My grandfather was a member of the California Grays, a San Francisco military fraternity. Prior to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Grays aided the local police in clearing out the Barbary Coast. Fights broke out in many of the saloons with undesirables ferried across the bay to Oakland by the men in their natty West-Point-like uniforms. Grandpa recalls crawling under pool tables to avoid the mayhem. But the job was incomplete. The Barbary Coast remained a sideshow, a skid row and music mecca all rolled into one. (more…)
In 1866 you deboard a three-masted ship, step ashore onto Battery Street and cross over land-filled Yerba Buena Cove into Jackson Square. While navigating this section of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, you keep a wary eye out for pickpockets, con artists, and false solicitors offering everything from snake oil to a free drink of pisco to the unfettered company of the fairer sex. You make your way past the Custom House to a large warehouse at 451 Jackson Street. Mr. Hotaling invites you to his second-story office where you negotiate the price of his whiskey for shipment back East. (more…)
Over 500 ships were abandoned in San Francisco Bay as crew members fled for the gold fields in 1849. Many vessels, like The Arkansas, became part of the Yerba Buena shoreline awaiting their next life. The Arkansas was converted into The Old Ship Ale House near what is now Pacific Avenue and Battery Street, selling drinks at twenty-five cents each. By 1855, rotten timber and ballast stones from other crafts landlocked The Arkansas, causing it to become a permanent fixture of the Barbary Coast District.
Supposedly the term “shanghaied” originated from this bar. A drug-laced liquor would render an unsuspecting patron unconscious. (more…)
The Barbary Coast of San Francisco gets its name from the Barbary Coast region of Northwest Africa, essentially where Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are today. This region was known for its slave traders and pirates, with all the complementary unsavory types such as gamblers, pimps, thieves, etc. Its namesake in the City is nine-square-blocks bounded by Pacific Ave. on the north, Clay St. on the south, Montgomery St. on the east and Stockton St. on the west. This includes most of Chinatown, Jackson Square and parts of the North Beach District. The tens of thousands gold seekers in 1849 would overrun the town. The population increased from 400 to 25,000 within the year. (more…)
If you are seeking a genuine Chinese experience, ring the buzzer at 644 Broadway in San Francisco where a nun will welcome you. When the door closes behind you at the Gold Mountain Monastery, all outside interference suddenly dissolves as you enter another world. Incense laces the air as a strange sense of peace engulfs you.
You are escorted into a chamber where devotees sit on mats while embracing the teachings of Buddha. Foreign words like sila, samadhi and prajna escape your understanding. But after a brief wait, you recognize familiar disciplines from bygone days such as “all beings are equal”, “a moral life”, and “the importance of education”. Twists on these universal truths tickle your curiosity as ideas of reincarnation, meditation and enlightenment are presented. (more…)
The Tin How Temple at 125 Waverly Place was born in the 1850’s amidst the chaos and excitement of the Gold Rush. Its body, the Barbary Coast District, encompasses parts of modern-day Chinatown, Jackson Square and North Beach. Tin How is the oldest operating Chinese temple in the U.S., which honors T’ien Hou, revered as the guardian angel of fishermen and women in distress.
As you enter what feels like a secret passageway to some urban myth, authenticity abounds. You survey the walls of the stairwell lined with ancient sagas. These artworks and photos of history accompany you as you pass the second floor, labeled “Mahjong Parlors”. Another two flights brings you to a place of prayer. The quiet demands respect with only the sound of a devotee shaking a cup of kau cim sticks penetrating the stillness. The person exchanges the one stick that has fallen to the floor for a corresponding paper with an answer to his/her prayers. (more…)
A secret tunnel runs under the former San Francisco law office of Melvin Belli (1907-1996), the “King of Torts”, whose client list included Errol Flynn, Muhammad Ali, The Rolling Stones, Mae West, Jack Ruby, and others. After winning a court case, Belli would raise a Jolly Roger flag over his office building and fire a cannon, mounted on the roof, to announce the victory and the impending party. The structure at 722 Montgomery Street in the Barbary Coast District was built circa 1850. Belli claimed that it was a Gold Rush era brothel, later to become the Melodeon Theater where one of the most acclaimed and beloved entertainers in the City’s history performed. Lotta Crabtree was a noted singer with a zealous fan base. (more…)