the evils of war, politics, or greed.
Still, I am liking the idea more and more. It is exciting to find interesting flaws with which to layer the “heroes”. Just as exciting as it is to find honorable qualities to build into the “villains”.
“It does not matter if the war is not real. For when it is, victory is
not possible. The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.
essential fact of modern warfare is the destruction of the produce of human
labor. The hierarchy of society is only possible on the basis of poverty and
war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects, and its object is
not victory over Eurasia, or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of
“…no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
The more I learn about the insidious nature of power
and politics in the here and now, the more I want to incorporate some aspects
into Evangeline’s story so that I can say something about them. And they even
make sense organically as I ponder the details of her world and the issues her
story has always had in them to begin with.
Our political machine runs on warfare. Pure and simple. If you do the research and run the numbers there really isn’t any other conclusion. And the question is: how do we extricate our economy and the bones of our society from that big, dependable, obscene Duracell battery? What do we boycott, protest, petition, who do we vote for to stop the gears? And if we could stop them, what do we put in their place? That’s the really horrific thought. Do we even know what to replace a murderous economy with?
The last time America fought a relatively clean war (in terms of economic interest) was probably the War of Independence – and even that involved taxation. We live in ugly times. It is important now more than ever that we make a point of talking about what disturbs us. Change will never happen without shedding light on the infected corners. Talk about the ugliness in whatever your chosen media. If you don’t, who will?
RIGHT so tis the season still so lets keep going…Just to spur a few of us to the booths…
I was scrolling through recent online news/media stuff and stopped on the Megyn Kelly ‘blackface’ incident because “hello” why? and what was she thinking?
Turns out she thought like this a lot. If you google her, you can scratch the surface like a cheap gift card and find rabid racist with the first nail twitch. Anyway, she struck me as such an easily digestible, Walmart brand, public figure that her kind of political think substance should be examined during this voting period. Here is a great link to a page that explores her greatest hits of freakishly incendiary on-air statements.
And if you don’t think those are a call to arms for white supremacists (I won’t dignify them with the term alt right) then you have your head so far up your ass there’s no coming back out.
I also found an article by Roxanne Jones at CNN online that went on to show how this leads to another disturbing trend in today’s racial tensions. All of these have been seen on Youtube recently and if you haven’t seen them you really should.
The article talks about Kelly and her comments but goes on to discuss the increasing trend in harassment of African Americans for just being or doing things any white person would be able to do without question. Here’s the text from the article that struck home with me most deeply.
“We all know them by now thanks to social media, which has shamed these over-zealous white people for falsely accusing innocent blacks of wrongdoing.We know them as “Permit Patty,” a.k.a. Alison Ettel in San Francisco, who called police in July on an 8-year-old girl who was selling water bottles as part of a school fundraiser, or New York’s “Cornerstore Caroline,” a.k.a. Teresa Klein, who recently accused a 9-year-old boy of sexual assault and called the police. Ettel later resigned from her job, and in Klein’s case, the store’s video later showed the boy’s backpack had accidentally grazed her.
Mowing lawns, taking a nap in a dorm, sitting in Starbucks, trying to enter your apartment after a long day at work — it’s alarming the rate at which whites have used police to try and intimidate black people for simply being in their space. It’s no wonder Kelly feels empowered to reveal her racist opinions on national television.At Yale, Starbucks and everywhere else, being black in America really is this hardAt Yale, Starbucks and everywhere else, being black in America really is this hard.
Sadly, these offenses are felt almost daily for black folks, even me. My former business partner and neighbor recently felt free to throw out the N-word with his friends while we were at work. Then he laughed about it when a guy standing nearby pointed out that I was in earshot. Like Megyn Kelly, he too later apologized. But I had already seen his true face.
I get that underground racists feel emboldened by a President who declares on national TV, “Absolutely I am a nationalist.” They think they can now push the boundaries of what it means to be a racist. They think they can redefine the meaning of racism by arguing that they don’t believe in being PC — which to me means that they want to be free to deny the humanity and equality of others who are not like them.
What they don’t get is that we will not allow the clocks to be turned back to a time when the only thing right was white.
Too much blood has been shed in the fight for equality. It’s a new day. And this time, the voices for equality are amplified. More Americans across every demographic believe in their own inalienable right to justice and equality.
We don’t believe in political correctness, either. Not the type that says we have to be silent and do nothing in the face of your hatred. No. We are fighting back. We are organizing, using social media to ostracize blatant acts of racism. And we will hold accountable anyone who uses hate to try and demean us and deny our equality.”
So, again, I want to say this. Having read all of these articles and watched all of these clips. Please think carefully about what is happening out there and understand that you CANNOT afford NOT to VOTE this season. There is a pervasive atmosphere of “it’s OK to do this shit” out there since the last election. Since the last crappy voter turn out. We have to change that.
This is not what I want to use my page for but it is so important that I am going to use it for this one time only.
Voting Day is racing up to meet us and I want to make a plea here to say VOTE. Get out and VOTE like your life depended on it people. Because is does. It is the only way you can make your voice heard ouside of protests and it is the most meaningful way. Don’t say you’ve got more important things to do. Don’t say your vote doesn’t matter because it’s all going to be buisness as usual no matter what you do. Do it. Do it because if you don’t you’ve done nothing. And doing nothing makes you part of the problem. It ensures that NOTHING will happen. It garantees that NOTHING with happen. Do it so that something might happen.
I keep trying to convince my husband that voting is the only way to make change happen. He keeps insisting that no matter who we vote for, they will break their promises either through disinterest or inability to work together in bipartisanship. He insists that all politicians are in it to “suck from the government titty” to be vulgar – but his phrase. In other words, he thinks that they all just want the prestige and financial security afforded by the position. We have wild arguments about this where I try to convince him that to believe this and choose not to vote is to do nothing and garantee that nothing changes for the better. He votes under duress at this argument but it makes me sooooo tired. 😓 angry😡 and sad😢, Mostly depressed. I don’t think there’s an emoticon for that. Jesus why is it so hard to motivate people to try to make a difference on even the TINIEST level?
This happens mostly with Liberals or maybe I should just call them people who despirately need change in their government – the poorly represented: low income, middle class, blue collar households, people who can’t afford personally financed health insurance, people who’s mortgages eat up most of their paychecks, racially profiled people who are 2nd generation Americans, African Americans who exercise their right to peacefully protest and are labeled traitors to their country, those who protest white supremacy and are labeled angry violent mobs. WHY? I do not get this at all. These are the people that need numbers more than any others. Conservatives flood the booths in waves like salmon swimming upstream. What the hell with “Liberals”? Why is it that when Voting Season rolls around they go limp like a guy in a Viagra add?
Go vote. It is your RIGHT in this country! Don’t throw that away. Don’t make that meaningless like some dirty rag you can’t use. In some places dictators just roll into office, no votes involved. In some places, people are physically chased away from voting booths. You have it so easy in most cases – voter supression is another story. All you have to do is take a moment out of your day to choose the people YOU want to represent you in Congress in the hope that they will do what they say they will. Even if they don’t, you’ve done something. And SOMETHING is always better than NOTHING.
Why do I have to spend time explaining or making this plea? This is America. We should all understand this. We should all grip this one inalienable right like a warrior clenches a spear. We fought so hard for it. From the founding fathers to everyone who had to pry it loose for themselves afterwards. Don’t piss all over that prize now! Wield it like the weapon it can be.
I was going to put this at the start of the Mission Dolores post but it seemed sort of confusing so I’m making it a separate thing. Apologies for the wait. I just began a new job. It’s been a bit of an upheaval despite my expectations to the contrary (yeah it’s just a transfer but bigger department, different town, blah blah blah, yadda, yadda). The good news is that I’m closer to home so the commute is wayyyy shorter. So, more time to write and blog. Yay!! Goodness abounds. Anyway, on with the show.
The same day that we took on Mission Dolores, my husband and I had planned ambitiously to tour the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Unfortunately we spent so much time at the Mission that by the time we swung by the museum the street parking was impossible; something to keep in mind for those of you planning to visit. Earlier is better.
Not ready to leave the city, we went down to the waterfront on our way out and settled on paying a visit to the Musée Mechaniqué on Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street.
is a favorite spot of ours and one that gets little play with the tourism
industry. Open 365 days a year and admission free, the massive single floor
space is dedicated to as many coin operated mechanical games as you can possibly
imagine; from the early 1900’s to the
1980’s. Everything is wheelchair accessible. The prices range from a penny to
1$, most are 25 to 50 cents. There are
change machines throughout the building.
Like any arcade (if you remember what those were like) it engulfs you with raised voices and clacking and pinging and buzzing noises, so brace yourselves and expect to holler at whoever you’re with when exclaiming over the weirdness of whatever you’re playing. And there is some interesting stuff to be seen. Lots of fortune teller machines, a creepy amount of Mutoscopes (an early form of motion picture that involved looking into an eyepiece while cranking a handle on the side) that advertise the opportunity to witness the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. There are a few that skew disturbing on the politically incorrect scale. At least one is labeled with the sign that it should not be played if one is easily offended.
An unsettling favorite of mine is the Chinese Opium Den.
None of the figures in this one come out looking good, from the wicked Chinese drug lords plying their product to the addict Miner draped in a filthy shawl.
I did take a lot of video footage
inside but as I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, I shoot crappy video. Therefore
I am including as little of mine as possible and attaching some great links
here for the best videos on the Musée Mechaniqué I’ve found. Below are the hours of operation as well.
This place is great for adults and children who love playing and exploring the
history of playing before i-phones and computers started separating us into our
own little worlds.
(We will stay open later if the crowds demand it, Fun Doesn’t Sleep!)
concise look at the place with a little of the flavor
Unfortunately the next one would not embed but I urge you to copy and paste for a great in-depth look behind the scenes at the Musee Mechanique and a personal interview with the quirky owner
wonderful interview with the owner and builder of the place
Dolores is set at 3321 16th Street, San Francisco, California
94114. The cross street is of course
Dolores. The adobe chapel completed in 1791 is the oldest building of any kind
in the city. What began as a mission built by Spanish missionaries and colonial
expedition leaders saw its peak as a religious center in 1820 and was gobbled
in pieces by the Gold Rush, 1906 earthquake and fires. By 1913 all that was
left of the complex of mission buildings – chapel, priest dormitories, stables,
kitchens, granaries, carpenter shops, and living quarters for the native Ohlone
living within the Mission walls, even the brick Gothic Revival church built
beside it in 1876 – was the adobe chapel.
how something so much a part of the actual beginning of the city could be such
a hidden treasure. As a kid growing up
nearby, I certainly never heard stories about it. As a tourist you hear about Alcatraz, the
Golden Gate Bridge, the Gold Rush that stampeded the city into existence,
Chinatown blooming from cheaply paid railroad and mining labor, the ever popular
1906 earthquake, and even the wild 60’s and 70’s era Height Ashbury
district. But a single Spanish Mission
built of redwood beams and adobe blocks standing since 1791 (through every
earthquake since then) that ushered in the first breath of European culture on
San Francisco shores, nope, they don’t pass out slick brochures about that one. WTF man?
by several Spanish soldiers, a few settlers, and a handful of padres in 1776,
it was originally christened Misión San Francisco de Asís. Later it took on the
name of the stream that wound beside it, Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los
every other mission in the renowned California chain they were there to convert
the natives and expand European (read Spanish) territory. They wanted devoted Christians and Spanish
So the good missionaries of San Francisco de Asís spent a lot of time rounding up and enlightening the native Ohlone people of the area – Chutchui, Ssalson, and Yalamu – to the errors of their heathen ways and leading them on the path to salvation in Spanish Catholicism. Drawn by curiosity, offers of exotic trinkets and food, many died of diseases brought by their benefactors, or found that once they had entered the Mission grounds they were not allowed to leave as freely as presumed.
The rest of their time was spent on farming, care for
livestock, and ongoing construction of buildings for the mission itself which
included carpentry and adobe block masonry. Each mission in the chain had to be
self-sustaining like a ranch or small village.
The Spanish would send out a minimal crew of soldiers, padres and
settlers with the expectation of “enlisting” as many indigenous people as
possible to flesh out the number of laborers necessary to set up and maintain
the settlement. They could hardly afford
to have their “employees” leave en mass during their tribal winter migration.
Spanish soldiers were sent to round up the wayward natives and drag them “home”
where they were told that they would be safer from cold and hunger.
Aside from the ranching, farming, and unenlightened abuse of the native peoples, the mission spent its time in communion with God – the Spanish Catholic one anyway. The chapel that still stands probably saw countless baptisms and sermons suffered by many a “redeemed” Native Californian. The simple white exterior with its twin pillars and terracotta tiled steps and roof is plain wrapping for what waits inside. The ceiling is ablaze with orange and yellow patterns originally painted in vegetable dye by the mission’s captive workforce. There are lush religious oil paintings on every side and a massive mural covers fully one third of an entire wall. The altar or reredos is wildly ornate and filigreed – glossy with lacquer and gold leaf. It seems completely inappropriate for what was possible in the rough and raw California back then. But it was delivered from Spain via San Blas, Mexico in sections on the backs of mules and oxen somewhere around 1796. Two side altars flank the main altar and are equally extravagant (hauled from Mexico in 1810) with glossy heroic saints and columns painted to resemble marble.
Buried inside (or under) the chapel is William Leidesdorf – the first man of mixed race to become a millionaire in the United States, and the most important mover and shaker of Alta California before it became part of the United States. Mr. Leidesdorf we meet again! One of the Museum docents, Quene Rolo, a historian who had done his Masters thesis on Mr. Leidesdorf was kind enough to share some of his time and bring to life the history. Please ignore the number of times I say “facinating”. Or you could use it to play a drinking game.
The same gentleman from the Barbary Coast tour, was so important to the blossoming San Francisco that he was buried beneath the most prestigious edifice of the day. Upon arriving in the unshaped city from the shipping capital of New Orleans, he set up the first wharves, the first proper hotel (well a clapboard building with wooden bunks along the walls but that was class in the day), and the first school for both boys and girls. He built his home near Portsmouth Square – the rough business center of town and constructed a lush garden that drew every visiting person of interest to his door to be entertained and lobbied.
Sutter finally struck gold, William had property near the Sacramento River
which he had serendipitously invested in that soared in value, making him one
of the richest men in America at the time of his death in 1848. Unfortunately Mr. Leidesdorf passed without
heirs, intestate. By 1854, when the
California State Legislature considered escheat to take control of the property, Leidesdorff’s
estate was worth well over one million dollars and multiple of millions of
dollars in gold was mined off his land.
The Mission Chapel is connected to the much grander Basilica which began as a gothic brick church that mostly toppled in the 1906 earthquake. In 1918 it was rebuilt in the more Baroque Spanish Colonial Revival style made popular in the 1915 – 1917 Panama-California Exposition.
The massive interior is full of glittering mosaic domed ceilings and glowing stained glass windows. Undeniably awe inspiring and beautiful. I can’t say what the experience is like from the point of view of a devout Catholic as I fell away from the faith some time in college. The size, grandure, and overwhelming opulence must be meant to comfort the believer with a sense of a powerful, respected God, capable of protecting all of his flock. But to me it feels shiny and distant. Too much space between me and…I don’t know, whatever I’d be seeking a connection with. It’s times like these that I really don’t miss my Catholic childhood.
Back to the Mission there is a small museum directly attached to the rear wall where you can find a glass window showing an exposed square of the original adobe brick that makes up the chapel itself.
The rest of the room is packed full of awesome artifacts, both Spanish missionary and native, a large diorama of a Native Ohlone village, and even a full size mannequin wearing authentic tribal attire from the period.
Leaving the museum you wind into the Chapel cemetery, a modest affair full of wobbled gravestones in a wide range of age and decay.
The first Alcalde or Mayor of Yerba Buena (pre San Francisco) Francisco De Haro has a very clear headstone.
There is a lovely if dour statue of Father Junipero Serra that dominates one area and another sculpture of a sweetly rapturous native maiden which stands in another surrounded by roses.
Unfortunately there is a fairly creepy element to the monument here. It’s meant to somehow acknowledge the more than 5000 native americans that died within the Mission grounds and were uncerimoniously buried without markers, likely more than 2 to a grave – I don’t want to go further there because it’s likely to get really grim.
But the story of the monument gets worse in that the woman depicted isn’t even a representation of one of the local Ohlone tribes people who would have lived, worked, and died on Mission property. She is instead a Mohawk maiden by the name of Takakwitha who not only converted to Catholicism but did so so devoutly that she took an oath of virginity until her death at 24. She was also renound for her excellence at mortification of the flesh – a popular Christian passtime of driving out sin through fasting, abstinence, and obsessivly long periods of kneeling (usually on painful surfaces) – and those were the easy options. She was so good at all of this that she was shunned by her tribe and the Catholic church eventually beatified and cannonized her as a Saint (after her death, of course). She was the fourth Native American Saint in American history. It all strikes me as fairly twisted and wrong.
Built later is a replica of an Ohlone reed hut. It stands open for visitors to see, touch, and even duck inside. I found it a much more authentic rememberance of the people who lived and died within the Mission walls. There was a printout attached to the hut with a brief explanation of the structure’s history.
Of course there is the obligatory exit through the gift shop. A stunning array of crucifixes plaster one wall almost completely. There is a small section devoted to Alfred Hitchcock and his film Rear Window which involved some scenes that were shot in the Chapel courtyard. The rest of the place is filled with postcards of the California Missions, miniature desktop missions, glass display cases of Native American inspired jewelry, and even a rack of somewhat tasteful men’s Hawaiian style shirts decorated in a map of the California Missions print.
That’s just a sampling, but the real treasure here is the staff. The two I met were Cathy Bogdan and Quene Rolo. Both were extremely knowledgeable about not just the Mission and Basilica but about San Francisco’s history during the Mission’s heyday.
Of course the history of the Mission barely begins with its
final construction in 1785 – there was a lot of moving around to find the
perfect spot for farming and building after arriving in 1776. In the 1830’s the
California Missions were on the decline. The Mexican War of Independence left
the missions cut off from Spain and Mexico saw them as something to be used for
real estate. In 1834 after years of encroaching squatters and illegal purchases
of their land; the Mexican government enacted
secularization laws whereby most church properties were legally sold or granted to private owners. In practical terms, this
meant that the missions would hold title only to the churches, the residences
of the priests, and a small amount of land surrounding the church for use as
During this period Mission Dolores was host to
bullfights and various other public events. Without subsidizes from Spain or
income from the lost farm land, the Mission began to crumble from neglect. As
the 1840’s slid into the Gold Rush, Mission Dolores mutated into a hybrid
creature amid the urgency of San Francisco’s population explosion. It became a resort and entertainment
district. The properties were used for saloons and gambling, even racetracks.
A popular diversion of the time was bull vs bear fights. Vicious, cruel affairs that involved unleashing the two animals into a high sided wooden pen and prodding them into killing each other. They were banned inside the city limits (that’s how awful these were, even in wild-ass Gold Rush San Francisco this was too much) but the Mission was just outside that border.
While a two story wing of the Mission was still used as quarters for priests and as a seminary, another part of the same wall was converted into San Francisco’s most well-known tavern and way station for travelers, The Mansion House.
Wild times, but that was San Francisco in 1850. Unsurprising I suppose to find that Mission Dolores had become something of a deflowered virgin by then. Still that’s what makes this period so exciting to me in terms of placing Evangeline’s story here and then.
In March of 1858 President James Buchanan,
under an act of Congress, legally returned Mission lands in trust to Bishop
Sadoc Alemany, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San
Francisco. The city had come a long
way. It had a Catholic Archbishop of its
own. That’s half way to being tamed and
definitely beyond the period I’m writing about.
So I’ll wrap up this post here. I’ve kept my own video clips to a minimum
here because – frankly I suck as a cameraperson and commentator. Also, I need
to read up before I go on any more of these excursions because I seem to wind
up sounding like an asshole when I talk about what I’m looking at as I say
dumb-ass things that are blatantly wrong and I would know that they are wrong
if I had just read something, anything, even the tiny brochure handed to me at
the door, before opening my idiot mouth.
So here are a few good links to follow for more information and some much, much better videos:
A very learned overview video tour of the
A beautiful and fairly thorough, if unarrated
tour of the mission and basilica
A fantastic timeline history of the mission –
as a bonus there are links to all the other missions that can be similarly
Ah yes, The Barbary Coast Walking Tour curated and conducted by The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. https://sfhistory.org/barbary-coast-trail/ A 2 + hour excursion along everyday city streets transformed by colorful interactive narration into the roaring anarchy of the Gold Rush past. My husband and I give it quadruple thumbs up. Not only does this tour take you along the traditional stopping points (marked by the city with 180 stamped bronze medallions embedded in the sidewalks) ,
but it varies from the others you’ll find in slight detours to spots that divulge stories of equal if not more interest. The guide we had was knowledgeable, personable and always open to questions. Our group was commendably moderate in size (5 people not including our guide). I was told this is not uncommon for the Museum’s tours. As we saw the massive flocks of the other Barbary Coast tours passing ahead and behind us that Saturday we were enormously grateful for the intimacy of our group. We could actually hear and access our guide at all times without fighting a mob.
On to the tour itself. It starts in Portsmouth Square which began as a plaza in early Yerba Buena and evolved into the rough heart of San Francisco as the city sorted itself into a “civilized” pattern. As you can see in my video clips, what was once a Mexican and then Caucasian center of business has since been swallowed up by Chinatown. Ironic when you think of the way Asian Americans were oppressed and terrorized in the era that Portsmouth Square was created. I want to preface the beginning of my video clip entries with this apology. I had no permission to film the kind young woman leading our tour so I filmed everything around her during her narrations. When I went over the footage I found it was a bit “unwatchable” at best. So I trimmed what I could and am serving up the best remains as some evidence of what the tour was actually like and what we saw and heard.
Portsmouth Square may have begun as an idea of central commerce but it quickly devolved into the heart of the Barbary Coast in 1849. It was lined with gambling houses, taverns, and shabby hotels – some of them all rolled into one. Most of them weren’t much more than clapboard structures with canvas roofs, each room partitioned by muslin “walls”.
From Portsmouth Square there was Commercial Street which I believe is where we had the story of the famous or infamous Samuel Brannan. And intriguing Mormon who sailed his flock to San Francisco just before it was claimed for America in the hope of securing a Mormon state all of his own. Unfortunately he arrived just after the flag had been planted. Man was he pissed. Long story short, he and his people stayed and put down roots anyway. He began a string of newspapers and started up a store at Sutter’s mill in 1847. Got wind of the gold early, bought up all the mining supplies there were, stocked his store – the only one between San Francisco and the mine fields – and then allegedly ran shouting the announcement of the discovery through the city streets.
But that’s just where the story of Brannan begins on this tour. Apparently he was quite the rebel Mormon. This crazy story includes corruption, finance scandal, hired guns, Mormon assassins (who knew?). I was loving this guy.
The Leidesdorff Plaque is one of the off-marker tour points. It’s got a fascinating story about William Leidesdorff a strangely little known figure in San Francisco let alone American history. His story is sweepingly romantic, there’s tragic (deeply Romeo/Juliet style) interracial romance, bold rising from the ashes success in an untamed land, and of course the whole amazing angle of being the first person of mixed race to achieve such dizzying financial and civic power in American history.
I confess we toured some areas that strayed into the 1900’s and I sort of glazed over so I won’t cover them here. Empire Park includes some wonderful stories about Emperor Norton that will engage many but as he is primarily a character that found his fame in the 1900’s he isn’t going to be part of this piece.
The site of the 1st San Francisco Mint however is interesting in that it was originally the site of the first Assayers Building in San Francisco in 1849. An Assayer would weigh out gold dust (flakes of gold) and the more rare nuggets on a set of scales to determine how much you had in US currency. The Original Mint is housed in the Pacific Heritage Museum which is oddly part of another business building but they share space and the Museum is open to the public.
The Pony Express Plaque is on the tour and features in the brass sidewalk markers though the Express itself (1860-1861) ran later than the Gold Rush era which had petered out by 1855. So it was around during the Barbary Coast era but past the era of my primary interest.
The extremely wild Barbary Coast lasted into roughly 1917 when the brothels were closed down. It rolled on in a slightly less brazen fashion and attempted a resurrection in 1921 but was smacked down by watchful upstanding citizens with connections. Another revival was undertaken with more of a classy spin in the 1940’s with greater success but eventually lost out in the 60’s when more modern entertainment lured the crowds away. Who could compete with Carol Doda and her naked boobies at the Condor Club on Broadway?
The Niantic Plaque is interesting. Mainly it’s a plate of stamped metal on the side of an otherwise ordinary business building. But then you realize by reading the plaque and listening to the guide that its built on top of a rather large cargo ship circa 1849.
How big was the ship? How did it wind up under a building seemingly miles from the ocean? What happened to the crew and its cargo? Some of that can be read from the plaque, most you learn from your guide and ask all the questions you like because what a weird concept.
In the shadow of the Transamerica Building we were told the story of the first four story stone face building in San Francisco’s history. Built in 1853 and known as Halleck’s Folly it was the first fireproof and earthquake resistant building. Again our guide was patient with all of our questions.
Then we were led to The Old Ship Saloon. Here we were regaled with the stories of shanghaied miners and greenhorn visitors.
Finally the tour completed with a wrap-up of the Barbary Coast’s later years. We walked down the streets that played more important parts during the 1940’s revival. The posts that held up the arching International Settlement sign in all of its neon glory are still there. The Hippodrome is still on view, though its windows show clothing for sale beneath the vintage bulbs that would have lit up a night of wanton carousing.
At the end of the road we were cut loose to reenter the modern world. Everyone shook hands and laughed. My husband and I blinked a little like we were leaving a movie theater, trying to reorient ourselves. The guide made sure we knew how to get back to where we had started at Portsmouth Square. She also mentioned that there were a few good restaurants in the area if we needed to catch a bite. Some were listed on the back of our map – and no the Museum wasn’t getting any kickbacks.
My husband and I ended up eating at Enjoy! Vegetarian. He wanted Chinese food, I wanted vegan or vegetarian and definitely something other than the same tame Chinese food we’d had twice in the last week (War Wonton soup and vegetable eggrolls for me and War Wonton soup and Pork Fried Rice for him). Enjoy! Vegetarian was great. Great food, lots of choices, wonderful flavors, quick service, and reasonable prices. I gather they have 2 locations and the pictures included here should show both. We highly recommend them. The only flaw we find is that they are closed between 2:30 pm and 5 pm. So plan wisely if you are an early dinner or late lunch person or just fallen between the cracks meal-wise.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ah, the immortal words of Obi Wan seem so apt here. And yes I am that geeky. San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast took root and metastasized in a broad tendril bordered loosely on the east by the waterfront and East Street (now the Embarcadero); on the south by Clay and Commercial streets; on the west by Grant Avenue and Chinatown; and on the north by Broadway, with periodic seepage into the region around North Beach and Telegraph Hill.
This being said, the bronze markers used by the San Francisco Historical Society to mark the Barbary Coast have been placed in sidewalks as far as Portsmouth Square, Powell and Market streets, up to the Warf, throughout North Beach, Chinatown and along the Embarcadero.
If we’re a little hazy on where it was set up precisely at the beginning, there seems to be no hesitation in any historian’s mind about how seedy, corrupt, or vice ridden the area (wherever it started out) became pretty much immediately. In one account the reader was warned that the level of carnal depravity and deadly violence could not be overstated. Holy Hell, makes you want to tour the place in a bullet proof Pope-mobile.
It was named for a North African coastline stretching from Morocco to what would become Libya; home to dreaded pirates and slave traders that terrorized the coastal villages of Europe. San Francisco’s version was born in the awe inspiring confusion of the California Gold Rush. In 1847 San Francisco, freshly minted from its Spanish moniker of Yerba Buena, was still a sleepy little village of roughly 200 souls. The Spanish adobe Mission Dolores and Presidio were likely the sturdiest lodgings.
Check back in with the census around 1851, post Samuel Brannan’s announcement of “Gold in them thar hills” or words to that effect, and you’d find some 10,000 people coming and going. Unfortunately the local authorities just hadn’t set up for this potential situation. And the criminal element flourished, setting up shop in the areas we would come to know as San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
As early as 1848 some veterans of the Mexican-American War arrived in San Francisco and, branding themselves The Hounds, became one of the first lawless gangs to roam the streets of the Barbary Coast. Their depredations were largely ignored by the “law” such as it was as the gang’s primary targets were Chilians, Peruvians, and Mexicans.
Quickly following in the wake of The Hounds were the Sydney Ducks, somewhere between 6 and 7,000 hardened Australian criminals. They ran rampant over the area that would become the Barbary Coast. And the Ducks put the Hounds to shame with their unchecked carnage, raids, arson, and eventually cornering the market on bordellos so deviant that some were said to tout bestiality as an attraction. Yeesh…
Many of the ships sailing into San Francisco’s wharves with men piling out for the Gold fields never left. Their entire crews would abandon them, taking off after the same miners they had just schlepped to the docks. Everybody was chasing those nuggets.
Some ships just stayed put, The Niantic is a popular example you can find in San Francisco today. It’s just a plaque on the side of the building that’s built over it now. But it’s still there, underneath. That’s what happened to some of the ones that never left. Most were broken up and used for scrap wood and parts. But the ones that were still in good shape, some 200, like the Niantic were repurposed into warehouses, boarding houses and (in the Niantic’s case) hotels, even one as a jail and another as a church.
Captains of these abandoned ships, however, were sometimes willing to do unscrupulous things to make sure they sailed away. This leads us to the term “to be Shanghaied”. So apparently the phrase comes from the idea that the furthest an unwilling new sailor might end up would be Shanghai. The owners of various drinking establishments along the Barbary Coast did a lucrative business in what was essentially slavery. They would ply a man with drugged liquor, if he didn’t pass out you could bash him over the head, then pile him into a cart and sell him to the highest bidding captain short of a sailing crew. Many like the infamous Shanghai Kelly, had such a streamlined process that he could afford to lose a few of his prey to unintended death. He just loaded up the bodies and delivered them as is. By the time the captains got them out to sea, he’d already been paid.
Eventually as the gang violence grew to an exponentially disastrous level, the Vigilance Committees would rise against them. Privately organized vigilante groups of San Francisco citizens waged war against the gangs for several years and gradually drove them from the outrageous power they’d seized so easily in 1848. Unfortunately these groups (while possibly not something that we’d approve of today) were dismantled in the end of the late 19th century as the city evolved from its chaotic beginnings to a larger, more prosperous, commercial and cultural metropolis.
Local government grew with in strength and size with the city. But the political and economic elite were motivated more by greed and self-interest than any sense of civic responsibility. Without the threat of the Vigilance Committees and emboldened by the indifference of corrupt politicians, the Barbary Coast rose again in full bloom. It was in the 1860’s when it would officially be christened “The Barbary Coast”.
Next post: My walking tour of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast