SAN FRANCISCO’S BARBARY COAST

“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

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