It turns out headhunting in early San Francisco really did involve hunting and noggins, though in quite unpleasant terms.
Captains needing sailors had runners lure men to saloons with promises of free liquor and fun women. Instead, they’d get whiskey laced with opium.
“After he drank it, he’d get woozy, and that’s when the bartender would whip out a little leather-covered club and hit him over the head, pull a lever, and drop him down onto a mattress in the basement,” says Daniel Bacon. “He’d be held there for a short period, until he was put on a ship, and once that ship sailed out of the Golden Gate, there was really nothing the guy could do.”
Bacon is a San Francisco writer and historian and an authority on the aggressive labor market of the mid-1800s, when part of downtown became known as the rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast. He and the San Francisco Historical Society had the city christen the now-famous Barbary Coast Trail in the late 1990s. It runs for about four miles from Fifth and Mission streets up to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, with 180 bronze sidewalk medallions marking sites of interest from pre-California Gold Rush to just after the Great 1906 Earthquake.
“San Francisco was born a shooting star – it went from almost nothing to this sprawling metropolis in a short period and then to the largest port on the West Coast,” says Bacon. “It lived this charmed existence for half a century, until the earthquake and fire came along, burning over 400 square blocks and making half the population homeless. It really tested the city’s resolve in picking itself up from what, at that point, was the worst natural disaster to befall an American city.”
The definitive guide to the Barbary Coast Trail was written by – who else? – Daniel Bacon, who offers it on his website with audio narration and ADA suggestions for the hilly terrain. There are also more-or-less accurate maps floating around on sites like Sidewalk Safari, AllTrails and Roving Vails. If you have difficulty finding your bearing, just look down – the medallions have arrows pointing the way.
Bacon recently chatted about his favorite spots on a portion of the trail, which if walked sequentially measures about 1.5 miles one way. Or you could cheat by using the Powell-Hyde cable-car line that connects each end of the entire trail. “If you haven’t done it recently, it’s a fantastic ride,” he says. “You go through a very historic part of the city in an authentic, pre-19th-century mode of transportation that is completely inefficient, super slow, yet a totally lovable part of San Francisco.”
Waverly Place (between Sacramento and Clay)
North America’s oldest Chinatown has a living link to history in its family benevolent associations, whose colorful, iron-trestled buildings give Waverly the name “Street of the Painted Balconies.” Originally grouped by family names or regions of origin around the Gold Rush, the associations helped immigrants find work, lent money and served as communal hubs that last to this day.
“People play mahjong there, have celebratory dinners and lion dancers,” says Bacon.
In this neighborhood, one might encounter a gift shop with a statue of local hero Bruce Lee (sign: “Please do not touch me”) and herbal-medicine vendors with dried starfish and swollen ginseng roots in vials that look like Groot fetuses. If you’re starting off here and need calories, Good Mong Kok Bakery (1039 Stockton St.) is a beloved operation for dumplings and savory pastries; nearby is House of Dim Sum (735 Jackson St.) and Great Eastern Restaurant (649 Jackson St.) where Barack Obama once snagged two bags of takeout. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley) with its busy factory line is a fun visit, with free samples and unusual offerings like chocolate-covered and softball-sized fortune cookies.
Jackson Street (between Montgomery and Sansome)
Here’s the heart of a tiny area that survived the 1906 earthquake. In fact, the building on the corner of Hotaling Place was once the West Coast’s largest liquor repository: It stood through the flames, thanks to people hauling a mile-long hose from what’s now Fisherman’s Wharf, proving real priorities in times of disaster.
“This block gives one a sense more than any other of what it was like to walk a downtown street in the 19th century,” says Bacon. It was a wholesaler’s district with old architectural features still on display, like huge windows that shed sunlight on the wares (as electricity wasn’t available) and iron shutters to deter bandits. You can also see the last remaining examples of downtown’s Victorian Italianate commercial architecture – with its fancy window pediments and beautiful roof cornices – as everything else burned to ashes.
Daniel Bacon, historian and founder of the Barbary Coast Trail, poses for photo at Hotaling Place and Jackson Street in San Francisco.
Daniel Bacon, historian and founder of the Barbary Coast Trail, stands at Hotaling Place and Jackson Street in San Francisco, one of the few locations with commercial Italianate Victorian architecture that wasn’t destroyed after the 1906 earthquake. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
The Hippodrome (555 Pacific Ave.)
In the early 1900s Pacific Street (now Avenue) was a booming entertainment district known as Terrific Street. There were jazz performances from Jelly Roll Morton and dancers cutting a rug with the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear, a local dance that had people mimicking a heavy ursine shuffle.
The Hippodrome is one of the best preserved buildings of this era with a vestibule containing incandescent lighting fixtures – the whole street was lit up like Las Vegas – and wall plasters of naked women twirling streamers. It has a mysterious brick tunnel underneath, possibly used for smuggling, and a lingering intrigue on the top.
The Old Ship Saloon, one of the oldest-running bars in San Francisco, has a colorful history of kidnapping sailors.
The Old Ship Saloon, one of the oldest-running bars in San Francisco, has a colorful history of kidnapping sailors. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
By now, if you’re thirsty, head to the Old Ship Saloon (298 Pacific Ave.) – one of the city’s longest-running watering holes – for a beer and a burger and bartenders who can wax poetic about the establishment’s shanghaiing history. There’s also the Comstock Saloon (155 Columbus Ave.) where heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey supposedly served as a doorman. It still has a trough under the bar where 1900s barflies would spit tobacco – please don’t do that today.
Jack Early Park (Grant Avenue between Chestnut and Francisco)
Telegraph Hill resident Jack Early developed this renegade park in the 1960s by installing young trees and railroad-tie steps; the city made it official in the 1980s. The park’s easy to miss with its steep, zigzagging staircase leading up to a giggle-worthy surprise: a closet-sized promontory with panoramic views of the Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the hills of Marin to Treasure Island.
Bacon included this hidden gem on the trail for its association with U.S. Army Captain John Fremont, who while standing on a similar lofty hill in the 1840s, came up with the name “Golden Gate.” It’s a magical place, with seagulls crying and strong winds blowing in and out as if propelled from giant bellows. People hold weddings in this tiny park, but on most days it’s a great place to experience something San Francisco is short on – peace and solitude.
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