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.click here to open YouTube video
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.click here to open YouTube video
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.click here to open YouTube video
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.click here to open YouTube video
This was the definitely vicious and sometimes deadly practice of knocking a man unconscious in whatever fashion was quickest and then selling him to the highest bidding ship captain.click here to open YouTube video
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.